Fighting off the pirates – DRM points to deeper problems

With Spore’s flagrant copy protection causing a stir, DRM is once again the hot item of debate in the gaming world. I welcome any rigorous discussion of the topic, because while most of us will agree that DRM should not be used, it most certainly will be. The more we discuss it, the louder we sound to publishers, and the better the chances that we create fair solutions.

Yet rigorous discussion is something we still seem to be waiting for. Some of the best “independent” voices in the press see fit to bring up the same pedestrian talking points that we have heard constantly, while others that try to play devil’s advocate will be scorned by gamers. I think we need to look at the issues of DRM and piracy from the proper angles, which in turn will help us determine what can and cannot be changed.

For one, the Spore fiasco proves that, without a doubt, some sales are lost through the use of DRM. But just how significant are those losses? If EA dropped Spore’s DRM, would the added sales significantly increase the cool million it already sold? On the other side of the coin, look at Sins of the Solar Empire. The indie game has been a darling thanks to its lack of DRM, but is that really why people bought it, as opposed to its great quality and fair price? Just how much does DRM affect actual sales, rather than customer satisfaction?

It is in most ways a stupid question. If it does affect sales, get rid of it. If it doesn’t, there are still enough reasons to get rid of it. Personally, I’m not sure what I would guess as to an answer. While I would like to say DRM doesn’t cause a significant dent in sales, I know that I buy music online via Amazon MP3 store for no reason but the fact that it is DRM free, so to say it isn’t an issue for some consumers is a lie.

My purpose in asking it is that with a solid answer, perhaps we can phase out the debate about DRM. We will look for it, and protest it, but I think the fact of the matter is that there are other problems which are leading to low PC sales, factors unrelated and unaffected by DRM.

For one, it would be great if the industry just accepted the fact that piracy is going to happen, no matter what you do. Remember when Radiohead allowed us to pay what we wanted for their new album? A huge percentage of folks paid nothing, though the band still made a lot of money (more on that later).

The internet allows information to flow freely. This can give us the power to learn and say things we couldn’t before, but it has also created a generation that feels entitled to entertainment. The concept of selling belongings at a flea market or thrift store to buy new games (once suggested by a Gamespy editor on their forum years ago) is a foreign concept to younger gamers with little income. Many younger gamers are simply used to getting entertainment free on the ‘net.

I’d think about it if they were infinite and downloadable.

These people make endless excuses as to why they can and will pirate. They will argue that they will only pay for quality games, which is a pitiful argument that allows them to adjust their opinion of “quality” on the fly, so that they never support any developer. They whine about being broke. They whine about big companies not needing their money and screwing everyone over. Are these people frustrating? Absolutely, but there are few ways to stop them. The Internet gives them games for free, stripped of DRM (which is always, always broken). In their mind there is no reason why they shouldn’t pirate.

Let us then focus on those that pay for games. This leads to a major issue: games are too damn expensive. I’m not saying that $60 a pop is unreasonable. I mean that even at that price, a high profile game has to sell significant copies in order to make a profit. The Radiohead example falls apart from a money standpoint; even if not all of their downloads were paid for, there were enough paying customers of In Rainbows for the band to make some good money.

Assume that games try a similar model. The numbers of paid copies would have to be much greater, and on a “pay what you want” system, you’d still have trouble. People paying five bucks to download an album that should be priced 15 is one thing. Paying five bucks for a game 12 times more than that in cost? It isn’t going to work.

All of our fancy technology has made game budgets unruly, meanwhile gamers are getting more and more stingy, refusing to pay a measly ten dollars for good downloadable games. Something has to give. The industry should support downloadable games as best they can, since they can deliver small, quality experiences that still look great, without needing a million purchases to turn a profit.

The developer projected sales goals for Bionic Commando: Rearmed were met in the first week, and assuming there are any future sales (and perhaps a surge of popularity when the new BC game is released) it will be ruled a success. Something like Mega Man 9 has a higher budget than you might expect, but when all is said and done I doubt Capcom will mark it as a loss.

On the other hand, we still want AAA titles. We just have to find a way to make them more cost effective, or simply scale back the level of experience that is delivered, and try somehow to explain this to an audience of demanding gamers.

