DRM in the Mirrorverse

By Shamus
on Apr 1, 2009
Filed under:
Video Games

So, EA is issuing a revoke tool for their DRM infected games, and swearing off online activation in the future. In the meantime, a system of online activation is being introduced by… Stardock?!?!

This is like finding out they’re going to start charging for Ubuntu, and Microsoft is going open source. This is not an April fool’s joke, although today seems like an appropriate time to post news like this.

Topic for discussion: HOLY CRAP WHAT IN THE NAME OF SPOCK’S BEARD IS GOING ON, I MEAN REALLY?!?!

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From the Archives:

  1. OddlucK says:

    “This is not an April fool’s joke, although today seems like an appropriate time to post news like this.”

    Maybe it’s not YOUR April Fool’s Day joke, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t someone’s. In short, I’ll believe it when I see it. :)

  2. Nostromo says:

    The end is nigh. These are signs.

  3. Guus says:

    Yesterday I was looking for info on Cthulhu out of curiosity, and now this…hmm…

  4. Claire says:

    My understanding was that this just meant that you can de-authorize a computer from using the game, “getting back” one of your limited number of installs.

  5. Karizma says:

    EA’s gotten a lot of flack, and from what I remember reading Stardock’s Bill of Rights, they weren’t AGAINST DRM, but they didn’t like the way it was being done. I’m not surprised at all really.

    Though I am surprised EA of all companies is claiming they will do something nice.

  6. Eric says:

    Does… does this mean I can rescind my oath to not buy EA’s games? Can I play The Sims 3 and Dragon Age: Origins now?

    Wow. This really does feel like The End Is Nigh.

  7. Wood says:

    Dragon Age! Dragon Age! Sims 3! Dragon Age!

  8. Groboclown says:

    @Claire: Yes, this is right. It’s not EA getting rid of DRM, it’s EA allowing people to de-activate an install so they can install it again on another PC.

  9. Guus says:

    And that is just the one install? Not more?

  10. Primogenitor says:

    Well, it is also EA saying they wont use online DRM in future, e.g. Sims 3 Still using “key” DRM though.

  11. Zel says:

    If it’s true, the second-hand market says “Thank you”.

  12. LintMan says:

    That boingboing article is misleading. EA’s “deauthorization” tool is really just a generic tool to revoke an installation of a game on a machine. You could already do this with some of EA’s install-limited games, and all it does is give you one of your activations back.

    In other words, it’s absolutely not at all removing the DRM from the game – it just lets you uninstall and then reinstall eleswhere without losing an activation.

    The BBC article, though, is good news, at least if EA extends their new policy to more than just The Sims 3. The Sims is their lifeblood moneymaker, though, and they may just be afraid of another Spore-type DRM crapstorm ruining its debut. Less critical games may not get the same treatment.

    Stardock’s move is disappointing, but they were never really against online activation – you always needed to do that anyway if you ever wanted to patch your game, which, god knows you definitely need to do with Stardock games. The one positive I saw is that Stardock actually was trying to address one issue that ALWAYS seems to get overlooked: not being able to resell/trade/give away the games you’ve purchased. No mention of it is to be found even in Stardock’s “Gamer’s Bill of Rights”. But they claim this DRM would “open the door” to allowing you to resell your games. Who knows what “open the door” actually means, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

    The description of how their new DRM works is a bit vague, though. They say it’s tied to the user and not the hardware, and online activation is only required once. If it’s not tied to the hardware, does that mean I can activate the game on one machine, and then make a copy and play it on another without needing to go back online to activate it on the new machine? That seems unlikely.

  13. Froody says:

    They probably realized Sims 3 would sell millions of copies anyway, so they decided they might just as well use that fact for some good publicity :P

    Plus, Sims 3’s target audience isn’t really the ‘hardcore gamers who pirate a lot anyway.

  14. Shamus says:

    LintMan: Actually, my best guess from reading the article is that yes, you should be able to copy the game from A to B and still have it run. If this is the sort of DRM I’m thinking of, then the product will probably say, “This product is registered to Joe Gamer” on startup. So, you can pass it around, but it will have your name on it. That means you could loan the game to a buddy or install on all of your computers no problem, but you wouldn’t want to post it on the net for all.

