Experienced Points: DRM is Over

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Dec 16, 2014

Filed under: Column 149 comments

The title is hyperbole, of course. I don’t think DRM is over in the sense that the big publishers are going to abandon it. But it’s over in the sense that we’ve shouted ourselves hoarse trying to get through to the non-gamer executives running these companies, and there’s nothing left to say. My column this week details just how obviously pointless DRM is for any possible purpose.

(Disclaimer: When I say “DRM” here I’m talking about “naked DRM”. Steam is DRM, but it’s DRM PLUS convenience, a store, a community, etc. For the purposes of this article, when I say DRM I’m talking about standalone stuff like SecuROM, Starforce and such.)

In the end, I think what pisses me off the most isn’t the DRM, it’s the fact that the people running these companies have been so completely insulated from their decisions and the debate itself. This, I could live with:

Me: Please stop using DRM. It hurts my experience using your product and doesn’t do anything to stop piracy.

Publisher: Actually, our sales show a measurable benefit when a title is equipped with DRM.

That sucks and I’ll still resent the DRM, but I’ll be happy to offload the blame onto the pirates at that point. I don’t blame publishers doing what they have to do to protect their investment. But in all these years, that particular conversation has never happened. Instead, we’ve had this conversation:

Me: Please stop using DRM. It hurts my experience using your product and doesn’t do anything to stop piracy.

Publisher: We understand your concerns but we need to use this DRM to stop piracy.

Me: I JUST SAID THAT IT DOESN’T DO ANYTHING AGAINST PIRACY. IT WAS CRACKED BEFORE RELEASE. What are you basing this on? Why don’t you remove the DRM once the game is done selling?

Publisher: Thank you for your feedback. We value your opinion.

It’s been something like a decade of that same stupid exchange, over and over again. We’re not mad that DRM is a hassle. We’re mad that DRM is a hassle for no benefit.

We’ve taken the issue apart multiple times, and the publishers haven’t even grasped the fundamentals of the problem. Lots of people say things like, “The publishers wouldn’t keep doing it if it didn’t give them some benefit.” I think that’s giving them entirely too much credit. Heck, the publishers could shut me up by just straight-up lying and saying that DRM makes sales go up. I wouldn’t be able to prove them wrong. But they can’t even be bothered to do that.

This is why DRM is over. There’s nothing left to say. Denuvo was the best DRM ever devised, it did nothing, and still nothing will change. We can either boycott a game or put up with the DRM. That’s it.

What a stupid waste of time, money, and aggravation.


From The Archives:

149 thoughts on “Experienced Points: DRM is Over

  1. lucky7 says:

    I’ve actually spent more of my man-dollars poking around GOG lately, specifically because of the lack of hassle with them.

    1. ET says:

      Heck yes! Once I learned that GoG doesn’t use DRM, I changed my buying habits to go to them first, then Steam afterwards if I couldn’t find a game. Steam is pretty good, but I want to keep my games archived on my own media, just in case the company goes down. :)

      1. Grudgeal says:

        Likewise. The sales may not be quite as magnificent, but the customer support in everything else more than makes up for it.

  2. shiroax says:

    What did you mean by this line:

    “Contrast this with, say, Activision. I really hate how they run their company, but Kotick’s team seems to be technologically literate.”

    I haven’t been paying too much attention, but I haven’t heard anything about Activision since they got Kotick to shut up (I think that old column did it:)). What makes them more literate than others?

    1. Shamus says:

      I can’t remember them ever being caught in a DRM fiasco.

      Er. Unless we count Diablo III. But even that story was a little more complex than, say, Spore or BioShock.

      1. Wolf says:

        I stand by my opinion that the Diablo fiasko was very much a push for microtransactions and not that much about DRM. And in Blizzards defense it sounds like a really profitable idea given how well the community adopted the WoW auction house and how much gold buying was going on.

        1. It also shows that their attempts to monetise the systems they saw as a gap that others monetised previously (with Diablo 2’s secondary market for items) brought about what they eventually concluded was game-breaking gameplay costs. Duiablo 3 seems to have been broken in other ways at launch but a key flaw was how they had to rebalance a game for an AH and that ended up being such an issue that they took it out. Not released console ports lacking it but stripped it out of the PC edition it was so toxic to the core gameplay loop. Which is a great lesson to take away from Diablo 3 and how that got an expansion and patched.

          Of course, the PC version still uses server-side anti-cheats and so always-on DRM to make it unplayable the second you go offline or Blizzard eventually die, a defect you don’t get if you buy the console editions of the game. So it’s something where they monetised their game (which required them to implement the most draconian of DRM – adding lag to a game you can play solo and a server check that failing will prevent you playing the game solo), realised that was wrong, but didn’t actually step back from their unacceptable DRM policies (unless you play on a platform that only runs signed code).

          1. Zak McKracken says:

            I guess that is the two mantras “never change a running system” and “how does this profit us?” combined:

            The DRM’s pointless but built into the structure of the whole thing, so if you removed it, somebody would need to go through the code, remove anything DRM, patch the holes left by that, then test the code, debug it, and it’d probably still give you some new bugs, just because.
            That’s proper money you’d have to spend.
            However, the management must be convinced that people don’t mind forced online play because youth these days does everything online and cares neither about privacy nor offline modes, right? Everyone who does care about not having DRM is probably a pirate.

            => It’s not worth the hassle. From management’s point of view.

            Oh, and then there’s of course the sunk cost fallacy: We’ve put so much money into the DRM, so we shouldn’t remove it, it might still be good for something.

            It’s pretty sad, really.

  3. Ronixis says:

    I could think of a book you can read but not see: an audiobook. I suppose the analogue there would be a game running on another computer and streaming to you. (Except that one can help accessibility, and the other really doesn’t.)

    1. Sorites says:

      It’s more like a book written in code so you have to pay some jerk to read it to you. And if he sees you recording him or taking notes, he leaves forever.

    2. Chris says:

      Counterpedantry: One does not read an audiobook. One listens to an audiobook.

    3. ehlijen says:

      The point is that you can’t make information both impossible and possible to access. If you can open the book to read it, you can also access the letters to copy them. If you can pipe the sound data to your speakers, you can also pipe it into the mic in of a tape recorder.

      If you want there to be a legitimate way to retrieve stored information, there is always also a way to fake the credentials and gain access illegitimately. It may be very difficult and expensive, but it is always possible.

      All of cryptology is about making decryption more expensive than the information is worth, not about achieving perfect security.

      1. guy says:

        And it’s really, really hard to make it difficult and expensive for someone to illegitimately access information that they can legitimately access easily.

      2. Zak McKracken says:

        This sums it up nicely.

        Encryption of communications is somewhat safer than DRM because usually both parties to encrypted communication have an interest in not giving the contents away, while with games it’s more like “here’s the secret but don’t tell anyone” — that rarely works out.

        1. Richard says:


          If Alice wants to talk to Bob without Eve or Mallory being able to listen in, then Alice and Bob can do that.

          However, DRM is saying Alice needs to talk to Bob – without Bob being able to listen in.

          1. Zak McKracken says:

            Yes, it’s telling Bob the story but prevent him from passing on the words.

  4. Inwards says:

    It’s a bit too early to know what the data is telling us about DRM vs sales, but here are some numbers for the first two weeks of all Dragon Age PC titles (we only have 2 weeks of data for DAI):

    Dragon Age 1 – 62,466 units
    Dragon Age 2 – 183,320 units
    Dragon Age 3 – 222,520 units

    So that’s an 18% increase in sales for DA3 over DA2.

    Now let’s look at the same title on an uncracked platform; the PS3. Just for fun, let’s add the PS4 sales in there, too, since this is likely a split user base:

    Dragon Age 1 – 176,855 units
    Dragon Age 2 – 224,606 units
    Dragon Age 3 – 181,555 (PS3) + 714,026 (PS4) = 732,181 units

    That’s a whopping 70% increase on the PS 3/4.

    Hard to know what conclusions you can draw from any of this as there is a lot of noise and room for hand-waving.


    1. tmtvl says:

      Okay, now show the different numbers, how many people have gaming PCs and how many people have a PS3 and/or PS4?

      There’s quite a few people who only play games on a gaming console instead of on PC.

    2. guy says:

      Almost certainly it means that the DRM had relatively little impact while interest in the game spiked relative to the previous games, especially on the Playstation. From how I’ve seen internet response go, I would be unsurprised to learn that DA:O had sales stay relatively high for a long while after launch, so that by the time DA:2 came along lots of people owned it and wanted a sequel, and then Inquisition drew in a lot of people who had heard bad things about 2 with its ad campaign, but Origin has a poor reputation, the controls looked console-focused, and lots of people chose to buy on consoles instead, especially because the Keep is cross-platform.

      1. Joe Informatico says:

        Sounds reasonable. IIRC even BioWare was surprised at DA:O’s success, so it might have taken a few weeks or months to register. I remember taking advantage of a $40 EB sale sale (so 33% off) less than 3 weeks after release; similar sales could have bolstered sales. These are all earmarks of a sleeper hit.

    3. Abnaxis says:

      I don’t know why you would include PS3/4 and not include console sales with the other titles. To me, you should either include all platform numbers (including XBox, PC, and Platstation) or don’t include them at all. In my opinion, since DRM is a uniquely PC phenomenon, there’s not much point in looking at consoles, but whatever you do should be consistent.

