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Ask GR Anything: What is DRM?

Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves). Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments below and you may just get it answered!

In some corners of the Internet, even whispering the phrase DRM is tantamount to daring to speak the name “Jehovah” back in the Dark Ages. But what the heck is it? And why should you, as a gamer, care at all? Well Ask GR Anything is here to bring you up to speed, thanks to a question from notorious comment baron MetroidPrimeRib.

Above: The idea is to put a stop to piracy, but DRM can also hurt real customers

We're not going to get too much into the nitty-gritty details, for such a thing would take eons and would bore the Jehovah out of you. But we do want to at least give you the basics, so that you know what people are talking about when spirited debates about DRM do crop up.

To begin with, DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. The term itself sets the tone for the entire debate surrounding the topic. It sounds innocuous enough, but it's been turned into a means for copyright holders to "manage" the "rights" people have to their "digital" content. But before we get too far into the debate against DRM, let's go over some of the commonly used methods in gaming.

Persistent Online Authentication: One of the most notorious types of DRM. It continuously authenticates your game with the game's server. While this adds constant verification that your copy of the game is genuine, it also assumes that you have reliable internet access. If your internet cuts out or your connection goes down, then you're unable to play.

Above: How publishers like to envision software pirates

SecuROM: At its most basic, SecuROM limits the number of computers that are able to install a game at once. Usually the limit is three or five. SecuROM became reviled net-wide when it was revealed that the highly anticipated game Spore would use this type of DRM, and that SecuROM often logs a hardware upgrade as a fully new installation (even if it was just an operating system or graphics card update).

SafeDisc: A method of making disc-copying more difficult. This method isn't talked about nearly as much as the other two, most likely because hardcore PC gamers rarely buy their games on discs anymore.

The reason people get so up in arms about DRM is that it's essentially a punishment for everybody, based on the actions of software pirates. To use a colorful expression, it's instituting martial law to stop criminals. Opponents tend to argue that pirates will always be pirates. They will continue to find ways to circumvent DRM, and thus the only people impacted by DRM are honest consumers.

It's often very difficult to tell for sure whether DRM actually works, because many games that use aggressive DRM tactics tend to become the target of waves of pirates who illegally download the game on principle. This was the case with Spore in 2008, when the use of SecuROM rallied pirates, and made Spore the No. 1 most pirated game of the year. Contrastingly, pirates tend to (say they) reward companies with their patronage if that company's products don't use DRM. It's hard to get definitive data.

Above: The more likely reality: kids torrenting games and porn in the library

Recently, there has been a growing chorus of industry bigwigs decrying DRM as being based on false beliefs. Valve's Gabe Newell, for instance, famously said that piracy had little to do with price and everything to do with service. He said that the way to stop piracy is to give users a better experience than they'd get from pirating, holding up Steam as a shining example.

Other companies have tried different approaches. CD Projekt Red attempted to hunt down pirates individually and sue them for 1,000 Euros after The Witcher 2 was allegedly pirated 4.5 million times. The company soon dropped that quest, though, saying it didn’t want to risk wrongly accusing any paying fans.

Our personal favorite type of DRM doesn't come with restrictions on what you're able to do with your game, but changes the game if you're caught pirating. Dark Souls developer From Software said it entered its own game with super-charged characters to murder early players. Bohemia Interactive (Operation Flashpoint) also uses similar tactics. The game identified pre-release players (read: pirates) and made their weapons useless or turned them into birds, both of which must have been particularly vexing for military buffs who pirated the game so they could indulge in a military power fantasy.

So, should you hate DRM? Maybe. Do companies have a right to protect their copyrights? Absolutely. Do some of them go about it the wrong way? Probably. We can only hope that someday, someone figures out a compromise that makes publishers and their customers happy, so we don't have to wade in these muddy waters anymore.

Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen) and we may tackle them in a future Ask GR Anything.

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48 comments

  • robotdickens - March 11, 2012 9:12 p.m.

    I'd really like to know what's the deal with so many discs for just one game? I didn't understand it when computer games did it. I just presumed that the game had so much info and you had to compact it so you could download it, but now video games are doing it. Is my first thought right or wrong?
  • samsneeze - February 29, 2012 3 p.m.

    I'll be reinforcing Cyberninja's question. Why do games like Assassin's Creed get a free pass for being the same thing while games like Dynasty Warriors get shit all over in reviews? Is it like some kind of requirement as a reviewer to hate the series or is there a legitimate reason for it. Or we could go a step further and ask why do two games of the same genre with the same problems as each other have one of them score lower? Then there is the question that I really want to ask, "What makes a memorable character?"
  • robotdickens - March 11, 2012 9:15 p.m.

    Assassin's Creed doesn't get a free pass. When the first game came out, everyone just dogged on it for slight problems. When the second one came out, those same people bashed it without playing it when it was actually good. Admittedly, Revelations was kinda stale.
  • samsneeze - March 11, 2012 10:17 p.m.

    The first game doesn't count since, you know, it was the first game. Still, it doesn't change the fact that it is still treated better than other games for silly reasons. Admittedly II was better, yes, but Brotherhood and Revelations did not deserve the scores they got when you use the typical reviewer logic of "Same as last time, so it's worse than before."
  • BhazotheMad - February 27, 2012 3:27 p.m.