These are the kinds of issues that need to be discussed and solved, rather than fighting DRM head on. This is a field of entertainment where the costs are significantly higher than its competitors, DRM or not. Other industries have large markets with lots of people in all shapes and sizes. Gaming, no matter how much it has grown, still eyes a main demographic of young men, an area where income is low and entitlement has changed drastically compared to their forefathers. How this plays out will be crucial to the future of games, and we aren’t going to overcome these issues it by keeping those who pay from enjoying their purchase.

10 thoughts on “Fighting off the pirates – DRM points to deeper problems”

  1. there are several responses that draconian DRM engenders, but i am interested in two specifically:

    1. “stick it to the man” – if EA is going to be a jerk about DRM i can be a jerk too and pirate the game
    2. “im an awesome hacker/pirate” – if they think they can stop me, they have another thing coming. here, i’ll prove it to them.

    i doubt these things combine to get a game like spore pirated more than a game with no drm, but i would bet it becomes pirated more than a game with more reasonable and palatable intellectual property controls.

    i dont really play PC games much any more (with the exception of 15 year old lucas arts adventure games) so this is not much of an issue to me, although i do find it offensive in some vague has-no-impact-on-me way. almost makes me pine for the days when pc games forced you to enter a code or series of pictures found in the manual.

  2. The old days of codes and secret passwords brings up a few points.

    1) They were annoying, since they can be easily lost.
    2) They worked, at least pre-internet
    3) No one seems to complain about them. Actually, people do, but there seems to be an edge of fondness brought on by the nostalgia.

    I wouldn’t suggest bringing the idea back, but it is interesting to see how we view those methods compared to modern DRM in somewhat different lights.

    I remember that the version of Wing Commander on Gametap has the copy protection still enabled, since it is just an emulated version with nothing taken away/added. You have to thwart it by opening up the PDFs of the game’s manuals that are provided. Kind of annoying, but kind of cute. At the very least, Gametap isn’t dumb; anyone else did that, and they might forget to offer the manual.

  3. My copy of Spore has succesfully turned off my DVD drive when it comes to any DVDs not labeled Spore. I find this new feature of my computer helpful and nice, especially when trying to install another piece of EA software, Warhammer Online.

    Thanks, Spore!

  4. This is a frustrating topic, because it shows groupthink in action. If an action is easy to do, and near unenforcable, and benefits people, but is illegal, people will do it and rationalize it, and society will even accept it. Stealing music is the obvious other example, but I sure am glad I’m not black and we’re past the era of slavery.

    What’s also interesting is it’s a PC problem (For the most part)– console developers don’t have to deal with this. So to me, I get frustrated with the attitude of “well, it’s going to happen anyway, so we might as well just give up”– that’s an attitude that only the PC and music industry have to deal with, and just because something is hard to prevent (and illegal) doesn’t mean you give up– people are still committing a crime here, people! Downloading a cracked game IS the same as walking out of a Gamestop with a 360 game, or even a $60 shirt from the Gap. You are a thief.

    That said, people who are going to pirate are going to pirate, and were almost certainly never going to buy that game anyway. So why punish the people who are willing to pay cold cash with restrictive DRM? Spore’s stuff crossed the line because it caused technical issues (like Spyder suffered), but at the end of the day, this needs to be solved one way or another. I don’t blame the industry for striving to lock down their property, but they need to come up with better ideas than DRM of mechanical doom a la Spore.

  5. GJ – I definitely agree that they are still acting illegally. I will point out that walking out of Gamestop is theft, while technically game downloads are copyright infringement. I only point that out because if legislature is ever changed/made, those distinctions could be important (they’re still on the same level of immorality if you ask me). Although from what I read a long time ago, the idea of customers obtaining a license to listen to music has existed in some form since the days of vinyl, which indicates that if they had the technology to restrict how/how much you enjoyed an album, they might have. The Information Age gives us new tools and it seems we still need to play catch up.

    Also, piracy is still a problem on consoles, it simply hasn’t gotten as bad due to the nature of the hardware. These are all essentially computers, but PCs allow you to get under the hood easier, and are much less standard. With modchips and swapdiscs, piracy on consoles will live on – hell, it will so long as we’re dealing with executing code. It just isn’t going to be as prevalent so long as it is harder to do. We also have to think about how adding more restrictions/measurements for PC gaming would make the OS more and more console like. To an extent that defeats the purpose of choosing a PC, and more restrictions is against the idea of what a PC can do.

