Sunshine Dust?

By Shamus Posted Friday Aug 15, 2008

Filed under: Links 49 comments

Somebody has this to say:

I can't trust Shamus or his Stolen Pixels. I know the guy has powerful anti-DRM ethics, but he lives in some world made of sunshine dust where wiping out DRM will solve all our problems. I do believe that anti-piracy is necessary… but I also don't want to piss off my customers. Is there a way out of this mess?

I know I re-state my thoughts on DRM pretty often, but I’m always happy to do so whenever people give me an excuse. Particularly when it dovetails so nicely with today’s comic. In case there is any confusion, I do not think eliminating DRM will solve all our problems. I maintain that obtrusive DRM is a problem in addition to piracy. I even grudgingly accept DRM, but for it to work, it must:

  1. Respect the rights of the consumer. This means online activation for a single-player game is a deal-breaker.
  2. It must be as hassle-free as you can make it. CD checks? Codebooks? CD keys? They all have their drawbacks, but they all prevent effortless piracy. (Passing around a CD.) A user must download a crack or make some kind of effort to thwart these methods. This means that users who pirate the game are making a deliberate decision to do so. That’s the best you can hope for. Anything beyond that is needless hassle which only applies to legit users.

Let us consider two games: The first has a CD check, which requires the disc be in the drive. The other has the disc check, a CD key, it installs SercuROM, and requires online activation.

Which is harder to pirate? It’s a trick question. For every single would-be pirate, the process for pirating these two games is identical: Download the cracked version from the torrents.

But which is harder for honest users to run? Obviously the second one, by far. A very small minority might refuse to buy the first game because of the CD check. A lot of people will avoid the second. Or they will get it and become infuriated by the hassle.

I do not ask anyone to “trust” me or my Stolen Pixels. I’m merely making the case that there are cheaper and more effective ways of fighting piracy.

On the other hand, after hearing people fault me for being too angry and cynical, it’s nice to have someone charge me with undue optimism for a change.


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49 thoughts on “Sunshine Dust?

  1. Illiterate says:

    Starshine dust aside, it didn’t seem like he really disagreed with you on most points.

    BTW, did you steal pixels of yourself there? Your wife was a surprisingly good sport if that’s the case.

  2. Allen says:

    Looks like it, Illiterate. That’s the same lopsided smirk he’s got in the ‘About’ post with his picture in it, so… Good call.

    I wish I could call my wife a hooker and get away with it. :(

  3. It seems like developers are hearing a message from pirates “your games (and the time it takes to create those games) are meaningless and valueless”. Hearing that message, react emotionally and start dropping nukes. The fact that they’re dropping said nukes on their legit customers and the pirates are still– like cockroaches– scurrying about, doesn’t seem to enter into their considerations…

  4. asterismW says:

    I’ve been wondering about the pictures too (which are quite entertaining). I don’t think it’s Shamus, though. A brother, maybe.

  5. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Answer to the question from the quote:
    Stardock has no DRM on its games,yet twilight of the arnor took way longer for the pirated version to become available online than,for example,bioshock,mass effect,or(just so you dont say that its because twilight of the arnor was a TBS sequel so it has a smaller audience)civilization 4:beyond the sword and heroes 5:tribes of the east.Why?Simple:No one wanted to crack a game from stardock.Im also 99,9999…% sure that every next game from stardock will take longer and longer to get cracked,simply because stardock has respect from its customers,something other developers dont have(nor deserve).

  6. Shamus says:

    The guy in the pics is of no relation. He’s just some Stock Photo Guy. When I found him I knew I’d struck gold.

  7. Ozy says:

    I’m not clear on what you’re saying, Daemian Lucifer. If a game has no DRM, how can it even be cracked, much less need to be?

  8. Katy says:

    I have to ask where on Earth you got those awesome pictures of the guy in the gray suit for your Stolen Pixels! The hooker picture was just :-O !!!

  9. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Ok,it has no DRM appart from the serial.But its such a rudimentary form of a DRM that I dont even consider it as one anymore.For me,it would be like saying a CD is a form of a DRM(incidentally,in the case of stardocks games,one might argue that the CD is a form of DRM,since you dont need one in order to play their games).

  10. Viktor says:

    I'm not clear on what you're saying, Daemian Lucifer. If a game has no DRM, how can it even be cracked, much less need to be?

