Sometimes people squabble over which DRM schemes are the most onerous. Most of these debates have people talking past each other so badly they might as well be speaking different languages from passing bullet trains.
Lots of people leave comments faulting me for supporting some systems and avoiding others. How can you accept CD checks, which happen every time you run the game, and not online activation, which only happens after install?!?!? They are baffled by my seemingly random attitude towards various schemes. What they’re really seeing is that they are only talking about the most obvious and short-term aspect of DRM (convenience) and aren’t thinking about the others. There are three costs to DRM which the users bears directly. (That is, we’re not talking about the additional costs of licensing and support, which make the game more expensive to produce.)
I shall enumerate these three evils, now:
How much of a pain is it to deal with the system?
Code wheels, manual lookups, CD checks, serial keys, and other busywork make the product more of a hassle to use. This is the one that gets a lot of attention and the one most people worry about.
The classic codewheels and manuals ranged from annoying to inexcusable. (Starflight II had you count the number of different colored stars within a square region on a poster-sized map. So you needed to unfold or hang a huge map, and have the little cardboard square and fuss around with it counting colored dots.)
I tolerate anti-convenience schemes for the most part. I don’t fault people who draw the line over convenience, though. There is no wrong answer when it comes to this stuff. (Unless you’re the one deciding to add it in the first place.)
How much does this scheme compromise the stability or security of the operating system?
Starforce is an infamous example. SecuROM is – as far as I can tell – less of a threat but it’s gotten most of the bad press, probably because it’s been tied to a couple of big-name titles that also had online activation.
Now, any compromise of the customer’s system is unconscionable in my book. I don’t make a lot of fuss over security problems here because a lot of it can get really technical and researching the problems can be a monumental pain. I’ll see two opposing claims on a system (I’ts deadly! vs. It’s harmless!) and there’s no way to sort it out without doing my own research on things.
A lot of the systems create a back door so that processes can run as administrator, which isn’t an issue for me because I always run as administrator anyway. Yes, I know this is bad practice but at least it’s a risk I chose for myself, as opposed to having some uppity software choose for me.
To what degree does the system challenge your ownership of the product?
Can you play it on demand? On any of your computers? Can you sell or gift it later? Will it still work if the publisher goes out of business?
For my own purposes, this one is where I draw the line. Once I put down my cash, I expect to own a game and be free to run it on any of my computers.
There has never been a DRM thread on this site where someone didn’t pop in and – speaking in the voice of the Comic Book Guy – point out that, “Actually, you’re not buying a game, your buying a license to a game.”
While true, this is irrelevant. You can argue about legality and EULA rights all day, but there is no strength of argument capable of enticing me to hand over my money for a game where I have to ask for permission to play it. Movies and music – which sell for $10 to $20 – manage to let the user do as they please with the data. I see no reason why a $60 game shouldn’t work the same way, aside from single-minded idiocy.
The guys from Penny Arcade had the first two in mind when they described the DRM for RSPOD as “unobtrusive”. It was indeed as unobtrusive as possible for #1 and #2, but it broke #3 and so I was forced to skip it. I had some PA fanboys come by and throw profane little tantrums, claiming I was being some kind of zealot who wouldn’t accept any DRM. They were making the classic mistake (which lies at the root of 99% of internet debate) that my priorities were the same as theirs and then judged my actions accordingly.
We all have different priorities. The most important thing to remember when figuring out which of the Three Evils you hate the most is that none of them stop piracy. Arguing over CD checks vs. online activation is like arguing over placebo vs. snake oil. Neither one contains any ingredients which will address the problem. They might, in some cases, stop person-to-person “sharing”, but none of them are capable of stopping the flow of copyrighted bits over the internet. You’re just choosing how you’ll be annoyed or ripped off while the problem rages on, unabated.
Trashing the Heap
What does it mean when a program crashes, and why does it happen?
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
The Death of Half-Life
Valve still hasn't admitted it, but the Half-Life franchise is dead. So what made these games so popular anyway?
Linux vs. Windows
Finally, the age-old debate has been settled.
Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.