Three Evils of DRM

By Shamus Posted Monday Oct 20, 2008

Filed under: Video Games 72 comments

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:

1. Convenience

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.)

2. Security

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.

3. Ownership

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.


From The Archives:

72 thoughts on “Three Evils of DRM

  1. Fosse says:

    Great post. I also draw the line at ownership, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever articulate a better argument for that position than you have here and in related posts.

    Very well put.

  2. dlowe says:

    It’s my belief that the use of DRM to stop piracy is a red herring
    thrown out by the industry. It’s clear to everyone, users and game
    company CEOs alike, that the technology doesn’t stop pirates. So
    there are two possible explanations for the companies’ strange
    behavior: a) they don’t “get it” or b) they have a different agenda
    than the one they’re defending. I think it’s option b.

    What does DRM do well? One thing it does is that it allows content
    providers to prevent legitimate resale. I think this is the primary
    target, especially with the new maximum installs restriction. Digital
    distribution, both DRM-encumbered and DRM-free, also has this effect.
    The person downloading a pirated game may or may not be a potential
    customer, but a resold used copy really is taking a customer’s money
    away from the industry.

    And that’s why it’s never going to get better.

  3. dlowe says:

    Ack. Valkyrie needs comment preview badly!

  4. Ben Orchard says:

    I draw the line at EITHER security OR ownership in 99% of all cases. I have made a rare exception, but not in recent times.

    I ALSO will draw the line at convenience if the inconvenience is great enough. For instance, CD-checks annoy me because I’ve seen too many primary CDs screwed up by constant use. So I prefer to play with a backup. My preference, and I’d rather the company allowed that.

    I don’t mind a CD-Key or other registration code that is NOT internet activated (hash-key without online activation) because this is generally something that is not that difficult to keep track of.

    Ultimately, however, Shamus makes a good point: NONE OF THIS is a barrier to piracy. I know of only one barrier to piracy–make a crappy game that no one cares about. If you make a good game, it WILL be pirated. In fact, if I made a game and it never showed up on bittorrent, I’d be pretty disappointed, as I’d KNOW I’d failed to capture anyone’s interest.

    ‘Course, my game might now show up as I’d probably also fail to include any sort of copy-prevention (why pay the costs for something that doesn’t work? from a cost-benefit analysis perspective, DRM has got to have the WORST payout ever).

  5. MintSkittle says:

    @Ben Orchard

    I’d say that DRM has the best payout, because gaming companies continually pay for a security product that doesn’t work.

    It’s almost like SecuROM and their ilk are printing money.

  6. Alleyoop says:

    I’ve drawn the line at #2 for the past year, because #2 enables #3.

    Whether or not Securom will affect my computer isn’t the issue anymore. It can and does have that invasive or disruptive capability thus, being the tech-moron I am, anything with Securom ‘protection’ has put me off buying (Starforce is a nobrainer non-sale, natch).

    Additionally, Securom and systems like it use players’ own computers (blacklist and hardware profile scanning) and internet (online activation or authentication) to do its work. Those are my resources that I pay for and use, not a game company’s.

    And if you look at Spore or MEPC, those games are using Securom functions and servers to redefine ownership according to EA. Like Bioshock from 2K, Alone in the Dark 5 from Atari, like Far Cry 2 from Ubisoft. Online only activation is linked to activation limits, it’s an online tether forever and ever that the game company can sever whenever they like. It’s the changeover parts of the industry is looking to make happen – full price a year ago and you owned the game, full price today and it’s only yours as long as the vendor says so.

    So I cannot skip #2 and stick at #3, they’re method and desired result for publishers. Preventing piracy is only incidental for these systems, the primary goal is squeezing more out of the paying customer and changing the accepted rules 20 years into the game.

  7. MadTinkerer says:

    It all comes down to this:

    Game creation is essentially a craft, not a service. DRM is the result of CEOs who don’t understand this.

    Enough said, really.

  8. LexIcon says:

    @Ben Orchard

    There are a few good games out there that don’t seem to be pirated. The one I’ve had personal experience with is Escape Velocity Nova and it’s ilk from Ambrosia Software. All of their products are shareware, and they’re all protected by a basic registration code system. They’ve used that system since the ’90s, and I’ve yet to see a pirated version of their games.

    I lost my codes and had to go back to them and get new ones, and so I tried to find a cracked version in the mean time. Not a single usable version, not even a workaround that works!

    I highly doubt that no one can handle their “top notch” registration system from 1998, it’s just that nobody is willing to crack a reasonably priced game with basically no other form of DRM.

    Hell, you can download the actual shareware free from their own website! There’s no challenge, and they’re a smallish company with a good reputation.

    Just throwing that out there.

  9. Dave says:

    DRM is like putting up a sign that says, “We’re watching you.” in a store the size of Wal-mart… and thinking that sign will stop everyone from shoplifting.. and then placing that sign in the back where nobody goes..

    No.. that’s how effective it is..

    Now.. take that sign.. and hide everything you’re shopping for behind a similar sign.. no.. not hide it behind the sign.. glue it to the sign.. .. and… and.. hmm.. and after you buy it.. you’d have to call up the store and have a guy come over with the special glue to get rid of the sign.. and that guy will be waiting when you’re done. (hmm.. I guess Shamus says it better.)

