Roundtable: The good, bad and complications of DRM

February 1, 2013


Digital rights management (DRM) methodology is one of the most hotly-debated topics in the industry. As games get bigger and more expensive, companies do more and more to lock their products down in an effort to prevent piracy. It’s a big problem in the game industry, and one that needs to be discussed more often. We decided to discuss the pitfalls of modern DRM schemes, and their overall impact on the market.

What do you believe to be the number one problem with DRM?

Andrew Passafiume: The actual existence of DRM is itself a problem. While its use in certain cases is understandable, it is meant to be a response to piracy, and it seems to only inspire people to pirate rather than further prevent it from happening. If it is possible to find yourself in a situation in which you are locked out of a game you paid money for, there is a huge problem. Thankfully, intrusive DRM policies for PC games have become less of an issue, but it’s still a concern. And with services like EA’s Origin attempting to steal some of Valve’s spotlight, you run into the problem of them not properly understanding what makes Steam such a popular and well-regarded service for consumers and the industry as a whole.

Jeff deSolla: Technology. The more complex the DRM scheme becomes, the more likely it is to fail. Software is inherently buggy, and the more complex it gets, the more chances there are of a critical server going down due to unexpected load, or any number of unforeseen glitches. That, and a downed authentication or login server can quickly lead to a very unhappy group of customers. The other danger is fan outrage. When Ubisoft introduced always-on DRM for the PC version of Assassins Creed II, a group of upset fans attacked the servers, taking down the system. It caused an outcry from people who had purchased the game, and rendered it unusable for hours.

Graham Russell: Simple economics, really, though it definitely is related to the technology issues Jeff brought up. Game budgets continue to rise, and so does piracy, so why wouldn’t a company try to get a larger percentage of players to actually pay for the years of work put into the game? It’s compounded by the technology thing, as the arms race keeps going between pirates and publishers, and these increasingly-complex methods are more unreliable. Largely, though, it’s that people want bigger and better games, and fewer want to purchase them legally. (You just have to look at the piracy rates of many indie games to see what happens when creators don’t fight back.)


What do you feel are other surrounding factors to its implementation?

Andrew Passafiume: Although this is less of an issue now as it might be in next generation of consoles, it seems like anti-used games measures could potentially be implemented in the new round of hardware. It’s not exactly the same as PC DRM, which is probably the major concern, but that is a measure that will effectively kill used game sales as well as game rental services for good. This is exactly what game publishers want, but unlike online passes (which I don’t consider as evil as some make them out to be), this seems like the worst anti-consumerism method imaginable. The mere comparison between used games and pirated games is utterly baffling and ignorant. Hopefully these rumors are just rumors, because I can only imagine how bad things will get if they turn out to be anything other than completely false.

Chris Dominowski: As it stands, the game industry is new enough that informed legislation and jurisdiction specific to the business is rare, if not nonexistent. Thus, game publishers have essentially been able to do whatever they please without fear of legal backlash from consumer organizations, because the audience was either ill-informed or just wasn’t there. But now, as gaming becomes more mainstream, and incidents of consumer rights issues do become more well-known, gamers can actually fight back, and possibly even make changes for the better. Also, services like GOG prove that gamers are supportive of fair business practices, and that a gaming distribution service that treats its customers with trust can certainly thrive. However, major publishers generally just bury their heads in the sand, and assume that their customers’ default mindset is that of a thief.

Jeff deSolla: One problem publishers tend to have is the nearsightedness of many business decisions. Like most companies, game publishers see about 12 months ahead when forecasting sales. Gamers see much further. Many of us still have consoles from the ’80s and use them frequently, and when buying a game, we expect to be able to play it years down the road. When planning a DRM scheme, especially when including an online component, it assumes that a server exists somewhere. Years down the road, a publisher might take this server down, likely as a cost-cutting measure. This renders any new installs of the game impossible, forcing owners to pirate games they’ve purchased.


What is the best solution to the problem of invasive DRM?

Andrew Passafiume: Follow Steam’s example. Steam is essentially DRM, but once it improved and became the go-to source for digital releases of PC games, people began to look past that and see the service as a beacon of light for PC gaming. You only have to have an Internet connection to launch Steam, and once you get past that, you are free to go into offline mode and play whatever you want. It’s still not the best solution, but it’s the closest we’ll come to a service that knows how to incorporate DRM without intruding on the people who just want to play their PC games. Services like Origin and Ubisoft’s Uplay both have a lot to learn from Steam. It’s doubtful they will ever get as big as Valve’s service, they can still improve in a lot of ways and show that DRM is an issue we shouldn’t be worrying about in 2013.

Chris Dominowski: When done tastefully and noninvasively, DRM is tolerable. I see Steam as a fair way to handle DRM, because of the way it handles pricing games. The service’s famous sales held every few months allow gamers to buy games new at practically used-game prices, therefore allowing the developers to reap financial benefits from their games long after they have left physical store shelves. While I believe that used games are a consumer right, this is a way that digital game stores can be embraced (as it is an inevitable reality), for developers to continue making money on their games, and for consumers to get them for a fair price generally offered by used games. In situations like this, everybody leaves happy.

Graham Russell: Well the best solution would be to snap game players out of this sense of entitlement that makes them think creators don’t deserve to make a living off the work they enjoy so much. Sadly, that won’t happen: just look at the music business. As it stands, there are some very interesting methods being used to fight piracy with alternative methods. How about Skylanders, with its physical objects? Also, though its other implications are less great, the free-to-play option does make piracy a non-issue, as revenue is earned elsewhere.