Experienced Points: The Impossible DRM

By Shamus Posted Friday Apr 3, 2009

Filed under: Column 25 comments

My latest column is about DRM. I held out as long as I could, but you knew I was going to go there sooner or later, didn’t you?


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25 thoughts on “Experienced Points: The Impossible DRM

  1. Yar Kramer says:

    You know, back when I was still an idiotic high-schooler (I recently graduated from college, now), I once saw a blog post on a Mega Man fan-site which made at least one of the same points you did. The context was that the guy posting had bought a soundtrack to a Mega Man anime, but when he put it into his computer to play it, it only played back as low-quality WMVs. (This was back in the early nineties, when using the “do something different when you put it in a CD-ROM drive instead of a music-CD player” was the extent of the philosophy of DRM.) I don’t remember when exactly this was posted, or what the site was, but one exact quote from his post stuck in my mind: “If you can hear it, you can pirate it.” Even, he also mentioned, if you have to do it by putting it into a CD player and running a cable from the CD player’s headphone/speaker-jack to your computer’s microphone-jack.

  2. SatansBestBuddy says:

    “…there is nothing that can prevent people from pirating a game short of never releasing it.”

    Oh, please, even that hasn’t stopped them.

  3. Zork says:

    DRM is intended to create money, no matter how this is exactly done. The encryption scheme did not work well with music, maybe it’ll be the same with games.

    The market gets, what it, erm “deserves”.

    However, DRM and the infrastructure around it ( Steam, iTunes, etc … ) is not(no more …) rly meant to keep all users from copying … but to bind them. The market has shifted to the casual gamers generation. Those folks are to lazy to get a crack ( at least this is the idea … any studies?).

    The industry has yet to find out, how much pain/DRM the casual gamer accepts without quiting to spend money.

    BTW: Hey, maybe stuff like OnLive will be the resurrection of the classic adventure game?

  4. food4worms says:

    @Zork: I disagree, when my nearly computer illiterate cube mates and in-laws have already figured out how to download swarms of MP3s, I don’t think it’ll be hard for someone like them to arrive at: “hey, I wonder if they’ve got a free version of Peggle?”

  5. Kleedrac says:

    (A disclaimer: I’m talking about single-player PC games here. In an MMO, what you’re really paying for is the data streaming off the server, and it’s easy to protect that with a login.)

    Ironically it is entirely possible to pirate these games as people dedicate the time they would have spent on DRM to making emulated servers!

  6. Zel says:

    Last time I checked, a Xbox360 doesn’t need any modchip to run backups (or downloaded games), just an update to the firmware of the DVD drive. Ok, ok, it’s nitpicking but the hardware can run pirated (or imported, damn you region locking!) games just fine.

    You make a good point comparing PC to other game platforms. I’ve actually wondered why consoles were pretty much ignored in the fight, but it’s true being able to play pirated games on a console costs money (no more than a single new game though…). I’m not entirely convinced as I’ve seen much more Nintendo DS piracy than PC piracy among friends and family, and I’m surprised Nintendo hasn’t done anything yet to prevent the use of flash cartridges.

    Using difficult to crack DRM schemes can have one advantage though : since it’s harder to do it, less people are actually able to. Games that don’t sell very well are therefore pretty much protected, as I think crackers are more likely to focus on the more popular games that can give them fame or recognition.

    Pirates will eventually only be able to play the latest AAA titles, while paying customer can enjoy little known and interesting indie productions that are sometimes much more … entertaining.

  7. Ingvar says:

    Zel @ #6:

    I think you’re making the mistake to assume that people creack games because they want to crack it. OK, to be fair, I don’t know how it works these days, but from friends-of-friends who used to be in the game-cracking (and trainer-writing) gig, I understand the cracking itself is done primarily to be the first to crack a given game. Trainers and the like tended to mostly be done for “fun games”, though.

  8. Zel says:

    I understand this, but given the plethora of games available, the harder DRM schemes and the limited amount of people able to successfully crack them (with a limited amount of time each as it’s harder so slower), I’d think they would focus their attention to more popular games as they can get more fame out of it.

