The big DRM news going around – by which I mean was going around, last week, when I was too busy to talk about it – was the news that EA was dropping SecuROM and putting their games on Steam.
People are once again celebrating that “EA is getting rid of icky DRM! Yay!” But watch the language being used here. They simply claim they are no longer using third party DRM. This means they are using some form of DRM. By which they either mean Steam itself (but wouldn’t that also fall under “third party”?) or some system they came up with on their own. This could be weasel language to give them the room to add DRM if they think they need it, or it could mean they’re just replacing SecuROM with something just as bad, but which isn’t called SecuROM and thus won’t have all the bad press attached to it. It’s hard to tell how much of this is a PR move and how much is a technological move. I imagine the pirates will let us know once they crack open those first few games and see how rotten they are inside.
Paranoia aside, it’s entirely possible that this means EA games will be no more encumbered than other Steam games. But even if that’s true, this news is bittersweet to me. On one hand, it’s great that they are at last listening (somewhat) to reason. On the other hand, my objections were always centered around online activation, not SecuROM, and they’re keeping that. (It’s implicit with Steam.)
This is what the majority of the fans wanted, and I’m happy for them. It makes sense as a business move. This will bring back the vast majority of their PC customers, and only die-hards like me will hesitate. If I can refer back to the chart I used before:
|Do not confuse the left / right, blue / red motif for American politics. We’re talking technology here, and if we bring politics into this it will make a hash out of the discussion before it even gets started. On the left are anti-DRM paranoids. On the right are DRM advocates. In the middle are people who don’t care, they just want it to work right now.|
The problem EA faced is that their efforts this year lost them the crucial middle, which is where a vast majority of their customers are. This move will regain those folks, and people in my area of the spectrum will likely split. They could throw away all DRM and gain everyone on the left, including me. (Which would net them those sales at the expense of… nothing. I mean, the games will get pirated either way, but I don’t think their minds are ready to grasp that concept just yet. Baby steps, here.)
I know I’ve been over this before, but it’s going to come up in the comments so we might as well get this out of the way. My objections to online activation (and by extension, Steam itself) are thus:
- Online activation precludes resale. You can’t take a used game and sell, give, or even lend it to anyone else.
- It’s a stupid hassle. Authenticating and authorizing and de-authorizing at uninstall is such a dumb waste. They always want you to muck about creating an ID and whatnot. This is less of an issue with Steam but only because most people already have an account.
- Longevity: Will I be able to play this game in ten years? Only if the server is still up. Other DRM services have vanished, and left their customers with a heap of useless encrypted bits. I have hundreds of games here stretching all the way back to 1994. (I threw away a huge number of floppy-based games back in ’99, or my collection would be even larger and stretch all the way back to ’89 or so.) A vast majority of the companies behind these games are gone. If online activation had been possible in 1994, and if these games had used it, then the games themselves would have vanished with their developers and publishers.
- Hassle: Imagine in seven years when you want to re-play Spore (humor me here) and you go to re-install them game some Saturday morning. You pop in the disk, but your allowed installs were used up. Now you’ve got to call tech support. How long is it going to take them to get back to you? On a weekend? About a game most of them don’t even remember and which hasn’t been on shelves in half a decade? What stupid stuff will you have to email them to get the game running again? Do you still have the box? The manual? The sales receipt? You will most likely not get to play Spore for several days. You’ll be bearing the cost of this DRM long, long after it’s been pirated to hell and back and the game has vanished from the shelves. That is to say, even if DRM did deter piracy, it would only do so for the short time while the game was for sale, but the cost of DRM lasts forever.
- All of this, for nothing. These games will end up on the torrents anyway, which means they’ll be pirated just the same. You will bear all of this cost and hassle for no benefit, to yourself or to the publisher.
I’m sad EA didn’t go all the way and just sell these games as if they trusted their customers, but I suppose that was never really in the cards.
Will I buy them? I’m not sure. I do buy the Half-Life games, and I did buy Portal. But I try to keep the number of Steam games down for all the reasons I list above. Reason #4 becomes particularly relevant once you have a few dozen games that all require activation. Suddenly you find that installing a new graphics card breaks half your games. How much time are you going to spend on hold reviving the licenses for a half dozen games? You’re going to be there for hours.
I have a XBox 360 as well as a PS3 now. This will let me route around a lot of this nonsense, at the expense of paying more to play games and further cluttering what is already a nest of unruly technology.
Another bit of bad news about EA moving to Steam is that for some unfathomable reason, Stream is now selling games to European customers with an exchange rate of $1 = 1â‚¬, which is abominable. It’s supposed to be about 1â‚¬ = $1.40. This makes games a lot more expensive for Europeans, and I can’t really see any reason behind it. I think games are too expensive already, although I’ll save that rant for later.
Short version is: The move to Steam is a good move for gaming in general, although it’s not likely to impact my buying decisions a great deal. From this point it’s very likely that things will stop getting worse, which is the first time in years I’ve been able to say that.
EDIT: I originally inverted the exchange rates. Fixed now. (I think.)
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