    It’s not any more effective at stopping piracy, but its less hassle than BioShock et al.

    I strongly suspect this is being done to placate would-be customers of Impulse. Stardock wants people to use their platform, and I imagine a lot of them insist on having some sort of DRM because, “Otherwise people will pirate it!”

    So the system is more about marketing than genuine security, for all the dunderheads who don’t get how piracy works. I could be wrong. Maybe Stardock really does feel this will reduce piracy.

  15. R4byde says:

    The only thing that could make this day weirder would be receiving a writing assignment in my Pre-Calc class and math homework from my English class.

    Who reversed the polarity of everything all of a sudden?! Is this the nefarious scheme by some horrible villian? :/

  16. Factoid says:

    I always suspected this would happen eventually with Impulse. Brad Wardell isn’t opposed to DRM on the grounds of principle, he’s opposed to it in business terms. He believes it costs more money than it saves or earns.

    But the equation is different when you’re publishing games for others who feel differently. Now he also has to figure in lost distribution revenue from games that otherwise would have been on your service because DRM was a must-have feature for them.

    And if you’re going to develop a DRM platform for other companies to use on your service, you are probably going to use it yourself because you already spent the time developing it…might as well get some benefit out of it, plus then it looks like what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    And shamus: If the product works as you describe I would still buy it, DRM and all…because I can back up the unlocked copy to disk and reinstall in the future regardless if Stardock is still in business. Would that still make it unacceptable to you? I mean after all it’s a digital download, you had to go online once anyway, so a true one-time activation is only a minor inconvenience.

    • Shamus says:

      Factoid: Assuming the plan works the way we’re discussing, no I don’t personally have a problem with it, since my purchase can outlive the company. I know some people WILL object. I respect that. I’ve always said that everyone has a slightly different point where they draw the line.

  17. Dys says:

    The EA ‘DRM removal tool’ will ‘search your drives for EA games .. with .. DRM .. and help you download their respective individual de-activation tools.’

    Which isn’t much of a tool. In fact add/remove programs and google would likely be about as useful.

    I dunno what Stardock’s doing, something odd, but it says it’s online activation. I know you don’t like that any more than other DRM, but given that Impulse is a digital distribution platform it’s not as if it’s doing anything exceptional.

  18. Julian says:

    I find the kitten theme to be less terrifying than this. That’s something.

  19. LintMan says:

    @Shamus – If Stardock’s new DRM works as you think, that would be nice, but I wonder how it could permit users to “give up” their license so that they could resell it to someone else. After all, someone could unlock their software, make a copy, then later revoke their license so they could resell the software, but they’d still have the copy they could continue using wherever they wanted.

    I also wonder if all the software patches would somehow be incorporated into their GOO DRM, or if you’d still need separate online validation to get those. For me, being able to play GalCiv2 10 years from now will be less desirable if I could only play the original 1.0 release of it.

    @Dys – Just removing the software with Add/Remove software for whatever reason does not automatically give you an activation back – it still counts as an install even if it isn’t anymore.

  20. chabuhi says:

    I’m with you, Shamus.

    So long as I can play my game (in theory) 20 years after the company has gone belly up, or even 2 days after I’ve lost my internet connection for non-payment? I’m good.

    I’m good.

  21. A different Dan says:

    @LintMan:

    If the license is linked to the user, not the specific install, then Stardock need only concern itself with changing the database entry.

    The way I’d set it up is require that both buyer and seller have an account with Stardock. The seller then instructs Stardock to transfer the license to the buyer.

    That doesn’t address the “can still play the unregistered copy” aspect, but I’m with Shamus in suspecting it was never intended to actually counter piracy.

  22. LintMan says:

    @A different Dan: Perhaps you’re right that it’s all about providing the illusion of security (which is really all any DRM does, in the end). But my question about “can still play the unregistered copy” is the exact one that the game sellers that Impulse wants to attract will ask, and for whom the whole point of having DRM is intended to reassure. If the “illusion” is that easy to pierce, I’m not sure anyone’s going to be sold on it.