      If you want to go a VGCharts-data-driven route to measure the effects of DRM, I think FIFA is a much better sample since it has fewer confounding factors. It’s a yearly release that’s been around for more than a decade (though significant PC releases are a more recent development, in the last five years as far as I can tell). Unlike Dragon age, the core gameplay has not been overhauled in a long time, the releases just get updated rosters. There hasn’t been any major controversy surrounding the title. It’s had more time to sell, yielding more data. Technology hasn’t changed as significantly over the course of the last three FIFA releases since they happened over 3 years instead of five. The FIFAs all even release in the same month of the year, versus Dragon Age which released in Novermber for the first and last installments and March for DA2. Most Importantly, EA has a monopoly on FIFA titles, while Dragon Age has more fierce competition with other action RPGs.

      Looking at the numbers from VGCharts, we have:

      FIFA Soccer 13 10-week sales: 143,566
      FIFA Soccer 14 10-week sales: 123,392
      FIFA 15 10-week sales: 122,146

      Yeah, going by these numbers I don’t think Denuvo makes a compelling argument for DRM…

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        Though in order to make this prove anything, you’d have to do the same to a good dozen games across the market. Really, what you’d have to do is increase the sample size until you do get a significant effect of DRM (which is one hell of a problem for methodology — how do you account for good/bad marketing, competition titles, being launch title for a new console, good/bad reviews, release date, anything else that affects sales…). The market might not be large enough to do a completely sound study on this. After all, I’d guess that there’ll be a tiny effect of reduced sales through DRM. It might also go the other way, but no way far enough to justify the investment in DRM.

        But then again, games companies could mount an argument that it’s less about preventing individual copies but about establishing a culture where pirating games is seen as a proper crime, which might actually drive more people to buy instead of pirate, than it drives people into criminal careers … a win for games companies! Also, something that is impossible to prove.

    4. Not sure why you say PS3 is uncracked, a quick googling and sure enough DA:I is out there on the net for he PS3. Did you mean PS4 instead?
      I don’t have any consoles so I don’t really pay much attention to the console world.

    5. Nyctef says:

      DA:I is an interesting example, actually – I’m starting to wonder if the Dragon Age Keep is a near-perfect DRM scheme in addition to being a useful save editor.

    6. Jeff says:

      Comparing DAO, DA2, and DAI numbers is kind of meaningless because there are more important changes between the games than just the DRM scheme used. (The same applies to ME1 vs ME2 vs ME3.)

      DAO to DA2 went from an Infinity-Engine like Pausable Real Time to a Hack & Slash, and then became a roaming sandbox-type game with DAI. It’s like comparing FO1/2 with FOT and FO3. Too many arguably more important variables had changed.

      Shamus’ selection of the FIFA series is a much better thing to look at, given predictable sales numbers.

  5. =David says:

    I feel like DRM and companies’ insistence upon using it is something akin to locking your front door even though your back door is off the hinges. You know it’s not doing anything, but you feel like you have to do SOMEthing to keep people from getting in the house, even if you’re watching a burglar enter the back as you are locking the front.

    1. Given the size of the companies using DRM and their corporate structure, I’m betting a lot of the DRM push is from people in charge of the division getting paid to run DRM. It also allows them to feel like they’re doing something even if it’s as effective as the MPAA trying to make the case that piracy hurts filmmakers as Hollywood’s box office take continues to increase.

    2. Steve C says:

      It’s more akin to having a bouncer stop everyone who enters the front door, asks them some questions, frisks them (for show) and then lets only the ones who know the password in. He’s supposed to be checking tickets but doesn’t. People who paid for the tickets and expect to get in, get upset. If you walk out and try and come back in, he doesn’t remember you and might have already invalidated your ticket as used. Plus when the bouncer goes on break nobody can get in at all. Well except for the people who know about the broken door at the back.

      Most importantly unlike the door off it’s hinges in your analogy, the bouncer still has to be paid a lot of money regardless if he is doing a good job or a bad job. And why all this? Because somehow you’ve been convinced you need a bouncer for a candy store.

      1. vdeogmer says:

        You know, what we really need to make this complete is a car analogy. Anyone feel up to the task?

        1. guy says:

          It’s like a car which requires a key, a fob, a lengthy password, and a satellite connection to start up, or you can open the hood and touch two wires together. And somehow the car dealer doesn’t seem to realize this and thinks the password just needs to be longer.

        2. Ivellius says:

          Really simple, but this is like a valet in a (public?) parking lot that charges people to unlock the car door for them, always leaving keys in the ignition, but at the same time is unable to stop people from using a coat hanger to open the door and take off in the car.

  6. tmtvl says:

    Wait, “Experinced” Points? I think you missed an ‘e’ there.

      1. ehlijen says:

        I se what you dd ther.

  7. Wide And Nerdy says:

    What drawback from DRM am I supposed to be noticing here? I started PC gaming in early 2012 so maybe I just don’t know the difference but my games that (as far as I can tell) just use Steam for DRM don’t inconvenience me.)

    I’ve played a couple of titles on Games for Windows Live but thats dead.

    And Origins once gave me problems with Dragon Age Origins failing to activate DLC but I’ve not sense had that problem.

    Lately its been nice. What am I missing? Maybe I just don’t play those games.

    1. tmtvl says:

      Change your graphics card, game refuses to run. Get a new PC, you’re not allowed to reinstall the game. That fun stuff’s been happening for ages.

      Not to mention gaming under Wine. More studios should port their games to Linux.

      1. Wide And Nerdy says:

        I’ve upgraded my graphics card two or three times since I started. Changed RAM, even moved my disc image onto an SSD. No problems so far.

        I’ll have to take your word about Linux.

        1. guy says:

          Well, in my experience my game DRM is Steam or Origin, which is system-independent and only really problematic in the sense that Origin is just kind of generically terrible and runs slowly, but I’ve swapped hard drives and had it break my Microsoft Office activation controls.

          I think game DRM has moved away from the limited installs used up by hardware changes since SecuROM, thankfully.

    2. ehlijen says:

      You’ll be fine, for as long as Steam exists.

      Do you have any 10-15 year old game discs lying around? I do. Just trying to find my old notes with all the CD keys if I ever want to replay some classic I really liked is a hassle, and that’s about as mild as DRM gets.

      1. ET says:

        Hell, go to the farm/lake/whatever where you don’t have internet access. I’d sure love to be playing some games…but I can’t access Steam to install them at my other computer. :S

    3. HeroOfHyla says:

      The golden age of PC gaming (games being free and open source would be the “platinum age”) would have the following features: You can easily install a game, either from disc or online. There is no online activation. This game is then files on your computer that you can copy or run any time without anyone having any say over it. You can even resell the game, though legally you have to delete the game from your devices first.

    4. guy says:

      The drawback is partially the activation issues, partially that many people don’t necessarily have consistent internet access, and partially that some of the DRM schemes eat hardware. Notably, SecuROM killed CD drives.

    5. Shamus says:

      It’s true, DRM is usually much more tolerable than it was a few years ago. The old systems crashed, created security holes, made drives spin when they didn’t need to, and generally abused your system.

      Denuvo reportedly has a performance penalty. Some people claim it eats up a good chunk of CPU (which, given what it does, isn’t surprising to me at all) and that cracking Inquisition resulted in a performance boost for pirates. I don’t know how true this is or to what degree.

      1. Wide And Nerdy says:

        The game certainly has performance issues. I have no idea if this is the cause.

        1. guy says:

          I would not be surprised if it’s a big part, at least for the loading issues, although they also screwed up something in the graphics engine that seems to make it output malformed commands when under too much stress. But however they do the scrambling thing (which they obviously won’t announce and which the pirates apparently bypassed by cracking the key generation system instead of the unscrambling algorithm) it must be reasonably processor intensive. Probably not many operations, but they have to be done on a lot of data.

          1. Eruanno says:

            If you’re referring to long loading times with “loading issues”, the PS4/X1 have those too, so I don’t know if I’d attribute those to Denuvo. That just seems to be a general problem with their engine…

        2. Well. DA:I did crash a lot for me, not sure if that is just the game or because I was using Cheat Engine.

          I have yet to try the cracked files. I was tempted for a while to get them as origin can’t be fully turned off (not sure if the crack removes that as well though, there is this nasty achievement sound played and one fix is to rename the .wav file origin uses, but a origin updated restored that and it was back again.

          EA stated they’d fix it (add a option in Origin) but who knows how far down their ToDo list that option is.

          I also had some issues with the cloud sync of the DA:I savegames (partly due to the game crashing). Importing a world state is annoying too as sometimes I was or was not logged in and had to restart the game or go to multiplayer to get a Origin login prompt then go back out again.

          The crashes I mention was of two types. One was the graphics driver crashing (no idea if this is due to Origin, DA:I, the DRM, or the protection for the DRM.) updating graphics drivers did not fix it either.

          The other crash is the infamous CTD (Crash to Desktop), for those unfamiliar this means the game just quits abruptly, leaving you staring at the desktop. No errors, no indications of what went wrong, and more often than not there are no clues in the system events log either.
          My guess it’s some debug system in DA:I that kicked in panic mode and quit but didn’t do anything else (like explain it actually crashed).

