DRM: Necessary evil or consumer insult?

Every now and then our Wi-Fi has a little sulk. We don’t know why, but it’s entirely fixable with a swearword and the caress of a reset button. Now, for the first time, we feel punished for the rough and readiness of our PC.

Due to our internet connection’s occasional dropouts we can’t play Splinter Cell: Conviction without feeling anger and dejection. Some people don’t get the way the internet works you see, and the king of the Luddites has recently become Ubisoft.

The DRM on the PC releases of Conviction, Assassin’s Creed II and Silent Hunter 5 mean an always-on internet connection is mandatory. Therefore Ubisoft has caused distress to those with poor connections or who game on the move, as well as the majority of gamers who don’t see why they, as legitimate customers, should be restricted by the crimes of others. We wanted to put these concerns to Ubi, but they ‘politely refused’ our requests for an interview.

What’s led us to this point then, and is there any hope of escape? Or is it really nothing to worry about? Yeah, we recently decried the pointlessness of crying about DRM, but we also said that real discussion can be useful. And discuss in detail we will.

Pirate scum

We can’t pretend that piracy isn’t an issue. According to 2009’s estimated total download charts from TorrentFreak, the PC version of Modern Warfare 2 was downloaded 4.1 million times, but a comparison to an estimate of 270,000 US sales in the same period provides some stark relief. Meanwhile TorrentFreak reckons that pirate versions of the Xbox 360 version were obtained 970,000 times, as compared to six million sales in shops over the same period.

Sure, you can argue about figures being affected by the consolification of the game and the targeting of the marketing, but for publishers who talk in raw cash, the pattern is still writ large: a need to favour the console in cross-platform releases, and to lock PC games tight against the forces of piracy. It’s debatable, but also understandable.

Above: A one-stop shop for ill-gotten games

Of course, you can’t assume that an illegally downloaded game is the same as a stolen purchase – there’s no evidence that people would have bought a game in any case. The hugely pirated Crysis is thought to have been downloaded on a whim by a large proportion of people who wanted to try it as a benchmark rather than a game.

Then again, there can only be a negative effect on retail sales – with added factors such bugged versions distributed by pirates spreading negative vibes around the internet. Sometimes, as with the original Assassin’s Creed, this occurs before the game is released. Ubisoft claim ‘irreparable damage’ was done by a pre-release copy of that game, which included a purposefully placed show-stopping bug, being released on the internet.

Cracks n’ hacks

The question publishers face isn’t “Will our game be cracked?” but whether it’ll happen in days or weeks. Or even if the game will be leaked and appear online before the official release, as happened with Far Cry 2, Spore, Assassin’s Creed and Fallout 3.

Estimates place over 50% of a game’s illegal downloads as happening during its release week, when anticipation is highest and the publisher’s marketing budget is being splashed around. So DRM has often become a holding measure against pirate groups such as Razor 1911 and Skid Row (both of whom refused to answer requests for interviews) whose cracks are as inevitable as sunrise.

BioShock may have caused controversy with its online activation, limited installs, poor messaging to consumers, and SecuROM DRM that stays in your PC after the game is removed, but it still took 13 days for it to be hacked – a minor triumph. Of course the adverse publicity harmed 2K Games’ reputation with gamers, showing that moderation is required in these matters.

The other day-one hazard is for servers (and customer services) to be bombarded with the needs of those who’ve installed pirated versions of games. Notably, Gas Powered Games’ approach to copy protection with Demigod took its servers down, as 18,000 legitimate buyers logged in alongside over 100,000 pirates.

Up until now, DRM has been about stemming the inevitable tide rather than assuming that a game will be safe from being cracked forever.


  • Yetiman969 - May 25, 2011 9:39 a.m.

    I had to pirate AC2 because of the DRM, but followed SkidRows advice and bought the game, that is why the DRM is useless, an outdated concept. I just chose to buy cause I'm nice, but most people won't. Also, another problem with DRM's is the bigger, the tougher the challenge then the more people that'll go after it. Crackers wan't a challenge, give them a puny DRM, instead of a Draconian Ubisoft one, and Crackers'll probably focus on something else.
  • Pruman - May 26, 2010 3:42 p.m.