  23. Lupis42 says:

    I’m actually highly in favor of this Stardock DRM-esque idea. I was sufficiently opposed to Steam that I refused to play a Valve game. (Until they… made Portal and my resolve collapsed, but that’s not the point) But it strikes me that this DRM (as described) does *nothing* to prevent the user from copying it at all, it merely ensures that copies are identifiable as *mine*, thus making think carefully before just giving a copy out. But I can loan it to anyone I trust, resell it if I see fit, back it up, put it on every computer I sit in front of, and it will just keep working.

    • Shamus says:

      More on the proposed system: Yes, it gives the illusion of security. Yes, the illusion is easily pierced. But we’re talking about people who think that DRM reduces piracy. This is not true. If they understood the issue, they wouldn’t want DRM in the first place. Their ignorance of why DRM is impossible is also the ignorance that will prohibit them from differentiating between this system and others. (shhhh!)

      Remember that Stardock likes to issue regular patches & upgrades. If the game can only be registered to one person at a time, then only one person can get those yummy improvements. I install the game and unlock it on my machine. Then I back it up. Then I transfer ownership to (say) Lupis42. I sneakily continue to play my backup copy even though I no longer have the rights to it. But then the 1.6 patch of Awesome Addons comes out, and Lupis can connect to Impulse and get it. I can’t. (Of course, Lupis could make a backup and send it to me if we’re buddies. But then we’re talking about casual piracy between friends, which is technologically indistinguishable from one guy installing the same game on more than one computer.)

      Disclaimer: This is all assuming I’m understanding Goo. And we’re working from a press release, here. Not exactly a technical document.

  24. DaveMc says:

    Hmm. If the Stardock DRM is as described, it sort of reminds me of Apple’s DRM for iTunes: probably designed to look good to non-technical people who need to be placated if you want them to sell through your online service, rather than designed to thwart copying. (Apple’s “protection” had a glaring hole, accessible to anyone with a CD drive: burn your songs to a disk, rerip them as MP3s, and presto: no-DRM versions of all your songs. At 10 songs per disk and 20 cents per CD, I always figured it effectively added about two cents to the price of iTunes music. But it allowed Apple to have something to show to music execs.)

    Obviously, Stardock’s protection won’t prevent, or even mildly slow down, anyone wishing to pirate the games, for the usual reason: the pirated versions won’t perform the online activation check. (Or they’ll strip out the identifying information from an already-authorized copy, thus removing the tracking functionality. Or whatever — days at the most before that’s all worked out and no pirate will ever experience the slightest nuisance from it.) At least it seems less intrusive for actual paying customers than most such schemes, and it gives Stardock something to point to when trying to soothe game publishers.

    [Edit: is it possible that this really is an April Fool’s on Stardock’s part? The name (GOO) is pretty whimsical, though so is Stardock at times . . . Maybe by announcing it on a day other than April 1, they’re doing a double-bluff bank-shot April Fool’s joke, and any day now we’ll hear that they were just kidding.]

  25. Jamie says:

    It would appear hell has frozen over…

  26. July says:

    But… that’s not… you can’t…

    Brrgh.

  27. neriana says:

    “Plus, Sims 3’s target audience isn’t really the ‘hardcore gamers who pirate a lot anyway.”

    You’d be surprised. I’ve seen more acceptance of piracy in the Sims 2 community than in any other gaming community I’ve been in. The bugginess of the game, combined with EA’s stellar lack of customer service, and their seeming alliance with a paysite which violates customer privacy and EA’s own EULA, makes a lot of people really not care about EA’s bottom line. A lot of teenagers who are used to downloading music and movies play the game. Plus pirating is easy and free, you don’t have to have a stellar computer to do it, or a lot of technical knowhow: just an internet connection.