          Jon Stewart has a funny bit about how advanced yet dumb computers/software are designed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ec9HpusGNI (Cornell set)

          Same but from his RIT set https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lRGyRQJUhU (slightly better sound).

          1. guy says:

            Today I discovered that someone found out they mucked up their graphics engine and it draws things at very large and negative distances. So that’s probably a major cause of problems.

    6. Zukhramm says:

      The Steam DRM is actually technically optional though widely used. There are some games on Steam without DRM, that you can download via Steam but move around and play however you want.

    7. Steve C says:

      You get that Games for Windows Live is dead, but is it really that inconceivable that the same thing could never happen to Valve?

      Let’s say Valve does something stupid. Maybe a lawsuit that bankrupts them. Maybe hackers get in and do something that irrevocably destroys Steam. (Like if they changed it so Steam pushed out an update that formatted your HD.) Maybe Valve is shut down by the government for unpaid taxes. Maybe Valve has their money in the next Lehman Brothers. Maybe Gabe goes insane and ragequits and burns it all to the ground because he is rich and eccentric. Maybe in an effort to create Half-life 3 they open a portal to another dimension and get overrun by monsters that kill them all.

      There’s absolutely no reason to believe that a tech company will last forever. If Valve goes under and Steam is financially unviable then it will simply go offline. The moment it does you lose every Steam game you’ve ever bought.

      1. Colin says:

        I get that concern to some extent, but if we accept some hypothetical situation where Steam and Valve suddenly vanished (rather than removing the Steam based DRM on already downloaded games, which is what I believe they’ve said they’d do in such a scenario), then getting the games that you “own” would be as simple as torrenting them. If GOG’s servers were to go down and you hadn’t been archiving every one of your purchases then they would be just as “lost” as any Steam game, that is to say just a torrent away. If you weren’t comfortable with torrenting a game that you “owned” and you hadn’t archived then you’d be out of luck either way.

        This isn’t a put down on GOG. I think they’re great, but I don’t really find the “what if Valve spontaneously combusted” question to be particularly scary or compelling as a reason not to use Steam.

        1. Timelady says:

          Well, for one thing, without once again wading too far into the fascinating mire that is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, I’m willing to bet that that’s technically illegal under US law. You own the copy, not the media. Steam’s giving you the right to store a certain game on your computer as long as you like, even servicing it for you. If you lose access to Steam, you lose access to the rights they granted you. Just like if you lost your game disc back in the day, you couldn’t (legally) ask somebody to copy theirs and hand it to you. As far as I’m aware.

          1. Tom says:

            Back in the day, most licenses allowed you to make local copies of the game media for backup purposes, in case the original media failed. Of course, the bundled DRM would make these legitimate copies useless in a way that would make Kafka cringe, but you did have the right to do it.

            1. Timelady says:

              True. Of course, that was a specific instance built into the license. Damn, it brings me back, though. I wonder if half of those old floppies would still play?

              1. Felblood says:

                It might not matter.

                A lot of Pre-DMCA EULAs are actually enforceable to the benefit of the user. They gave you the right to use the software, but they never said you had to install it off the same disk that came with the EULA.

                It’s actually legal, for people who bought certain old games legitimately, to download and use that software from another source.

                Unfortunately, you’d need a lawyer to know which of your licenses are actually still enforceable after DMCA, and he’d probably charge more than just buying a new license.

                1. Timelady says:

                  That’s a good and interesting point, although I’m not sure most of the titles in the hypothetical “Steam goes boom” situation above would fall under that particular instance.

        2. silver Harloe says:

          Plus, you know, the whole “sale of intellectual property” thing – if Valve goes down, Steam will probably be bought by… oh, nevermind. Probably by some company that will immediately put DRM on everything.

          But, more seriously: bigger companies rarely implode overnight. If Valve starts to circle the drain, get a bigger HD and download your titles and enjoy “offline mode” on them (at least for the games that works on. but I have usually gotten it work. I’m sure there are exceptions)

        3. ehlijen says:

          A thing to remember: If things go so bad you’re shutting down your online sales portal, what makes you think you have any money to throw out free patches that remove DRM and why would the people you owe money be ok with you doing that?

          It’s good that they want to do it, but will they be able to?

          1. guy says:

            Since it’s a single standardized type of DRM, it shouldn’t be too hard.

            1. ehlijen says:

              It’s still some non-zero amount of work hours and the patch needs to be hosted somewhere. If we’re talking turn off the lights kind of broke, there may not even be enough for that.

            2. Felblood says:

              Historically this has not happened very often, in similar situations.

              You’re better off trusting the crack community to be there for you, after Steam goes down.

              –unless the publishers manage to kill them off, too. Then we’re all boned.

              1. Richard H says:

                As I recall, something like this did actually happen with, at least, Company of Heroes. Then again, I got it through Steam, so it’s still DRMed in a way, but… I’m pretty sure the idiotic “log in to use your SP game” stuff went away even for the version that isn’t the “new steam version” that appeared in my game list one day.

      2. Wide And Nerdy says:

        I guess considering how I am with physical media, I don’t expect that the games I buy I will own forever anyway. I trust the companies I’m buying from more than myself to maintain copies. Its well worth it to me to buy my music, movies, and games digitally through services.

        But thank you all. The variety of answers here make me more informed about the risks I’m taking as a consumer.

      3. Tom says:

        All very true, but that’s not my only reason for refusing to use steam. The other deal-breaker for me is that they reserve the right to punish you for misconduct (as they define it) by revoking your access to your own damn games. Blocking a game client from connecting to a multiplayer server for cheating is one thing, but their approach is, as far as I’m concerned, practically equivalent to forcing entry to my private space, stealing my own property back from me and holding it to ransom, to enforce their own private laws. I will not submit to that.

      4. “There's absolutely no reason to believe that a tech company will last forever.” correct, and it does not even need to go under, if a tech company got bought or merged with another or it gets split up or even changes board whatever, you might end up in a situation where licenses are not renewed or they automatically end (small print) if management changes.
        And suddenly millions may be unable to play their games.

        Heck people are still complaining about MicroSoft no longer supporting Windows XP, and they stopped doing that years ago. (What ended recently was the extended critical support, the normal consumer support ended many years ago.)

        What happens when Valve changes to Steam 2.0 or 3.0 or whatever. Do people really think all those developers/publisher will update their games so it works with Steam x.x ? Some will, but many won’t. This will happen in the next few years. The result? Many won’t be able to play their games.

        1. Trix2000 says:

          I’m not an expert, but I don’t think there’s actually much of anything that’s built into games that are installed through steam that need it to run (there may be exceptions). At the very least, I don’t think it would take much effort, if ANY, to update them.

          Not to mention, what possible reason would they have to do that? It’s just asking for people to get mad for no conceivable benefit, considering they can just update the existing client (as they have done many times already).

          I can understand concerns about Steam failing, but I can’t help but think they’re jumping the gun a little bit. But that’s okay – you don’t have to use Steam to get great games, after all.

          1. Reasons… Better encryption, improved compression, changes to how updates work.

            I’ve never made a game with steam integration but I’m pretty sure that if the DRM stuff changes then the game code need to be changed too.

            And even a small change means work hours needing to be set aside and the cost and time of doing that. And as far as I know Valve (Steam) is not allowed to change the gamecode (nor do they have the source to do that AFAIK).

            Steam would have to keep a legaccy service going for peoples old games, but we’ve all seen how various big publishers have dropped legacy stuff int the past.
            Heck, Sony even removed had hardware emulation of PS1 on the PS2, and hardware then later software on PS3 (or did I screw up my history there) but then they removed that software emulation and people freaked the fuck out, we’re talking lawsuit level shit here.

            If they can re-sell you the same games they will, that is the wet dream of publishers (the music/movie labels and publishers are doing that already and even have laws enforced to ensure that remains enforced so).

            With something like GoG there is no DRM, as long as you machine/OS is able to install and run the game you will be able to play it even if GoG changes the way the website works.

            And even if GoG does change the installer/compression stuff they can easily provide the new installer for download as they do not need to either A change the code of the game to do so or B they do have some code/ability/permission to tweak the game it make it work (that’s how a lot of the old games are made to work).

            Steam is based on a lock-in model, GoG is not.
            There is a competitor to GoG out there called GamersGate and by the looks of it there is a DRM tied to the installation it seems (or maybe just the download of the installer with is less bad if this is the case),
            this is still a lock in as you might end up with a situation where you can’t authenticate to fetch the installer/game so you can install it.

            With GoG you can simply back up the GoG installer, no worries if it’ll run or not based on internet access or serial or whatever.
            If you prefer to play on a Air-gapped computer then this is possible with GoG (just drag the installer/game over on a USB stick or similar).

            Sure, GoG could have done it the Steam way and made a lot more money, but just because something makes a lot more money does not mean it’s the right thing to do.

      5. PhoenixUltima says:

        The big difference here is that Steam is a service that was originally awful (read some of the earlier posts about Steam on this blog if you want evidence) but eventually got its act together and started doing things right, whereas GFWL was a service that was originally awful and never, ever fixed any of its myriad problems. So it doesn’t really make sense to use GFWL as an example of how Steam could fall from grace, because GFWL was never graceful to begin with.