    If it comes to this, DRMs would actually save small studios who can’t afford to lose one sale. Big AAA titles will still suffer heavily from piracy, but let’s not forget the most pirated music titles are also the most successful in sales, so there’s still lots of money coming in. I’d assume it’s true for games too.

    It’s the same with movies. You have all the latest Hollywood flicks widely available. You don’t see cam or ripped versions of documentaries or indie films though. Or maybe you do ?

  9. SatansBestBuddy says:

    I think one of the problems is that a fair number of computer illiterate people don’t realize that what they’re doing is wrong.

    They type “free Peggle” into google, figure out which link leads to what, ask a couple of quesitons if they get confused, and then they’re playing the game.

    The thought that maybe what they’re doing is wrong never even enters their head.

    It’s a focus thing, your eyes glaze over anything that doesn’t lead to your goal, which is easy cause the internet inadvertatly teaches us to avoid background noise like ads and subjects that aren’t relevent to what we’re looking for, like say, an article on how pirating games is hurting the industry turning up in the search with a torrent below it.

    All they can see is a few hoops to jump through, then goal.

    I mean, it works that way with music, I know a lot of people who have trouble with figuring out what right clicking does, but they can get as much free music as they want.

  10. MechaCrash says:

    Well, a lot of it could just be expressed as “look at all the shit EA went through and took because of Spore’s ballbusting DRM, and that game was still pirated a week before release and is one of the most pirated games ever.”

  11. RichVR says:

    Shamus, please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m glad that you were able to put that up on The Escapist. It’s a bigger market than Twenty Sided. I have always wished that your particular take on DRM could go mainstream. And there you go.

    Nice work.

  12. Maldeus says:

    There is a possible problem here.

    First, anti-DRM messages go mainstream.

    Second, people learn from anti-DRM messages that downloading Peggle for free is actually illegal, and thus stop doing it because they’re Upstanding Citizens (*snigger*).

    Third, corporations see that piracy has dropped significantly. Clearly, their ridiculous DRM saved the day. Therefore, corporations continue putting ridiculous DRM on until people get fed up with it…Which may be never.

  13. Sydney says:

    [fetches forth the Typo-Whacking Mallet]

    They can put it in a garbage bags and use it like a beanbag chairs if they want to

  14. Sam says:

    Great article, Shamus. I especially loved the pants analogy.

  15. JKjoker says:

    actually, i think they do get it, its the suits and investors (who know nothing nor care about games or computers) that don’t, and the publishers need something, anything to wave in their faces whenever they come red with rage yelling about all of “their” money that the “pirates” are stealing away, and DRM fits their needs perfectly, the thing is, its obviously not working so every now and then they need to spice it up a little (blacklisting, rootkit, online activation!, DNA sample!!), just to keep the suits from bursting their bubble.

    also, a conspiracy theorist would also propose that they might be setting up the bases to end all that “the computer is yours” and the “pc as an omnitool” business (*ejem*, cloud computing ?, vista ?, and then reskinning vista and releasing it as windows 7 ?, that streamed game thingy ?, the whole consoles-rule-the-market idea ? all screaming the idea of a pc as a terminal rather than a stand alone thing)

  16. Daemian Lucifer says:

    You shouldve compared spore with gal civs second expansion since the first one was cracked before it hit the stores in most of the world,and the second one didnt appear on the net until its 5th or 6th month.

  17. ima420r says:

    You know one thing that will stop the casual pirate, aka mom and pop who search google for ‘free peggle’ and soon are playingt for free, is the danger of getting a virus. There are lots of fake files out there, and if you don’t know what you are doing you can easily infect your PC. I think that if Mr Casual tried to download Peggle and instead gets a system stopping trojan, he will think twice about doing it again once(if) he gets his computer clean again.

    Perhaps the game publishers should release their own bit torrents, let people download copies of their games with a virus that will stop people in their tracks.

  18. Ciennas says:


    Yeah, but then the corporations would get Rooked. Badly.