    It’s not available for download at the most common torrent sites. Basically, Stardock games take longer for someone to decide to pirate than Bioware games do to be cracked and uploaded.(Not hard, as most of the time pirates can get Bioware games earlier, without DRM, and free before the release date).

  11. cengime says:

    Hey, Shamus, did you hear about Cliff Harris’s blog post?

  12. Viktor says:

    Okay, how about we mass e-mail a link to that to the Game Developers. That man just made it far less likely that I’ll pirate his stuff.

  13. Neil says:

    You know, its funny. I really haven’t ever run into DRM worse than that string of characters you have to enter to activate the game. The last PC game I bought was WoW, which I don’t count. Before that, a indie game called Mount and Blade, which I paid for the download because I thought I had a good concept even though it was still pretty rough around the edges. Before that, Oblivion.
    My point is, there haven’t been many video games in the past few years I felt were even worth shelling out the 60 bucks for, even without DRM.

  14. Eltanin says:

    cengime – thanks for that link. That was really awesome to read. If I can, I’m gonna go out and buy one of that guy’s games (if I like them ;) ).

    I know that this portion of my comment should go on the Escapist website, but I am kinda put off by that site. It’s too cluttered and flashy. I hold my breath to watch Zero Punctuation and read Stolen Pixels and breath hard when I’m back at a sane place on the web. Erg, sorry for whining.

    Anyway, Shamus you really did strike gold with Stock Photo Guy. That was a particularly hilarious comic. Thank you.

  15. Pat says:

    My thoughts were heading in a similar direction to the original poster. Hand out game CDs for free, but require a credit card activated server connection that charges you some small daily amount (say $5 / day), but only until you’ve paid $60 (or whatever the retail price for your game would be).

    Once you’ve paid up, it downloads and installs a no-DRM patch and gives you the opportunity to be mailed a CD with a no-DRM installer.

    Thus you can swap CDs with your friends; you can pay a small amount to demo the game for a day or two, but have access to the full content during that time; once you’ve paid up, you own the game and can reinstall it any time. As a bonus for the games company, they get to build up a list of their best fans (the ones that requested a CD be mailed to them).

    The main drawback I can think of is that you would need to track where a game was bought from so you can reimburse the Wall-Marts and HMVs appropriately for getting the original CDs to the customers.

  16. Kevin says:

    Living myself in a world of sunshine dust I can tell you it’s no frigging picnic. The stuff gets into everything (and I do mean everything) and it’s no hope washing it out, because all you have to wash with is more sunshine dust. I’m in twice as much trouble because I’m one of those people who can’t sleep with the lights on, and pulling the drapes doesn’t help because they’re made of sunshine too and everything glows like crazy… it’s miserable.

    I hate DRM.

  17. “I don’t want to make my customers feel disrespected or anything, but I don’t trust those assholes. How do I reconcile this?”

    There is an overlap where fair use is indistinguishable from piracy. I mean completely indistinguishable. One simple example is, me installing a game I bought on two computers, and me giving a copy to a friend. I can legally install a game I buy on forty computers, but installing it one one friend’s computer is piracy. So the simple answer is no. Any DRM system that will be effective against piracy will also restrict things that people should be able to do, thus “pissing them off”.

    Daemian Lucifer: The warez scene consists of people who crack and release games as fast as they can for bragging rights. Then those releases generally leak from the scene and end up on torrents. DRM-free games present no challenge, to the scene doesn’t bother with them, but of course people can still torrent them, of course. It just tends to be that the leaked scene releases get out faster, because of the push to crack the games.

  18. Gazok says:

    About your stolen pixels thing, it’s not EA who’re forcing the three install limit on people, it’s SecuROM. I mean, we can all agree that EA are assholes, but it’s Sony who’re to blame for this particular issue.

  19. Duffy says:

    I hate to be rude Gazok so I apologize if I come off as it, but EA is the publisher and EA probably made the decision to use SecuROM and thus should be, at least in passing, familiar with how it works, therefore it is their fault we have to deal with it on their games.

  20. Ambience 327 says:

    Hey Shamus – what’s “SercuROM”? :)

  21. Ryan Speck says:

    I think you’ve got a problem.

    I think you’re hooked on the Sunshine Dust and I think we need to have an intervention.

  22. Heph says:

    @cengime: Interesting article link, there.

    Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are fooling themselves. The people saying price is an issue, especially when it comes to this type of $20 or less games, are simply lying to themselves. No, you won’t suddenly pick it up for $5. They’re the same people who say they would take anything for free if they could get away with it, but less honest about it.

