The DRM Crusades

By Shamus Posted Monday Jun 16, 2008

Filed under: Rants 38 comments

Once in a while I’ll see a link from another site referring to me as a “anti-DRM crusader” or words to that effect. I didn’t understand why at first, but as I look back on the archives I notice a lot of posts dedicated to the issue. I’ve certainly expended more than my share of words on the subject. It was never my intention to “crusade” at all. I just see the mainstream PC Games industry going to hell, and as we ride along I’m pointing out the windows and directing your attention to some of the more notable landmarks.

I’d rather I didn’t have to write about this stuff at all. I’d rather the publishers would just sell me a game and bugger off and let me use it in peace.

Once in a while I get comments to the effect of, “I can’t believe you make such a big deal out of [online activation]. It’s trivial!” I think a lot of these comments must come from kids who can’t remember what the world looked like before 24/7 connectivity. This means they are also young enough that they don’t have a catalog of old PC games they like to play, and haven’t learned the joy of revisiting old titles. In any case, they’re confusing the actual effort imposed on the user with the transaction taking place. Yes, online activation isn’t that painful (assuming the activation servers don’t die at launch) but I would still balk at online activation for single-player games even if it was quick and seamless. The effort isn’t the deal-breaker for me, it’s the lack of control. I don’t want my “ownership” to be something that can be revoked if the producer changes their mind. I don’t want it to be something that can just vanish due to financial upheaval, which is rife in the videogame industry. I won’t stand for it. I won’t buy it.

I’m not trying to “send a message” – I’m just setting the terms under which I’m prepared to do business. I won’t stand for buying something if I need the permission of the producer to use it ten years down the road. I don’t expect other people to “join me” in this “crusade”, because I’d keep doing this even if I was the only one who cared.

When I’m tempted to buy one of these games, I think ahead ten years, to when my hard drive has a couple of dozen such games on it. I put in a new graphics card, and half the games “break”, requiring phone calls, re-activation, and sending in pictures of the physical media to prove my ownership of the things. And that’s for the games that still work. This is on top of the list of games that will inevitably be orphaned by the loss of activation servers.

At one point someone commented that, “If this bugs you then you’re not going to have any PC games left to play.”

Well, yeah.

That’s pretty much the thrust of all these posts. I’ll buy a console before I accept online activation. If (when) the publishers infest those machines with this nonsense, then I’ll just put more time into my other hobby. My d20 doesn’t require any authentication.


From The Archives:

38 thoughts on “The DRM Crusades

  1. Clint says:

    Speaking of d20… I haven’t seen much of your take on 4E. Might we look forward to that in the future?


  2. Axcalibar says:

    Oh, very nice. There you go. If I were Shamus I would refrain from commenting on this this highly volatile issue. Have some more wine.

  3. Factoid says:

    Also speaking of things that haven’t been discussed much lately…any news on your indy title you’ve been working on?

  4. Deoxy says:

    My d20 doesn't require any authentication.

    They’re working on that…

    Speaking of d20… I haven't seen much of your take on 4E.

    Ok, that was a BIT of an exaggeration, but they WANT you to log in to their DDI subscription service when you play… we’ll see how that goes.

    As to 4th – I’m conflicted.

    When 3rd came out, the only nitpick I could find compared to second was that I didn’t like the weapon proficiency system compared to 2nd. Everything else was a HUGE improvement.

    From 3rd to 4th… there are things I like, this I’m not sure about, and a few things that I feel are sort of unfortunate (but can’t come up with a better way to do, myself).

    To avoid thread high-jacking, I’ll stop there, but I’d love to hear Shamus’ take on it, too. Of course, it only came out 10 days ago, so (busy as he is) I suspect Shamus hasn’t really done much with it, yet (if he’s even read the new rules, which I also doubt).

  5. henebry says:

    I played the 4e intro adventure this past weekend, and I also have much to say. As someone who’s tired of shelling out $35 to Wizards for rule books, I was initially suspicious of their motives in moving from 3.5 to 4e. But, as someone who found the old ruleset both burdensome and a bit boring, I’m impressed by the changes made to fighters and rogues (giving them special maneuvers) and intrigued by the principle set out in the first pages of the PHB, “specific beats general,” with a simple set of general rules and a host of exceptions.

  6. Mavis says:

    Ohhhh I wanted to make the “there working on it” joke – and beaten to it on teh 4th post….

