Digital Rights Management (DRM). The three words in the English language that get gamers fired up. With such spectacular debacles in game releases like Blizzard‘s Diablo III (error and disconnects) and most recently Electronic Arts‘ SimCity (same thing). The never ending war between pirates and video game companies leaves many innocent gamers caught in the crossfire. With the SimCity mess storming headlines and message boards across the internet, gamers may have finally had it. Gamers and DRM are at critical mass.
DRM is nothing new. From music (Vevo!) to movies and so forth into video games. There is a need to protect intellectual property. Making a profit on high production cost games is tough enough as it is. It is only natural that publishers and companies want to prevent loss of profit from pirates. However, these drastic measures have only served to add fuel to the fire. Gamers are not heartless individuals who feel entitled to free games and look forward to exploiting the newest DRM tactics. We just want to play games! Piracy happens, and it happens more often than not. Ways to combat piracy do not lie in severe restriction but with encouraging consumers to buy and play the games.
Gabe Newell, the outspoken founder of Valve and Steam, was interviewed on the very issue of DRM. His stance was that piracy is a service problem above all others. To say Steam is a success is a gross understatement. After all, it is the way to get games on the PC. Steam is the leader and set the standard for digital distribution that Sony, Microsoft, EA, and Blizzard mimic with their own services. Purchasing games on Steam is an event, and they offer tremendous deals on titles that gamers pine for. The very thought of pirating those same games is more work than reward. While this is becoming more and more commonplace with Xbox Live, PlayStation Plus and so forth. The big thing now is to offer real incentives to purchase games before they release.
Having extra skins and class models for big titles are nice and dandy, but that is not a true incentive to pre-purchase and spend money on a game. Rocksteady‘s Batman: Arkham City had an interesting, albeit controversial, tactic when they locked away the Catwoman part of the game for regular purchased copies through a packed in code. Although more of a way to combat the used market, it was a way to ensure that even if it is pirated, one would not be able to experience the game as it was meant to be. Even more recently, with Bioshock Infinite pre-orders on Steam, gamers are given a free Bioshock key and Team Fortress 2 accessories. However, the most compelling of all was a copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If that is not compelling enough for gamers to purchase beforehand, it is really hard to imagine what else would be.
Piracy is always going to be an ongoing battle in media and digital distribution. The act of restricting how gamers play the game is what fuels the backlash. Setting up an account to properly download the game and only play it on one computer is one thing, but when DRM disrupts service due to effects not controlled by the player. That is when shaky ground is being crossed. The multiplayer component in games are always at the mercy of internet connections and a multitude of other factors. Yet robbing single-player enjoyment through “online only” play is just too much. Including multiplayer pass codes in shooters is being done to ensure that even if pirated, the online game will be off limits. Tampering with game play by introducing buggy gameplay or graphically distorted visuals if the copy is illegitimate can also be another way. Very much akin to DVD encryption in burning copies.
No solution is fool proof. Piracy will always remain a hot issue. Whether or not Maxis decided to go through an “online-only” experience with SimCity because of the Spore controversy a few years back (In which they limited the number of downloads customers could put onto their computers, which led it to being one of the most pirated games in history). It does not matter. Gamers are taking note of the companies and games that do this. If there is one thing that companies take seriously, it is when consumers talk with their wallets. DRM is nasty business. But with a commitment to those who purchase games while enforcing manageable yet necessary piracy tactics, there can be a neutral ground that companies should strive for. A disaster like the SimCity release will be another example of how not to incorporate DRM. So it is time to rethink these tactics or watch the numbers fall.