Yesterday I scorned Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness because of the built-in DRM system. I’ve been following the forum threads both at Penny Arcade and at publisher Hothead games, and there are some really important differences between this and the Mass Effect / Bioshock stuff. While I do enjoy getting worked up and filled with indignation as much as anyone, I need to clarify what’s going on here. There are distinctions that need to be made between this and the other DRM systems I’ve lambasted over the past few months.
One is that the the demo is the full version of the game. All you need is a valid key and the demo unlocks the rest of the content. This, coupled with the fact that this is a digital delivery game with no physical media, pretty much requires some form of activation. Once you have (buy) a key, they will let you download the game all you want, thus letting you use Hothead as your backup. You don’t need to maintain a copy for yourself. This is akin to Steam, and in direct contrast to the stuff from 2kGames and EA, where you need both physical media and the online activation.
The Hothead guys and Robert Khoo (the responsible business guy behind Penny Arcade) are in there discussing this with fans. This is very different from the BioShock saga, where overworked temps insulated the higher-ups from public input. This is different from the Mass Effect story, where Bioware developers listened politely but had no power to move the mountain that is EA. The people in the forums are the people make these decisions, and they are taking it seriously.
The sticking point for me is, or perhaps was, the limited installs. If they got rid of that, this would be more or less like Steam. What the Hothead guys are saying is that the “limited installs” thing is just so they can reserve the right to deal with the same key being used by many different people. As I read it, this isn’t like the EA system where the fourth attempted install results in rejection and you have to call up tech support to get back in. The system as designed will allow unlimited activations, but the language in the EULA is there to give them wiggle room in dealing with obvious and flagrant piracy. If they see the same key being used hundreds or thousands of times, they will have to manually block the account, and the language in the EULA is there to allow them to do that.
This is not the only possible interpretation of what has been said so far, but despite my normal bitterness, cynicism, and paranoia on these issues, I’m actually subscribing to their version of the story. They’re talking about re-wording the EULA to make this more clear.
This doesn’t solve the “will the servers still be there in 10 years” concern, although this is a problem faced by anyone who distributes a demo which contains the unlockable full version. If they don’t take some modest measures they would actually be aiding the pirates by providing them with a fast and convenient place from which to download the game. A system where all you need is a valid serial number to turn a demo into a full game is probably the most susceptible to piracy. You don’t need a crack and you don’t need to know how to use the torrents. You just pass around a valid key. Reflexive Entertainment was using such a system when they looked at the codes being used and realized 92% of the copies being played were pirated.
This is a different delivery medium from discs, and will have different drawbacks and benefits. You don’t have to maintain a physical disc which can be lost or scratched, and you can get the full game game the instant you decide to unlock the demo. Like Steam, and unlike the EA and 2kGames approach, the customer is getting added convenience in exchange for the reliance on the Greenhouse servers. I don’t see any added hassle placed on the user.
The other benefit of this system is that one key unlocks all versions of the game. You can download the Mac, PC, and Linux versions, and your key will work on all of them. Again, this is something EA and 2kGames don’t have. They rarely bother with Mac. They ignore Linux. And they never offer a way to buy a single copy of the game that works on all platforms.
I guess the thing I’m thinking is that this isn’t some new obligation being placed on owners of physical media. This is an entirely new scheme with different mechanics. There is even talk that later they will have a CD version on the shelves in stores. I’ll be curious as to how that will work when it comes out.
I’m not a fan of any DRM, but I don’t fault anyone who partakes under these conditions. I grudgingly tolerate Steam, even though I’d just as soon buy a disc and go my own way. This system is much the same.
I don’t think Mike and Jerry are being hypocrites, and I think Hothead is serious when they claim they are trying to design a lightweight and unobtrusive DRM system. It will be interesting to see what changes they make over the next few days. I’m not getting the game right away, but I’m not forswearing it, either.
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