    If consumers found out about the company giving them deliberately virused files, irregardless of what they’re doing, then they’ll completely stop buying copies of any game from that company, not to mention the legal *&^%storm that would result from that action.

    People may not understand computers, but they do understand when they can reasonably expect to sue somebody for damage to their property.

    Besides, what about those who bought the game, got a defective copy and/or lost the disk (Murky/gray area, sure) and saw the corporate data stream as a safe effective way of backing up their gaming purchase?

    Why we end up right back where we started. With publishers punishing honest consumers and making no less of a dent than they did before.

    Interesting idea you have there, though. Why don’t publishers put the game codes up under something like paypal? Everyone wins, because they’d need to give a credit card number or something, the transaction is secure, and those who want the legitimate up to the minute source code can get it.

    I know, it doesn’t stop torrents. But they never will.

  19. Ben says:

    I think this is exactly what DRM is to EA and most other companies, just as spending legislation is to a congressman: something you can take to your board, backers or voters and say, “See? I’m doing someting about it!”

    On the other hand, many publishers and developers really are desperate to find ANY way to cut down on piracy and turn some of those *free downloads* into sales. While EA is certainly entitled to try to get that extra 10% that DRM MAY bring back, many other companies LIVE on that extra 10%.

  20. Ingvar says:

    Zal @ #8:

    Film-ripping is, I think, less about having goods no one else has to trade about and up your fame with and more to do with supplying your friends. The impression I got from the peeps in the game is that they honestly didn’t care what they cracked, as no one else had done it before (I managed to get one of them EXTREMELY excited about a source code bundle with GNU Emacs and GCC, a “top of the line C development environmnet”, a bit cruel but very very amusing).

  21. Yar Kramer says:

    @Ben: That’s half the point, though: they won’t get that 10% back no matter what kind of DRM they use, because the simple fact of the matter is that DRM doesn’t work. Somebody will crack it and put it on a torrent site, and then everyone who goes to torrent sites will be able to get it, just like they would regardless. The other problem with that theory is that it assumes “1 pirate prevented from downloading = 1 sale gained”, which doesn’t make sense, because apart from anything else, most pirates probably wouldn’t buy the game even if they couldn’t pirate it.

    Also, I thought of another metaphor: Pirates are an alien invasion fleet hanging around in orbit, attacking the publishers on the surface of the planet. No matter what they do, the aliens are going to have an easier time at it, because those on the surface need to overcome the planet’s escape velocity to fight back, which will take up 90% of their efforts, and then they need to get their weapons to the orbiting attackers, and then in the extremely probable event that it misses or gets shot down, they’re back to square one, and they lost all that time and energy. The aliens, meanwhile, can drop rocks onto the surface and cause more damage than a bunch of A-bombs. The only hope the surfacedwellers have is diplomacy, which still ain’t gonna cut it because it’s not an actual fleet per se, it’s a huge bunch of attacking spaceships which each individually just happen to have the same reason to attack this particular planet.

  22. Marmot says:

    This morning, I tried to run Devil May Cry 4, a game that had complete install without the DVD and was terrified to see the words and link “restricted – please visit SecuROM for details”. I never had any idea that the game had SecuROM until that coincidence.

    Further research revealed that the “protection” level of the game was nowhere near the infamous EA terrorism. Devil May Cry 4’s SecuROM claims not to collect any information about your system and works only as a DVD check when you start the game. There are no install limits, online activations and other bs that I was afraid of.

    Just goes to show how everything can be done in moderation. I have no objection at all to DVD checks. If only everyone stayed at that…

  23. Andrew says:

    Pirates are trespassers who get into your Cinerama/strip joint/taxi and tell others how to do the same, they also can’t be physically touched.
    EDIT: that D4 is creepy.

  24. Mari says:

    I know this is a dead thread but I just wanted to share that anti-DRM has another fairly prominent blogger on its side. Noah Antwiler posted this today on his blog. It made me smile a little bit to see him jump on the bandwagon that you’ve been leading for quite a while, Shamus :-)

  25. Eman says:

    Link? I haven’t tried finding anything old on the escapist in while, but I vaguely recall the process being a huge pain.

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