    DRM isn't my big problem. Its annoying at times, yes, but not as bad as dropping $60 on another stupid warmed up pile of crap that's just like the other games I've played. I know people who pirate their games, and decide how much to spend on it before buying the game. If they decide its even worth buying a copy instead of just deleting it and not bothering.
  • SuperUberBear - February 26, 2012 2:45 a.m.

    I joined to ask this question (read articles for years just never joined)... Why is it in Europe I grew up battling Dr Robotnik on the Mega Drive but in America it's Eggman on the Genesis? If no one had invented the internet I would've never known about this divide lol...
  • BhazotheMad - February 27, 2012 3:22 p.m.

    Umm, I fought Dr Robotnik on my genesis. He's eggman somewhere else...
  • The_Tingler - February 28, 2012 2:01 a.m.

    He's Eggman in Japan. Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast introduced the nickname 'Eggman' but he still called himself Dr Robotnik, and then SA2 just had him as Dr Eggman. The name 'Robotnik' still pops up regularly though, including in Generations. As for Genesis, American companies regularly change the names of things that are remotely too interesting/intelligent to more generic titles.
  • BladedFalcon - February 23, 2012 7:58 p.m.

    ...I actually hadn't notice that! ._. good find! XD
  • Zixor - February 23, 2012 7:26 p.m.

    I have an important question to ask... Why is Gabe Newell so dang fat?
  • talleyXIV - February 23, 2012 6:02 p.m.

    PC gamers, you are a disgrace. When you pirate the Humble Indie Pack that you could have bought for $.01, you know you are cheap piece of scum. Get a job, buy a game.
  • The_Tingler - February 28, 2012 2:05 a.m.

    Um, I think you mean "pirates". You said "PC gamers" and "you". You own a PSP? Well, you're a pirate then. See, nice mentality there.
  • gazzc - February 23, 2012 10:54 a.m.

    I hate almost all DRM, especially the types that make paying customers have a poor experience of the software or place unnecessary limits on its use - this means such things as requiring a constant internet connection for offline play and limiting the amount of times I can install my game or upgrade my pc. Actions like this only ever hurt paying customers. Pirates do not care as a simple crack fix will remove all the drm in seconds, and that is drm that the inconvenienced and legitimate customers have paid for in the price of the software. I think the best solution is definitely a much more passive approach such as account logins to access your games. The only inconvenience now that the customer has is an account name and password to be entered. It also comes with benefits such as being able to install and play your purchases anywhere and most people do not even realise that this is a form of drm. Steam definitely has the right approach and Gabes comments are correct. The only issues I have with steam is that older games are overpriced compared to the high street and the savings made through digital distribution are never passed on to customers (especially with new titles)
  • aaron-pan - February 23, 2012 5:26 p.m.

    Doesn't Steam require an always online thing to play your games? So if you were internet-less and wanted to play a downloaded game from Steam, you can't right? Frequently people forget Steam itself is a DRM too, it just tries to compensate with better services for their players (like achievements, friends list, community, etc).
  • ZenPhoenix - February 23, 2012 6:03 p.m.

    If you've authenticated a game once while online, you can tell Steam to restart offline and still be able to play, as long as the game and Steam are up-to-date.
  • radiodeaf - February 23, 2012 8:05 a.m.

    lol....DRM, GAME COMPANY: "WE'LL MAKE IT MORE SECURE..." CRACKER: "Oh really??" Let's not be inventive...let's just fall back on old tactics of putting a pad lock on the door hoping no one will figure out the window is open. Better yet, we won't tell Grandma there is a key for the front door under the rock near the veranda... but she'll be fine. Strays are pretty easy to catch in our neighborhood, so her food intake should be good. Thanks Hollywood... your ignorance about pirating has now leaked over into the gaming industry. We get to listen to whining BS from developers who didn't get to purchase a newer BMW. Skyrocketing profits... crap, cloned games... and shitty peripherals that were obviously worthless, (if you thought voice activation during gaming was a brilliant idea...you are stupid and probably live alone.) Best of all, your ability to blame the consumer. Then force them to deal with draconian services like DRM. Lessons well learned Hollywood. Thank you.
  • patbateman17 - February 23, 2012 6:16 a.m.

    Suckers - it's not pirating if you install a legit copy and then crack it - which is what I did for Operation Flashpoint. Of course, I was in high school and would just buy the game now. Also - roman numerals in the Captcha? Please.
  • Japanaman - February 23, 2012 4:50 a.m.

    How is making sports games really possible these days? I mean, how long does it take to scan a basketball player for NBA 2K for example? Or do they only scan a few key players? And just how much does each player earn for being in the game? What does the NBA itself earn for the game?
  • Andrew Groen - February 23, 2012 6:09 p.m.

    Hey! Thanks for the Q's. I may do something on sports games at some point, but almost certainly wont be able to answer the financial questions. Nobody likes giving out details of their deals, y'know? Game publishers especially a ridiculously secretive about that stuff.
  • psycho ninja 4 - February 23, 2012 4:46 a.m.

    How come givaways are never allowed in Australia?

Showing 1-20 of 48 comments

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