Our gaming lawyer explains how abandonware can justify the existence of DRM.
By Patrick Vuleta on February 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm
Do you remember the Amiga? No? It was, for almost a good decade, the flag-bearer of the Glorious PC Master Race. The Amiga was competing with the NES, SNES, Master System, and Mega Drive—all at once. Against these consoles, the Commodore Amiga had the supreme gameplay, sound, and graphics capabilities, because Nintendon’t (I’m so clever).
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Commodore made a series of downright stupid decisions, and lost their entire grip on the home PC market. Had it gone differently, you could have been reading this on the Amiga operating system Workbench, rather than Windows. Now, your only views to past greatness are Ebay, YouTube, and emulated abandonware.
This sums up why we need DRM quite nicely. Tis a tale of obsolete hardware, abandoned software, and loose morals.
Abandonware and the greater good
The Amiga was one of the original platforms for the genre-starting Dune 2. Yet your best chance to play this today is to illegally download a DOS version from one of the “abandonware” websites. Not that I’m condoning such actions—just giving the facts—you’d be hard pressed to find a working Amiga copy in 2013 (there’s an online emulator here, too… I have no idea of its legal status).
Abandonware is a catch-all term for when publishers stop caring. No more profit comes from the game, so it gets dropped. Sales aren’t made, and copyright isn’t enforced. Publishers turn a blind eye, and websites are “allowed” to offer illegal downloads in plain sight.
This abandonment is used to justify abandonware (hence the name). While downloaders recognise their actions are technically illegal, they claim it’s a victimless crime.
First is the claim that playing abandonware doesn’t hurt anyone. The publisher isn’t offering the game for sale, and so you didn’t take away from sales. When you download Dune 2, your actions won’t be used as the centrepiece of Ubisoft’s anti-piracy rants.
Second is the claim that without “archiving”, the games will simply be lost to history. If EA dismantled Westwood, and no one bothers to sell Dune 2, how else will you play this classic?
Both these arguments have a grain of truth. That’s what makes them so compelling, on first glance. However, abandonware is illegal, and we need DRM to stop it—for the good of gaming.
Do you want games to live forever?
Justifying abandonware assumes that no market for old games will exist in the future. This, however, has been caused more by retailing methods than anything else. In days past—you may not remember—you’d ride to the local store on your penny farthing, hand over half your weekly earnings of two dollars and one cent (in coinage), and walk out with an Amiga game in a box the size of a large cereal carton. The large boxes, of course, were to occupy shelf space, for this is how games were sold in the Dark Ages.
The problem, though, was that stores had to maintain inventory turnover. Keeping your store stocked costs money. Old games quickly become discounted in a desperate attempt to clear inventory to make way for the next flavour of the month. Popularity is fleeting. Games that leave the store, never return.
Online distribution changes this. It costs but bandwidth to keep an online store stocked. You have no pressure to clear inventory, because you have none.
And digital games can have extreme shelf lives. Doom still sells on Steam. The oldest games at Good Old Games were released in the late 80’s—Police Quest, King’s Quest, and Space Quest. These continue to sell today, despite coming from a time with a distinct lack of imagination for naming.
Only DRM will make this possible
If online stores can stock so many old games and charge for it, what stops them? Obsoleteness. The reason you can only find the DOS version of Dune 2 is that we don’t play Amigas anymore. Even if you had an original game disk, it wouldn’t work in that PC floppy drive you threw in the trash ten years ago.
And what stops obsoleteness? Money. As long as a business case can be justified for keeping old games working on modern systems, they will be. But if they don’t earn anything, they’ll be dropped… abandoned when it becomes convenient. Patching and porting costs money.
So what ensures money? You know where I need to go… DRM. When you’re selling such old games, profits are low. Most of Good Old Game’s stock sells for $5.99.
The argument that “piracy does not cost sales” gets weaker the lower the profit. While you may correctly scoff at Ubisoft’s claims that piracy cost a hundred bajillion dollars of Far Cry 3 sales, it’s harder to claim that an abandonware website offering Shadow Warrior for free didn’t cost Good Old Games $5.99. With prices well below impulse buy level, every Google search for an old game that leads to an abandonware website becomes a lost sale.
Stripped of all its hyperbolic, negative connotations, DRM is simply a means for asserting ownership. You cannot sell something you cannot own, and this is the original point of copyright—that the law protects ownership rights, so the owner can sell and profit, free of unreasonable competition. However, it’s hard to sell a $5 game when you’re competing against freely available downloads. In turn, that means it’s hard to make a case for patching games to be compatible with current systems.
DRM gives publishers the ownership rights that copyright always intended, and hence the small profit needed to continue to offer games past the point when games have previously been abandoned. With DRM, we’ll no longer lose games to abandonment.