    They just don’t get it… OR.. they want PC gaming to just die already.

    The solution is obvious… cheaper games.. you’ll sell more.. and it wont be worth the time to pirate.. Bingo.

    You could grow your own vegetables.. but ya probably don’t.. why?? they’re cheap enough.. and it ain’t worth the effort to most..

  10. Robyrt says:

    One interesting example of a game that breaks #1 but not #2 or #3 is Supreme Commander. (From GPG, Stardock’s partners in crime.)

    The single-player game has a CD check on install, then immediately patches itself to remove the CD check – so it’s functionally DRM-free. There are no install limits.

    The multiplayer game has its own annoying launcher app with online activation, serial numbers and all that jazz – but you have a global login, MMO-style, so you can run on any computer you wish.

  11. Duoae says:

    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.”

    I wrote a blog post on my thoughts about ‘licensing’ of games as opposed to buying them. My thoughts are on the lines that games are commodities and not services and that a license is only applicable to a service and not a commodity (the definition of each makes them mutually exclusive). Therefore either they need to make games into a service (as MMOGs have done) or they need to stop this whole licensing nonsense as it makes no logical sense.

  12. Me? I draw the line when they don’t let me do what I want (’cause a pirate is free).

  13. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Actually,DRM does combat piracy,in a way.I think that many(mostly indy)games that have no DRM would be pirated much more if there were no such dangerous measures by big name publishers.Its that people are just so gratefull that they dont want to harm the publisher that has so much respect for their customers.Which is really weird when you think about it.

    Personally,Id prefer it if customers completelly lost all ownership of games and those became pay/play.True,we wouldnt be able to play our favorites any time we want,especially if publishers go down,but at least wed have only quality games that need to hook you to play them as long as possible.

  14. Tesh says:

    That’s part of why I am more and more annoyed with MMOs as time goes on. The “service” they offer is drastically mispriced, and as they age, they are increasingly just single player games (commodities) that act as clients for instanced multiplayer. This, despite continually charging full price for the “service”.

    The “service” economy mentality of the States is killing the economy (the FIRE sector is a noose around productivity), and it’s killing the game industry. Slowly, perhaps, but that rope is tightening.

    If the game industry went completely pay to play, they would lose me as a customer. I’d just go back and play my stable of classic games, and do everything I could to create indy games to subvert the system.

  15. Oleyo says:

    I totally agree with comment 2. The piracy is just a very convenient excuse for them to “take the gloves off” in limiting resale and also moving the entire industry toward service based pricing. Everyone and their mother wants to charge a monthly fee these days rather than sell a product outright.

    I really feel that we will be buying access to games like cable TV channel’s in the near future, which makes me sad. Gametap and steam do this, and it is a cool concept, for now. Until they start limiting which games come with what “channels” and group them into rediculous packages.

  16. Deoxy says:


    Your first paragraph is a complaint about what other people want and are willing to pay for. Sorry, they like it and pay for it at that price, so you don’t get it any cheaper. I’m in the same boat, but I recognize that other people aren’t me and are entitled to enjoy and pay for stuff that I don’t.

    Your second paragraph is just plain silly. The “service” economy has been a bedrock part of the US economy for decades at least, through good times and bad (mostly the former, to the envy of much of the world, I might add).

  17. Deoxy says:

    Oh, and just for Shamus:

    I’m NOT buying a “license” to a game. I’m buying a game, and after the fact, the company is trying to force me into a license. This is known as “bait and switch” and is ILLEGAL.

    I buy games, not licenses.

  18. Old_Geek says:

    I agree with dlowe. The people who make and distribute games aren’t this stupid. They have another agenda.

  19. MechaCrash says:

    Unfortunately, Supreme Commander violates #2. The disc check it comes with is SecuROM 7, the one that’s in Bioshock and Spore and whatnot. The patch which came out shortly after release did remove the disc check, but what it did not do is remove SecuROM from your system. That damage is already done.

  20. Licaon_Kter says:

    speaking about SecuROM: “Sacred2 DEMO” and “Drakensang: The Dark Eye German Demo” refuse to run on my system because of a “SecuROM service error while starting”

    did not yet try BioShock Demo ( the most known SecuROM packed demo ), but i guess that it won’t run anyway

    maybe complaining that new games have no Demo was not such a great idea… they poisoned these too :(


  21. Primogenitor says:

    Very nice. Succinct and to the point. Now, who are you and what have you done with Shamus and his rambling rants? ;)

    However, I’ve got to call you on this:

    “Movies and music – which sell for $10 to $20 – manage to let the user do as they please with the data”

    Havn’t you overlooked a few things? iTunes, HDMI, Sony rootkits, etc etc True, its not licensed (in most cases), but still DRMed.

  22. Shamus says:

    Primogenitor: I CAN get all of those things without any DRM if I want. I own many movies and a good bit of music, and… well, I OWN it. No DRM.

    True, iTunes is there, but you can avoid it. That’s all I want from videogame publishers. Some people can choose Steam for the universal backup, others can choose a plain old disc for ownership.