    Harsh DRM is a major problem because all it succeeds in doing is punishing the exact people game companies should be rewarding - the customers who actually pay for games! Pirates are always going to pirate the game because it is their nature, like the scorpion in the fable of the scorpion and the frog. The right way to combat piracy is to make a paid product better than free. Valve successfully did that with Steam by offering a wide availability of game choices, great prices, and the ability to play your Steam games on any computer with an Internet connection. Good DRM is unobtrusive and nearly invisible to the user. I believe Valve's DRM accomplishes that. Also, I read the best metaphor for piracy on Cracked the other day: "[the fact that there are no games on PC] has nothing to do with the morality of file trading. It's simple cause and effect. We're smashing out all the windows because it's fun, and then complaining when the rain comes in."
  • D0CCON - May 24, 2010 12:31 a.m.

    If the technology evolves enough to make it impossible to pirate a game, then it will be a necessary evil. Until then, I think that this only increases the number of pirates. Once the game gets cracked, people who hate DRM will try downloading it, even if they were planning on buying the game legitimately. Being one of the few people who prefers playing most games with a controller over a mouse and keyboard (only exceptions come in RTSs and games like Dragon Age Origins, and I rarely play RTSs anyways), I don't really care about the issue. Assassin's Creed 2 needs DRM? Fine, I'm enjoying it on my 360 anyways. But I still think that DRM hurts in its current form.
  • mentalityljs - May 22, 2010 5:23 p.m.

    Hey, I got an idea. How about Valve developes every game from this point on and have it activated through Steam!
  • Dibol1987 - May 20, 2010 5:36 p.m.

    Glad I gave up on PC gaming after 2008 (Tiberium Wars was my last game)
  • slapdatass - May 20, 2010 10:59 a.m.

    "Above: A one-stop shop for ill-gotten games" Why would you post a screencap of Torrentfreak there? TF is a blog about P2P, not a torrent site. Otherwise, good article.
  • ShadedPhoenix - May 19, 2010 8:45 p.m.

    heres another thing, if back in the days my uncle didnt gve me a cracked copy of system shock and boulder dash (and some other) i probably would had never started gaming in the first place (why should? books just cost 5-15 bucks depending on its age and where you look) As well to the issue with mw2, it has more online then retail sales, just get on steam and see the amount of people playing all day worldwide, its at a constant 50-100k most times still, and you cant play almost no game online over steam with a hacked copy, and now look what company did made steam and for what game, valve for half life 2, a drm invention that is good, a neccesary evil that is actual friendly (i cant repeat this often enough)
  • ShadedPhoenix - May 19, 2010 8:35 p.m.

    For me a perfect game has no drm, ill pirate anything before buying it (unless i was satisfied with the demo) but most times i dont have the money to immedietely buy me a game, so i dl it anyways, but i pad for many games nonetheless, and for way more if i didnt, here some examples of the earliest, Mass Effect 2, Bioshock2, Darkest of days, Metro2033 and ontop, i wont any game that has a too strict drm, or is not using steam, which is strict by nature but very very user friendly and it even has inbuild services like news, autoupdate, friends list, the ideal plattform
  • JohnnyMaverik - May 19, 2010 6:29 p.m.

    I cant play Ubisoft games now since I live in Univercity halls of residance and the connection here aint so great. Not only that but the nessesary ports to play games online get blocked, not sure if that'd have an effect in this case but I'm also not willing to take the risk, and even if it didn't, I still have the extremely flakey connection to contend with. I'm not guna pirate them either cuz quite frankly I can't be arsed, but hey, if something comes along that I really wanna play (see I Am Alive, which looks interesting)while I would buy the game with out the requirement for a constant connection, with it there's no point, as I'd just end up with an expensive tea coaster. The theory behind the DRM is solid and from what I know so far it's been harder than usual for the pirates to crack, but the problem is not everybody has a solid connection, in fact many don't, so while the theory may be solid, in practice the inferstructure just isn't there to support it yet, ergo you get people who can't play and therefore won't buy your games, and you know what, might just torrent a DRM free version instead, not because they don't/won't pay to play the game, but because they can't.
  • IHateMakingUserIDs - May 19, 2010 6:25 p.m.

