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Developers: DRM Will Never Really Work

Development firms, inventors, and creatively-minded independents! Have a seat. We need to talk. 

You see, there seems to be an elephant in the room in the world of game development. It's a rather ugly creature, painted in shades of moral gray and black; it bellows about piracy and used games whilst boorishly lamenting lost sales and the core gamer's lack of respect for the developer. I am speaking, of course, about always-on DRM. A lot of us think it's high time the beast was silenced and put out to pasture.

Because at the end of the day, all it's doing is spreading strife. 

I'd like to preface this piece by establishing three things:

1. I have a great deal of respect for game developers - as a matter of fact, I myself hope to become one some day in the not-too distant future, once I've sorted through all the bad ideas that seem entirely unwilling to stand politely aside. There's something inherently admirable in being so passionate about an idea, so consumed by a concept that you're willing to pour countless hours into seeing it realized on-screen, something impressive in the drive to take an idea - or a dream - and translate it into a playable form. 

2. I'd also posit that that piracy - while not necessarily theft, by any traditional definition (you are not stealing a resources which is in finite supply) - is a morally questionable activity, all legality aside. I hesitate to paint it as inherently wrong, inherently bad; inherently evil. At the same time, however, I hesitate to say that there is any instance where it's a justifiable reaction. 

It's a little complicated, truth be told. 

3. Last, but certainly not least, used game sales fall under an entirely different umbrella than piracy. This is not a morally 'wrong' activity, any more than it's wrong to purchase a used car, or pre-owned furniture, or other, previously-used electronics. If you, like certain developers, believe that used games are just as bad - if not worse - than piracy...no, you're wrong, that's stupid, stop talking. Please, spare us the drivel. That is one absolute in this debate that I'm going to stand firmly beside. 

Now that all those little foibles are on the table, let's see if we can't get rid of that elephant. It's starting to stink up the place. 

DRM: A Gremlin and Ogre Analogy

Sit back and let me paint you a picture. You're skipping your way home with a shiny new copy of a game you've been waiting ages to play. Imagine anything you want - this is something you've been eagerly anticipating, an experience you've been waiting patiently to immerse yourself in. The game itself is fantastic - one of the best you've ever played. There's just one eensy little catch. 

See, what the developers didn't tell you was that each copy of the game comes pre-packaged with your own personal gremlin. This critter -whether you like it or not - will happily position itself on your back, watching you play over your shoulder. Occasionally, it'll smash a few buttons on your keyboard, knock your mouse out of your hand, or even disconnect your system from the internet. Maybe it'll even crash your game a couple times, for good measure. 

But hey, it's just there to protect the interests of the developer. Can you fault them for wanting to prevent piracy? After all, pirates are bad, and you might even be one! 

Speaking of pirates, let's say while suffering the slings and arrows of your gremlin, you notice someone else enjoying the same game...but there's no monster on their back. They're completely free of any gameplay-restricting gremlins. You ask them how they did it, and they happily respond that someone found a way to kill their gremlin, and decided to share it with the world. 

That someone was a software pirate. 

Technically this is a cave troll, but you get the idea.Technically this is a cave troll, but you get the idea.

Unfortunately, the developers got wise to this technique. The next game they released was packaged not with an aggravating gremlin, but with a back-breaking ogre. Again, you unwittingly buy it - and quickly realize your mistake. You see, this ogre has been given very specific instructions - if you make any attempts to play the game in any way that departs from what the developers intended, it is to break your arms, making it impossible to play. 

This time, no pirates can save you- the ogres killed them all. You either play their way, or don't play at all. Perhaps this isn't a perfect analogy, but you see where I'm going with this, right?

Let's drop the analogies, and talk straight for a moment. Virtually every high-profile game that's released with always-on DRM; every title which has required a constant internet connection for no other reason than because the developer says so has failed spectacularly. Ubisoft's UPLay DRM went up in smoke. Diablo III was a fiasco. Sim City's launch was one of the worst video game launches in recent memory. 

In each case, you had users who didn't have a stable connection unable to play the single-player games they'd paid for. You had swathes of people unable to access content which they had a right to because of poor server management. You had games which were essentially unplayable, all because the developers were afraid of losing out on sales. 

It's the same old song and dance: saddling your users with restrictive DRM accomplishes nothing. Even if it does somehow prevent piracy, even if it somehow eliminates the risk of used game sales; it's very likely going to end up adversely impacting all your legitimate, paying customers. It will impinge upon their enjoyment. And given that games are all about enjoyment, well...

That kind of defeats the purpose of developing a game, doesn't it? 

The High Seas of Game Development

The development scene has changed in recent years, and the Internet's to blame. New methods of distribution - online purchases and downloads - have caused an evolution in what the consumer expects. We're all about convenience, and if pirating a title happens to be more convenient than jumping through hoops to purchase it...

Well, that game's getting pirated, isn't it? 

I feel like I've quoted Valve's Gabe Newell entirely too many times, but it seems prudent to quote him once more - "...there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem, and never a pricing problem. If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24x7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked and will come to your country 3 months after release, and can only be purchased at a brick-and-mortar store, then the pirate's service is more valuable."

Consequently, if you're saddling your titles with restrictive, invasive, or poorly-designed DRM, people are going to be more likely to pirate your titles, either out of spite or because the pirated versions actually give them a better experience than the legitimate ones. Even in the case of titles which require a constant Internet connection, you're not exactly breeding goodwill amongst your fans. 

Defeating the Pirates and the Peddlers in One Simple Step

So how does one prevent used game sales? How does one prevent people from pirating their hard work, from nabbing their titles without paying full price (or paying at all)? Ignore them. Seems like a strange idea, doesn't it? I should explain.

See, at the end of the day, no matter what you do, no matter what steps you take, there are going to be people who will pirate your games. These people are not lost sales, because they never intended to purchase from you in the first place. For whatever reason - laziness, greed, lack of means, or simple malice - they're never going to give you their money.

So the best thing you can do is avoid focusing on them. Ignore the scumbags, and avoid hobbling the experience of the people who do support you in an effort to curb the people who don't. Be a positive force in the development community. Make your fans - and the industry - love you, and I can almost guarantee that people will be less willing to pirate your stuff.

Don't scoff - it's worked for CD Projekt RED.

As for used game sales...just look at the expenditure-to-profit ratio of Heavy Rain, which developer Quantic Dream tried to claim was all but crippled by the sale of used games. Again, this is something that isn't worth your time to consider. 

If you're still dead-set on including DRM, make it something that will actually benefit your users - or at the very least, try not to make it invasive or restrictive. 

Believe it or not, Valve's digital distribution service, known as Steam, is a brilliant example of this. It is, at its core, piracy prevention software. It's also a powerful, full-featured community, game development, and purchasing hub. It offers so much convenience to its users that it doesn't really matter that it's DRM software. 

Conclusion

The games industry has an elephant in the room; a grotesque abomination which snorts and snarls about piracy and theft and sales. DRM, it howls, is the way of the future - it's the way to prevent software pirates, a means of hobbling second-hand sales, a perfect means of securing more profit.

It's high time we addressed it. It's high time we told it to shut up, stopped worrying about piracy, and instead focus on doing what so many of us seem to have forgotten we love: making games. 

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Nicholas Greene
Nick's Games Haven
InventorSpot.com
Follow me on Twitter @OmniscientSpork