  23. JT says:

    I agree with all those whose opinion it is that the true target is eliminating resale. As one who very VERY rarely buys a new game @ retail (seem to be about a year apart; Battlefield 2142 two years ago, Mass Effect last year and Force Unleashed this year), the successful implementation of this strategy (and with the increasing prevalence of internet-connected consoles, it’s only a matter of time before we see some of the same kinds of “registration” restrictions there as we’ve already seen on PC) will affect me quite profoundly.

    I really feel that we will be buying access to games like cable TV channel's in the near future, which makes me sad. Gametap and steam do this, and it is a cool concept, for now. Until they start limiting which games come with what “channels” and group them into ridiculous packages.

    That’s the great thing about the free market. Gametap has X paying customers right now. The second they go to a ridiculous package that doesn’t make sense, chances are they’ll lose a significant portion of their customers, which gives them a chance to go, “Oops! That was dumb!” and correct their mistake.

  24. Vacca says:

    Come on people, DRM obviously works. I mean, “Far Cry 2” hasn’t been cracked yet, so it must work. Oh wait, it’s only released tomorrow.

    As for iTunes, it provides a way around DRM right there in the program. Just burn it to CD and no more DRM.

  25. Tizzy says:

    I second Primogenitor (#21) on that one: we all own DRM-free music and movies, but that will go the way of the dodo if the publishers are given the chance. And they seem pretty busy making the chance happen.

  26. Duoae says:

    @ Vacca.

    It seems like, with all the 360 piracy recently, the pirate ‘clubs’ are targeting console games to make a point to the publishers and developers – that it’s not because the PC is inherently unlocked as a device but that it’s the biggest market. At least that’s what i’m getting from all the early pirate releases of Far Cry 2, Fable 2, Gears 2, etc etc.

    @Tesh, I don’t know i’d agree with your assessment of MMOGs. As a service (from my blog post) its value must either stay static or increase with time. Enjoyment of an MMOG is based on two things: gameplay/content and community. For some people one of those two can override a lacklustre other part but for other people both must be good. MMOGs inherently (in terms of content and gameplay) tend to offer increased value with time in the form of patches and added quests or items (content) though obviously a lack of community can override these positives – but then that’s a person’s preference. Take the example of a phone contract: You keep paying a line rental each month for the same ‘content’ but you are always guaranteed to be able to call other people…. now if no one had a phone then the service would reduce in value and no one would pay. Quite often for mobile phones, to try and keep you as their customer in a highly competitive market, providers will offer you deals that reduce your line rental, add free /voice texts or internet minutes, handsets etc. Currently only some MMOGs go this far (with regards to free expansions – such as COH) but they stick a lot closer to the classic service definition that requires a legally binding contractual license between the two parties.

    The main problem with the games industry treating their products like a service is that they want to release something in a sub-par condition and not provide the aftersale support…. which then gets turned off after a couple of years because their pricing model is for a commodity and not a service. (Talking non-MMOGs here) How many buggy games are not patched? How many games receive more than one patch or support for even up to one year after release? The industry have only themselves to blame for the current state of games and gamer’s attitude to their shenanigans.

  27. K says:

    iTunes sells most of it’s stuff DRM-free, by the way. In exchange, we get HD-stuff which is heavily encrypted and so on. But it still runs without activation. Image if you had to “activate” all your movie-DVDs. Would you buy them? Hell no!

  28. Chris Arndt says:

    How am I not restricted how I use the data on movie DVDs?

  29. R4byde says:

    @Vacca – Check this out. -> As of 8:19 GMT today Farcry 2 for PC has been available for free download! When it says without out the crack, it means the no-cd check, which is also readily available.

  30. Briatx says:

    Numbers 2 and 3 are the biggest factors for me. If the DRM is going to compromise my PC (or I’m afraid it will) I won’t run the game. If you give me a limited number of installs, I might buy the game, but I won’t pay anything like $60 for it, because you’ve significantly diminished its value.

    My only problem with point 3 is that it assumes that if you “owned” the game you would have the right to multiple installations. That’s just not true.

  31. Chris Arndt says:

    I… cannot create back-up copies as I wish!

    Or make play copies on hard drives and use the originals as back-ups to reduce wear and tear on originals.

  32. Jeff says:

    “Actually, you're not buying a game, your buying a license to a game.”

    CBG is in fact, totally wrong. Which makes him not CBG, since CBG at least knows what he’s talking about, as opposed to the ignorance there.
    At least in the US. The 1997 Novell vs Network Trade Centre ruling states:
    “The purchaser is an “owner” by right of sale and is entitled to the use and enjoyment of the software with the same rights as exist in the purchase of any other good.”
    This was upheld in the 2008 Timothy S. Vernor vs Autodesk Inc. judgement.

    How am I not restricted how I use the data on movie DVDs?

    How are you restricted? If you’re going to start talking about reproduction and distribution, I’m going to have to point out that violates Copyright laws and the UCC.
    You’re otherwise (technically) free to copy it to your computer (although if you have to bypass DRM that violates the DMCA, but the DMCA is a piece of crap that got bribed in anyways) or resell it or whatever you like with it.

    My only problem with point 3 is that it assumes that if you “owned” the game you would have the right to multiple installations. That's just not true.

    That’s just not correct. You own it (not “owned” with quotes) and can do whatever you want with it, so long as you don’t violate any laws. (Ie. You own a gun, you can do whatever you want with it, but you still can’t commit murder.)