    Thank you though, for explaining some of the error of my argument. As you say, we should not look at PC piracy as an inevitability that cannot be stopped, but perhaps as a short term realization. That way we can concentrate on giving customers good value and respect, and find agreeable methods of price and revenue. Pirates can be addressed, but it isn’t a battle anyone is ready for, nor may it be the most important one (for now).

  6. With vinyl and cassettes, it was an analog format that would degrade– even without the internet, CDs are forever (until you drop them over and over them and scratch them into oblivion, as I make a habit of)– which was the first technology change. The internet just made distribution easier.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the issue of whether this is an important fight, which is why companies like EA piss me off when they create complicated anti-DRM technologies that don’t really cut to the core of the matter. And of course, with hacker culture being what it is, the harder the industry pushes, the harder the hackers push back.

    Yet somehow we have security measures that protect e-commerce transactions with more rigor than games, so there must be a solution out there somewhere.

    I wouldn’t be opposed to games taking the microsoft approach, in that you can have a hacked version, but there’s an authentication process for patches. Then put the onus on the game developer to create some post-release support or feature additions that reward the legal consumer rather than punishing the legal consumer. This would be particularly effective with Firaxis games which are unplayable when first released.

  7. A friend of mine who develops shareware once told me he looked into the issue of copy protection for his games. He said the consensus among shareware developers was that ~any~ effort put into enforcing your copyright was wasted effort. The time and money you put into that technology would always be ultimately ineffective, and the time and money you had wasted on drm could have been spent putting in features that just resulted in more sales to honest people.

    I’d prefer more publishers took this tack. I really don’t blame them for insisting on protecting what they’ve paid so dearly to make. I remember not long after meeting our (Christian, ostensibly) neighbor that he remarked that they had tried making copies of XBox games with his DVD burner, but they failed to work. I explained that the technology used to read the game discs was proprietary and why it was (so folks like me can get paid) and after that he seemed to get what copyright issues were. How the phalanx of public service announcements imploring him not to copy that floppy had failed to work was beyond me.

    But if this is what the publishers are up against, normal upstanding people who are just honestly ignorant of the ways in which they’re denying someone revenue when they copy data, it’s no wonder drm has the allure it does to the creators of the data. And this, I think, should be the main thrust of any drm efforts. You need to thwart the casual users who would just let friends copy their game disc or loan it out to umpteen friends to install and then play without the disc because they just don’t make the connection that someone had to spend money to make it in the first place. Whether or not crap like Spore’s drm does this effectively is up to debate, of course. I’ve always thought just preventing the making of copies and requiring the disc be in the drive did this effectively with a minimum of fuss, which is also up to debate.

    The entrenched, leet kid getting his kicks by torrenting warez off the Pirate Bay is well beyond the publishers’ reach, and will always remain so. There will ~always~ be a cracked copy of whatever game they wish to have there and they will either admit that what they do is wrong or come up with some tortured logic as to why they shouldn’t have to pay for having it while they download it.

    Some of those people weren’t worth selling the game to in the first place. They will get their warez copy, play it for five minutes, shrug their shoulders and go on to getting their next thrill. Because it’s not having your game that is entertaining to them, it’s getting your game for free. And once that’s done, they have to move on to another game to get the next kick. They may one day wind up with terabytes and terabytes of data that sits on hard drives taking up space, never to be touched again and they won’t have collectively gotten even fifty dollars of entertainment out of all of those games. And think about the market implications of selling something to someone like that. In a world where drm was perfectly enforceable and they were legitimately interested in your game, and went to the store and paid fifty bucks for it then found out within five minutes that they didn’t like it, two things would happen. They would try to return the game to the store, then upon finding out that the store did not take back opened software would cease to buy any more of your games and you’d be back in the same revenue reduced situation you spent millions of dollars to avoid. Or if you allowed returns because your drm actually worked, you’d just be dealing with a lot of returned software.

