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Finding a Balance in DRM

By Jeff Buckland, 5/12/2010

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It's been a tough few years for PC gamers with regard to anti-piracy measures. The platform is already a tough one to crack, as companies like Blizzard can make PC-only games that sell millions of copies along with pulling billions in subscriptions, and web games like Zynga's Farmville pull in ridiculous numbers through its connections with Facebook. But the games with the biggest budgets are still on consoles, and while our current position in the console cycle means lots of PC ports, we've seen some problems with anti-piracy.

Digital Rights Management

For those who don't know what DRM is, we can loosely define it (as it relates to video games) as copy protection by way of online activation. Mulitplayer games that use a central server (like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 or pretty much any MMO game) already have a protection built into them, because the game is as much a service as it is a product. Running around World of Warcraft's Azeroth with no other players around wouldn't be that much fun, even if it were possible by Blizzard-allowed means, so the game doesn't need DRM.

We should probably narrow it down, specifically, to the single player games (or the ones that have a significant solo mode). For many years, we've had CD/DVD-checks as a way to authenticate that a player has bought the game, but piracy and the dissemination of file sharing have made that an outdated model; for many gamers, it's tough to talk them into going to a store and spending fifty bucks only to get a game that's more annoying to play (especially if you can't find the DVD for whatever you want to play) than the downloaded version.

So, DRM started off as an activation system that required you to get online and type a key in to unlock the game you just installed. Games like BioShock and Mass Effect, back in 2008, were some of the first major PC titles to have DRM, and for a few weeks it even worked; pirates complained of bugs and problems for weeks as piracy groups tried their hardest to fully crack the protection.

Then That was Cracked

Soon after that, though, new games with SecuROM, TAGES, and other DRM schemes started to get cracked just as fast as games with disc checks. Late in 2008, Ubisoft released Prince of Persia on PC along with a challenge on the game's official forum: this game has no DRM or protection at all. Buy it or you're not going to like what we come up with next.

Prince of Persia on PC didn't sell well, and whether or not that was due to piracy (the PC version got good reviews but the general internet opinion seemed much less favorable), Ubisoft seems to have taken the lack of sales as a self-fulfilling prophecy that DRM-free games are not the way to go. Ubisoft, along with other developers and publishers, went back to the drawing board to work on something a little different. This new method would have to include some kind of ongoing protection, some kind of way for the game to keep in communication with the publisher's servers.

Screwing with the pirates

Several DRM-laden games have done some amusing things to detect piracy but allow people to continue playing. Mass Effect forced guns to get stuck overheating, while Batman: Arkham Asylum disallowed the ability to glide, getting gamers stuck at a specific spot in the game. BioShock had many cracks that didn't work before it was finally figured out. These tricks by developers prey on the piracy groups' need to one-up each other and release a game as quickly as possible. Often, the groups will test a game's first level or just a short section of the game, see that it's fine, and release it. Of course, when developers use DRM like this, they also then subject themselves to a flooding of their tech support forums with pirates, complaining about a bug that was actually purposely put in there to annoy them.

Always-online DRM

That new type of anti-piracy protection was unveiled this last March with the release of three games: EA's Command & Conquer 4 and Ubisoft's Settlers 7 and Assassin's Creed 2. These games require you to be online at all times, and they will stop your session when your internet connection is interrupted in any way. This protection was immediately decried by PC gaming communities as a horrible idea, one that some said was a "nuclear option" that would turn them off of these publishers entirely. Indeed, some even said that if this is what these publishers need to do to put their games on PC, then maybe they shouldn't bother at all.