  8. ehlijen says:

    Is the second hand PC market really dead? What killed it?

    If it was DRM (not saying it was, as I don’t know), then arguably DRM succeeded and stopping its use might bring the 2nd hand trade back?

    1. HeroOfHyla says:

      I used to buy preowned PC games all the time at Bookman’s Entertainment Exchange. Sadly, it’s basically impossible to buy preowned games nowadays. The last preowned PC game I bought was Saints Row 2. The steam key was missing, so I was unable to install. Fortunately they have a 7 day unconditional return policy.

      I haven’t seen a PC game newer than, say, The Sims 2 available to purchase preowned for quite a long time.

    2. swenson says:

      The second-hand PC games market probably died around the same time PC games on physical media did. As soon as you can buy things digitally, at much greater convenience and (factoring in Steam sales) nearly as cheaply as you’d get a used copy anyway, why would you ever buy a used physical copy?

      I haven’t bought physical PC games since… man. Five or six years ago? Everything since then has been digital.

    3. Humanoid says:

      If one was dedicated enough, creating a new Steam (or Origin or whatever) account for every game you own would enable you to resell individual games. If prices stayed high post-release this would probably be more attractive than it actually is though.

      Hopefully the EU (or some other powerful body) can get the courts to restore the first sale doctrine for software.

      1. Matt Downie says:

        Imagine the business of trading in games at shops and then someone else buying them, if you have to either check to confirm there’s a valid steam username and password with the game, or take it on faith. Neither shops nor customers would go for it.

    4. Abnaxis says:

      Speaking as someone who worked at Walmart at the time they stopped taking returned software for the bargain bin, the second-hand market didn’t die because of DRM, it died because of CD burners. I was told not to take back any software that had the plastic removed, because while cracks had existed for ages before that, the emergence physical media copiers made the management view customers differently. They didn’t trust anyone to not buy the software, burn a copy, and return the original, so they wouldn’t give refunds.

      That’s about the same time second-hand PC sales died, so I always assumed the same cause. It’s possible DRM had something to do with it and Walmart just used a different justification than everyone else.

    5. Tom says:

      It’s not quite dead, but it’s very sick. Really, REALLY old software that predates most modern DRM is still traded a bit here and there on auction sites – mostly stuff from the period when games were released on CDs, but CD writers weren’t available yet, so it was assumed that CDs would be uncopiable by anyone except large-scale operations who could afford factory equipment and CD games were thus released with no copy protection at all. Bitrot is an issue there, however. Legitimate copies of games with CD/DVD checks but no online verification are also still circulated, because although the CD check programs were obnoxious and invasive bloatware, and frequently unreliable, they didn’t actually impose anything so terrible as limited numbers of installations or reverification every time they detected a change in hardware – looking back, that was a slightly more “honourable” form of DRM than we have now, because it attempted to block copying without also making legitimate resale of the original media impossible. Anything more recent than that though…

      I do miss the old days when resale was common – there was a particular pleasure in stumbling across a particularly rare game you missed on its original release, in its original packaging with the printed manual and everything…

      1. Timelady says:

        Ahhh, the days of the printed manual. When you didn’t have to memorize a 40-100 page .pdf document before starting an RPG that may or may not have a good tutorial and/or crash on alt+tabbing.

        1. Tom says:

          Yeah, I miss the manuals. When I was a kid, it was part of the ritual on the day I’d buy a new game; opening the box in the car on the way home, reading the manual cover to cover, imagining how great the game was going to be when I finally got back and booted it up…

          This occasionally backfired, of course. Sometimes I’d imagine something much better than the game actually turned out to be.

          I miss the boxes, too – I remember being initially disgusted by the transition to DVD cases, they felt cheap. I know the old style of cardboard boxes were mostly about 95% wasted space to give the illusion of getting more for your money, but it was a nice illusion – and just occasionally those big boxes contained cool extra stuff! These days I’m on a space premium, though, so I chuck the DVD cases & keep the discs in a big wallet (I keep the DVD case sleeves & printed manuals packed flat in a box file, though!).

          1. Timelady says:

            Yessssss. Although in my case it was less on the way home (car rides used to give me headaches) and more sitting in a corner somewhere in the house poring over it. Possibly during dinner. Remember how they used to use the space sometimes just to flesh out the universe, too? Like, alongside the manual, you’d have an in-universe pizza place menu or fake newspaper article or something.

            Oh my god that is the most amazing idea ever about the DVD cases, though. I mean, yeah, there’s some games I’ll never want to get rid of, even if I don’t have that kind of drive anymore…but DVD or jewel cases? Yeah, the games might be good but those hold no sentimental value for me. (I’ll save the space for those old Broderbund catalogs… <.<)

      2. Felblood says:

        Yeah, but that market doesn’t exist because the games can or can’t be cracked.

        If you want to pirate those same games it’s actually way easier to get a digital archive and an emulator, safe from zinc corrosion.

        This is about people with disposable income spending money on principal.
        The best DRM is the hearts and minds of your customers. Don’t make them give you money, make them WANT to give you money.

        1. Trix2000 says:

          An especially valid point considering you technically can’t make anyone give you money, piracy or no – people don’t HAVE to buy the product after all.

    6. Khizan says:

      A few things killed it.

      1) The increased ability of people to buy/copy/resell without losing access to the game. Improved hardware letting me full-install everything to memory, availability of no-CD cracks, doesn’t matter how I manage it. It only matters that I can do it.

      The fact that I don’t necessarily lose access to a game by reselling it means that developers have a strong interest in hindering resale potential, because the “I buy Skyrim Monday, resell it Tuesday to recoup the money I spent, I play the game on Wednesday anyways” scenario is a bad one for them; they make no money off of that game that’s going through Gamestop like a revolving door.

      2) The increased amount of online components. This isn’t a developer thing, though. This is a store thing. Here’s a scenario for you: I sell a store my copy of Warcraft 3. You buy it, install it, and find that you can’t use Battlenet because I’m using that CD key onon Bnet. You take it back and tell them that you can’t use this product that you bought. So what do they do now? Let’s assume they believe you and don’t think you’re pulling a #1.

      Do they refund your money and then just throw the game out since this will be a problem with every sale? Do they refund your money, put it back on the shelf, and hope that the next buyer only wants offline play? Or do they refund you, label it “offline only”, and put it back on the shelf? Do you just get shown the door with a ‘caveat emptor’? Do they try and track down the seller and recoup their money or blacklist them from further sales? What if the seller claims he wasn’t the original owner and -he- bought it used?

      Ugh, that’s a big problem for them, nobody wants to deal with that. So what do they do about it? Avoid selling games that have online functionality? Avoid games with CD keys and online parts? Haha, no, none of that.

      They just don’t sell used PC games because the money isn’t worth the headache, and so your used game market collapses.

      1. Ciennas says:

        Actually, they’d do the first one. Wal-Mart does a lot of noncontract phone sales- the ones returned are deactivated by the return process and shipped on to a reclamation facility. I asked about it last time I was there, and they explained that all the phones, even ones unopened and mint in the box, are considered deactivated and non usable.

        They could do something similar with PC games.

        I acknowledge that phones are easier to do this to, but nothing makes a key code locked game all that different.

        Just make it so that an installed to Steam (For example) game goes inert upon being returned to the store, and then you’ve removed 89 percent of the problem.

        This does require the network to function, but…. It can’t do everything. Nor should it have to solve everything.

        A determined thief can have anything they desire, I see no reason to punish the ninety percent honest for the scoundrelous few.

  9. Liam O'Hagan says:

    Experinced Points? (at least, that’s what the tab in Chrome is calling it ;) )

    Edit: Damn, just noticed that someone noticed and noted this before me, please ignore my note

    1. Ratatoskz says:

      Your note to ignore your note has been noted.

      1. Timelady says:

        Well, you’re write about that.

  10. Phill says:

    Personally I suspect that DRM works more on a “herd immunity” level than anything else.

    Anecdotally most people I know who pirated games tended to get through an awful lot of them and just pay a bit of each, except for the occasional one they’d get more booked on. But their game consumption was more time limited than cash limited. They’d play X games per week because they had Y hours per week they spent gaming. Some of those games they’d pay for, most they wouldn’t.

    Of course they all said they only pirated games they wouldn’t have bought.

    But the thing is, if all games were impossible to pirate, they wouldn’t be able to get through X games a week, but they’d be bored of the games they had paid for before their Y hours were up. With the result that they’d possibly by one or two more games to fill up the time.

    What this suggests is that the effect of a pirated games isn’t to hurt the sales of that game noticeably, but to hurt the sales of all games marginally. Breaking the DRM of Dragon age inquisition doesn’t cut the sales of that game by 10%, it maybe cuts the sales of all games by 0.1%.

    Which is where the herd immunity argument comes in. It’s not about protecting sales of one game. It is about reducing the amount of freely available games, so that there is not enough free stuff around to keep people entertained and so giving a small boost to sales of legitimate software.