    I think part of the reason so many honest people don’t come down vociferously on the side of drm is because we’re ALL collectively lumped in with the pirates when we purchase a title that has it. Remember those announcements that run ahead of movies explaining how illegally copying the movie is taking money away from the grips and prop managers and all the other average working people who make the movies? What I didn’t feel was agreement with the ad. What I felt was a little insulted that they felt the need to explain to a theater full of people who were supporting their movie why we shouldn’t resort to a life of crime. News flash MPAA, people who have just paid their hard earned dollars to support your film is not the crowd you want to accuse of being criminals.

    And this ties into why the existence of drm is, on one level, confusing to me. I quit purchasing iTunes because I could get MP3’s from Amazon which I could then play and hear anywhere I wanted for the same price. In light of this DRM ~reduced~ the value of iTunes purchases (a tangent argument in itself). And no, I won’t be sharing my MP3 collection with the internet because (this is crucial) I PAID FOR THEM WITH MY MONEY. If someone else wants to enjoy music, then they can just damned well pay for it, like I did. The feeling of being some generous angel because you ‘share’ something when you’re not depriving yourself of it is specious at best. But back to software. Someone who just dropped fifty bucks on Spore is someone you want to make feel good about the fact they purchased, not begrudgingly hand the keys to. They paid for your game, do you know what that means? YOU FOUND AN HONEST PERSON! At that point the question is NOT how do you keep someone who had paid for your game from not paying for one again. You should know already that they will pay for your games. The question is how do you convince them to keep paying for your games in the future. Crippling their thousand dollar PC is not the way to do that. In that regard I’m a big proponent of added content for those willing to connect to the publishers. Make it clear that if they make an online account and connect to register their purchase, they get some more value out of the game. Security then becomes an exchange instead of a locked gate people can climb over. In return for proving to you that they’re not playing a hacked copy of your game, you give them something in return. And there are probably other ways to reward honest people. Anyway, that’s the course publishers should really be steering toward. Making loyal customers happy instead of accusing them of being criminals.

  8. No need to apologize Bruce. It is a great post, and I will recommend (and volunteer if I may) to convert it into a full fledged followup article.

    This is why I am glad for discussion – Bruce brings up an angle I didn’t consider enough. When you make a creative work, some people are more willing than others to share it, but I think all would agree they would like to protect it. Even someone releasing work under the Creative Commons license would probably be upset if someone blatantly copied it whole hog and claimed it as their own, rather than use it to make a derivative work. In this light, you can understand their plight. Of course, DRM doesn’t do much to stop them, which is its flaw, but we shouldn’t close the book completely on ways to protect hard work and money spent (I feel like GJ was stabbing at this earlier).

    When it comes to DRM being effective at thwarting the casual pirate, it is a good point. In the past I have certainly felt that the hardcore pirates that seem so prevalent in the gamingsphere were a minority overall. I’ve been hesitating about that assertion lately because of Spore – the one star review flood that hit broke records, which seems significant for such a large online store. Maybe that doesn’t prove that the numbers of DRM savvy folks are growing, but instead just shows how much time gamers have on their hands.

    GJ – so what you’re getting at is that licensing wasn’t an issue in the older days of music because the physical copies were not permanent? I can dig that. If that is what you mean, I’ll take it further and say that CDs can suffer bitrot, meaning even recently there was little worry until it became easy to make near-infinite copies.

  9. Christian: basically, yes. Technology enables piracy. What’s not equal is which systems are punished. We’ve beaten to death music and PC software being easy targets. The publishing industry takes a hit from torrents, but reading books on the computer is painful for most people (the way our eyes interpret the way information is projected on LCDs), so its less of an issue. The anime industry, on the other hand, as we discussed offline, is absolutely killed by torrents.

    I think that most developers who are either multi-platform or not PC only are just grateful that it’s not affecting them. If you release a game for PC only, you can expect to lose X% of your revenues. If you have a 3-platform release, you’re only losing X% of Y% revenue stream– and as you stated yourself, anti-piracy activities are fairly low value to a company. That time is better spent reaching other consoles to increase the revenue stream than trying to stave off the inevitable.

    That said, if piracy were far more reaching, I think you’d see the industry fighting harder, but mostly I think developers who aren’t PC only are secretly glad the hackers are focused largely on the PC. Everyone is always happy when someone else is the one being robbed.

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