Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Why DRM Needs More Batman

DRM, if you're a gamer you've probably heard of it and if not then odds are likely that you've still been affected by it. DRM, short for Digtial Rights Management, is what companies use to attempt to ensure that people pay for what they get; in other words, DRM is meant to stop people from pirating software. From things like OS and development suites, to digital copies of movies and music, and of course, games.

Now, don't get me wrong; there's absolutely nothing wrong with game companies and developers wanting to protect their copyrights and actually make money from what they are selling. These days though, it seems that most DRM is going in the completely wrong direction. By becoming more and more pervasive and envasive, DRM has lead to a lot of misery on both sides of the gaming equation. Companies lose customers who believe the DRM to be obtrusive and overbearing, and gamers might not play the games they want to play, or have to bend to what the the rulesdemands they do in order to play them.

A good example of how DRM has hurt both sides of the equation is Spore. Released in 2008 Spore was a hotly anticipated game from Will Wright, creator of the Sim series. However, when EA revealed that Spore would be using a DRM system called SecuROM the shit really hit the fan. SecuROM was a rootkit program that installed itself onto your harddrive without your knowledge or consent, and remained there even if you uninstalled the game. EA found itself facing a class action lawsuit over the decision to make SecuROM the DRM. More importantly, there was a massive and instant consumer backlash against Spore, leading it to be pirated by a staggering 1.7 million people, earning it the disgraceful title of "The Most Pirated Game Ever". Now, it would be foolish to say that every person, or even a majority of the people that pirated the game did so in protest to the DRM, but was it a factor? Absolutely.

The problem with a lot of DRM these days is that it seems to be evolving into a race between developers and pirates, and the innocent gamers -- the ones that pay for their purchases -- are the ones caught in the middle and taking the most damage from the fight. It may come off as a somewhat defeatist attitude, but let's face it, as long as there is someone that doesn't want to pay money, there will be piracy. People will crack any amount or kind of DRM given enough time and enough desire to do so. Throwing greater and greater amounts of DRM at them only provides them with more of a challenge and greater bragging rights about how they cracked the latest, toughest codes. In the meantime the average gamer is the one that ends up having to deal with crap like SecuROM, or games that demand an online connection at all time to be played, like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood did at one point. All you get are companies spending more money on solutions that clearly aren't working, and gamers getting more and more frustrated by what they have to put up with.

So, is there a solution?

Well, yes and no. There isn't any kind of perfect catch-all solution that will guarantee that a game will never be pirated. However, I believe that the future of DRM isn't about an ever increasingly difficult and intrusive methodology to ensure that gamers are "playing nice" rather, I believe that the best DRM is the kind that has already seen use in the past and even recently: most notably in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

What did this DRM do, you ask? Well, if you had purchased the game the DRM did nothing, just like it should. If the game detected that you were playing from a pirated disc or copy though, then the game gimps Batman, making his glide-jump move -- a somewhat pivotal part of the gameplay -- absolutely useless. Eventually there would be a room that a person playing a pirated copy of the game simply cannot get past, because it requires use ot the glide-jump in order to proceed.

This is the kind of DRM we need: the kind that doesn't punish players, but pirates. The kind of DRM that is subtle, insidious, and utterly hilarious to hear about a game pirate falling pray to. This isn't even the only example of this type of DRM, and although with enough patience it probably is possible to override the DRM, the fact that the subtly of it makes it incredibly difficult to catch on that something is wrong -- which leads to moments like a person playing a pirated copy asking what's wrong with his game only to be flat out told their playing a stolen copy -- makes the subtle game mechanic screwing DRM an obvious choice that pleases both the developers need to protect their materials, but also the average gamer who not only doesn't have to jump through hoops, but also gets to laugh alongside the devs when the pirates get screwed over.

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