    This does also rather suggest that the thing that undermines DRM more is free to pay games. I can pay bartender free for hours and hours quite happily. Maybe if I couldn’t I’d have given in and bought civ 5 to have something new to pay. But I haven’t bought it, and I have been playing war thunder…

    1. Merlin says:

      It’s interesting that you cite Civ 5 though, because games like it – that live and die by replayabilty – ALSO act as an impediment to that kind of mass consumption. You’re never “done” playing Civ 5, or Madden 20XX, or the multiplayer FPS du jour. Only games with a semi-fixed single-player campaign have that big endpoint where you say “I finished this, time to play a new game.” Unless you count achievements I suppose, but even sticking with Civ 5 as the example, you’ve got a few hundred to chew through.

      Hell, you could keep yourself occupied for months just trying to 100% Civ 5, Binding of Isaac, and Team Fortress 2. That’s 3 games from completely different genres, and costing what, $40 total?

    2. Deoxy says:

      It's not about protecting sales of one game. It is about reducing the amount of freely available games, so that there is not enough free stuff around to keep people entertained and so giving a small boost to sales of legitimate software.

      Problem: Before Denuvo, I’d heard of exactly 1 triple A game in the last… I don’t know, 15 years? that didn’t have a zero day crack available on the internet. There IS no “herd immunity” to speak of.

      The idea has some merit, but since it absolutely hasn’t happened, it’s no different than any of those other excuses.

      1. Phill says:

        I wasn’t trying to say “DRM is successful and here is the reason”. Rather “here is how I think DRM, piracy and sales interact”. And yes, I entirely agree that so much stuff gets cracked straight away that there is no herd immunity.

        It’s more an argument about how piracy [i]might[/i] affect sales; that it’s not a case of good DRM = more sales for this game. Piracy hurts sales because the lack of time to play everything (and the comments above and below about replayable games like civ, and the people with huge backlogs due to steam sales having the same effect are true).

        So any given game having DRM is more or less irrelevant. If lots of games had successful DRM, there might be an effect on sales. But they don’t, and it seems unlikely that they ever will.

        BTW one more thing occurred to me as to why companies might stick with DRM: it makes it just enough hassle for people to get free versions that some of them won’t bother.

        I might be an example of this. I don’t pirate games, because of a) ethical reasons and b) I have very little trust for the safety of torrent sites. But if a AAA game was released with no DRM, where one person could buy the disk, install and play it and lend the disk to a friend who could do the same – both playing happily at the same time off a single purchase – then I suspect I’d quite cheerfully have a few ‘illegal’ games.

        Consider me and Dark Souls. I’ve not played the game, although one day I might get around to it. I could download a cracked version, but I won’t. But if I could borrow the disk off a friend and install it from that with no DRM issues, I probably would. So if I ever get around to buying the game it will be because of DRM.

        (There is plenty of evidence from psychology that people are irrational like this; people will steal $1 of office supplies far more readily than they will steal $0.10 in cash. People will cheat less on a test with a “please do not cheat” notice on (and even less if you change the wording to “do not be a cheater” – labelling the person rather than the action). Apparently we don’t like to be confronted with our own questionable behaviour but are quite good at ignoring it in many situations ;) )

        Anyway, DRM has the effect of making the choice more stark – I’m downloading an illegal copy from a dodgy site rather than installing the game from a legitimate disk I’m holding in my hand.

        DRM might not prevent access to pirated games in any technical sense, but then putting “please do not cheat” on an exam doesn’t have any effect on whether people [i]can[/i] cheat or not. But it still affects people’s behaviour.

    3. Matt Downie says:

      Anyone who buys things impulsively when they’re 75% off on Steam probably has a huge games backlog. Someone who pirated lots of games before theoretical perfect DRM come along would also have a huge games backlog. Any effect would be very slight.

    4. Daimbert says:

      Well, since we’re dealing with anecdotes, every case that I’ve encountered of the sort of piracy where a couple of people with similar systems get together and buy one copy and share it between them by copying the disks has been about monetary constraints, not time constraints. I even count. When I had time to play games but didn’t have money, copying games became important to me and my gameplaying. Now that I am constrained far more by time than by money, I don’t even consider any kind of pirating, because it’s easier for me to simply buy the game than it is to pirate it (partly because of the reasons you cite, but even with copying in general it’s better to buy than to simply copy a disk) except for old games that I can’t get anymore (for example, old Amiga or C64 games that I play on an emulator). And, in general, games don’t go bad, so unless I have to be playing the latest and greatest I can buy a game and play it when I have time … or buy it later when I WILL have time. Pirating games doesn’t help me with my time problem, only my money problem.

      But I think that companies can learn from the reason why I used to be totally against pre-ordering and now actually do pre-ordering for certain games: I want the extras that come with the pre-order. For me, I especially want the soundtrack CDs. If companies really wanted to put a dent into piracy, they’d make it so that we WANT to buy the full version, by offering bonuses in the physical copies and to people who formally register the electronic download versions. I think the main reason that Shamus doesn’t really chafe that much at Steam is because he gets all sorts of other benefits out of it, so he’s willing to put up with the DRM, when it’s there. So even Steam’s success seems to suggest that if you give people benefits for going legit, people go legit.

      Instead, companies seem to be going the exact opposite way. They’re taking out anything that would make me want to buy the physical game — by, for example, taking out well-written and funny manuals — while pushing downloads that give you a copy of the software and nothing else, while putting on annoying DRM schemes that mean that when the protection is cracked the pirated versions are actually better than the legit versions. Even this new one seems to have a performance hit, which again makes the pirated version superior. That’s not a way to encourage me to actually buy the game instead of pirating it.

      If buying the game legitimately was generally better than pirating it in terms of convenience or overall experience, the only people who’d pirate would be people who couldn’t afford to buy the games anyway but still wanted that inferior experience. Piracy flourishes because, in general, it’s not … and it’s only getting worse.

      1. Richard says:

        And in fact, this is another reason why DRM is bad.

        The last two games that I bought which had DRM wasted several hours of my “playtime” entirely due to the DRM scheme.

        (Sign up to additional online accounts, malfunctioned and required me to contact the game support etc)

        So I ended up losing most of my playtime, which put me in a “This had better be the most awesome game ever” mood by the time I started playing – and they weren’t.

        The second of them burned three days between buying the game and first being able to play it.
        I ended up playing about 2 hours before deciding the game just wasn’t worth it, and I won’t be buying anything else by that publisher.

        So that publisher has permanently alienated me from both the franchise in particular and their games in general.
        They did that by spending extra money on DRM and yet more on somebody to deal with my complaint in order to fix the DRM up enough so I could play.

        This is why it’s stupid. Even if it actually worked (which is impossible), it would still be self-defeating.

    5. Trix2000 says:

      It’s not that hard to find free games online these days, even just through legit means. Even if you eliminate FTP MMOs (which can take hours and hours on their own).

    6. Asimech says:

      First, a nitpick: “Herd immunity” is protection you gain by being part of a herd that’s mostly immune to it because diseases need to be caught from somewhere and if ~95% are immune they’re unlikely to carry it so it’s less likely for people who lack immunity to catch it. This does not relate to DRM as games don’t ‘catch’ being pirated from other games.

      Second: In order for the ‘herd immunity’ to work no decent sized backlog of pirateable* games should be able to form, which means that practically every game would need to have The Herd DRM**. Which means that The Herd DRM would need to be:

      a) unbreakable for each game at least until that game would drop off the Pirate Radar.
      Which is unlikely.

      b) free to implement – in practice no cost in money, time or effort to have it in your game or there’s no way almost every new game (including games by small companies) would have it.
      Which is impossible, at least with point A.

      * If ‘pirateable’ wasn’t a word before, it is now, for I deem it so.
      ** By ‘The Herd DRM’ I don’t mean there has to be The One DRM in every game, I’m simplifying because multiple DRM solutions wouldn’t make reaching “herd immunity” more likely and therefore would just complicate the topic without adding to it.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Typo: You’re missing the 3rd E in ExperiEnced.

  12. Paul Spooner says:

    If not for the policy against discussing politics, I would bring up many more serious parallels in other fields. Ahh well. Fear is a powerful motivator, and it seems most rulers are beset with it.

  13. krellen says:

    “A very specific level of dumb” is always a great phrase.

  14. MadTinkerer says:

    “Steam is DRM, but it's DRM PLUS convenience, a store, a community, etc.”

    So what is DRM then, Shamus? Because according to your definition, clearly DRM includes software which does nothing to prevent copying. For example: all of the games installed through Steam and optionally managed through the launcher which are not actually dependent on Steam in any way once they are downloaded. Steam is not DRM for every game sold on Steam, so is it really a DRM plus a storefront or is it actually a Minecraft-style download manager plus storefront plus optional DRM for some games?

    The last one. It’s the last one. Read the Super Win The Game EULA for one example. Or buy 1000 Amps, download it through Steam, copy the folder, uninstall Steam, and play 1000 Amps as much as you want because the “Steam version” of 1000 Amps doesn’t actually give a crap about Steam.

    The problem I have with calling Steam DRM is that it puts off people from caring about the games on Steam that have no DRM. As long as everyone keeps calling Steam (inherently) DRM, we’ll never get better labeling of which games do require the Steam launcher, which ones don’t, which ones require external logins, which games check for Steam just for Steam Workshop stuff but don’t stop you from playing, and so on.

    1. Humanoid says:

      The requirement to install the Steam client is still an annoying restriction, and I’ll keep giving them flak for that. And it really should be on them to note in big letters on their store pages which titles do have Steamworks DRM instead of being dependent on crowdsourced information.