    The only way companies can prevent piracy is by putting out good products and having good customer relations. Of course, that won’t stop all of it by any means. I know a lot of people who started either started pirating EA’s games or simply stopped playing them to protest EA’s lack of ethics or care for the community, though. It would help if EA would put out good games that aren’t completely riddled with bugs that the community has to fix to make the game playable, too.

  28. MuonDecay says:

    This might be because the FTC is considering regulations on the use of DRM in consumer software (as well as standardizing EULAs). Maybe EA is just gearing up to keep their butts covered in the event that such a thing happens, to decrease the likelihood of being sued for the vast sum of money they deserve to be sued for.

    Potentially, it may be required by law in the future that DRM is disclosed in detail on the outside of game packaging and there may be regulations on what the DRM is or isn’t allowed to do to computers that the software publisher doesn’t fucking own and never did.

    About damn time.

  29. MRL says:

    Neat…looks like I may be able to get Brutal Legend after all.

  30. Tooth-Tooth says:

    I pirated

  31. Ron says:

    Did anyone else notice that the bullet points for Goo are 1, 3, and 5?

  32. Marauder says:

    Too bad it still requires activation (even if it can now be easily de-activated). Though, while I have not yet verified with my credit card, it does look like the Steam version of RA3 is sans activation… Can anyone verify this?

  33. JKjoker says:

    its funny how since the spore thing now it seems like DRM is just online activation, they keep using titles like “xx drops/drumps/eliminates drm” and stuff
    HELLO!?! disk checks are still DRM, the games will still bitch about your nero dvd emulator/daemon tools/etc or if you have more than 1 drive or if you have some unusual hardware

    “EA ‘dumps DRM’ for next Sims game” if freaking misleading, a more accurate title would have been “EA ‘rolls back DRM’ for next Sims game”

  34. Musoeun says:

    @Chris Wellons:

    No, they’re not charging for Ubuntu. If you look at the price tags, they’re basically selling you a CD at-cost which has Ubuntu on it. And they only do it in bulk because otherwise it doesn’t even pretend to pay for itself.

    The DVDs are a bit pricier, true.

  35. Maldeus says:

    April fools!

  36. Dave says:

    Stardock has always had ‘activation’ in their products. Not on the CD admittedly but on the updates. All of their updates are tied into their Impulse platform. If you can not get impulse for whatever reason you can not get the updates.

    What really annoys me about Stardock is that they don’t warn you of that on the box and their ‘holier than thou’ marketing they use (We don’t use restrictive DRM etc etc) is a load of bollocks. Their DRM may not be as bad as EA’s but then its not as good as Kerberos Productions or GOG.COM’s or Egosofts etc and they fail to mention that in the greater scheme of things.

    I suppose what would be good (although most companies I suspect wont do this) would be for two separate channels of distributions. 1. online that ties you into a distribution platform for updates, management etc and 2. CD where you can install and patch with out any form of online checks. Online checks in 2 would be carried out only if the user engaged in online multiplayer. This way everyone wins to a degree.

  37. Dave says:

    @Factoid – According to Stardock you can not reinstall a backed up copy of their games with out Impulse and you can not have Impulse installed without signing into their service at least once. So although you may be able to install version 1.0 of their game x years after Stardock has gone belly up they have made damn sure you can not install any patches. I tried this on my offline gaming computer and Impulse did indeed refuse to run until it had been online. (That limitation incidently was the last straw for me and I have never wasted my money on any Stardock game since)

    This is because as far as their conserned they won’t be making any money out of it and your most likely a pirate in their eyes anyway (Or at leaat that is how their attitude feels to me)

  38. Dave says:

    Last comment for the day. I notice how the BBC artical has comments turned off and you can not correct them about the mistakes in their ‘news’ item.

    EA ‘dumps DRM’ for next Sims game

    and

    The game will have disc-based copy protection – there is a serial code, just like The Sims 2,” said Mr Humble in a blog posting.

    So as others have posted it will have DRM just not as bad DRM as previous games. So the lesser of two eveils then?

