Saturday, October 13, 2007

PC Gaming is Killing Itself with DRM

I just read this, and it made me feel a little better, but still annoyed me:

Now a little backstory. 2K Games released BioShock on the PC and Xbox 360 to critical acclaim, and as expected, it sold really well at first. Then a few days into the hubbub, PC users started getting hamstrung by the limited "activations" on the game. In other words, you can only install it a low, fixed number of times before it stops working (the X360 version doesn't have this problem). Imagine if your car dealer pre-set a fixed number of "key turns" on your car before the ignition stopped working arbitrarily. This would be completely unacceptable.

The limitation on game activations includes installing on different user accounts on the SAME computer, meaning each user account install counts as an entirely separate computer. It becomes a huge pain in the ass for the paying customer. 2K says it's designed to minimize the chances of the game being pirated, but you know what? It WILL be pirated, sooner or later, or as the folks at The Consumerist put it, "The organized piracy movements will crack almost any system within hours." The people copying games out there are far craftier than developers give them credit for, and take great joy and pride in breaking these mechanisms just to spite the companies that put them in place. Let those two groups battle it out, but who actually ends up suffering? It's not the software pirates. It's the people who paid for the game fair and square.

The info at that Revoke Tool link above isn't really much of an improvement, just allowing you to free up one activation, but if you do so much as get a new video card, motherboard, or DVD-ROM drive, you could be out an activation. What? BULLSHIT. But you're still limited in activations in the end, and if you're not anal about revoking them with their little tool there, sorry Charlie.

And this, dear readers, is why I will not be buying BioShock. Grats on the anti-piracy, 2K. You "protected" your game right out of me buying buying it! Good work!! Way to kill those sales! The only way it will wind up on my system is if they remove that DRM crap entirely--or if someone does it for them, if you know what I mean. I don't support piracy, but I do support getting the product I want in a format I can tolerate (or preferably enjoy), even if the ones who provide it aren't the company who made it in the first place.

Consider this...I just cracked open my big case of old PC games the other night, like Tribes 2, Aliens vs. Predator, Half-Life, and Heavy Gear 2. I've installed them probably a half-dozen times on a few different computers I've owned over the years. With the type of "security" 2K is trying to use, I wouldn't be able to play these games I shelled out good money to have. 2K says, "...we have a support division set up to help increase your limit so that you can always play your game." Ok, so what about a few years down the road when this particular game isn't hot stuff anymore and the support team dissolves, they shut down the activation server, or what if the company goes under entirely? No more game for you. They took your money and flushed it right down the toilet.

This comes hot on the heels of Microsoft releasing Halo 2 for the PC and saying that it absolutely required DirectX 10 and Windows Vista to run. A group of savvy coders in a garage somewhere figured out that MS is full of crap (as usual) and were able to copy a few files and get the game running on DirectX 9.0 hardware, in Windows XP. Why did MS make this brash move? Because DX10 is native to Windows Vista, which isn't selling so well (and rightly so, it's crap), so they thought making their fancy, shitty new OS a requirement to play a hotly anticipated port (of a game that was made for and ran on the original Xbox, which certainly didn't use DX10) would get things moving. They were wrong. The little guys beat them. Again.

Going back to copy protection bullshit for a minute, I got a preview copy of the game Infernal for review, and it had Starforce anti-copy malware on it. I can almost understand this from the perspective that they don't want their preview code being leaked, though the game would be out in a few months anyway, and it wasn't anything particularly revolutionary. But overall it didn't make much sense considering how negatively Starforce has come to be viewed as a DRM solution, and really, it's a preview build of an almost finished game, that I was going to write all about. Everything about the game would be noted in the preview anyway. Starforce had a 30-day expiration, which was also stupid since what if we want to refer back to that copy during the full game's review process?

What really blew my mind was that Ubisoft's King Kong PC demo that came out shortly thereafter also had Starforce on it. What the hell is that about? It's a FREE DEMO that ANYONE can download and play, and for those without speedy internet connections, being able to have a friend give them the demo is a golden opportunity to spread the good word about your game. Why any company would put copy protection on their free, publicly available demo is beyond logic and reason.

So what's the big deal with Starforce? Well, it made headlines for being particularly malicious, causing some computers to malfunction and in some cases reportedly destroyed DVD-ROM drives. It was bad enough that major publishers like Ubisoft eventually dropped using it due to customer outcry.

Copy protection--especially damaging versions like Starforce--is making users not want to buy legit games anymore, myself included, so their efforts to prevent copying are actually just driving more people to WANT to get pirated versions with the vindictive, un-user-friendly copy protection garbage skimmed off. We just want to buy something and have it work. Is that asking so much?

Contrary to this unsavory approach, developer Stardock (not to be confused with shitty copy protection maker Starforce) released Galactic Civilizations II, making a big deal out of the fact that they were releasing the game with NO copy protection on it whatsoever. All you have to do is enter the CD key for the game (a familiar process that's been around for decades now), and you can install it on as many machines as you like. It only allows operation on one machine at a time, but it doesn't have multiplayer apparently, so who cares? Here was Stardock's take on using, as they put it, "draconian copy protection."
"Naturally, some people have taken the conclusion that because we don't have copy protection on our game, that we invite piracy. That is not the case, we simply think there are other ways to stop piracy than CD checks, strict DRM, etc."
They went on to say, "If you make it easy for users to buy and make full use of your product or service legitimately then we believe that you'll gain more users from that convenience than you'll lose from piracy." You can read the whole thing here.

This is how it was in the old days, and it appears to still work now, including Unreal Tournament 2004, which once you install, you don't need the discs anymore, even the one specifically labeled "play disc." Stardock adds, "Sales reports on Galactic Civilizations II have been much higher than anticipated. We've now outsold the first Galactic Civilizations in North America in the first 10 days." The people at Starforce, in a show of rebellion against the idea of not using DRM/copy protection, posted links at their site to torrents where you could illegally download GalCiv II for free. It was a stupid move, further tarnished Starforce's already lousy reputation, and the links have since been taken down.

Beyond the realm of gaming, copy protection is also being challenged with Amazon's new DRM-free mp3 store, which certainly has a huge appeal for me. Being able to download songs and use them however and wherever I like sounds much better than being a slave to the Apple iBot way. Here's hoping consumers vote with their wallets and support this and other moves to give the content back to the users without superfluous strings attached.

Play on.

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