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Digital Rights Management – Keeping Gamers Legitimate

August 3, 2010

Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes comprise a wide range of techniques used to restrict the use of hardware, software and media – allowing publishers broad control over how the software is used by licensees. Game publishers are increasingly making use of these schemes in their attempts to combat video game piracy. However, these efforts have significant potential to backfire.

In September 2008, when EA released the much hyped video game Spore, they incorporated a DRM scheme viewed by many as draconian, and unnecessary. The scheme placed restrictions on the number of computers on which the game could be installed, and required authentication for online play.

However, despite making use of the latest DRM technology, the game was cracked in 24 hours, and made available 2 days before the initial Australian release. The copy protection evoked so much criticism and outrage, that in 2008 the game became the most pirated title in history. This was not the end of the affair though, in the same year the publisher was targeted by a class action lawsuit on the grounds that the nature of the DRM software was not disclosed to purchasers, and remained on a user’s computer even after un-installation of the game.

DRM is used to try and prevent people being able to pirate games, however in this case many legitimate purchasers said that they felt they were being punished for buying a legal copy, as their use of the software was limited to a greater extent than if they had downloaded an illegal copy, free of the protection. The reaction against the DRM in Spore was so great that when EA released The Sims 3 a year later they decided to make the game completely free of copy protection.

More recently, in March this year, Ubisoft announced that they would be shipping a new type of DRM along with their games, that would kick players out of their game without saving their progress if their Internet connection dropped. First the game is verified and then the users settings are saved online through a account. This means that PC gamers who are not connected to the internet, or are away in an area without internet access, will not be able to play. As predicted by commentators online, Ubisoft’s new DRM was broken in less than 24 hours.

Cases like these illustrate how poorly considered DRM usage can be counterproductive, and instead of discouraging piracy can in fact drive people towards it, so that they can play games without so many restrictions.

 However, some DRM schemes have proved successful. These include services like the iTunes music store, or in the world of video games, Valve’s Steam service. The key to their success? Offering legitimate users far more value than that available through illegitimate means. Steam is essentially a distribution network, like iTunes for games rather than music, but it does incorporate DRM similar to the Ubisoft scheme described above. Opinion is divided when it comes to some aspects of the service – for example users may be forced to upgrade their games even when they don’t want to, and it is necessary to be connected to the internet when installing a game, but at the same time there are significant advantages.

With Steam, users no longer need to worry about maintaining a collection of CDs or DVDs, as they can download games they have purchased anywhere, anytime, and play them on any computer. There is a huge library of available titles, including free games, and the service also offers community interaction between players.

You can read an interesting take on the benefits of this approach in relation to piracy here.

Although DRM may seem like an attractive means for game publishers to discourage piracy, it is difficult to implement in a way that does not alienate fans by imposing arduous restrictions, driving them to seek out illegitimate copies. Even sophisticated DRM schemes are readily circumvented, and can lead to resentment on the part of legitimate buyers, and so it is clear that a careful balance must to be struck between the benefits offered by legitimate copies, and the limitations imposed by the copy protection used.