  33. Briatx says:

    Owning a copy of copyrighted material does not give you a right to make a copy of it. The copyright owner retains all the rights listed in 17 USC Section 106 including the right to make copies (including personal copies that you do not distribute to anyone); prepare derivative works (e.g. making substantial changes to the source code) and distribute copies. Those are things you cannot do, even as an owner.

    BTW, this is why, if you made unauthorized copies of a game the company can go after you for copyright violation under title 17 instead of plain old breach of contract. It’s not the EULA that limits your right to copy, it’s copyright law itself. The EULA grants you the right to make copies, which under US law is a right you would not enjoy as the owner of a copy.

    If you buy a copy you do own it, unless the copy comes with a limited license (A EULA usually counts as a Limited License). U.S. law places such significant restrictions on owners of copies that you’re better off with a license than you would be as an owner.

  34. Vacca says:

    @R4byde – I was actually being sarcastic and facetious about “Far Cry 2”, but it hasn’t been cracked yet. You can download the DVD image, if you’re so inclined, but it wont run as the Securerom protection is still in place. I fully expect it to be cracked in the next two days though.

  35. Briatx says:

    I should say that I don’t think these are the rights owners *should* have. I think all non-commercial personal copying should be non-infringing or at least fair use. You can certainly make the argument that it’s fair use now, and a court may or may not accept the defense depending on circumstances.

    Congress has explicitly protected the right to make some personal copies of audio recordings, though I think the DMCA effectively stops that if there’s any copy protection on the CD. I think that’s a case where DRM is clearly limiting rights that have been granted to the buyer by statute.

  36. RR says:

    I already draw the line at #2. I don’t want hidden malware installed behind my back. While prominently labelling the box with the fact that SecuROM is present – and a description of what it does, for those who are uninformed – would be a start: I won’t be happy until SecuROM and its ilk are completely re-engineered from the ground up.

    Steam and Impulse are forms of DRM that I’m willing to tolerate, because they’re completely upfront about what they do. Not to mention, they’re far less restrictive and less annoying.


    It seems like, with all the 360 piracy recently, the pirate “˜clubs' are targeting console games to make a point to the publishers and developers – that it's not because the PC is inherently unlocked as a device but that it's the biggest market. At least that's what i'm getting from all the early pirate releases of Far Cry 2, Fable 2, Gears 2, etc etc.

    Yes, I’m very much getting the same impression. As of late, the “scene” seems to be deliberately pushing 360 releases as soon as possible, while withholding PC ones until the last minute.

    I never thought I’d cheer pirate groups, but I have to admit that I’m glad to see them doing this. I want them to teach companies like EA and Epic a lesson, after talking trash about PC gamers.

  37. Jeff says:

    Yes, hence why I pointed out that ownership doesn’t mean you can violate other laws (ie. Copyright).

    Eh, every time the EULA has actually been in an enforceable position – ie. in the courts – every part that isn’t already covered in Copyright or the UCC has been voided. The few times it has been upheld is if it’s already covered in existing laws. The only exceptions to this are, as far as I know, two cases, which as yet remain unresolved (initial rulings were in favor of EULA, contrary to every other ruling, and it subsequently got bumped up a level in the courts, remaining unresolved.)

  38. RR says:

    Oh, by the way. Has anyone seen Sony’s new Terms of Service for the PS3? It ain’t pretty.

    DRM: Coming soon to a console near you.

  39. Briatx says:

    That’s flat out not true. For one example (among many) see the WoWGlider decision from this year (MDY Industries, LLC v. Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. et al.).

    Court enforced the sections of the EULA and the TOS that banned bots. Then they went one (somewhat ridiculous) step farther and held that (1) violating the TOS voided the license and (2)therefore running the game while using Glider constituted infringement.

    On a related note: I’ve been thinking about running an experiment. I want to go to a store, buy some cheap piece of software, open it, and then try to return it because I don’t agree with the EULA. I wonder if I could get anyone (retailer or publisher) to give me my money back? My theory is that I could, but that it would take significant time (maybe more than 1 month)…

    (And sorry for commenting all over your excellent blog Shamus, I’m having a slow day.)

  40. the_JJ says:

    The problem here is that you don’t really own the software. You own whatever you pay for. No when you ask ‘do I own this or not’ the answer is ‘: (‘

  41. T-Boy says:

    Security and ownership is where I draw the line, really.

    And I love the doctrine of first sale. Companies want to take that away from me? Well then, screw ’em.

  42. Yonder says:

    I’ve said this before, but I may as well say it again. I think if we were being honest with ourselves it wouldn’t matter whether we were buying the game or the “license to play the game” because it seems like the “license to play the game” which we bought and own, can be gifted, or resold, as with all of our other purchases. No matter what you call it the first sale doctrine should stand.

  43. vcdaniels says:

    I’ll have to agree that Ownership is a huge problem. Just check out any of Lone Wolf’s software.

  44. Danny says:

    1. Convenience. Not my number 1 priority, and won’t stop me buying a game. If it gets too onerous I’ll go and find a crack to remove the disk check or whatever.
    2. Security. If I hear serious rumours of security problems (e.g. Starforce) I won’t even try the demo. Sale lost.
    3. Ownership. I’m happy to buy a game as long as I can get ownership of it too, even if that means getting a crack to let it run without online checks. If it won’t run without online activation I won’t buy it until I know there’s a crack.

