Beware of pirates they tell us. Pirates are horrible bastards who are virtually waging a war against you, determined to destroy everything you love. Every time a pirate steals a game, EA have to fire seventeen members of staff and shop at discount stores for a month. Most games developers now suffer from paranoia caused by the brazen pillaging of their wares.
Now that you’ve bolted the doors and blacked out the windows, what is piracy? Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence at sea, and by sea I mean the internet. Similar to film and music, piracy in video game world usually refers to the act of downloading a game for free, ‘pirating’ the software. This is done by people sharing their copy of the game over the internet where others can download it.
Do you still have the door bolted and kids in the bathtub? Stop doing that now, you weirdo, I was being dramatic. Before file sharing became popular, games used to have a simple form of protection, a simple CD-key you would enter during installation. This CD-key could usually be found on the back of the game manual and would be different for every copy of the game. This would prevent people from simply sharing the files. Once the internet came along, it became too easy for people to share the CD-keys as well, or even create cracked versions of the game that did not require the code.
What is a games publisher to do? Drop into a foetal position and cry? Of course not. Looking at their sales charts must have seemed equally unreasonable, because publishers were raking it in. Sales revenue doubled between 1995 and 2000. Faced with these auspicious figures, publishers started slapping DRM all over their games.
Digital rights management is a method of controlling user access to content based on them fulfilling certain criteria. The clearest way to look at is this, it is a way of giving the publisher control of the content after you have purchased it. DRM comes in many incarnations, such as preventing copies of files from being made, restricting the number of installations possible and more. So why don’t we look at each in a little more detail, starting with one of the most controversial.
Imagine the following: Shooter Fight Army 6 has just come out and you decide to buy it, you’ve heard the single player campaign is great. So you put some clothes on, brave the brightness beyond the curtain and venture out to the video games store. You hand the game and your hard gambled money over to the gentleman at the till, who sneers because he plays Tactical Battle 3 and that’s a much more skillful game than SFA6 (which is the same as SFA5).
You skip happily all the way home and install your game. Suddenly a box pops up asking you to register and login to play the game. You’re a little surprised because you only want to play single player but you register anyway. You’re on the verge of stopping Generic Bad Guy and suddenly another box pops up. This one says “You have been disconnected from the Histrionic Arts server, please reconnect to continue playing.” That’s odd, isn’t it? You’re only playing the single player. You find out that your internet provider is having a few technical problems which could last a day or two and until they fix the issues, you can’t play your single player campaign. That’s a two day holiday from work well spent then isn’t it. In your misery you talk to friends and exercise. It feels awful.
This can happen, and did happen, Diablo 3 was released and the servers set up for the users couldn’t handle the strain, so they keeled over and died. This left millions of people in lurch, having paid £50 for a game they now couldn’t even play in single player, because the game creator messed up the servers. If it was a multiplayer issue then you could have more tolerance, but the issues were caused directly by the DRM used. This then leads to people pirating the game just so they don’t have to put up with this kind of bullshit. You heard that right, the pirated versions of online-only games offer a more stable and less intrusive experience. You get a better deal from the pirates.
Screwing with the pirates
Jason pirates a game. He feels quite smug because he wants to spend his money on cigarettes and whiskey instead of some nerdy game. His download finished and he opens the game. He manages to successfully log in and start a game. “Only an idiot would pay for this” Jason sneers, smoke drifting away from him. As he takes aim at an enemy sniper and fires, his bullet hits a wall 50 metres to the right and he turns into a bird. Somewhere, a game developer smiles.
This creative form of DRM comes from Bohemia Interactive, rather than try to control the user and stop them from pirating the game, they decided to make pirated versions of the game too frustrating (read: impossible) to play. It is certainly more amusing and I would even suggest effective, but there are still issues.
For the past 6 months I have played the Arma 2 mod, DayZ. DayZ is a hugely successful mod and creates a truly immersive experience. In order to run DayZ, certain Arma 2 files have to be modified, this makes the game think I have a pirated version of the game. This causes me to spontaneously turn into a bird when trying to play the standard version of Arma 2. This was funny the first couple of times. Switching between the mod and the standard version takes several hours each time, which few people would be willing to put up with just to play a game.
You can install the game three times, even on three computers in your house at the same time. Everyone can play on the game at the same time, this sounds fair? Hell, it even sounds kind of generous considering the other forms of DRM, but it’s still DRM. So let’s say you have two PCs, you install the game on both of them, and everything is fine. A year later Windows 7 is released and you upgrade both PCs, now suddenly the game has to be reinstalled and you only have one installation left. Doesn’t sound so fair anymore does it? Then your hard drive breaks and you can never install the game again, unless you buy it again. Would you buy the same game again or pirate it for simplicity? Exactly.
Games with limited installations have a habit of turning up in charts titled “Most pirated video games.” The problem is people don’t like feeling as though they are being held to ransom, especially by something they paid for. Once upon a time you could buy one copy of a game and play it on one TV with three other people. Now, they’ve already got us buying four copies to do the same thing, do they really have to restrict us as they do it?
So why do publishers use DRM? To make the game harder to pirate, leading to more people buying legitimate versions of the game and increasing sales. Of course they do, they need to make a profit to keep operating. Well if that’s the case, why was £1 billion spent on DRM in 2007 (rumoured to be £9 billion for 2012) and last year UK Interactive Entertainment said that piracy costs the UK video game industry £1 billion per year? Doesn’t sound too profitable does it?
By spending money on DRM, costs are pushed up which leads to these costs being passed along to the consumer. The higher the cost of a game, the more temptation to pirate. Especially for 16 year old who doesn’t have a lot of disposable income. Interestingly, some of the top selling games come with no DRM. As I’m writing this article there are three million people playing games on Steam. Steam has no DRM other than needing to be logged in to play games, but you can do this offline if you have no internet connection. Oh yeah, Steam sales aren’t factored into overall game sales either.
Does DRM work?
This is what it comes down to. If DRM works and prevents piracy, then maybe it is a necessary evil. Publishers have to protect their profits and this is how they ensure they can continue to make games and consistently improve.
The problem is, it doesn’t work. A game with DRM is lucky if it lasts a month before being cracked. DRM that is publicised as being impossible to crack just increases the publicity it gets when it is cracked. I’ve been told by games pirates (the ones who actually break the DRM) that the harder and more secure the DRM, the greater the challenge and fun. They aren’t sinister criminals looking to destroy an industry, they’re people who enjoy the challenge and dislike the market’s anti-consumer stance. I’m not saying DRM increases piracy, it just doesn’t seem to decrease it.
Independent games very rarely come with DRM and they have had massive successes in an industry usually dominated by triple-A games. I would venture that people are, overall moral creatures. Few people would pirate indie games that only charge a small amount. It’s the massive publishers who charge £50 for games which come laced with DRM and future DLC (requiring further payments) that are full of bugs.
Take out the DRM, knock that cost off your game and treat the consumer for what they are, someone who just wants to play a game. You might find most respond well. Some people will always take something for nothing if they can, don’t let those people make it worse for everyone.