      1. Zak McKracken says:

        Is there any rough number about the proportion of steam games that have DRM vs. the ones that haven’t?

        1. Humanoid says:

          If Wikipedia is to be believed, there were 3700 games total on Steam as of September this year. Looking at the DRM-free list here, which has some borderline cases and is therefore probably an overestimate, I eyeball about 200 titles DRM-free. So let’s say about 5% considering the borderline titles.

          It’s a safe assumption that Valve won’t exactly encourage the practice. After all, their business model largely revolves around having customers exposed to Steam as much as possible to sell even more stuff to them. “Initiatives” like the social stuff, the trading cards, the voting during sales, etcetera, all aim to maximise consumption of the Steam client.

          1. Zak McKracken says:

            I was going to say that most of them were probably small unknowns, but I was wrong … so still, 5% is not a lot. Which means that 95% of the time, Steam is still DRM after all.

            1. Humanoid says:

              I have to wonder whether Steam perhaps gives a financially better deal to incentivise the use of their DRM, because of the sheer volume of developers who are demonstrably happy to sell their games at other places DRM-free but implement DRM in their Steam versions.

              I know that nominally Steam take a 30% cut from all titles, but there’s plenty that can be done alongside that, whether it be actual money or perhaps more prominent ‘placement’ in recommendations and front page exposure, etc.

    2. Shamus says:


      You know, I threw in that line SPECIFICALLY to head off the pedants who would say, “What about Steam Shamus? Huh? Don’t you know THAT’S DRM? Why are you ignoring it? Is it because you’re such a Valve fanboy? Huh? HUUUUH?”

      (No, I don’t think anyone would actually say that. But that’s the nagging voice of the reflexive-arguer, and after writing 199 columns I hear that voice in my head all the time.)

      “so is it really a DRM plus a storefront or is it actually a Minecraft-style download manager plus storefront plus optional DRM for some games?”

      That sounds good.

      1. MadTinkerer says:

        We need a plain term to distinguish between games that are only downloaded and installed through Steam (the storefront doesn’t matter in this case because you can buy Steam codes from Humble Bundle and other sources) and those which actually require the Steam launcher to be running and those which require the Steam launcher and/or some kind of third party DRM system or UPlay or whatever. Because whenever “Steam game” is used in a conversation about DRM, it seems like everyone assumes that all Steam games use the launcher as DRM. That just obscures the facts and helps those with DRM ranging from not-horribly-inconvenient to insidious, to camouflage their products among games that use zero DRM at all.

        I have over a thousand games on Steam ranging from Valve games to all the Dooms to most of the Lucasarts to the Sega collections to hundreds of Indie games to Far Cry Blood Dragon which I bought on sale before I remembered it used UPlay :( I have only tested several dozen games, but I have had an astonishing range of results. Pretty much all Valve games require the launcher to be running. All games that use Steamworks multiplayer require the launcher to connect to servers (but that’s acceptable because of how internet multiplayer works). Many games require the launcher to run, but will do fine in offline mode. Many games don’t require the launcher to be running at all. Some games will say something like “I can’t communicate with the Valve servers so you won’t get achievements if you continue. Continue anyway? y/n”. Some games will say “This game requires a valid Steam login to run” and then quit. Some games will say “This game requires the Steam launcher to run.” and then start the Steam launcher and restart after the launcher starts.

        Then there’s offline mode which has worked every time I’ve tried it since 2009 or so, but other peoples’ computers have problems with it all the time. I consider it a related but separate issue, because of the fact that some games just don’t even require offline mode once they’re downloaded.

        There’s a friggin’ cornucopia-rainbow of DRM-related possibilities, and most of the actual facts are being ignored in favor of “Steam is DRM by definition! How dare you support DRM by contradicting us!”.

        1. guy says:

          Certainly, enough games on Steam do require Steamworks DRM that it is entirely reasonable to assume that some arbitrary game requires it. Personally, Offline Mode has never given me any trouble, but people do keep mentioning having problems with it.

          Steam does seem to crash my wireless USB adapter driver whenever I play a game, but that’s because the driver was designed by incompetents and not a problem with Steam. Plenty of other things crash it too.

    3. Karthik says:

      And it would have made sense for Shamus to bring up these subtleties if his column was about Steam. It doesn’t make sense to split hairs when it’s not the thing you want to talk about.

      Also, if anybody is to blame for the conflation of these various DRM levels on Steam titles, it’s Steam. There is no way to know–on the storefront–what kind of DRM a particular game has.

      (Yes, steampowered.com notes if a game requires “additional third-party DRM”, but that’s splitting hairs again. I do not know if a game requires the Steam client to be running until I purchase, download and try it.)

    4. Zak McKracken says:

      If we’re going to be pedantic: “DRM plus store” does not imply that every game uses both components.

      The fact that Steam does have DRM-free titles does bear pointing out (though maybe not in a column mainly about Denuvo), but then again I bet Valve is hoping for people to get Steam for the convenience even though they don’t like DRM and then still get them to cross the (now much much thinner) line.

    5. Steve C says:

      MadTinkerer said: all of the games installed through Steam and optionally managed through the launcher which are not actually dependent on Steam in any way once they are downloaded.

      I can with absolute certainty that is incorrect. See my post on this page about Steam DRM fucking me over in an offline game. It happened this very week.

      1. Richard says:

        There are definitely many games on Steam that aren’t reliant on Steam itself for anything beyond downloading and installing. (and auto-updates if enabled)

        I can copy them to my other machines, and/or play them when my Internet is down and they run just fine without jumping through any hoops.

        There are also many games on Steam which do rely on Steam’s DRM systems, and yet others (thankfully very few and thus easy to avoid) which rely on various other DRM schemes.

        In truth, Steam is primarily a storefront, but one that also offers publishers an update manager and an optional DRM system.

        As a publisher you can choose to use Valve’s DRM system (presumably for a fee), roll your own (and risk sales) or not use one at all.

        I’ve noticed that the majority of Indies choose the last option, as they understand that DRM is simply a cost that carries no apparent benefit.

  15. Steve C says:

    Here’s a story of Steam DRM fucking me over in the last week:

    I went to play an existing game that was installed and haven’t played in months. I got an error “Failed to connect to key server”. It refused to run and it was clear it was a Steam error. It was an offline game and I did not have internet– that was whole reason why I was running that game. It’s been installed, run many times offline, has saves, been completed etc. I don’t need anything to do with keys for this game nor any files.

    This made me furious. I was locked out of my own offline game! And doubly furious because I know it will come up again in the future and there’s no way to stop it. Googled answers all have to deal with Steam running out of keys for games purchased and never gotten running at all. My issue was that a game was collecting dust and suddenly doesn’t work anymore for no good reason at all. Note that it was irrelevant that Steam’s servers were up or down. I was the one with no internet.

    When I did get my internet back and tried to run it, that game started updating. I have updates specifically turned off. It shouldn’t be doing that for anything. And I double checked- the option was still off while it was updating. It wouldn’t let me play unless I downloaded 126.8 megs that 1) I did not want, 2) it should not have even been aware that it was needed, 3)An update I had absolutely no way of preventing without closing Steam. It wasn’t corrupted data or anything. I verified the local files. 100% validated. What was that 126.8meg? It was free DLC that was added in November that I did not know about and very importantly did not want. Now that it’s updated I obviously have restored internet access and have no desire to play it because I now have internet access.

    So how do you fix this error if you have no internet? You don’t. You’re just fucked.

    What bothers me most is that nobody else seems to care that there is a single point of failure for their entire games library. If Steam goes down then you are screwed. There is nothing magical and special about Steam or any other service that keeps it running. Nobody will understand my concern until a major service suddenly implodes and suddenly people cannot ever again access what they paid for. It will happen. It’s just a matter of time.

    Everyone who used MSN Music store slowly lost everything. Everyone who used MegaUpload lost everything suddenly but that was just a cloud of data you uploaded. One day the combo of the two- a large itemized service will suddenly shut it’s doors and it will be a shitstorm.

    1. Matt Downie says:

      “There is nothing magical and special about Steam or any other service that keeps it running.”
      It’s the most magical and special secret of all: billions of dollars.
      The only reason Steam might fail is if people like you inspire a loss of confidence in it. So I’m going to put my fingers in my ears and say ‘la la la’ and I encourage all other users to do the same.

      1. ehlijen says:

        Ah yes, the classic duck-and-cover approach to escaping lava flowing towards you.

      2. Daimbert says:

        Well, stories like these are pretty much why I refuse to play Steam games, even though some of the smaller ones were games I found interesting. I don’t have the time to put up with those sorts of potential problems, no matter how good the Steam service claims to be. And I prefer to be offline when I don’t need to be connected, so the issues around that have made be definitely leery of Steam.

    2. Naota says:

      To be fair, should they ever go out of business there’s nothing magical or special that prevents Valve from giving advance warning and releasing a client-side version of Steam that doesn’t need account credentials or use a log in. It would only need to boot up in a permanent offline mode for the purpose of any games that go looking for a running client to authorize with, and any games you had from Steam would run forever.