    DRM is a bug, so the first thing you gotta do is patch it! Who cares what the EULA says. Once it’s over a page they can’t reasonably expect anyone to read it. You know you have to click “Agree” to play, so there’s no need to read it. (I occasionally read them for games from an Indi publisher, occasionally they say something sensible.)

  45. Fenix says:

    That new ToS from sony is pretty scary. Gotta tell a few friends about it before they get locked up.

  46. Barron says:

    Once I heard about Spore’s DRM I promised myself I wouldn’t buy it because I couldn’t bring myself to support the $60 rental. Ironically, I DID end up getting it for free because my boss bought it and couldn’t get it to run on either of his computers so he gave it to me out of frustration. While it works fine, I was a bit disappointed by the game itself. I don’t know if the DRM saved EA any money, but it sure saved ME money! I loved Crysis, I wonder if I can get someone to give me their broken copy of FarCry 2?

    More on-topic, I think it’s been mentioned, but while I would be tempted to draw the line at #3, I am generally willing to put up with it in the case of the likes of Steam given the convenience. It does eliminate the inconvenience of no-cd cracks and patch problems of piracy and is faster to boot. Steam > piracy > retail. I wonder if, when Steam eventually shuts down, the games will be “unlocked” so that they can still be played for as long as they reside on our PCs even after the central servers are shut down? I can dream, can’t I?

  47. Thirith says:

    Good post. I did think in the past that your criticism of DRM was getting a bit hysterical, but this is well written, intelligent and accurate.

    I think the one thing that I’ll never get is how it’s so difficult for publishers to understand that DRM, however discrete or overt it is, rarely if ever hinders any pirates. If it does hurt anyone, it’s legitimate customers. It’s just as non-sensical as those anti-piracy ads at the beginning of DVDs. Point 3 on your list remains largely abstract for me and therefore doesn’t hurt me (yet – I may very well be cursing and swearing with the best of them if company X goes bottom up and I can’t play certain games any more), but I do boggle at the stupidity of publishers in this respect.

  48. Jeff says:

    You have to note the difference however, is that WoW is a license, where as we own the software here.

    As for returning software, you can. Someone sued Microsoft over it, and iirc, Microsoft settled out of court rather than face serious contest and potential charges violating… ugh, can’t recall the act now. It’s “The ‘Something’ Act” where it’s somebody’s name, dealing with fair trade or something.

    The problem here is that you don't really own the software. You own whatever you pay for.
    Uh, which is the software. We own the software… have you missed the thread software?

  49. Kevonovitch says:

    all DRM and secuRom and such do is provide one question:

    how will you bypass this to play my game today?

    the answer (in general) key gens, no cd keys, and ofcourse, bittorrent ^_^

    when all else fails, dont buy, steal, but dont get caught :P

  50. MaxEd says:

    The only kind of protection that cannot be broken is the “Elusive Joe” protection. I don’t know if this joke is present in English, but here in Russia it goes like this:

    Two cowboys sit in a saloon. They see through the window a man on a horse, galloping at incredible speed through the town. One cowboy asks “Who’s that?”, and the other answers “The Elusive Joe”. “Why nobody can catch him, is it because he’s so fast?” asks first. “No, that’s because nobody gives a damn about him”.

    The best thing a developer could do, in my opinion, is to make friends with their community of players. Friends would not pirate a game even if it’s totally unprotected. As for the rest of the world – developer shouldn’t bother – they may pay, or download for free – but it won’t be “a lost sale”, but “a gained sale”, which is good :) But if you alienate yourself from players by behaving like jerk and treating your players, you would-be friends as suspicious people – you get what you deserver.

  51. Felblood says:

    Really, this “License not Sale Fiction”, smacks of trying to have your game and sell it, too.

    If a developer wants to sell me a license to use a copy of the software, instead of selling me software, I demand that he claim every copy in circulation on his property taxes. He owns it; it’s his property.

    Paying taxes on what is supposedly a few billion dollars worth of software, every year until the end of time, just might be daunting enough to make even EA rethink their dogma.

    At the least they might admit that the monetary value of a game generally depreciates with time.

  52. JKjoker says:

    Vacca wrote :Come on people, DRM obviously works. I mean, “Far Cry 2″³ hasn't been cracked yet, so it must work. Oh wait, it's only released tomorrow.

    actually, ive seen both a crack and a clonedvd version of farcry 2 for pc already, dated yesterday.

  53. J SMith says:

    As much as I don’t like 1 and I an worried by 2 (I can live with 2 as I don’t have an Internet connection @ home) its 3 Ownership that stops me from buying games.

    Anything that requires online activation of either the game or subsequent patches is a no no to me. Not only because I can not use the product at home but because I refuse to go crawling to a publisher every time I want to run/install the game. As far as I am concerned I have paid good money for the product and that is all that should matter.

    I can live with serials (I can even live with having to register on a web site to access the patches (But not the Impulse/Steam way of doing things as they stop me from installing/patching games offline)) but activation are where I draw the line.

    Note: I have nothing against Impulse/Steam in principal, but do find it incredibly annoying that they discriminate against people that do not fit their model of business. Especially when you can not get the game anywhere else.

