Not as titilating as you may think

THERE WAS a fiasco in the gaming biz recently (And no, I'm not talking about the one where Bobby Kotick busted into the Infinity Ward offices with a shotgun) about the new form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) that Ubisoft has introduced, forcing people with purchased copies of a game to remain connected to the internet while they play.

Of course, this has caused a massive uproar in the gaming community and support for Ubisoft has gone further down the toilet than Activision. DRM isn't exactly a new issue in the industry, in fact, it spans over every single multimedia industry in existence. However, it seems as though the gaming industry is the only one that hasn't really learned anything from their past mistakes with DRM.

In the early 21st century, Apple was one of the first companies to adopt DRM on a major scale, integrating it with their iTunes music store in an attempt to prevent people from sharing music. Of course, it wasn't necessarily popular among consumers who realized that if they ever lost their music, they'd have to pay for every single song all over again. After roughly eight years of heated internet debates and failed petitions, Apple announced in January of 2009 that music downloaded from iTunes would no longer contain any sort of copy protection, allowing users to do whatever they wanted with their bought music.

Did the music industry crumble underneath the crushing weight of filthy pirates? No. In fact, it was reported that overall music sales went up by 2.1% in 2009 and that 40% of all music sales were digital, an eight percent jump from 2008. In 2008 it was estimated that 95% of all music downloaded from the internet was illegal, which was months before Apple removed DRM from their music. While I doubt that statistic has decreased much, I'm also certain that it hasn't grown, meaning that a lack of DRM on a product does not exactly cause the piracy rate of that product to increase.

 Now the videogame industry is vastly different from the music industry, so I'm certainly not suggesting that we remove DRM from games altogether. I'm merely suggesting that we stop taking steps in the wrong direction. Let's rewind back to 2008.

EA Games' Spore was the number one pirated game of that year, being downloaded illegally over 1.7 million times. Spore contained a type of DRM called SecuROM, which is one of the strongest in the industry (not to mention one of the most hated). Not only does it limit you to a certain number of installs, but it also installs a background application onto your computer without your consent, and without even telling you about it.

Out of the lagoon....DRM!!!!!!

Essentially, the application monitors your copy of the game and ensures that you aren't being a naughty, naughty pirate. The gaming community, being the radical free thinkers that we are, didn't much like the idea of being spied on unknowingly, and the amount of backlash from consumers was understandably intense. Of course, Spore was cracked and released for download on multiple torrent sites several days before it was even released. Many ended up pirating the game simply out of spite for SecuROM, effectively turning the entire purpose of DRM on its ear, not to mention making Spore the number one example of what not to do.

Obviously, the new move with Ubisoft's DRM isn't exactly popular either, with it being called a step in the wrong direction by hard hitting, non-professional game journalists, such as myself. Requiring users to connect to the internet to play even a single player game is a ridiculous notion, not to mention the fact that it alienates consumers who don't have a good enough connection to the internet, or can't afford one.

It also effects exactly when and where you play your game, meaning that it's impossible to play it while on a trip, or in a location where your internet is unavailable to you. And God forbid if the Ubisoft servers go down; they'd have more horribly spelled complaint emails than they could possibly fathom. Being a PC gamer myself, I wondered, why on Earth would anyone ever want to pay 60 dollars for something that they, the consumer, could only use at the will of the producer, rather than of their own free will?

It really smacks of ignorance on the part of the developer to harm their valued customers rather than their original target, the pirates. The latest game to use this form of DRM from Ubisoft was Assassin's Creed II back in early March (this is where the issue gets complicated). The game took over a month to crack, which, in pirate years, is an incredibly long time. In that sense, the DRM could be considered a success, for the developers at least. However, over that period of time, people who would normally pirate the game certainly didn't purchase it, so I can't see Ubisoft celebrating either. They haven't released any sales figures as of yet, but I'm sure they didn't make much more money than they would have without the DRM.

Were I asked to give one example of good DRM, I would immediately say Steam. For the uneducated, Steam is a digital distribution system released by Valve in 2003 that allows players to download games in their entirety from the internet, as well as track stats, get into multiplayer matches, etc. (Think an Xbox Live sort of service). Any game downloaded from Steam has a base form of DRM, unique to the service.

Not only does Steam's DRM make it a pain in the ass for people to crack the games, but it also has absolutely no effect on the consumer whatsoever. I feel that it is the closest thing to a “good” DRM system that we can ever get. However, it isn't without its own share of problems. Of course, Steam is primarily an American service, and many of my brethren from other countries have expressed distaste for the service because of connection complications, localization issues, and the like. Hopefully, as the service grows, it will attempt to cater more to a worldwide audience.

The DRM war is an ongoing one that, unfortunately, is nowhere near its end. Developers need to start thinking about how they can set in place a method of copy protection that doesn't harm their actual customers. Until then, we are their hypothetical guinea pigs, and we will most certainly be used by them to test our tolerance for inconvenience (Read: Bullshit).

- William Chandler


No one has commented yet. Be the first!