Curse You DRM! (or How to Make a Grown Gamer Cry).

For over 20 years I have been a gamer. I can still remember fondly the days when my Dad first sat me down in front of our new computer and showed me how to fire up Captain Comic from the DOS prompt. I’ve then watched as the wonderful world of games grew from a hidden away world only for the socially inept of the world to the multi-billion dollar industry that it has become. So when the game companies who I’ve stuck with through thick and thin decide that the best way to combat piracy is by slapping DRM on something I feel a little hurt. It’s like an old friend telling you he can’t see you anymore because of his new girlfriend, you just can’t accept it.

I will admit that the majority of my gaming life was spent DRM free. Sure there were the license codes and some games requiring me to have the CD in the drive (which was easily defeated by spinning up something like Daemon Tools) but that was usually a one time thing, and it never really interfered with the normal operation of my machine or the gaming experience. In 2004 however I was greeted with my first ever in-your-face DRM, Steam. Back when it was first announced Steam was going to be a revolutionary way for developers to deliver games to consumers. At the time I was still outside an area that was capable of getting broadband Internet and this proved to be quite a problem for it. After spending about an hour installing Half Life 2 I was then greeted with having to create an account to play it. Fair enough I thought and plugged away at the sign up process. After this I was then greeted by Steam telling me that there was an update available. My attempts to stop it were futile and I could not shift the game into offline mode until it had updated. The result was me feeling cheated as I had paid good money for a hard copy so I could play it that day. Instead I was given a several hour delay on top of the install and sign up time. I didn’t trust steam for many years after that.

Another 4 years by before I would have my next run in with a DRM system. After years of hype I was excited to see Will Wright’s new creation Spore hit the shelves. I had been fooling around with the Creature Creator for a week or so before with my house mate and we were looking forward to creating and messing with our creations. Everything seemed to be fine until my housemates computer started having random issues, caused in part to SecuROM. I began to have issues as well after I began developing again, as SecuROM begins to throw a fit when debuggers are present. After spending $80 on a game and having it run rampant through my system I was a little miffed, and I haven’t installed the game since.

Just a few weeks ago I was intrigued to see a new game pop up on Steam, Aion. I’m a total sucker for eye candy in games and the initial once over I did of it looked promising. After searching around for a while I found out that it uses GameGuard as an anti-cheat system which in itself is not a bad idea (I come from the old days of Punkbuster, and I had no issue with them). However the behaviour of the program is squarely in root kit territory with it installing a device driver and remaining even after the game is uninstalled. The list of programs it messes with contains many programs that I use and are not intended in anyway to cheat, but if I choose to install this game they will either break or cause the game to crash.

It’s really sad for someone like me who has enough disposable income that a $50 game can come under a weekly “consumables” budget I have but I’ll stop dead in my tracks if they decide I need to be treated like a criminal in order to play their game. I’ve been eyeing it off Aion for a while and the promise that GameGuard breaks on Windows 7 (with a homegrown fix for it) has me leaning towards giving it a go. But had the Aion developers chosen not to include this software I would’ve already been a paying customer, and it’s sad that their sale to me is going to rely on using what amounts to beta software.

So game developers have a think about the market you’re delivering to. No longer are we the young gamers struggling to eek out a living (in fact the average age of gamers in Australia is 30), we’re mature adults who can afford to spend up on games. Treating us like criminals and cheats just costs you sales and does nothing to prevent either. It’s sad that the first thing I check when a new game is released is what DRM it uses not a game play video or similar.

And that folks is how you make a grown gamer cry.


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  1. You say ‘Game Developers’ but for the most part the DRM decisions come from much higher up the chain (publishers). Most developers want to have light DRM (steam is the best example, when you don’t include a second form of copy protection), or a CD check to stop casual piracy.
    It’s a clear case of the publishers not trusting their consumers(but after being around the gaming scene for a while I can’t really blame them when they have people buying $3000 dollar computers and not buying software ever).  It’s a fine line between consumer happiness and product protection. The examples you list, are good examples of DRM being taken to far.
    But it’s also equally silly to ship DRM free games these days. Why do you think most games ship on PS3 / 360 a few months before PC? It’s because it has proven to offer a better return on investment to the publishers.
    We’ll have a  nice chat about this at the pub or something this weekend! Free sat night?

  2. Ah yes many of the DRM decisions do come from higher up in the publishers and distributers (I was wrong to point at the development houses here in general) looking to protect their investment. However the point I make is that these protection systems do nothing to stop piracy on these platforms and reduce value for the paying customer.

    Counter point to yours about it being silly to not ship with DRM: Sins of a Solar Empire. With a budget of less than $1,000,000 they have shipped over 500,000 units and I’m sure they’re making more than $2 per sale profit. You can quite easily make games without DRM and still turn a profit. The Xbox has a rampant piracy scene so the only logical step would be to publish on the PS3. This is clearly not the case and there are many more decisions behind just the rate of piracy that drive the development platform of the game. In fact most games these days are released on all 3 platforms since the XNA framework allows easy transistion of a codebase from PC to Xbox360.

    The point I’m trying to make is that DRM really doesn’t achieve the protection publishers attribute to it. A CD key and drive check are things that no one will argue against but companies continue to try more draconian measures that only decrease value for real customers. Really they’re just making the pirated version more attractive which in fact could actually account for loss of sales.

    That’s why I things like collectors editions. I get something that the people who pirate don’t and that makes it worth the money for me. I’m sure the licensing fees on a DRM product could be better used by including something awesome in every retail box that can’t be pirated.

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