No Time To Play

DRM saves the day…

by on Feb.08, 2011, under Opinion


…But does anyone need to be saved? Good question, and to be honest I think lately the paying customers need more and more patience just to keep staying… legal. What? Shouldn’t “legal” be the word by default when it comes to any normal situation that regards the average citizen? I mean, it the eyes of the law we are all innocent until proved otherwise. We don’t ban knives because people could stab other people… and some countries do not ban weapon carrying… but let’s not go there. Usually it’s people who kill people, but some people like to think that “guns do kill people”. I could come up with examples of people who were killed using… a fork. Now, should we “ban” forks? Of course not, that would be insane.
So, everyone who possesses a fork is a potential… killer. Kind of far fetched, isn’t it? And let’s not forget the part with “innocent until…”

Well, apparently when it comes to software or video games… you are not as innocent as you though you might be. You have the potential to be one of the filthy creatures that is stealing some other people’s hard work.

OK, this is the place where the discussion gets into a very dark and dangerous place, because there is a whole debate if software can actually be someone’s property or not. Should the “10010101” sequences belong to me or to you? Do I have the right to “use” them or not? Should I have the right to modify them or not? Copying those bytes… is that really stealing? I mean, I could “copy” a Rembrandt painting and nobody could charge me with theft… Should I… well, this is a very complicated issue, and to be honest I would rather talk about it in some other article.

Yes, DRM is a very sensitive topic right now, and there are so many opinions about the whole thing… that I’d rather stick to only one aspect when it comes to it. What happens to me, the paying customer?

Let’s stick for the moment to the part where a company is selling to their customers a license to use a software product. Apparently you as a customer are buying a “license” to use the software and not the software in itself (the software could come on a physical disk that you are buying or could be a digital download). OK, let’s say you agree to this… but now we are getting to another dark corner. This license… does it expire? Does it force you to depend on a… certain company or supplier? Do you actually BUY a software or RENT it?

There is nothing wrong with the “rental” part… however, I do feel robbed as a client whenever I “buy” a product just to find out that it was only a rental hidden in disguise. Now, that is not fair anymore, and when you are not fair to your own customer… your company should be prepared for some unwanted consequences.

The most common excuses that a company comes up with consist in the fact that piracy is ruining their sales. OK, this is debatable, since people who want to play for free will play for free anyway… and all DRMs until now were cracked, some sooner than later. Heck, some pirate versions were on the market BEFORE the actual official release of the game. There are many hypothesises here, some talk about day 1 sales, some talk about the “unsavvy” people who buy if they cannot get it for free etc… The fact is that people who WANT to pirate and KNOW where to get their free copy, eventually they WILL pirate. A very small percentage of those guys would buy the game anyway.
No matter how debatable this is, I could accept the fact that a company wants to protect its sells. I can live with the fact that I play at home my beloved game with a CD-check, for example. However, things have gone beyond this… way beyond.

And right now I am talking about online checking. Either that one time check, or the ones that require you to either have an account, either to be permanently connected online to their servers. I am aware that certain games are required to have a permanent connection to the internet (mmorpgs for example) or whenever you need to play the multiplayer parts. But why is this necessary for an offline single player? Pirates get to play those games anyway. Heck, they even make so called “private” servers for mmorpgs – and those things are really hard to be cracked.

One of the DRM systems that seems to work and keeps its clients happy is the Steam one. While you still are depending on Valve, on the whole this is permissive enough and you actually are paying for services more than for games in itself. That means – game receives automatically patches, you can play for free on their servers etc. But why would I need that on my single player game that sits on a shelf at my home?
OK, in a perfect world where servers never die… that would be acceptable. But we live in the real world. Companies do go bankrupt. Servers do go down. Internet connections do suck from time to time. And when that happens… your retail version of the game becomes somewhat a piece of… useless garbage. Unless they released a patch to make it DRM free (wishful thinking). Or… unless you download a crack for the game. And this is the part where you, a legal customer are forced to do something illegal to… play the game your rightfully purchased.

Whenever someone asks those publishing companies about the obvious issues with DRM, they usually come up with the obvious scape goat: pirates, pirates, pirates. And yet… the problem seems to lie somewhere else. There is not much you can actually do about pirates. However, apparently the second hand market seems to bloom lately. Anyone browsing eBay and not only will find out that a big chunk is reserved to video games. Reselling is big business. Heck, if you possess a vintage edition of some rare blockbuster you could potentially sell it for hundreds or even thousands of dollars (a friend of mine sold the original WOW Collector’s Edition for 700$ on eBay). Can you see the “$$$” here? Because I sure can. What happens when a publisher introduces an online check and mandatory account for an offline single player game? Its reselling value tends to become zero (unless it’s sealed, of course, but many people seems to play and then resell their copies).
So, what we really are having here is a direct blow to the resellers. This has got nothing to do with piracy, this is pure… greed. Heck, I even read an article on Kokatu in which people were discussing if reselling a game is worse than pirating it (this is the moment where your mind should start to blow, I know mine did).

Let’s imagine you have a car. You used it for a couple of years. Now you want to resell it. It’s OK, it’s your car after all, isn’t it? Well, apparently you are not allowed to do that anymore with your… video games.
So, when you are buying a video game you are dealing with the following issues: they treat you like a potential thief, they mislead you into “buying” when you are actually renting the game, they make the resell value of the item you purchased to be equal to… zero. Heck, some of them are even requiring you to have an account on their servers, giving them access to personal data that could very well get into someone else’s hands.
What happens if you get a pirated copy of a game? You just… play it.

So, do I see a problem with the current form of DRM evolution? Oh, yes, a big one, at least for the retail versions of the games.

Once again I must point out to the current Steam DRM form which is the one most permissive and comfortable for the user (for the digital downloads versions). Many users like comfort above everything (I know I do). If it’s easier to give away 5$ to play something on Steam they’ll do it (5$ is not worth the time spent to find and download a pirated version, which later on has to be patched and then cracked again and so on…).
But if they have to give away 60$ on a game that will not run in 2 years nor they could resell it… they will think twice before they purchase it.

(Illustration: DRM, by Noah Hall; CC-BY)


2 Comments for this entry

  • Felix
    Felix Pleșoianu

    This is such a big can of worms… I don’t even know where to start.

    For one thing, the guys at Kotaku, who wrote that idiot piece about reselling, apparently never heard of the First Sale Doctrine. What’s that? Turns out, over a century ago book publishers wanted to prevent buyers from lending or reselling books, claiming the practice eats into their profits. There was a scandal that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which decided that while you may not own the contents of a book, you fully own the physical object and you may dispose of it as you wish, like with any other property. In Europe that was never an issue, as an author’s rights are moral in nature and not conflated with property rights in the first place. And that’s why we have used book shops and public libraries nowadays…

    Unfortunately, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out in his book Code we live in a world where technology can overrule law. And you can see how many corporations unilaterally declare their users criminals without due process. Sometimes via automated mechanisms, such as when my phone refused to let me share a game I had developed with my own boss for testing purposes! How’s that for DRM gone bad?

  • adder

    I enjoyed this article. I would like to add that in today’s world we (and more importantly the publishers) tend to forget that access to the Internet is not a given. I want to play my games when I’m in vacation in places without access – in the country, abroad, etc.

    Also, while Steam provides benefits along with its DRM solution, some publishers started added EXTRA control software in ADDITION to Steam. I find this unacceptable and I’m personally boycotting those publishers. Buyer beware! Always check the details when buying!

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