  23. Avatar says:

    The point that Shamus is trying to make, and that this guy misses, is simple: getting rid of DRM doesn’t fix your problems, but including it doesn’t either… and DRM introduces its own problems. If you’ve got the same problems either way, then at least without DRM, you have slightly fewer problems, and cheaper too.

  24. The Lone Duck says:

    I agree. Do I think people will change? Not right away, that’s for sure. Look at the primary supporters of the current DRM styles, 2k Games, EA, and to lesser extents, Valve and Epic. Now Valve has Steam, so it’s (mostly) another matter altogether anyway. I admit I’m not familar with Epic’s stance, but they are small enough, they might try something new. But 2k and EA? They’re big publishers. Most of their titles are multi-platform anyway. The people who are aware of DRM hassles don’t have authority, and the people who do have authority probably don’t care. (Even if they admitted it’s a valid concern, I imagine most upper level executives have more stressful issues than improving DRM for customers.
    Cynical, I know. I have trouble putting hope in human beings. As stupid as it is, people have been doing stupid things since the dawn of humanity.

  25. Mark says:

    I’ll tell you my problem. I’m frightened of DRM. All this talk about the stuff lately, I don’t know what games are going to install a rootkit any more, and there doesn’t seem to be a reliable centralized place to find out. The upshot is that I don’t buy PC games any more. Even ones that probably just rely on a serial number or disc check.

  26. Captain Kail says:

    The ultimate fix will be, instead of a CD key, we just plug in our social security number. We use it for everything else. We’ve all got just one and nobody shares it! Not only will it cut down on piracy, it’ll punish the illegal immigrants too! It’s brilliant! I guess that’s just tough luck for non-Americans! It’s what they get for not being American anyways.

    Maybe EA will give me a million bucks for that idea.

  27. Veylon says:

    Sometimes it’s too bad the law is so slow at getting into computers. Installing a rootkit without saying so should legally be considered the same as breaking into someone’s house and installing a camera. Subverting one’s operating system as a form of DRM is far beyond the pale.

  28. Deltaway says:

    The honest customer is going to want to be able to use, in a fair way, the product that he paid for without hassles or limitations. The honest developer is going to want a setup in which each customer has to pay for the product, but in which each receives the experience for which he paid, i.e. one without hassles or limitations. (I assume, rather idealistically, that game quality is a variable that is decided before this stage, and that the customer should know what they are buying, or in other words, Caveat Emptor and do his research. (which is grammatically correct if you know your Latin)) The problem is that a solution that satisfies both of these goals in a dishonest world has not yet been worked out. Alex Ponebshek offers a perfect example. You should be able to install a game on as many of your computers as you wish, but not on somebody else’s computer. This kind of distinction is not yet recognized inherently by technology, and so we are left with a paradox, wherein honesty and piracy are indistinguishable. The argument against DRM is that since every game can be cracked, the best course is to release a game with as few limitations as possible, so as to ease the acquirement process and to build up respect from the buyers. This is a good argument in the sense that it seems to be the best course to follow at this time in history, but it is also ultimately unsatisfying because it forces developers to rely on respect alone. The idea of “offering a superior product” is a step in the right direction, but is by no means the final destination. As illustration, notice that there are many different kinds of security. Two very simple ones are bribery and threat. I am using these terms extremely broadly – by bribery I mean a reward for desirable behavior, and by threat I mean the opposite. Human society is full of these, as kindness will often beget kindness, and malice will bring repercussions, the last being the philosophy behind a police force. More technical kinds of security might be possession, as in a key to open a door, where anyone who owns the key can open the door; knowledge, like a password, where anyone who knows the password can use it; and identity. The test for identity is the ideal kind of security, and, were it possible, would solve most of the problems with DRM. If you bought the game, you may use it, freely. Unfortunately, we only have crude means of detecting identity, such as the ownership of password or physical key (or disk), or a social security number or an IP address. Each and any of these can be subverted and abused, and adding more does not prevent this, nor make the experience better for the buyer. I do not believe there is a perfect solution at this time, and so any system will be unfair in some way to either the producer or the consumer. Some setups are smarter than others, and take into account the necessity of a balance between respecting the honest customer and safeguarding a product. Some setups are dumber than others, and forget that adding excessive security does not deter the pirate, but rather deters the honest customer. A perfect resolution between the developer and the customer does not seem to be attainable, currently. Even one of the best attempts, that of Stardock, still suffers because the game is pirated, even if these instances are rare. Good, but not perfect. I believe that balance and foresight are laudable attributes in contemporary systems. The first enables the best solutions we have at hand, and the second looks for better ones. I don’t think the community is at the point of a flawless system yet, and that to understand that is something that will help to move it forward.