    It's a pity that there is not a site like GOG.COM dedicated to new games, or at least games that are older then a year and are past their prime sales wise.

  54. Eric Meyer says:

    I’d be interested to know how MMOs fit into your three evils, Shamus. Those seem like the ultimate rentals to me, games that are by design set up so that you never own them and can only be permitted to play them wherever and whenever so long as you keep forking over cash without end. But maybe I’m looking at them from the wrong angle (and as someone who doesn’t play MMOs, that’s easily possible).

  55. Daemian Lucifer says:


    You know,thats an excelent idea.One really should report it to the IRS.Imagine what theyd do for the prospect of so much money.

    Eric Meyer:

    “I'd be interested to know how MMOs fit into your three evils, Shamus. Those seem like the ultimate rentals to me, games that are by design set up so that you never own them and can only be permitted to play them wherever and whenever so long as you keep forking over cash without end. But maybe I'm looking at them from the wrong angle (and as someone who doesn't play MMOs, that's easily possible).”

    Actually,you are looking at it the wrong way.With MMOs wheter you own the software or not is irrelevant,since its essentially useless.So you arent paying dor the software.What you are paying for is the maintenance of the servers,whithout which thered be no game.

  56. Segev Stormlord says:

    Hm. Several points. I think I’ll address them in reverse order of how they came up in the comments:

    Regarding MMORPGs, they truly -are- a service you are paying for, more than a product. Think if it like an exclusive club, a gaming association or somesuch with a specific rulebook or costume requirement. You have to buy the rule book or a costume or something before you qualify for entry into their club, and once you’re a member, you have to pay dues periodically to remain a member. The best corrolaries I can think of are SCA or any of White Wolf’s LARP organizations. To some extent, the RPGA (Wizards of the Coast’s gaming organization) is similar, as you have to be a member to play in any of their “living” campaigns.

    In each case, you own any costumes, rulebooks, dice, etc. you may purchase as part of being able to play in the “club’s” game, but to actually -play-, you’re paying the club to keep it up and running. That’s the fundamental difference between MMOs and “normal” games. If you buy a game with single-player options, you kind of expect to -own- the game, so you can enjoy it on your own time, without having to go pay a “club” or go over to a gaming store to verify your membership in good standing before you can play solitaire in your own home.

    Tangentially, that’s the thing that really annoys me about online activation and/or online -verification-. I don’t do a lot of online play of -anything-, so if I buy a game, I don’t expect to have to have a functioning internet connection to play it. If I buy a single-player game, I darned well want to be able to boot it up and play it even if, say, a storm has KO’d my internet, or I’m using my laptop over at my grandparents’ house with no access to internet.

    Regarding consoles vs. PCs, I can think of two compelling points about consoles: 1) a console always has the same hardware, every time somebody purchases it. This means that games only have to be made for a given -console- and it works on all of them. 2) For the most part, consoles have always (and still do) simply use the “have disk, will play” form of DRM. Some are a bit over-the-top in their methods of ensuring it’s a “real” disk and not a fake one, but in the end, you have to have the disk to play the game. Also, unless you’re doing online play of some sort, you don’t need internet to -play- console games.

    Those are very attractive points of consoles, for me. My computer is not only perpetually behind-the-curve hardware-wise, but I often a) have a ton running on it, and b) want to be able to take brief breaks from games to check things running on it. This means that not only can I not reliably play many video games on my PC, but they monopolize something I prefer to have available even while gaming. Consoles solve both problems for me: it’s a separate piece of equipment, and it’ll play anything I buy that’s made for it.

    Which brings me, finally, to a last point: Consoles remain, as far as I can tell, much harder to pirate games on. If nothing else, the limited hard drive space coupled with the ton of data on a given console game’s disk means a direct “disk-less” pirate copy is hard to get via the internet and store, at a minimum, and prohibitive in general as you can only store so many on a console’s HD. Talented pirates can produce copies of disks that can be burned to DVD after downloading them via the internet, but this requires additional time and effort on the part of the receiving pirate. Moreover, almost all pirate copies of game disks are flaky at best.

    So, what’s my point? Little, really, except that, to me, consoles are good for both customer and company in terms of gaming. They’re harder to pirate on, harder to put truly onerous DRM on, and more reliably stable for running games created for their platform. They’re reason #1 for me to support “do you have a legit disk?” DRM as the only real way to go, with -possibly- “can you find the bunny on page Fnoo of the manual” as a valid alternative. Yes, disks can be burned, and virtual disks completely neuter it, tragically, but at least that’s doing nothing more than trying to ensure the user has a physical copy of what came in the box.

    Ownership, Shamus’s point #3, is my last point, as well. It’s a really sticky issue with software and other forms of digital data. Compare a board game or a card game to a video game. If I buy Monopoly, I get a box with a board, some dice, some cards, and all the pieces. I can pull it out and play it with my friends whenever I like. If I grow tired of it, I can give it away or sell it to my buddy who really still likes it, or to my neighbor whose kid is just getting interested in it. If I buy, say, “PacMan 29, Revenge of the Ghosts,” a fictional new videogame that we’ll say came out two years ago, I have a nice box with a DVD and a manual inside. Leaving aside DRM garbage, I can put this on my computer and play, opening it whenever I want. In theory, I can sell the box, along with DVD and manual and stuff, to my neighbor whose kid is just getting interested. But if I don’t need the disk to play (either because the game itself doesn’t require it, or I made a virtual disk), I’ve now gifted or sold something…without losing anything.

