This past weekend, I went to Des Moines to meet up with a couple of old friends of mine. One of them was playing a familiar-looking game on his computer; when I asked him what it was, he said “Civilization IV.” When I asked him why he hadn’t bought Civilization V, he said because that game has a DRM feature that forces him to connect to the Internet in order to play it, even in single-player mode (he doesn’t yet have WiFi in his apartment).
DRM (digital rights management) software is one of the biggest reasons why PC gaming has shriveled like a willy in a swimming pool. It’s guided by a logic that makes absolutely no sense: in order to deter pirates from ripping off their games, publishers opt to punish the people who actually buy them. That’s like trying to fight car theft by forcing owners to verify their identity through a ridiculous (and faulty) voicelock system every time they put the key in the ignition.
Beyond the fact that DRM has repeatedly been shown to be a failure (if the ease of finding games on torrent sites is any indicator), the DRM measures that publishers use are actively harmful to your computer. It’s thanks in part to DRM that the number of new PC games released each year has shrunk to a negligible number, as gamers defect to consoles or just drop out entirely. Here’s why the scourge of DRM needs to end.
Destroying The Village In Order To Save It
Copy-protection mechanisms on game discs have long been a thorn in gamers’ sides, but older games usually handled them with a bit of class. Back in the MS-DOS days, for example, copy-protection was typically accomplished through in-game mechanisms that required you to have the manual on hand. For example, Star Control II required you to have the printed starmap in order to travel anywhere in the game, while Infocom’s various “interactive fiction” titles were impossible to beat unless you had the included “feelies.”
It wasn’t until around the late 90’s and early oughts that corporate publishers decided to start screwing over their customers. My favorite examples of faulty DRM from this period are Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows. Both games use a copy-protection method that requires you to have the CD in the drive in order to play, but as the discs get older, the CD check stops working. As a result, I can install the games just fine, but in order to actually play them, I have to use a no-CD patch.
Think about that for a second: in order to play games that I legally bought, I have to break the law in order to get around a software program designed to keep me from breaking the law.
Another fun encounter I’ve had with DRM is the 2006 RPG/strategy hybrid Space Rangers 2. The CD release of the game used StarForce copy protection, and when I tried to install the game, my AVG anti-virus software stopped me because it thought the StarForce executable was a Trojan horse. I had to shut down AVG—and open my computer up to viruses and attacks—in order to finish the install process.
And nobody can forget the fun fun fun experience of BioShock, Spore and other PC games that only allow you to install them a limited number of times. Once you exhausted your limit of installs, the game disc would stop working and you’d have to call technical support to get them to fix it. The best part of this draconian DRM, at least when it came to Spore, was when pirates broke the copy protection mechanism wide open and put the game on torrent sites before it was even released. In fact, Spore became the most pirated game in history, all thanks to EA’s hubris and contempt for their customers.
Punishing People For Obeying The Law
The ultimate effect of DRM is that it encourages piracy and discourages actually buying the product. When you have to jump through so many hoops in order to use a product you paid $50-60 for, why not pirate? For example, the asinine copy protection included with the Oblivion DLC—forcing me to call technical support during business hours and listen to a minimum-wage monkey laboriously read off activation codes for 45 minutes—drove me to just swipe the DLC from a torrent site to save myself the headaches.
As a self-published author, I’m acutely aware of how piracy hurts producers. That said, I don’t believe in hurting the people who spend their money on my books. Because of this, I don’t use any copy protection or DLC on the e-versions of my books; my readers can download them as much as they want and do whatever they want with them. I realize that this makes it easy for unscrupulous buyers to throw my books up on The Pirate Bay or whatever. I don’t care.
The reality is that if no one is interested in pirating your products, no one is interested in buying them either. Piracy is an inevitable part of being a game developer (or author or musician); the ease of distributing content via the Internet makes theft unavoidable. Attempting to fight it with DRM is like trying to stop a roach infestation with a handgun: it doesn’t do shit aside from leaving bullet holes in the walls.
Several game developers have realized the damage that DRM is doing to their relationships with their consumers and have stopped using it. For example, Stardock’s Brad Wardell (a frequent target of SJWs for his libertarian political views) became notable a decade ago when he declared that Galactic Civilizations II and Stardock’s other games would not have DRM. He took this stance because he realized that sales of the games would increase if customers could play them without being hassled.
In the end, all DRM measures are doing is hurting PC gaming. The only PC game developers that are surviving—and thriving—are indie companies such as Stardock and Mojang that put paying customers. By saddling their titles with malware-laden, barely functional DRM programs, major corporate publishers have delivered PC gaming to an early grave.