  7. Derek K says:

    @Mavis: Ditto.

    @Deoxy: Punk.

    @Shamus: Oh, you’ll be able to play all your old games. You’ll just need to buy the new “Collection pack” that someone’s releasing this year. And then next year, when that company goes out of business, and then the next….

  8. Drew says:

    How does your desire to be able to play a game ten years down the line without needing the publisher mesh with your recent time spent playing Guild Wars? I realize there’s an intrinsic difference between single and multi-player games, but the fact is, this is a game you’ve purchased, and you won’t be able to play it once those servers go offline. Does that create any sort of internal conflict for you?

  9. Tom says:

    The whole ‘playing old games again’ issue is something that’s been bothering me of late as well, mainly because in a recent clear-out I rediscovered a bundle of old gems. Funny thing is, next-to-none of them actually worked straight out the box, but rather required me trawling the internet for various fixes and workarounds in order to get the things running.

    My point is, if this whole DRM debacle becomes the norm (and by god I hope it doesn’t, for much the same reason as why I won’t ever use iTunes), I’ll just have to pray that some little genius somewhere comes up with some quick and easy way around it. Stupid thing is, that won’t only be relevant after the games have been around for decades either.

  10. Eric says:

    To Drew: You buy Guild Wars with different assumptions than a standalone, single-player game. Guild Wars comes with the understanding that I can only play as long as the servers are around. I should be able to play something like ES:Oblivion or Civilization IV without having to worry about whether the developers or publishers are still in business.

  11. ccesarano says:

    I’m not much of a PC gamer myself, but I just got a taste of what online activation can do…only it was with product registration.

    I never got to play much of Fallout 2 way back when, so when I found out it works on Vista I wanted to grab myself a copy so I could play it before Fallout 3 came out. Well, after my first play of the game, it started popping up its electronic registration garbage. I tried to skip it, but it caused an error that kept the game from running. I was curious if doing the registration would work, and of course it didn’t because both Interplay and Black Isle do not exist anymore. So in order to play I had to go into the game’s folder and rename the registration folder. After that it stopped bugging me and I could play the game fine.

    Online Activation sounds simple, but these are game companies we’re talking about. Five years from now any of them could be gone, no matter how successful they seem to be today. If the server responsible for validating your key doesn’t exist, then you can’t play your game. There is no activation folder to rename. It’s gone. You’d have to take the time downloading a key-gen that MIGHT work, or some hack that MIGHT work, on sites that are likely to be full of ads and spyware, all for a chance to MAYBE play your game again.

    I’ve always been a console gamer, and I’m about a decade younger, but it doesn’t take much far-sight to see that online activation can be insanely problematic for playing your old games.

    I'll buy a console before I accept online activation.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee your ability to play ten year old games either. Because most audiences are so absorbed in the games that are coming out, Xbox 360 still can’t let me play Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath or MechAssault 1 or 2. Microsoft hasn’t released a backwards compatibility update in a while, and there’s no real mainstream pressure to do so. The Playstation 3 has promised perfect compatibility, but the fact of the matter is even now there are plenty of games that don’t run properly on it, and not everyone is able to release a patch to fix the game.

    Pretty much the only system currently capable of promising perfect backwards compatibility is the Wii, and who knows if the next iteration of Nintendo is going to be three GameCubes duct-taped together instead of just two.

    The only way to have perfect backwards compatibility on consoles is to keep your old systems, and even then there are plenty of NES and SNES cartridges that are failing due to age.

    I think a better idea is for some organization to try and keep video games preserved in some way or another so they can survive the times, even as technology changes. Right now Atari games are practically looked upon as black and white films, and I always wonder if a lot of the games I consider classics will fall into obscurity by time I’m fifty.

    If (when) the publishers infest those machines with this nonsense

    Personally, I find that unlikely. As soon as Microsoft mentioned Xbox Live back in the day, everyone was claiming games were going to be released buggy as Hell and not be playable until the patch two months later, just as companies were doing on PC. It’s been six years since people predicted that, and the only buggy as Hell game released on consoles I know if is Grand Theft Auto. I think activation and console games won’t really mix well either. For the most part, pirating console games is a greater pain in the ass. Someone needs to put the data on the Internet, you need to burn it, and your console needs to be able to recognize it as a game instead of a burnt disc. This usually requires a modded system, which few people bother with.