    Why couldn’t I do this with my Monopoly game? Well…I could. I could create the board, carve little figurines, write up the cards, and buy or make a couple of dice, and put it all in a box to give away or sell. It wouldn’t look at nice as the professionally-made things, but often pirated works – at least their physical representations – don’t, either. The difference here is -effort-. Each copy of monopoly takes a lot of effort to make. At worst, a pirated piece of software took effort on the front end to “crack,” and is now as easy as hitting “copy” or burning to a disk (or sending via bittorrent).

    I know most of us grasp that last point intuitively, but I felt it bore repetition, because sometimes we forget -why- game publishers get their knickers in such a twist over it. It’s not as simple as resales costing them new customers (though they do; when I sell or give away my monopoly because I’m never going to play again, Parker Bros. never sees the money that the guy I gave it to might otherwise have spent on a new one); it’s their worry that people are making copies to give away, and -not losing access to their original copy-. In the monopoly example, if I want the game again, I have to go back out and buy a new one (or buy a resale, myself, depriving somebody else of that copy). With copied software (not legitemate, I-gave-my-disk-and-stuff-to-the-new-owner trade), if I want to play again after all, I just reload my still-extant copy.

    Consoles, as I said, are slightly more immune to this just by virtue of needing the disk -just to have the information on it available- to play the game. Perhaps “you need the disk” DRM would be more effective in PCs if the game designers took the policy of reducing on-HD storage space by making the game fully playable with miniscule installation, directly from DVD. It wouldn’t stop those who rip and make virtual DVDs, or even direct DVD copies, but it would provide a benefit to the legit customer: it saves space on his HD, and he didn’t have to go to the effort of burning off a pirated DVD (which, for those who aren’t relatively computer savvy, can be tricky to do correctly).

    That, I think, is ultimately what publishers need to do with their “DRM” protection to make it more effective. Make it a matter of -convenience- to the legit customer. Make all the hassles be inherent to trying to get around the DRM, not to trying to comply with it. To use Shamus’s old Movie Theater analogy, if instead of strip-searching everybody who goes in to make sure they aren’t sneaking in with a fake ticket, and requiring them to submit to a tattoo on their back identifying them as legitimate customers while the pirates sneak in nice and easily, sans tattoos or searches, through the back door, the movies were all 3D with special feature surround-sound that you could only get the full effect of from fancy glasses and headphones given gratis at the door through which legit customers pass, leaving back-door-sneakers having to scramble to find a way to create their own or just having to put up with an incomplete movie (and having to endure the discomfort of sneaking in rather than the smooth and pleasant experience the theater is striving to give to those who are legit), piracy would clean itself up relatively well.

    It wouldn’t eliminate it, but it’s amazing how many pirates would decide it’s worth actually paying to be legit when all the convenience and -fully functional product- with minimal hassle goes to those who have paid.

    In short, treat legit customers as valued, give them good service in your product, and strive to have the very nature of the product be incomplete or annoying to make so if you don’t have the legit stuff. It won’t stop a dedicated pirate, and won’t get you money he might have paid you, but at least it’s only those who are truly -dedicated- and willing to put more effort than the money to buy it is worth into it that are doing it. Most consumers follow the path of least resistance. Take advantage of that.

  57. R4byde says:

    @R4byde – I was actually being sarcastic and facetious about “Far Cry 2″³, but it hasn't been cracked yet. You can download the DVD image, if you're so inclined, but it wont run as the Securerom protection is still in place. I fully expect it to be cracked in the next two days though.

    I realize that, I just thought it was worth pointing out anyway, and it is cracked. I just didn’t want to get Shamus in trouble by direct linking the site, not that I’d pirate it in the first place. ;)

  58. Vacca says:

    @R4byde – Don’t worry, I have no idea where you pirate stuff from, and I don’t use torrents. I got my info from a forum. I have no problem bypassing any protection methods so that I can play my games the way I want to, but I buy the game, only after a crack has appeared.

  59. Vacca says:

    JKjoker – My understanding is that none of those work.

  60. Erkenbrand says:

    I recently have enjoyed World of Goo, whose developers have released the game DRM-free.

    Interestingly, they are also releasing the game on Steam, D2D, and Greenhouse. I don’t know about the latter two’s protection schemes, but obviously Steam has its log-on-to-play system. It’ll be interesting to see if this “two system” approach works, and, if given the option, users prefer the DRM-free version.

    Granted, their development house consists of two people, but the game has been receiving wide critical acclaim, and it’s one more for the good guys.

  61. Steve C says:

    @11 Duoae:
    I agree with your premise and supporting arguments you made on your blog. I think you made a couple of errors however;
    1) Reverse engineering is legal. That’s why PCs are called “IBM Clones”. Compaq reverse engineered IBMs BIOS to kick off the industry. (Google “reverse engineer IBM clone”) Reverse Engineering is one of the cornerstones of human understanding and civilization. Someone builds a bow. Someone else sees the bow kill a deer and builds a better bow.

