29/04/2010

The Carrot & Stick of DRM

An odd thing has been happening in the entertainment industries insistence that piracy is a problem is that DRM has been a problem for their customers. DRM by design is broken for legitimate customers - it only serves to restrict what they can do both legally and illegally with products they've bought, whilst so called pirates continue to enjoy media unrestricted in one form or another. To get around this, companies have been tying "real" features to the DRM, and using it as a carrot to lure you into buying restricted products.

Even worse, they're presenting these features as if they're somehow enabled by DRM, rather than as an awful bait 'n' switch scheme. A perfect example of this is Steam. Discussion is often abound as to whether it constitutes "real" DRM. But to me the answer is obvious:
  • Does it attempt to stop me from copying games to other sources? Yes.
  • Does it attempt to stop the person who receives it from playing it? Yes.
That's all DRM is. It's an attempt at stopping you copying and sharing files, or indeed in the event they've been shared, to prevent you from playing/using them. DRM does not constitute messaging features, or backup features or indeed a store front. Those are all real features that can be implemented without DRM, and are in fact made worse or inconvenienced by being proprietary and locked down. To backup a game I have to go through the Steam client, to play any games I have to go through the Steam client, to message friends I have to use the Steam client and be tied into yet another proprietary social network. If Facebook saw value in moving to XMPP, there's nothing stopping others from doing the same.

1. Custom Executable Generation

Custom Executable Generation creates a unique build of your game for each user, making it difficult for any one user to share the game with any other user. Each individual copy of a CEG-protected game is only playable by the Steam account authorized to access it.

[...]

3. Valuable Platform-Dependant Features

Customers won't want to pirate a game that's connected to 20 million gamers and a feature-rich platform. Features like Steam Achievements, Anti-Cheat, Auto-Updating, and Steam Cloud simply dont exist outside of Steam.

Furthermore, constantly updating your game with upgrades and content leaves the pirates in the dust they are relegated to a featureless game with no community of players.

Steam Promotional Site

None of these features are dependant on DRM or proprietary standards. May some require an account created at a service? Yes, but none require authoring and checking systems. Steam is a game organiser integrated with a store front, no different than iTunes is a music management system with integrated store front or the more recent Rhythmbox and Ubuntu One music store integration. Even worse is when a game is provided for free and technically distributable, Steam still doesn't allow you to play the game without using its client when you've downloaded it through their store front. For existing users try the free Sam & Max episode and see for yourself.

What are the key elements of this platform for PC gamers?

Although a permanent online connection is required, this means that a CD/DVD is not required to play the game after installation. The protected game can be installed as many times and on as many computers as you like. Saved games are also synchronized online so the user can continue playing from any location with the game installed.

[...]

Is there an "off-line" option?

No. The added services to the game (unlimited installs, online storage of saved games and the fact that you don’t need the game disc to play) require you to have an online connection while playing the game.

What if Ubisoft decides not run these online services in the future? Will my game stop working?

If any service is stopped, we will create a patch for the game so that the core game play will not be affected.

What will happen if I lose my Internet connection when I play the game?

If you lose your Internet connection the game will pause while it tries to reconnect. If the Internet connection is unable to resume, the server will have stored your last saved game and you will be able to continue from where you left off once your internet connection is restored.

[...]

Can I resell my game?

Not at this time.

Ubisoft "Online Services" Platform

What is happening is that they're bait - publishers and developers try and use classic spin to present the DRM system as what makes these features possible, but there's absolutely no reason to believe this. Cloud backup of game saves and configuration data are typically small files that could just as easily be backed up to any other service like Ubuntu One or Dropbox, especially if there are standardised ways to expose this information and for backup services to hook into this. Services like Good Old Games provide games through a store front with no DRM. All sales are attributed to an account, but there's no inherent restriction in being able to copy or distribute the game files you've downloaded. What's telling is that many of the major publishers insisting that DRM is required continue to support Good Old Games like Ubisoft do. Perhaps they don't care about "piracy" if what they're selling isn't the latest cash cow?

Though it should be noted this is not new. Ever wandered how proprietary networks like MSN (now Live Messenger) ever became popular? Because of email. You see, email is a genuinely distributed and open standard. Irrespective of who uses what service provider, you can send an email to anyone - all you need is the address, also in an easy and standardised format. Apparently the biggest providers of this service didn't think that those advantages were things people cared about, so piggybacking on their email services (typically free), they tied those email accounts into proprietary networks which were exactly the opposite of email - if you wanted to send a message to someone, you had to be on the same provider. The likes of Pidgin only exist precisely because of this cluster fuck of anti-consumer behaviour.

They actively used the carrot of real features and even open standards that benefited people to sell them on services and methods that had inherently less value than what could be provided by any person or company willing enough and dedicated enough to preserve those advantages. Apparently the way to provide value to your customers is to sell them things that are only advantageous to the ones who create and own these systems to provide the highest barrier of exit as possible. It's why one of the tools of selling business on open source/Free software tools has been to start putting exit costs - the cost of moving to new services and providers when the time inevitably comes - upfront.

Do not believe or be lured in by ideas that DRM systems are providing new features or that these features require the DRM tools. Do not be lulled into any conversation or marketing talking point based around defining DRM as a generic set of features and tools, rather than as a specific means to stop copying, sharing and "unauthorised" use. Then we can keep focused on the real point that these provide no advantages for the buying customer, and the misplaced assumption of whether piracy is a problem.

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