    I also think most people that would pirate are more or less hardcore gamers, and consoles have always appealed to a large number of mainstream gamers instead of hardcore, who are more willing to buy, rent, trade-in games or, at the very least, try and fool the retailer into taking back a game with full refund that they played through. Start requiring online activation, and you start pushing away this same audience.

    It is possible Microsoft or Sony may try online activation at some point in the future, but Nintendo, at the very least, likely wouldn’t.

  12. Ryan Speck says:

    You’d think they’d learn a little something from the total decimation of the DIVX player, only a mere 8 years ago.

    (For those who think that DIVX is just a fancy avi codec and don’t get what I’m talking about, see here:

    Circuit City and a few other places carried the horrible things. I actually knew one sucker who bought a combo DVD/DIVX player at one point.

    It seems unbelievable now, but parts of the movie and technology industry thought that a video player that was pay-per-view was a brilliant idea. You buy The Matrix on DVIX. You get a few free viewings in and everytime after that you put the movie into the player, it dials out via your phone lines to “activate” your movie and basically tag on a fee of a few dollars to watch it.

    I can see how this might benefit the very casual movie viewer, as the movies were only a few bucks each and the real money was in the rewatching. But it’s the kind of idea that you look back on and wonder if the people weren’t wearing foil hats when they came up with it.

    The depth of PC game activation is looking like that at this point as well. Unfortunately, it isn’t part of a format choice. We don’t have a “DVD” to activation’s “DIVX”. We aren’t voting with our dollars. We’re just kind of hoping that by buying the games that don’t screw us, they’ll get the hint and stop pulling this bullshit on us.

  13. I’m one of those people who are unable to handle or use online activation. My apartment complex is pretty much all (I’m being honest here) Spanish folks who use satellite dishes to get their Spanish television so there’s no digital cable. We also have 60 year copper lines with no option for anything digital from the phone company. All I have is dial up and getting a connection on that isn’t always the best.

  14. WysiWyg says:

    Just a thought; perhaps what is needed is someone who doesn’t just sit down and say “this is my two cents”, someone who actually starts the crusade.

    Now, being a loyal reader, I know that you’re terribly busy, but would it kill you to let others use you as a sort of idol?

  15. Mordaedil says:

    DRM’s never worked, but they weren’t intended to work. They were intended to make investors feel safe about the product. People who don’t understand the nature of the internet, people who were unable to understand why these protections are being so easily defeated by crackers, and then distributed with the game by pirates.

    I wish someone could educate them, but I don’t think it works that well. Maybe in 20-30 years, they will die out and everyone will know how the Internet works, behind the scenes.

    Though I feel a bit sorely blamed here, being called a kid for standing up for DRM on Mass Effect in the last few blogs of yours. :(

    I respect your opinion, Shamus, that is why I come here at all, I’ve got quite a collection of games, several hundred, but I rarely bother playing them now. Why? I dunno. They just don’t appeal to me anymore. Though I guess I am young, by your standards anyway.

  16. Shamus says:

    Drew: No conflict. In multiplayer, the need for a server is intrinsic. In singleplayer, it’s just interfering with my ownership of the game.

  17. Shamus says:

    Mordaedil: Yeah, I didn’t intend “kids” to be derogatory. I’ve got 24 year old guys in my gaming group and I sometimes call them kids. It’s just… bah. You’ll do it yourself someday. :)

  18. MissusJ says:

    @ ccesarano: The organization you are looking for is my basement. Thousands of games across 50 consoles (and more but we are also a little paranoid about it all). We hope to someday open a game museum. Of course money and location are the problems that have plagued us since we thought of it, so it may have to wait a while (since we have 3 kids too).

    But that only solves the compatibility issues, you’re right. As is, we have also been acquiring “backup” systems so that we can test cords or have spare parts if needed in the future. (We didn’t do that soon enough with our TurboDuo, alas!) Even that doesn’t cover the cartridges, though we haven’t had any major problems in that regard yet. I’m sure keeping them in the boxes helps, but still…

    P.S. my husband plays Rollercoaster Tycoon on his laptop to entertain our kids regularly- you wouldn’t believe how much preschoolers like watching all the rides! So we understand the whole playing PC games years later thing too. I have been reading Shamus’s essays with interest since the beginning. (Though we did buy and greatly enjoy Bioshock on the 360.)

  19. JungianYoung says:

    Do you still play old games from 20 years ago? I do too. Do they work out of the box? Heck no. I got MoSlo for old games, DOSBox for even older games, and emulators for non-PC games, and of course, cracks for all the copy protection schemes that require manuals I no longer have.

