March 12 2010
The issues surrounding digital rights management (DRM) for games go right back to the early days of home computing. At one time it was all about trying to keep people from copying discs, but since the advent of the Internet it has become about the illegal distribution of games online. It's a growing concern for many parts of the entertainment and software industries, including music and movies. We've touched on this issue in earlier articles, but Ubisoft's recent implementation of new DRM for their games has brought the matter back into the spotlight.
You often hear people claim that PC games would sell better with no DRM. The argument goes that DRM never works properly anyway and just creates problems for legitimate consumers who payed for the game. Furthermore, as well as being free, the pirated version doesn't have any restrictions on it, making it even more attractive.
Developers have experimented with dropping all forms of protection from their games, but it has very little impact on piracy rates. The fact remains that people do not pirate games primarily because they hate DRM, they pirate games primarily because they don't want to pay for them.
Looking beyond North America and Europe gives you some idea how software developers adapt to markets where piracy is a way of life. In countries like China, game companies simply don't make the kind of high-end single-player PC games we see here. Instead they opt for online titles, typically with a free client and in-game item mall.
Of course, if you assume that all DRM will fail, as most attempts have failed in the past, then DRM might seem like a wasted effort. However, the dramatically lower rates of piracy on consoles speaks for itself. It is evident that protection, even if it's not perfect, will deter some people from piracy, especially if it means altering hardware.
Can DRM Work?
When I wrote about the rate of piracy of Doom 3 back in 2004, I concluded that more online-enabled DRM systems were on the way. Steam was still in its infancy and there were a lot of mixed feelings about it, but along with games that use a client/server model like MMOGs, it looked like one of the few approaches that might work.
Steam does not make a game completely unhackable; single-player titles can still be modified in such a way as to bypass the service. However, this means sacrificing multiplayer options and additional features added by Steam itself, which many people do not want to give up. Note that Steam caused considerable outrage when it first arrived, and is now widely praised by gamers. Other game companies are not ignorant of Steam's successes. Blizzard plans to shape Battle.net into a Steam-like service, and make it an integral part of all their games going forward.
Going Too Far?
Ubisoft is among the latest to create a stir by implementing a DRM system for PC games that requires a constant Internet connection. The first games to use it are Silent Hunter 5 and Assassin's Creed 2. Unlike other forms of DRM, no disc is required in the drive, and there are no activation limits, but you must be connected to the Net at all times, even while playing single-player games.
Earlier DRM systems have typically been cracked within hours of a game's release, and in many cases even before the game was released. Ubisoft's new DRM has so far held up relatively well, and a complete, functional version of Silent Hunter 5 is not yet available on torrents over a week after the game's launch. Naturally, Ubisoft hasn't revealed much about the inner workings of this technology, but it apparently employs server-side elements at various points thoughout the game. While it still may be possible to collect those elements and include them in a cracked copy of the game, this could involve a considerable effort. What's more, the DRM doesn't have to be impossible to crack, it just has to make it difficult and time-consuming enough that it's not really worth it.
The most controversial aspect of Ubisoft's approach is the requirement of a constant Internet connection. This goes a step further than Steam, which still has an offline mode. For the majority of people who game from homes that already have broadband connections, this isn't a big issue apart from those rare occasions when their service goes down. Nevertheless, as ubiquitous as the Internet is, it still isn't everywhere, and not many people will subscribe to wireless plans just so they can game on the road.
Another concern is that the operation of the game is reliant on Ubisoft's servers, so when they have a problem with those servers people can't play their games. One possible repercussion of this has already surfaced in the form of DoS attacks on Ubisoft's servers, which have in turn impeded legitimate users. These are typical online shenanigans and it's a shame that law-abiding gamers are inconvenienced, but the real culprits here are the ones initiating the attacks.
Ubisoft's solution may seem rather extreme, and it will limit their customer base to those with reliable, affordable Internet connections. I'm less surprised by Ubisoft's approach than I am by the outcry over it, but then again, I never really minded having a game disc in the drive either. I also think Ubisoft could do more to entice legitimate users with additional features or downloadable content the way some other publisher's have. At any rate, whether it's this, or Steam, or Battle.net, the industry clearly isn't ready to give up on DRM just yet. Personally, if it comes down to a choice between tolerating online DRM systems or becoming a console gamer, I'll take the DRM.