  29. chiefnewo says:

    The gamehaus guy says that his anti-piracy method is forcing you to connect to his server every time you run the game. He believes that this will make cracking it take longer as “cracking client-to-server communications is really not easy to do if secured.” I suggested on his site that a cracker wouldn’t even bother trying to crack the communications to and from the server, they would simply look at tricking the game into thinking it had received the correct information, or force it to bypass the check altogether. Can someone here tell me if my theory is correct, or whether my knowledge of cracks is stuck in the early 90s?

  30. Salaryn says:

    Whatever happened to the ability to call EA and get an extra activation after you *oopsie* used all three Mass Effect activations? From what I’m reading around the web those aren’t given out much, so, nice plan to get some extra coinage from pc gamers. Tsk.

    Great comic.

  31. Heph says:

    @Captain Cail: sorry, you’re not the first to think of it.

    Us Belgians are already filling in our taxes via the interwebtubular system, using our social security codes. Games’ll be next. Just waiting for that chip to be implanted in my wrist as an ID.

  32. Fieari says:

    The two best incentives to buy a game instead of pirate it, for me, have always been “Appreciation of the developer” (see Aquaria) and “Wanting to play it multiplayer, online, requiring a CD Key to do so” (see DiabloII). Just so you know.

  33. Veylon says:

    @chiefnewo: Nothing’s changed since the early 90’s in that regard. Any program is still a pile of bits and bytes, ready to be molded to the hacker’s desire.

    Probably most game have codes that goes something like:

    bool ver = CheckVerification();
    if(ver == true)

    And the hacker would find out which function does the verifying and edit it to always give out an acceptable answer as a response. So it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a CD check, online verification, or a word look-up from the manual.

  34. Jeff says:

    The gamehaus guy says that his anti-piracy method is forcing you to connect to his server every time you run the game. He believes that this will make cracking it take longer as “cracking client-to-server communications is really not easy to do if secured.” I suggested on his site that a cracker wouldn't even bother trying to crack the communications to and from the server, they would simply look at tricking the game into thinking it had received the correct information, or force it to bypass the check altogether. Can someone here tell me if my theory is correct, or whether my knowledge of cracks is stuck in the early 90s?

    This is correct.
    In the past there have been two ways use to bypass this. One is interception, which gives you a miniserver you run on the computer, the other is precisely that, block internet access from the program (any modern free firewall can do this) and trick the program into thinking it’s already validated.

    Both methods exist, as I’ve used both of them.

  35. zaibouglish says:

    Today's comic was very funny.

  36. Alter-Ear says:

    I bought my brother-in-law Jade Empire for his birthday (entirely based on your reviews). I’d never heard of it, and there was NO way we would’ve found it in any store in this country (I live in Israel). So I bought it for him through Steam.

    But guess what? His ISP throttles high-traffic ports in order to block torrents. Which means it throttles his Steam download. Which means he’s got one percent of the game after three days – thanks to this AND Steam’s repeated “The Steam Network is too busy to deal with your request”, and, of course, Steam crashing every so often, as is its wont.

    For God’s sake, he just wants to play the game THAT I SPENT LEGAL TENDER ON IN A LEGITIMATE AND LEGAL FASHION. Is that so much to ask?

    So yeah, he’s currently looking for a torrent.


    (Yeah, so, Shamus, please feel free to use this as an example in your next rant. An actual this-happened-and-here-are-the-details situation like this one is always more convincing than theoreticals. Anything I can do to help and all that.)

  37. YaVerOt says:

    Shamus, any chance you could get a webmaster at the Escapist to find out why it seams to take forever to scroll the page your comic appears on? It stays at the same level of non-performance even if the page has been loaded for 5 whole minutes. Doesn’t matter if it is scrolling down to parts I haven’t seen, up, home, end, or even using the arrow to line up the bottom of a paragraph.

  38. Visi says:

    YaVerOt: I’ve noticed that as well… I think it’s probably the fixed background.