    Hypothetically, if Spore or Mass Effect 2 are great, genre-defining games, then I can guarantee that you will be playing them for as long as you wish, because of the dedicated legions of crackers, bittorrent seeds, abandonware sites, etc. that will keep it available on whatever platform is current.

    I know you’re standing on principle on DRM. It’s a slippery slope from ownership to limited usage to “permissions management” (and that’s a whole other argument.) But today’s technology allows you give absolute ownership of any game, ownership in every sense of the word (copy, use, modify) except the legal one.

    “Oh, so you’re just an amoral pirate,” you say. Not at all— I still pay for the games I like, and are promising. I want this industry to succeed. This is to our century what movies and TV were– exciting and filled with potential. And I believe it will succeed DESPITE DRM and horrible management and the publisher/studio system.

    The only thing you lose by supporting products with DRM is the 2 minutes it takes to download a crack. What you gain… well, look at all every game you’ve played, and loved, and slap an activation code in front of it… does it suddenly turn worthless?

  20. Smileyfax says:

    “You'd have to take the time downloading a key-gen that MIGHT work, or some hack that MIGHT work, on sites that are likely to be full of ads and spyware, all for a chance to MAYBE play your game again.”

    Actually, these days the torrent sites are pretty good about serving up good stuff and dealing away with the crap. The very nature of BitTorrent allows people to vote with their ratio (as opposed to their wallet).

  21. Davesnot says:

    That last bit.. about buying a console.. that’s what they want.. then they won’t have to spend _any_ time on PC..

    and we all know that they are evil and must be stopped.. that’s why they are they.

  22. Alan De Smet says:

    To ccesarano: I own something like 10 Xbox 360 games. (In the DVD physical form, not purchased from the Xbox Live Marketplace.) The overwhelming majority wanted me to download and install a patch. The newer ones required several patches. Indeed, I think every single game did, but I’m not absolutely certain. Have any shipped that were completely unplayable? Not to my knowledge. But none of the last 10 or so PC games I bought were either. Exactly as predicted: patches became available for console games, and game quality declined.

  23. DocTwisted says:

    Well stated, and I wholeheartedly agree.

    And thanks to you, I now have this mental image of a d20 pausing in the air, midroll, and requesting in a tinny version of Mrs. Roddenberry’s voice for you to recite your Character Name and Roller Authentication code before continuing.

  24. nehumanuscrede says:

    DRM in the form of online activation schemes are just a bad
    idea all-together. As already stated, the gaming industry
    is too volatile to believe today’s Company X is going to even
    be around in a few years.

    The same issue holds true for non-gaming software. You buy
    version X for a few hundred ( or even thousand ) dollars and
    it has an online activation server associated with it.

    What will you do a few years from now when the company no
    longer supports the old legacy product and decides you need
    to churn out a few hundred more dollars for their new and
    improved ‘ upgrade ‘.

    *cough* Microsoft *cough*

    Basically, you’ll shell out for the new software that may
    or may not be suitable for you. Or you’ll go find the
    pirated / cracked version that has had the little DRM
    feature ‘ fixed ‘.

    I have zero problems using software that has been ‘ fixed ‘
    if I have purchased the product already. None. Especially
    if no other alternative can be had. Online activation be
    damned. . . .

  25. Factoid says:

    I for one am hoping the courts step in to help us out on this. There are some pretty serious considerations to the First Sale doctrine that are being trampled on by software companies these days. First Sale basically encapsulates the idea that I own what I bought and am allowed to resell it as used merchandise.

    The idea that I am buying a product, but do not own it and am in fact “licensing” it from the copyright holder is in contradiction to this. The sale of non-transferably keys has been challenged in court, but who knows if reason will actually win out.

    Our court is blatantly pro-business, though not necessarily anti-consumer. When the two conflict, though, business tends to win.

  26. MSchmahl says:

    > My d20 doesn't require any authentication.

    Shh. Don’t give them any ideas, or you may end up paying $.0001 per roll.

  27. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    I’m sure shamus will post on 4th ed once we start playing it. But we as a group have some other projects on the front burner. I have been looking over 4th ed at my local comic shop and i think it looks fantastic. I am really siked to play it. The system has a lot more free form feel to it now that I like. Also because the only books out are the core rule books, the character classes aren’t broken yet due to later release books. i.e the complete adventuring fishermans guide

  28. BTW, too late for your Hellsgate sequence, but I just found this:

  29. DaveMc says:

    Never fear, you’re not a Crusader until you’ve laid siege to Antioch.