But wouldn't pirates just crack this, too? The answer lied in leaving the game essentially unable to actually save the player's progress without sending that data to the server. That was one "service" that even a single player game needs, and so this went on to keep Ubisoft's action-adventure Assassin's Creed 2 un-pirated for weeks. Pirates did eventually figure out a way to emulate Ubisoft's DRM servers, but three weeks was quite a while. Plus, in the future Ubisoft should be able to keep piracy groups on their toes with new types of encryption and such. And yes, the pirate groups that figured out how to emulate DRM servers went to some pretty extreme lengths, but you have to remember that Ubisoft's latest DRM was very unpopular and some people wanted to send them a message. (It didn't help that Ubisoft's DRM servers suffered multiple attacks in its first week of operation, killing some people's access to the games they bought.) But these groups also found this protection to be an interesting, new challenge, so the people who do this stuff as a hobby actually found it fun - and they also consider it as good competition against the other groups working to defeat it.

Of course, the end result of all that effort by crackers is more pirated copies and at least some amount of money in lost sales. Yes, the argument that most pirated copies of games, music, and movies aren't actually lost sales probably applies here, but that's beyond the scope of this article. Either way, after three weeks of no piracy on a game like Assassin's Creed 2, it's reasonable to guess that most of the sales had already happened by that point. Ubisoft hasn't published any sales data that compares AC2 to something like Prince of Persia, but if the numbers don't support their decision to do this DRM, then they're not likely to toss them out there.

DRM or Disc Check

EA may have lost a lot of its faithful RTS fans with the poor reception for Command & Conquer 4, but it gained a lot of others at the same time with Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Not only is it a competent PC port and an all around sales and critical success, but it even gave players the chance at install to use either a disc check or DRM for the single player mode. The install limit is set to a lofty 10, meaning that most users won't ever hit the cap, and even if they do, they can always reinstall the game and start dropping the disc in. Overall, this is a pretty solid system and one that at least gives the user a choice during the install, and that alone can go a long way towards building good faith.

Removing DRM After Release

Several games, released both separately and on digital download services, have been released with DRM but later had it stripped out in a patch. This might be the future, but it's important to note that not all of these games have patching systems built directly into the launcher or game, so it's possible that some people may never hear of it. Plus, the infamy brought on with the use of a draconian copy protection scheme can't just magically erased because of a patch. As we'll see later, announcing the future removal of DRM before your game is even released might be the key to gaining public approval.


Every time I see a new DRM scheme, I'm always left wondering how it'd work if more developers just integrated into Steam instead. Sure, it's got a system that requires you to be online to play even a single player game, but you can switch to Offline Mode and play for days without any trouble. This means that even games with Steam achievements will work, and they simply update whenever you do get online. This seems like an easy enough solution, right? Well, very few games by major publishers (other than Valve, of course) have integrated themselves into Steam. Modern Warfare 2 and Supreme Commander 2 have, and the list isn't much bigger than that. Both of these games have a significant online component that requires Steam and doesn't work otherwise.

But one of the problems with Steam is that Valve hasn't tightened its policy on third-party DRM. Back when Valve was trying to attract publishers to put their games on Steam, it made sense for Valve to let these companies do pretty much whatever they wanted to try and protect their games; enacting strict protections against third-party DRM would have likely lost Steam quite a few major games. But now, there's no excuse, because almost every major developer and publisher of PC games can be found on Steam, and almost every game that makes it to other download services also shows up on Steam. It's a little much to ask for a retroactive repeal of all non-Valve DRM on Steam, but pushing forward with a no-outside-DRM policy would be a good idea.

Other Download Services

Of course, Steam isn't the only company out there selling games over digital distribution. There's Impulse, GamersGate,, Direct2Drive, and even major retailers and e-tailers are in the business. Most of them use less direct integration with the download client than Steam does, which may make for fewer online features (like no unified text/voice chat or no central achievement system), but the plus side is that you can run the game on its own without having to start up a client. Impulse is trying to get the best of both worlds going, only requiring you to start the central client to get updates - but still quietly calling the Impulse online service for online-only features. It's going to be tough to stop the Steam juggernaut now, but if they can improve on the basic service and offer the same games at a similar or lower price, they can make some solid headway. Reducing the impact of DRM on the end user is always a good choice, too.

Does it actually affect gamers?

