Lali-ho, readers! While discussing DRM at this point may feel akin to flogging a dead horse, the recent controversy surrounding the “Stop Online Piracy Act”, or SOPA, once again got me thinking about DRM and its effects on the industry. I, like many gamers, have generally had…less than positive things to say about Digital Rights Management software and the effects it has on gaming. But why is it that so many of us stand opposed to DRM and the mentality behind it? This article specifically is exploring DRM in gaming and not DRM in movies, e-books, or music.
The first and perhaps most obvious reason why DRM does more harm than good requires examination of what it is intended to do and who it affects. DRM software is intended to discourage piracy by limiting the ability of consumers to share a purchased product. For music, this includes things like restricting the ability to copy a track or encrypting the song so it will only play on certain devices. For games, especially PC games, DRM means long serial codes, restrictions on the number of installs, account-bound software, or restrictions on the way the game plays in pirated copies. Ideally, of course, this would mean that people are encouraged to buy software to get their own copy instead of borrowing from a friend and copying the game’s data. What DRM actually does, however, is restrict those people who actually legitimately buy their games instead of pirating them. Those who download cracked versions of games get around install limits and other game restrictions and then get a less restrictive version of the game than real paying customers do.
This nicely leads into the second problem with using restrictive DRM in games: DRM does not work, and people will continue to pirate games. The Spore fiasco stands as a model of why DRM hurts games and game sales. EA, in releasing Spore, used SecuROM and a three-install limit to try and protect the game and stop people from pirating copies of Spore. This backfired magnificently – Spore was cracked and pirated shortly before the game was even released, and went on to become the most pirated game of 2008. The SecuROM debacle left, to many gamers, a permanent blemish on EA’s record and a reason to avoid buying games with DRM. SecuROM was not mentioned anywhere in the EULA or the manual and box of Spore. EA at least seemed to learn their lesson with Spore and Mass Effect, two games that launched with SecuROM; the Steam releases of both games omit the SecuROM DRM from the game.
It seems, then, that DRM is largely pointless. It does not do the one thing it is intended for, and instead restricts legitimate paying customers. This is not, however, to say at ALL DRM is bad; account-binding digital downloads is one particular method that is not terribly restrictive and is convenient for legitimate consumers. Something like the Steam model of account-binding game purchases and allowing those purchases to be downloaded on other machines that have the account information is encouraging to gamers. Despite acting as a form of DRM, one more rarely sees gamers having a problem with this model; it encourages gamers to use a service because of the confidence that the game will still be available so long as the servers are available. Even so, this minor convenience is still technically something that pirates would have access to since downloading a game on multiple machines is very simple.
If DRM is not the solution to piracy, then what is? For one, every game that is released today should have a free demo. Demos are a way for people to try out games without having to pay money for them. It seems obvious, but making quality games that people want to buy is also extremely important. If companies shovel out the same game year after year, gamers may want to stop pouring out money and resort to piracy. And, as I have said before, game companies need to understand the importance of customer loyalty. If game developers listen to their fans and treat their consumers as actual people instead of walking sacks of money, then people will want to show the company support and will buy their games. And finally, game developers must accept that piracy is an inevitability. No method of piracy reduction will ever be 100% effective; hackers will find a way around any restriction. So instead of hurting paying customers, game companies should learn to effectively please the people who are legitimately supporting their business.