DRM in PC games – How to get it right, and what Ubisoft did instead.

Digital rights management (DRM) from the point of view of PC Gaming is a generic term for access-control technologies used by developers and publishers to impose limitations on the usage of games. Access-control technology has been used on computer games as copy protection for almost as long as computer games have existed in the form of serial number and keys files, although these are not considered DRM as they can be circumvented without modifying the game files. If the latter can be considered the era of the game-as-a-product, then the former can certainly be characterised as the rise of the game-as-a-service.

The rise of the game-as-a-service and DRM are a direct result of the mass use of the internet during a period when tools to distribute pirated media online were widely available. Access-control technology became ever more sophisticated in an effort to physically deter the pirating ‘masses’, mandated by the legal deterrence of the EULA.

Video game piracy has always existed, but the internet turned it into a life-threatening problem for many developers, and while there is no question that the owner of an Intellectual Property has a right to defend it, the real question is how you go about doing so in a way that maximises the revenue return for the owner with the minimum inconvenience to the end user.

That point is often forgotten by elements of the games industry, but very few games generate a binary buy/pass response in the gamer. If this were true then your anti-piracy scheme could be as obnoxious as you like without hampering legitimate sales, but not only is it not true, it is also a fact that games compete for attention in an open market.

Good Old Games (GOG) have demonstrated that games long past their ability to command shelf-space in the real world can still generate useful revenue in the digital world by being exceptionally convenient; buy it, download it, install it, store it, play it. No DRM, no limited number of installs, no serial keys to lose, no activations to fail, and gamers have proved beyond doubt that they are willing to pay for this convenience. The same games are also available from Steam and other such services, and often at cheaper prices, and yet GOG continues to thrive because of their unique selling point.

Another important point, related to that above, is that the vast majority of game sales occur in the first six months after release, because a market characterised by massive turnover of new titles and rapid technological advancement will rapidly bury even the most stand-out game release, and the vast majority of piracy happens in that period too so that is the time-frame during which a publisher must focus their copy-protection resources. After six months a games future revenue potential is both drastically reduced, and far more dependent on its convenience to the gamer than was ever the case when it had market visibility.

This is why developers such as Bohemia Interactive are happy to patch the DRM schemes out of their games, because it will please the existing community, it will lower the barrier-to-entry to newcomers who are curious but not convinced, and any revenue loss from an increase in piracy is probably matched by that increase in casual sales. Even if it is revenue neutral it is still a win for Bohemia Interactive, because there existing fan-base will appreciate the improved convenience.

Oddly enough it would appear that gamers, as a market segment, do not like to be treated as criminals by the very companies they choose to purchase from. There is a recognition of the piracy problem faced by the industry, and there is an acceptance of the need for access-control technology to ensure the industry both survives and thrives, and there is an even a grudging tolerance for a certain amount of inconvenience if it allows their favourite developer to keep on developing. Where this crosses a line is when gamers perceive that they themselves are not trusted, that the DRM is there to control them rather than prevent others ripping off hard-work working developers, and that is when what was merely fact-of-life becomes a significant barrier to acceptance. Don’t make it personal!

Valves Steam service is an example of DRM scheme that has been accepted by many gamers as not just a tolerable thing, but also a good thing, because gamers perceive very little inconvenience, recognise that there are a huge number of useful services built in to the platform, and they have the “dooms day” assurance that if all goes pear-shaped the last thing Valve will do before the apocalypse arrives is release a patch removing all DRM from Steam games.

So where did Ubisoft go wrong with the introduction of their Online Services Platform (OSP)? After all, can you not install a game using the platform on any PC you choose, just as you can with one obtained from GOG? Further, is it not every bit as convenient as a Bohemia Interactive game such as Armed Assault 2 in that you don’t have to keep fishing out the disk from the grubby pile of game detritus that festers on your desk? Finally, the platform is an online digital distribution, digital rights management, multiplayer and communications platform developed just like Steam, and every body loves Steam do they not?

The reality is that Ubisoft have broken every one of the above:

  1. Their DRM scheme is inconvenient in that if you are not connected, you cannot play, and if you lose your connection the game will stop.
  2. It is permanent solution to a temporary problem, and legitimate gamers are forever stuck with a worse product, so that the first six months of sales suffer less piracy.
  3. Ubisoft treats you, personally, like a child or criminal, you cannot be trusted, and must always be monitored, but somehow you shouldn’t be bothered by that!

The tragedy for this blogger is that Ubisoft make some great games, and Assassins Creed 2 and Silent Hunter 5 in particular were highly anticipated, but as long as they remain infected with OSP they will remain far too inconvenient for the purchase to be worth the bother.

Is there a better way for a AAA developer to protect a high-profile title from piracy, a way which is both convenient and does not treat their customer base as rank criminals?

Yes, take a look at what EA/Bioware have done with Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, there is no online authentication, no limited number of installs, there is no dubious anti-piracy malware permanently and irrecoverably infecting ones computer, there is merely a serial key and disk check. How do they get away with this, well it comes back to that gaming as a service thing, and it goes by the name of downloadable content, or “DLC” as it is known. Bioware will trickle feed us digital crack-cocaine and render us dependent on the continual oozing’s of their creative genius, and to receive this we will need to tie our game to an authenticated EA/Bioware online account.

Why is this more tolerable than any other method? The answer is that you are not fundamentally limited in your legitimate use of the game, you are not treated like a criminal by the company you wish to give my money too, and most importantly………………. you don’t have to have a EA/Bioware account to play the game. You can play the games in question without being tied to that authenticated EA/Bioware online account, you just won’t have access to the DLC, which is a fair compromise. Quite frankly, they only way they could improve the service, in the opinion of this blog, is if they remove the disk check six months after release, and agree to let GOG republish the games in five years time.

With all these good ideas floating around it is a wonder how Ubisoft managed to make such a complete hash of things, we can only hope they realise their mistake and ditch OSP.

Update – 09/04/10

The developers of action-platformer Trine have just released patch 1.06 which removes the DRM from US and EU versions of the game. Hooray for common sense.

2 responses to “DRM in PC games – How to get it right, and what Ubisoft did instead.

  1. The problem I see with this system is that it leaves the developer to release half-games ala Ghost Recon:Advanced Warfighter 2. Four hours in I was wondering where the rest of the game was. Fair enough, the point is valid that GRAW2′s pulling power was in the online multiplayer, still, knowing EA’s track record, I don’t recommend this as a plausible solution.

  2. Certainly EA doesn’t have the best track record of quality development standards, but Bioware still has significant muscle within EA to get what it wants, and certainly Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 suffered no complaints for being unfinished games, and if we are lucky the standard will coalesce are Bioware and spread to the wider organisation.

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