  39. Rustybadger says:

    Actually, The Escapist page sucks bone. I am on dialup *ducks to avoid flying vegetables*, and the comic never loads for me. I get pretty well everything else on the page, but in order to see the comic, I have to [control-click/Copy Image Location/new tab/paste] in order to see the graphic. Blegh.

    (Macbook Pro/Firefox 2)

    Since I live in the sticks (literally), and my only connectivity options are my low-latency dialup and my high-latency satellite, online activation is a deal-breaker for me. I have a 4-station high-end gaming LAN (my wife and kids all like to play BF2 with me), but I can’t play Battlefield 2142 because of the online activation every single time. Sigh.

  40. J SMith says:

    Stardocks games do have DRM of a sort, just not on the disks. If you want to patch the game (for whatever reason) you need to use their propietory distributions system (impulse or sdc). The patch will then need to be activated before you can play the game again. There is no stand alone patch so if they ever go out of business you wont be able to patch the game and if you don’t have an Internet connection then you may be left with a broken release version of the game.

    As such stardock does use DRM in my opinion just later on down the line when you may need some support.

  41. Schmidt says:

    Not exactly JSmith, you see you paid money, dinero, scratch, for the game. You got it in your hands, or if it’s an online purchase, it’s floating on your hard drive and your account with them.

    You paid for that, you got that.

    All the extra stuff in which they do not get paid for (known as free stuff), such as extra content, patches, et al. is a benefit for the people who paid for the game and not for the eeeeevil pirates. At least in theory anyways.

    Now if say EA were killed off by some pandemic troll infestation or something, and their servers went down, the online verification process would no longer work and the game that you paid good hard earned money for, would be as useful as an AOL coaster. You would have to resort to feelthy illegal eeeeevil pirates and their eeeeevil piraty ways to get your game to work. Heck even Ubisoft found that out when they used a pirates crack instead of their own to turn off some DRM.

    Should Stardock be a victim of some Finnish necromantic spells and cease to be, then the game you paid for will still work, no matter how many machines you install them on. The free content they provide however, will not be in existence. Unless you go the eeeeevil route.

    See the difference?

  42. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Just to add something to that:Stardocks original version games are not broken.Unlike many other developers games that get released long before they are finished and need loads of patching just to work,stardocks games work straight from the box and all the patching are just small bug fixes and gameplay improvements.

  43. J SMith says:

    “all the patching are just small bug fixes and gameplay improvements.” – even so there as still errors and I as a paying customer would expect access to the fixes that are available (after all I paid for them through the %’s of the retail prices that made up the support costs)

    Different publishers have different ways of protecting their content. This one is very relaxed in the CD distribution part but hard as nails in the support aspect where it considers anyone who does not condone their method of support as a pirate.

    If they want me to buy a game that has no support for offline users and patches are only available so long as the company is solvent then they should reduce the price of the product accordingly. This is not a budget release where you don’t expect much in the way of support but a full priced product at the beginning of its life cycle.

  44. Daemian Lucifer says:

    You give too much credit to the patching.I remember the days when there were no patches at all.If the game was buggy,tough luck for the developer,because no one would buy it.The games had to be perfect straight from the box.So I dont see patches as something mandatory.In fact,I see it more of a help for the designers than for the customers.

  45. Blackbird71 says:

    Quite the contrary, I see the patches as mandatory exactly because the games are released to customers as buggy. If no one is willing to take the time to release the game properly (i.e., “complete”), then the patches to finish the bought-and-paid-for product are most definetely a required part of that contract. There is an ethical obligation to your paying customers to give them something worth their money, and if the out-of-the-box release isn’t up to par, the developer has the responsibility to fix that.

  46. Jeysie says:

    @J SMith:

    Actually, with Stardock’s games they both offer “packages” periodically that collect their patches/updates, and you can use the SDC program to archive the downloads for later use.

  47. Daemian Lucifer says:


    “There is an ethical obligation to your paying customers to give them something worth their money, and if the out-of-the-box release isn't up to par, the developer has the responsibility to fix that.”

    Thats a bit contradictory.If there is an ethical obligation to give your customers something worth their money,shouldnt that mean that your product needs to be complete when they buy it?But if it is a requirment to patch the game numerous times just so it would work,how can it be called a finished product then?If you buy a house before it is being built,you get a huge discount just because you have to wait for it to be finished.

    The problem is that people are saying “Its buggy,but it will get fixed later,so Ill support them anyways”.It should not be like that.Publishers shouldnt be rewarded for incomplete products sold as complete ones,they should be punished.

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