    2) You put “rights” in quotes. I don’t know where you live, but are you absolutely sure there are no rights of resale in your country? It is not a Right (capitalized) in the sense of Free Speech etc, but it is still a right protected by law. For copyrighted materials it is called the “First-sale doctrine” and the more general “Privity of contract.” Resale rights are a formal right protected by law.

    @ BriatxMDY vs Blizzard isn’t over. I know of the July 2008 ruling, but it’s not over by a long shot.

  62. Cybron says:

    Fellblood: That’s a beautiful idea. It’s also the only thing I can imagine that would make publishers stop the nonsense.

  63. Spam Vader says:

    So far as I’m concerned, the true evil of DRM is turning you from a person with, more often that not, a refreshing breath of optimism into just another uninteresting, unoriginal, faceless member of the internet hate machine who, like all such people, is more annoying than informative.

    Fight the DRM’s influence Shamus. Don’t let yourself become like that.

  64. J SMith says:

    ‘buy’ the game you are only buying a client as the majority of the game word is controlled/contained on a server somewhere. Without the server the client is useless. Therefore I don’t think its unreasonable to charge a monthly fee for this because its a completely different concept from most games.

    What I do find objectionable is charging for the client initially. This really is cheeky as they well know that without the monthly fee the client is useless.

  65. Adeon says:

    @J SMith

    I don’t really see the charging for a client as an issue. As others have noted it’s a service and plenty of other services are setup so that you pay a different fee at first then you do later on (i.e. cell phones). Admittedly in most of those cases they are charging you less at first in order to get you hooked into their service but that is at least partly because they have to. If you want a cell phone there are many companies that offer reasonably comparable service, but there is only one World of Warcraft.

    As others have said it’s basically an exclusive club you bay an initial membership fee to join then regular dues to remain a member.

  66. Flying Dutchman says:

    I bought Spore, it’s fun for a few hours, but that’s it. Three install limits, and I will only use one of them.

    I’m willing to tolerate DRM and having to log on as a client, enter some CD-key and other crap to play a game, because I am an impulse buyer. I think I’ll like the game, then I’ll buy it. But the game must be good! And that’s where it usually blows up in my face.

    @ Spam Vader; dude, just skip the posts with DRM as subject and you’ll be back in rainbow happy sunshine bunnyland.

  67. John SMith says:

    “but there is only one World of Warcraft” …. very true.

  68. NBSRDan says:

    Everyone with standards should boycott online activation, since, if you think about it, online activation actually breaks all three rules alone.

    CD checks obviously break convenience by forcing the user to maintain and position a disc that they otherwise could have thrown in the garbage. This is not to be confused with games that simply leave necessary data on the disc (e.g. StarCraft, console games). The latter has the benefit of leaving free hard disk space (albeit not a benefit most people find worthwhile).
    The risk involved in checking the identity of and/or retrieving data from a CD is negligible, so security is not compromised.
    If you own the game then clearly you own the disc it came on, so your ownership is questioned, but not challenged.

    Forcing the user to input a serial number and/or license key is a bit worse than CD checks.
    Convenience is once again broken, though not as badly since entering codes generally only applies to install rather than each run attempt.
    Security is clearly not compromised, since license codes are not a script that the game will try to run, or even a script at all.
    However, a license key is actually a challenge of ownership. Most license keys come on or in the jewel case, or in the manual. Neither of said items are required for possession of the game disc itself. Even if some keys are on the CD label, they can still be scratched off, drawn over, or faded over time, while leaving the data side perfectly intact, but not your ability to install.

    Install limits is second worst scheme yet devised. It reduces convenience, and unambiguously denies ownership, but leaves security intact.
    Convenience is broken by forcing the user to be cautious about internal hardware exchange and installation on multiple machines.
    Security is still okay with install limits, only leaving a little mark where the rest of your applications are currently anchored.
    Ownership is entirely revoked. Though with no definitive return deadline, install limits mean rental. It also means that each installation reduces the value of the game disc.

    Where the rest were ambiguous, online activation breaks them all, even the previously untamed security.
    Convenience is broken by forcing the user to connect their computer to an Ethernet port or wireless receiver, correct any stubborn firewall or proxy settings, have a modem, have a router, power on and connect the two last mentioned, and pay for bandwidth, where they otherwise would not have had to. Most computer users do all of that anyway, but by choice. Also, in this age of laptops, you have to make sure to get the proper connections checked before taking it away from home, or find an internet hot-spot afterward.
    You know what the easiest way to get a virus (aside from installing a recent EA or 2k game) is? Connecting to the internet. Sure, you can disable or even uninstall all of your anti-malware software, but if there’s nothing connecting you to the outside, the virus won’t get the chance. Forcing a ‘net connection is the greatest possible single security breach.
    As for ownership, if the publisher has the power to revoke your ownership at any time, then they already have. Owning something but with the “ownership” able to be revoked by someone else is called renting something or borrowing something.

    It still perplexes me to this day as to why you tolerate Steam. Steam involves online activation- actually, it requires a ‘net connection every time you ask to play– thus achieving all three evils at once.

  69. silver Harloe says:

    > Image if you had to “activate” all your movie-DVDs. Would you buy them? Hell no!


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