  39. Andrey Shchekin says:

    Actually Microsoft just has gone Open Source:
    http://tirania.org/blog/archive/2009/Apr-02.html

  40. JKjoker says:

    @Dave : they go even farther saying “Electronic Arts have confirmed that the next version of The Sims will be free of Digital Rights Management (DRM)” and “There is always going to be a level of protection for games and this solution [DRM free] is right for The Sims 3.”

    but they also say : “The game will have disc-based copy protection – there is a serial code, just like The Sims 2,”

    so, the slightly old DRM Disc Check with the much hated blacklisting of programs/hardware features and the incredible annoying serial code (probably the only drm that fights piracy for online games), serials that btw, ea screwed up in red alert 2 by misprinting the last character are STILL IN, but now, with the new and improved marketing BS disccheck+serial+blacklist is no longer called DRM, its DRM-free, yeah, real nice EA, oh but they removed the threat of the games not working when the servers go down! bless them (of course that the other drm methods mess with hardware drivers, the registry and windows backdoors, and they will probably not work well in VM software or new OS)

    Also, here is a question, now that everyone is dropping securom activation for new games, who is going to finance the activation servers ? how long are they going to stay up ? not for long im guessing

  41. edcalaban says:

    @Shamus: The impression I’ve gotten from the Stardock press release was that it isn’t very different from the system they have for Sins of a Solar Empire’s online play.
    As you and others have mentioned, it is a press release and thus not much to work on, but it looks like it’s a one time activation with a cd key / email which might require online access. Normally that would be annoying, but since it is on some level assumed you’re downloading this digitally I think online activation isn’t much of an extra hassle. Not to mention they do appear to be trying to work with the possibility of the owner of the activation server going under…

    I’m not a big fan of DRM either (Spore was the worst decision I’ve ever made for gaming), but I’m willing to put up with the online activation provided the other things they mentioned stay in:

    …it is not tied to any particular digital distributor.
    …letting users validate their game on any digital distribution service that supports that game…

    …able to re-download their game later from any digital service.

  42. Studoku says:

    Even removing the DRM caused EA to hurt me. I was spinning around on my desk chair to celebrate and I bashed my knee on my desk.

  43. Miako says:

    There will always be pirates.
    and there will be innovative businessmen that will give people a stake in the game’s success. They’re coming.

    Hi! This is the profit we want to make on this game! If you bother to register, and we get enough registrations, we’ll send you a partial refund, based on how many sales we’ve made!

    Registrations where they actually give you something useful are… actually kind of fun.

  44. MuonDecay says:

    so, the slightly old DRM Disc Check with the much hated blacklisting of programs/hardware features and the incredible annoying serial code (probably the only drm that fights piracy for online games), serials that btw, ea screwed up in red alert 2 by misprinting the last character are STILL IN, but now, with the new and improved marketing BS disccheck+serial+blacklist is no longer called DRM, its DRM-free

    So Spore was EA’s New Coke.

    They bolloxed it up so very miserably that even when they took a step back everyone was so relieved they forgot about the slight remaining flaw.

    When they brought back old Coke few people noticed or cared that it now had corn syrup instead of sugar. When EA nixed SecuROM activation people were so relieved EA gets away with pretending CD-key checks aren’t DRM.

    And of course reporters who aren’t specialist tech reporters are too naive to call them on that. Of course, an appalling number of maisntream news reporters just paraphrase a company’s official press statement in these kinds of articles anyway.

  45. JKjoker says:

    “reporters who aren’t specialist tech reporters” on very important, massive and usually trusted news sites/news papers by the unwashed masses i might add

  46. It’s like the developers have to go through this cycle where they release their games without DRM, get the crap pirated out of them, spend lots of money on DRM, STILL get the crap pirated out of them, and give up on the DRM as too expensive for no return.

    Stardock is just behind the curve while EA has hit the downslope, that’s all.

  47. JKjoker says:

    without online activation, NOT without DRM (why do you guys keep forgetting this crucial detail?), ubisoft released games without DRM, EA has not (as far as i know)

  48. Charles Cox says:

    i like to use wooden desk chairs in comparison with those plastic ones-*~

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