      Even if no other company buys up their rights to continue supporting the service after Valve bites it, it’s not as if there are no options left to its customers. If Valve, for whatever reason, doesn’t provide this fix to restore probably billions of dollars in lost media for its gigantic userbase, some third party already has, and I will feel no guilt simply using their crack to restore access to my games.

      1. Steve C says:

        I heard that argument before (even in this thread) and it’s simply wrong. There’s plenty of things that would prevent Valve from turning of the login. 1)Time 2)Money 3)Authorization from within the company 4)Contracts they’ve signed.

        When things go bad in a company they just don’t have time or money to implement sweeping changes. It’s fire control mode. Nobody will give authorization to do something like turning off the login portal. And if someone does, the lawyers will go ape-shit. Doing something like that would definitely break thousands of existing contracts with publishers. If the company does go bankrupt, that individual who authorized that change could easily be sued successfully in the bankruptcy proceedings.

        Even giving advance warning is something that would open a company up to huge legal liability. It takes an outside eye to recognize that a company is in trouble and it’s always they that sound the alarm bells.

        As for downloading cracks or pirating copies to replace your library… that’s a little like having your car wrongly remotely disabled and therefore deciding to steal one from the dealer’s lot and feel justified to so as you’d just be acting as a repo-man to reclaim your property. Yes that would work I guess but isn’t really the way things are done and certainly opens you up to legal ramifications.

        1. Tom says:

          I think your analogy might be slightly more accurate if it were your own car that you broke into and hotwired after it was remotely disabled, since in that case your piracy would not be depriving anyone else of a copy or legitimate income from one.

          1. Naota says:

            Basically, yeah. Depending on where you live, it may not even be strictly illegal to use third party cracks to remove DRM systems that have wrongfully denied you access to entertainment media you’ve paid for, due to system outages or servers going down.

            In any case, the legal ramifications here are so minor and so commonplace that they in no way compare to breaking into a car dealership – it’s really more like Honda folding overnight and locking down your car, which now has phone-home DRM, so you open up the dashboard and bypass the thing rather than sitting on your thumbs with a useless would-be-functional vehicle you obtained both legally and fairly.

      2. Humanoid says:

        If they could do that with the wave of a hand, then there’s every reason to hope Valve goes out of business as soon as possible. :P Might suck for the people who are hoping for new Valve-developed games, but as someone who isn’t, there’s no downside.

        Of course, I trust Gaben and his words about what would happen in that eventuality about as far as I can throw him, so ironically that makes me not want that to actually happen because the likelihood is that I’d have to “brave the high seas” to regain the games I own.

  16. Csirke says:

    Wooo, this column might have been partially inspired by my email, yay!

    On topic:
    “The problem is that it’s impossible to scramble an executable in such a way that it can be run, but not tampered with.”
    I don’t quite agree with that. I think it would be theoretically possible to make a DRM that can only be cracked if run like emulating console games on a PC. Which would mean it’s not just inconvenient for the crackers, but for the people who play the cracked games too. It would mean that, like if you want to play console games on the PC, you’d need to play games about one generation behind, to run them at an enjoyable speed. At least with my programming/mathematics knowledge that doesn’t seem impossible.

    Now that would make an interesting situation, and I wonder what its effects on sales would be. Otherwise I mostly agree with Phill above, that the changes in sales of one uncracked game don’t tell us much. If at some point a majority of games was uncracked, that would be more interesting, but that could only happen over such a long time that the effect of it would be impossible to separate from other changes in the market. So we’ll probably never really know how piracy effects sales.

    1. Arstan says:

      Then how would game behave if DRM check had been passsed? If cracking the game needs to be done all the time you play (like emulating console games), wouldn’t DRM do much the same thing, also preventing you from playing? If it uses any kind of key to do that faster than cracking software, you can’t hide that key from users of open system like PC. But it can be (and is done) on current game systems, AFAIK

  17. Rob says:

    Question for you, Shamus: do you choose your article titles, or is it the editors at the Escapist? I’d always assumed it was the latter as comparing URLs to article titles shows most titles have been changed to be more click-baity (for lack of a better word), but your intro seems to imply you had a hand in it.

    1. Shamus says:

      It varies. This week, I chose the title. Sometimes if I can’t think of one I’ll just name it after whatever I’m talking about. (Which often needs to be changed, because that’s boring, un-descriptive, or collides with existing article names.)

  18. Nidokoenig says:

    The idea of patching out DRM raises the question of whether this would cause a sales spike. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but Stardock and gog seem to punch above their weight at least in part due to essentially free advertising from people who want to encourage DRM-free games. A game that removes DRM could see a similar boost, either naturally from general sentiment or as a result of an engineered campaign by unpaid activists who want to send a message, which is even easier to pull off in an era of Twitter, Reddit and chans. The nearest thing to a test case I can think of is the various titles ditching GFWL for Steamworks, outside of things like X-Com having its password system patched out back in the 90s. Since publishers seem to not believe in long tail sales, a DRM removal spike a month or two after the last chunk of DLC should be pretty appealing.

    1. MadTinkerer says:

      Publishers don’t care about long tail sales because they need to have good quarterly and annual reports and they don’t care about anything else. This is because the fact that making a good game takes more than a year combined with pressure to put out good games on a yearly schedule always drives competent publishers to madness, so all publicly owned publishers go mad after a year or two of public ownership.

      What would be the point of removing DRM on a game that isn’t for sale? It would be a waste of effort and the shareholders would ask embarrassing questions. What would be the point of removing DRM on a game that is for sale? That would be putting effort into costing the company sales and the shareholders make sure whoever approved that decision was fired.

      What would be the point in removing DRM on a game when the people who could do that are, optimistically, busy with another project, or already gone? What would be the point in removing DRM when no one who bought the game cared about the DRM and everyone who did care didn’t buy it? What would be the point in removing DRM on a game when the pirates do it for us anyway?

      What would be the point in doing something that’s right for the customer but is actually just not worth the effort or risk because the company is owned by the March Hare and the Mad Hatter?

  19. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Hey Shamus,remember darkspore?Does anyone remember darkspore?Yeah,ea made a game in the spore universe that was….what the hell was darkspore about?

    Anyway,darkspore was never cracked.Not even today.In a world where you can play world of warcraft on a pirated server,you cannot find a single working pirated darkspore copy.And yet,its lack of amazing success didnt do a single thing to stop new drm from being developed and used.Same as that,denuvo will do absolutely nothing to stop drm from being improved and used in the future.

    1. Given what I can find about the game (the most common adjective being “mediocre”), perhaps it’s not an innovation in DRM that prevented a crack, but lack of interest in doing so?

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        That was definitely the reason why the efforts stopped,but seeing all the crap that was cracked its not the reason why initial efforts failed.

        1. Source?

          I mean, City of Heroes was never cracked like WoW because (from what I understand) the code was a bit of a mess/tarball and a lot of the code was server-side and not in the client (so there was no code to hack and not many clues as to what the server “needed” to let the client run). From that, it would seem the best DRM is to use unorthodox coding methods and not have part of the actual game on the player’s PC.

    2. poiumty says:

      Wait, Darkspore was a thing? And it wasn’t cracked? Hold up something smells fishy.

      *checks wikipedia*

      “Darkspore requires a persistent, broadband internet connection and an EA account in order to play the game after installation.”

      I have identified the culprit. Games where a lot of the information is stored server-side cannot be easily cracked. Diablo 3 hasn’t been fully “cracked” (i.e. 100% working with no bugs beside retail) either, and if it has, it’s a pretty early version that took a few years to do. The reason is because you actually need to set up and emulate a gameserver on your local machine to handle all the serverside information.

      My guess is no one cracked Darkspore because no one gave enough of a shit to undertake the sysyphean task of emulating a pre-existing server structure from scratch.

      In other words, fully online DRM works. It works as in it’s a major pain in the ass to crack and it doesn’t get easier once you’ve done it once. If all games had full online DRM, we’d be seeing a very narrow selection of them actually get pirated properly.
      It’s a bit ironic, but pirates have to thank the consumers for standing up against it.

    3. doppleganger says:

      Darkspore was an interesting game. I played it with 2 friends during a free weekend on Steam, and I was ready to buy it afterward, to play in co-op modes with said friends. But one of them was not so enamored with it and ultimately, the always logged in DRM feature was the final reason to not buy it. So they lost 3 sales with their setup…

      The game was a third person looter, in which as you gained experience, you were unlocking various heroes. When you started a mission, you had to choose 3 heroes to form a squad, and you would go though the entire mission with said squad. Only one of the heroes was active at a time, and you could switch pretty much on the fly if I recall correctly.

      The heroes did not have to accumulate experience to become better. Their effectiveness was based entirely on the gear with which you equipped them. Which meant you could deck out a newly unlocked hero and have him become one of your main active heroes immediately.

      The action part of the game was somewhat engaging, sufficiently anyway. And after each mission, there was usually a period of figuring out how to distribute the new gear amongst heroes, and changing the squads if desired.

      I think it was not possible to exchange gear with other players, I am not sure.

  20. James says:

    They don’t have to care because people still buy their stuff, DRM or no. It would only matter to them if NO ONE bought or pirated the game. But gamers are too fking stupid so that’s why we have DRM.

