DRM is one of the most controversial issues faced by avid PC gamers, attested to by the almost daily debates in our forums and our article comment threads. From the games that require always-on internet connections and registered accounts, to the content management platforms we now rely on to serve us new titles and keep older ones automatically updated, it’s obvious that we’re now stuck with it — at least in some form — for the near future.
Judging by the temperature of the discussions that surround the subject, we’re pretty goddamn upset about its proliferation — yet many of us actively choose to continue using it in the face of alternatives. Even titles that offer DRM-free downloads are quickly eclipsed by requests for Steam codes, citing convenience, a single point of storage and the aforementioned game maintenance services that are on offer. So, putting the vitriol aside for a moment, do DRM-based systems offer features that could actively be useful in our lives?
Before we can answer this question, however, we need to highlight exactly what DRM consists of and, frankly, why it exists in the first place. At its core, DRM regulates the licenses you hold for particular titles, in the same way CD-Keys once did during the nineties. Instead of being scattered throughout boxes, they’re stored in a centralized database linked to a single user, making it easier to authenticate repeat installs and connect various portions of products together. But lets not be entirely naive — the prime reason for much of this consolidation is to prevent multiple, simultaneous uses of software, in order to stem what publishers see as rabid piracy of PC titles.
But what’s more interesting than the reality is the flawed perception of good and bad.
Why does Steam get a free pass…
Steamworks (or rather, just “Steam”), originally developed by Valve in order to maintain and secure its own library of titles, has quickly spawned into the most popular form of digital rights management for both PC and Mac titles. Most, if not all, PC gamers would have it installed and hold within it a host of cheap titles sourced from the various sales that are now held regularly. What I find most interesting about the whole DRM debate is the defense of Steam compared to the lambasting of an almost identical platform in Origin. People seem keen to gloss over the many disabling functions in Steam that would be considered draconian if (and when) done by anyone else.
Steam’s region-specific systems allow for the ability to introduce price discrimination, release date limitation and “blocking” of content publishers feel they do not want to be sold in a territory. It has a policy of banning full accounts, in turn blocking access to full lists of titles, for minor indiscretions, such as using a VPN or gifting a title from another region. Support systems are woeful and authentication issues arise often preventing access to titles, both on and offline.
In its defense, Steam does make a conscious effect to overcome many of the restrictions imposed by its publisher clients, in order to create an environment that is comfortable for gamers. You can go offline, and play titles without a connection at LAN or if you’ve been capped. Titles not only update automatically, but alert you to new features, DLC and modifications. Each title now includes its own self-contained community, allowing discussion of game or technical problems. An enormous marketplace with relatively little barrier to entry means a plethora of indie titles, F2P games, betas and even alphas that can utilize the existing user base, security of code and self-maintenance to release regular builds and prevent the stemming of vital funds to piracy (which is significantly more common within smaller sized indies than larger AAA’s). Coupled with a breadth of social functions, friends lists, server browser and so forth, its generally the only piece of software you need to have.
…especially when the competition is no better
Origin, in most cases, offers many of the same functions as Steam — although they are still, much as Valve once was the only client of its own software, limited to EA. There is an offline mode for downloaded titles, access to betas and free games, sales, a friends list, automatic updates, and in most cases, very fast downloading. Sure, there isn’t the entrenched legacy of content providers, but this was namely due to games that used to run on dedicated machines run by ISPs, as is (sadly) not the norm today.
Conspiracy theories aside, Origin’s DRM is in no way more or less draconian than Steam’s, so much of the annoyance stems from client specific restrictions, such as SimCity or Battlefield 3, that requires a secondary login and constant, unwavering connection to its parent server. It’s in this area that the cauldron is brewing about when single-player games become multiplayer-only games, with Blizzard leading the charge of adding always-on features to StarCraft 2 and Diablo 3, causing a plethora of outrage for some and little change for others. But what seems to be missing from the current conversation around the future of how we play games, and how they are protected, is a proper and consistent explanation from developers.
Diablo 3 held a contentious position with the declaration by its developers that it had now become an MMO-lite, yet many of the changes to the formula in order to keep it this way were almost outright rejected by its community. StarCraft 2, on the other hand, has benefited from a single ecosystem that combined updates, ladders, mods, maps and co-op play into a single unit, and thus become embraced by its base.
uPlay, easily one of the most hated content management platforms, is a perfect example of why a good set of simple features within a usable UI can disguise many of the unappetizing ones. uPlay is downright terrible to use, even after the multitude of changes the software has undergone since its inception. It’s slow, convoluted, relies on external installers for software and does not keep track of updates or client changes. It has a dreadful friends list with a full-screen overlay that drastically effects game performance when opened. uPlay, in fact, exists almost primarily to control a license and this is where it fails – there is very little value add here.
Everything is exposed in uPlay, and to an even greater extent with the abysmal Games For Windows Live. You can visibly see all of the gears turning, with the multiple windows begging for this code or that, the show stopping errors when connections are lost or lagged, or when crucial authentication systems go down, preventing you from playing something that literally requires no connection whatsoever. Steam removes all of the gears from view, and when it does need to expose some of the engine room, it ensures that everything is covered in enough shiny metal that you don’t even notice the smell.
We’ll take the stick, but we need the carrot
If you are going to remove freedoms, you must replace them with something tangible. Realising this, uPlay recently added the unique ability to convert points earned from achievements in game, towards extra content, such as wallpapers or even DLC. It does work well, and its a good start towards a system that could compete with the likes of Steam or Origin, but not until it puts all of its ducks in a row, and comes help rather than a hindrance.
Ever so slowly, publishers are realizing that they can get away with murder once they offer enough bells and whistles — like speed, community and reliability. Once you’ve hidden the corpse and silenced the critics, human nature dictates that people are quick to forget that the crime occurred and will move on with their lives.
If publishers want to make DRM more palatable to the gaming public, they don’t have to remove it — they need to incentivise it. The gaming public has already demonstrated that they will reluctantly use it, even after complaining about it, because they want the game behind the mess. But if you want to retain users for your platform, then you need to ensure that there is a net benefit to the person having to put up with the inconvenience The reason people are actually choosing to use Steam over DRM-free software is because it’s effortless, full of choice and aims to actively improve its use and offerings.
Origin, for its faults, is making efforts to do the same, emulating a lot of what has made Steam so successful. Gamers have already decided they are willing to trade off the odd freedom, but convenience just isn’t enough anymore — if publishers want people to make the switch, there better be something even better waiting for them at the other end.