One of the biggest problems with DRM is that legitimate customers often have to deal with it for the life of the game, and more often than not, pirates never have to deal with it at all. Sometimes we hear DRM apologists say that legitimate customers shouldn't ever have a problem with DRM, but that only means they haven't come across problems yet. As someone who's hit my "install limit" on the free Pinnacle Station DLC for Mass Effect (and had to ask EA tech support to unlock more installs), dealing with this in order to play a game you paid for is just downright infuriating. Simply put, any developer that assumes you're a criminal if you install a game more than 3 times (yes, some games have install limits this low) is just downright mean and doesn't deserve your hard-earned money. DRM can be done right, but when publishers start using DRM out of anger towards pirates (in the way Ubisoft has seemed to do), they will often carelessly cut into their legitimate sales, too.

Have our Standards Changed?

After Ubisoft's always-online DRM was announced, it seems people have become a little more receptive to the kind of older DRM that would have sparked boycotts a year ago. For example, SEGA has announced Uniloc DRM for Alpha Protocol, Obisidian's action-RPG. It's got a five install limit with the ability to de-activate an install of the game, and Sega says they'll release a patch to remove the DRM after 18-24 months.

There is something odd in their FAQ, though; Sega says that the only time you only need to connect to the internet to activate Alpha Protocol is the first time, but then they say that if you hit the install limit, the servers can automatically deactivate one of your previous installs. But if so, then how will that previous game install ever know it's been deactivated unless it's periodically connecting to the internet to find out? Is the five-install thing actually just a rough estimate? Are they just trying to make sure that there aren't thousands of people trying to use the same key? And if that's true, then why is the limit five and not ten, or twenty, or fifty? We'll find out for sure when the game's released, but if there's anything SEGA's not telling us, PC gamers will find out - and if the reality is worse than this FAQ says, then there might be yet another boycott going out.

The Chicken or the Egg

One of the problems with these crazy new DRM schemes is that it's hard to tell exactly what is causing piracy or how to solve it. On one side, online-only DRM may cause many legit gamers to boycott their games, but the lack of sales will just tell publishers that PC games aren't worth making - and it will also convince them, possibly falsely, that there are many more lost sales due to piracy than may actually be the case. On the other hand, more draconian DRM drives people who pay only for some of their games to just pirate instead (at least, once cracks are found), which in turn drives publishers to find even more restrictive protection. It's a difficult situation for people to dig themselves out of.

In the end, I do think that there are a hell of a lot of people out there who won't buy the software, movie, or music no matter what, and so they're not a lost sale. Looking at download statistics for these things is useless, because people who download stuff do it a lot, far more than legitimate customers actually buy, completely skewing and screwing up any comparisons between the two.

Going overboard to limit access to your game could just mean driving more actual paying customers away, especially towards game publishers and developers that use less (or no) DRM. Publishers definitely need to make sure they're at least in good standing with their customers, because while a good game may or may not sell well, being unpopular with the highly-connected and very vocal PC gaming community will almost completely ensure retail failure.

Where's the Middle Ground?

Most people seem to be happy with the DRM that Steam uses, even though it's often actually more restrictive than some of the DRM schemes we've seen people decry and attempt to boycott. Still, Steam is very popular with most hardcore PC gamers, so using their system is almost always fine. And if that doesn't serve as good enough protection, then a basic activation system with limited installs is probably fine as long as the developer also pledges to remove the DRM at some future date.

What's not fine is the online-only system set up by Ubisoft. That's a huge inconvenience for paying customers, many of whom may be playing single-player titles specifically because their internet connection is spotty or unreliable. Not every PC gamer lives in a major city with a dedicated broadband connection through a major provider.

Giving people the choice of disc checks and DRM is nice, too, allowing gamers to leave the disc in the drive on one PC and use DRM on a secondary machine like a laptop. Overall, publishers have a lot of choices here, many of which protect a game pretty well and won't get them boycotted.


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