  30. Oleyo says:

    Amen, Shamus. I put up with the call to Microsoft when I change my hardware too much because, well its the OS that runs the whole machine.

    If I even IMAGINE having several or a dozen or so GAMES and software that also might require the same treatment someday, it makes my blood boil. This problem magnifies with each occurrence.

  31. JungianYoung says:

    Centrally based activation codes have been around for decades for business software. Mathematica and Maple; database systems; most CAD/CAM and scientific packages. As game development costs go up and the resources required for key servers, etc. goes down, there will be *more* DRM schemes for consumer products, not less. As consumers we should be asking for less intrusive, more user friendly, idiot-proof DRM— but the fact is, it won’t go away anytime soon.

  32. Roy says:

    “The only way to have perfect backwards compatibility on consoles is to keep your old systems, and even then there are plenty of NES and SNES cartridges that are failing due to age.”

    But that’s different.

    Things decay over time. That’s a fact of life and we deal with it. I know that anything I purchase- a tv, a book, a cd, a dishwasher, and yes, even a game- has a limited life-span on this planet. Time will slowly erode my purchases and make them unusable. I don’t hold the manufacturer responsible for the fact that my jeans eventually get holes in them.

    I do object to companies that do things to sabotage the lifespan of a product. My television is eventually going to wear out, and that’s fine. If a manufacturer started putting small explosive devices in the television that were designed to break the television after a certain number of hours of usage, though? Would any of us buy that television?

    Old NES and SNES carts stop working because the pins decay over time. That’s normal wear and tear. New PC games will eventually stop working because they require online checks with servers that probably won’t exist anymore. That’s not normal wear and tear- that’s an explosive in the television.

  33. Christian Groff says:

    I feel sorry that you think the PC gaming industry is dead and direct you to a personal experience I was revived to, thanks to some crazy guys blogging their experiences there with goon-made characters…

    THE SIMS 2!

    Yeah, it’s not so much a game as a frustrating exercise in “WHY THE @#*@ IS MY KID’S ENERGY AND FUN METERS AT ZERO!?!!? I DIDN’T THINK SCHOOL WOULD BE ‘THAT’ EXHAUSTING!!!!!”, but it’s still great if you put some effort and micromanagement(which you seem to enjoy, Sham) into it.

    Yeah, it’s a real-life simulator, and you have to baby the Sims a lot, but I find it fun to read about all the weird things that happen – men getting captured by little green Martians and made pregnant(a fanfiction girl’s wet dream), raising little green men and women in the process; plant-people, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night(if you have the expansions, of course), and much more!

    I’ve installed the FreeTime expansion and it roxxors – giving your Sim a goal to shoot for all their life, whether it be the next Sim Food Network Star, the next Sim Design Star, or whatnot. I like how a guy pops by on Day 2 and drops off a shiny new computer for you to play with. No more having to buy the computer! ^_^

    Try it on one of the consoles first – if you hate it, you can return the game for no loss of cash. ;)

  34. roxysteve says:

    Where do I sign up to join the “By all means protect yourselves, but not at the expense of the paying customer” army?

    Angry Steve.

  35. Visi says:

    Link to blog above, I paid to install the EA DRM, and after struggling with it for ages, my game didn’t even work. I tried, I really, really did. But if they don’t want to treat me decently, why should I put up with it? I can get better service elsewhere for cheaper.

    Back on topic. You say in this blog everything about DRM that I can’t find words for. Please don’t stop. :p

  36. I’m kind of sad to hear you say you’re not an anti-DRM crusader… Most gamers decide what to buy or try from reviews they see, and the more reviewers take stands on the issue, the better. But that’s not the main point of this comment.

    Jumping to consoles because you’re tired of PC DRM is like switching to Google Docs because you’re tired of restrictions Microsoft Word places on your documents.

    When you’re using a gaming console, you don’t even own the device! You’re basically paying for a box that will only run code signed by the Authority. It’s the ultimate DRM.

    This doesn’t apply to all gaming consoles, but it does apply to the Xbox 360, the Wii, and the PS3. Yes, the PS3 runs Linux, but it won’t let Linux use it’s graphics card.

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