  21. RTBones says:

    Which is more odious – DRM that makes a title finiky, unwieldy, and crash prone OR DRM that requires a persistent broadband connection so that a title can ‘phone home’, and will quit working the instant the internet connection is broken?

    1. MichaelGC says:

      Well, as a great person* once said: “If those are my two options I’m going to kick you in the [groin area] and run away.”

      * i.e. I can’t remember who it was. Possibly SF Debris.

  22. Halceon says:

    Oh dear, by analogy with the “Gamers are over” article, is this going to spark a social media shitstorm #DRMGate?

    1. Daemian Lucifer says:

      Its actually about ethics in wall street.

    2. Shamus says:

      We were doing fine until you brought it up!

      (Additional: Let’s not go there.)

  23. Zak McKracken says:

    On the “stupid investors” defense:

    1: That hypothesis does not require a large number of investors with that specific level of stupidity. If holders of 5% of your shares believe you’re making a bad or dangerous move, they will sell, and it will hurt you. And since your shares drop, others (many of them computers…) will just abandon your shares quickly without knowing why they are dropping or caring whether there’s good reason to believe they’ll come up again soon.

    2: That level of ignorance is not all that specific. The knowledge that DRM is crap is shouted from the rooftops about as much as some scientifically proven facts about climate change and the uselessness of torture — it just doesn’t find enough open ears for it to become something that “everyone knows”, and going into the topic without background, I bet that most people believe (even lots of gamers I know who should know better) that DRM does indeed help the companies who make it.

    3: Having talked about how difficult it is to establish proven facts that go against popular wisdom: It’s sometimes even more difficult to establish them against corporate culture. Really, the assumption that in the competition of opinions the reasonable ones always win in the long run may be false. Or “the long run” is at least a lot longer than it would seem. People believe stupid things. Probably everyone here, including myself, believes at least one or two completely stupid things, that we’d be embarrassed about if we ever figured them out.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      …there is of course a way out of this (which makes the hypothesis look less probable):
      If you’re a big studio, just start offering some small title without DRM, then a slightly bigger one if that works well, and so on.

      The thing that just prevent this, though: I think especially in upper management circles there’s an amount of pragmatism I find appalling. The idea seems to be that you can’t be sure someone will act the way you would like unless you coerce them to do it. Never rely on people just doing what they should, make sure! That concept, applied to your customers, leads directly to DRM.

  24. Hey Shamus, in case you haven’t seen this already, there’s a relevant Forbes article on the sales for EA’s FIFA series: http://www.forbes.com/sites/greatspeculations/2014/10/06/electronic-arts-fifa-franchise-to-maintain-dominance-in-sports-genre/

    “According to Gfk Chart-track, the number of FIFA 15 units sold in the first week is almost same as the number of FIFA 14 units sold. However, FIFA 15″²s higher price range (Price of £54.99 in the U.K and $60-$70 in the U.S.), compared to that of FIFA 14, led to a 6% jump in FIFA 15″²s first week revenues.”

    So, w/ Denuvo DRM protection for 3 months, FIFA’s sales are virtually the same between 14 and 15, and any marginal increase in revenue can be explained by the increase in pricing.

    Additionally there’s this: “The number of FIFA units sold has almost doubled from 6.4 million in 2010 to 12.45 million in 2013…Sales of the annual FIFA franchise went up 25% after the last world cup in 2010.”

    Seems to me that FIFA has already been on an upward trend in sales for some time now, long before the introduction of Denuvo, and that’s most likely the result of the following:

    “FIFA 15 is more popular in Europe than in North America, where Madden NFL is the key title…With technological advancements, improved graphics, detailed visuals and new digital content features, the demand for FIFA has increased exponentially over the last five years.”

    Some food for thought eh?

  25. Dreadjaws says:

    I still think the worst case of DRM abuse came from Square Enix, when they re-released Final Fantasy VII for the PC and it came with online activation, activation limits, always-online and I think SecuROM or something else. Four kinds of DRM for a 15 year old game.

    They patched most of them out later (maybe all of them, I’m not sure, I sure as hell didn’t buy it, and not just because I already had the PS version), but still, that was preposterous.

  26. Smejki says:

    Just in order to keep the right nomenclature. As far as I know Steam is not DRM. Steamworks is. Games on Steam can be without Steamworks, it’s just upon dev’s/publisher’s decision. For example Wasteland 2 Steam version does not incorporate Steamworks. Anyway most of the catalogue requires Steamwork so yeah. But maybe it is about time some particular people stop fighting against Steam=DRM and instead start pushing devs/publishers into not using Steamworks.

    I would also like to add the old story of cracker groups agreeing on not cracking certain games to prove DRM is a non-functional BS. I think there were more games in that line but I only recall Tom Clancy’s HAWX2. And what a success the game was when it was saved from pirates! The franchise is totally dead by now.

    Another story is Ubisoft with their awesome server based DRM they launched with (i think) AssCreed 2 and the last Silent Hunter. It worked horribly, turning peoples’ playtime into nerve-racking chore. Later Ubi claimed it was a success, hey have numbers to back it and that they will continue using it. Even more later they stopped using it saying it had no significant positive effect. There’s even an interview where they simply answered a question along the line “You know you look like idiots now?” with simple “Yes.”

  27. Sleeping Dragon says:

    Out of sheer curiosity, did your company get their money back in storytime? Also, any amusing comments on their side that you remember?

  28. Blackbird71 says:

    “(Disclaimer: When I say “DRM” here I'm talking about “naked DRM”. Steam is DRM, but it's DRM PLUS convenience, a store, a community, etc. For the purposes of this article, when I say DRM I'm talking about standalone stuff like SecuROM, Starforce and such.)”

    Oh how the mighty have fallen! The once-great champion of light and justice has fallen for the lies of the enemy when spoken from honeyed lips! Turn back, Shamus! There is still time to return to the light that is GOG.com!

    Seriously though, I don’t care how much you dress it up; if it has the potential to ever keep you from playing a game you own, then it is someone else maintaining ownership of something you were sold, and that is the worst kind of DRM. It is DRM that robs you of your right to property.

    1. Kylroy says:

      Shamus has never denied that Steam is DRM, he’s just maintained that Steam’s approach is a tradeoff for the consumer rather than pure downside. To wit: you face the possibility of losing the game if Steam folds, versus the possibility of losing the game if you lose the media you have it stored on.

      My personal contention is that the only way you lose the game is if Steam folds *after* a massive decline that will likely take years; if the company folds while holding the reins to the biggest electronic game marketplace in the world, damn *straight* somebody’s gonna pay money to pick that up.

      Also, I think GoG inadvertently provides the best argument against the “Valve will fold *someday* and you’ll be sorry argument” – GoG has shown that there is a market for 10+ year-old games that are sold cheaply and without DRM. I personally would rather spend $50 in 2024 to play the five games I’m still interested in, rather than maintain every game I buy and then figure out how to make them work on modern machines.

  29. Timelady says:

    This is completely tangential, but am I alone in that Steam annoys the crap out of me? All I want to do is play a game, but first I have to log in, get ‘updates’ that are actually sale advertisements shoved in my face, end up on the front page of a website that’s trying to sell me sixty-four other things, get pinged by people I haven’t talked to in three months and want to chat, finally make it to the library page and find out I’m in the middle of three updates to games I haven’t played in months and there’s all this level and badge crap and at least I can actually make RL money by selling trading cards, even if I’m not sure what value a trading card actually has or what it is, really, try and launch, say, Skyrim, find out that it’s (before the workshop) deleted all my mods or (after the workshop) has to go through checking each mod meticulously for updates, FINALLY get in game, get pinged another time by someone else only to have Skyrim glitch out on the Steam overlay? Only to get more notifications of sales when the game closes out. Just in case, y’know, you want to buy something else. Just in case.

    I mean, I still use it. But that’s my typical experience with it.

    1. mwchase says:

      I miss a lot of the sales updates because X% of the time, it starts up wrong and everything is invisible. … It usually goes away on restart.

      Anyway, there’s a setting somewhere that lets you change the default page to your library. Also, if you don’t use the Steam overlay on a game (or in general), you can disable it for that game (or in general). So, some of this can be addressed.

      Sucks that this only fixes some of the issues, and you have to go looking for the options.

      (I don’t get people chatting with me, but that’s a function of how interested my Steam friends are in using Steam chat with me, which is: not very.)

    2. shiroax says:

      Seems you set Steam up seriously wrong. Go to the settings and play with some stuff. You can turn off friends, I’m sure you can turn off the “updates” popup, you can pick which tab you go to when you launch, and for convenience you can’t beat Launch on startup and desktop shortcuts. Dunno what you can do about mods, I’m not into those.

      P.S. Level and badge crap rules, I have Kid on my profile, your argument is invalid (To put it in a less jerk-y manner, it’s a lot of fun for people who are into it and doesn’t hurt the least those that aren’t)

      Edit: You can also turn off steam overlay for each game, probably also for everything

    3. RTBones says:

      No, you are not alone in being annoyed by Steam. I will say, though – for some of the things you talk about (overlay, chat, etc) – many of those can be tailored to suit your style. You can also set the library to be your default start page when using the client.

      I dont like the in-your-face marketing of the store. Unfortunately, many of the things I dislike (essentially, the entire recent ‘smart’ update), I *cant* turn off. I just default to the library page so I can play my games now.

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