    Always on Internet connection is a small price to pay. Did you forget on the first page where they same MW2 was downloaded 4.1 million times, and only purchased 270 000 times for the PC. that is only 6% of the total people playing the game buying it. Or on page 2 where the Football Manager guy says that he used hooks to see ho many people playing were playing retail copies, 30%! Piracy is a serious issue in PC gaming. And as such there needs to be drastic measures taken in order to protect companies rights to profit off their products. What does a PC game go for 40-60 bucks? If you use 50 as an average MW2 lost $205 000 000 in game purchases. Football Manager even offered a lengthy demo of the game for people to see if they liked it enough to purchase. That clearly didn't stop people from downloading illegal copies. I'm all for DRM's. If people want to play games for free, go playing at, or There needs to be more enforcement of copyright laws. If you aren't doing anything illegal there wont be anything to worry about.
  • mutantsquid - May 19, 2010 5:56 p.m.

    This is somewhat ironic. I pirate PC games to test out the finished product and see if it will run and if support will be up to snuff. This is because the purchase of a PC game is a one time deal, there are no PC rentals and I cannot sell my copy back to the store. The ironic part is that both these reasons have come up BECAUSE of piracy. Bizzare.
  • MetalDooley - May 19, 2010 4:36 p.m.

    @philipshaw Killing the industry huh?Used game sales have existed as long as I've been gaming(20 years)and in that time the games industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry that rivals the Hollywood movie industry. Far from killing it the ease with which people can get rid of unwanted games has probably helped grow the industry Why is the games industry the only one complaining about used sales?Why do they feel they deserve special treatment?You don't hear the heads of Ford and Toyota complaining that used car sales are destroying the motor industry
  • Imgema - May 19, 2010 1:37 p.m.

    DRM is stupid because, in the end, it only effects the paying customer. If someone is a pirate, he won't buy a game because it has DRM anyway. He will probably wait for it to get cracked. If the companies want to fight piracy, they will need to increase the value of their products. All the money they spend on DRM, they should use it to make better packages, nice big boxes, fat good quality manuals and maybe some presents inside the box, like an action figure or a soundtrack, or a huge illustrated map. This way, more people will be tempted to buy the game rather that DL it. It wont destroy piracy, but it will reduce it. With DRM not only they don't increase the value of their games, but they even decrease it further. I was going to buy Dead Space for PC, but because of DRM i choosed to downloaded it. Later, i bought it for my 360. That's another reason why the PC software sales are so low compared to consoles.
  • AfricanWoolf - May 19, 2010 12:31 p.m.

    "So there are ways to see piracy as the start of a relationship with a future customer, not theft." Dangerous words :-P Though I must say not without merit. DRM is certainly a necessary evil, that said, straight forward, kick to the crotch DRM like Ubisoft's latest exploits, are not the way forward. Creative DRM that gives incentives for illegitimate players to become legitimate seems like the best way. Make the experience so much better for legitimate players that it becomes better to just buy the original game. Lowering game prices and going for a "high turnover" business model might also be the way forward.
  • vinicusg.t.guedes - May 19, 2010 11:40 a.m.

    PS3 won the piracy war, it has shown it's perfectly possible to be free of pirate copies without compromising the gaming experience. Unfortunately a closed platform in the likes of the PS3 is not possible in the PC.
  • philipshaw - May 19, 2010 9:43 a.m.

    DRM is a necessary evil because if you aren't buying games new, you are killing the industry
  • JohanLiebert - May 19, 2010 7:33 a.m.

    DRM reminds me of the drug war. It is punishing everyone by trying to prevent a crime that, obviously, is going to happen regardless of how good the DRM is. Piss on it.
  • RebornKusabi - May 19, 2010 3:53 a.m.

    As a fairly "casual" PC gamer, in that I have a relatively middle-range PC [laptop] and only play games that were released before 2004... I don't care how much publishers or developers attempt to justify it, the fact of the matter is that DRM essentially PUNISHES legitimate customers of a product while pirates get off scot-free due to the fact that all they have to do is download the game, get a crack and play the game without even paying a single cent. Sorry but I have no sympathy for measures that treat the paying customer like a thief...
  • Cwf2008 - May 19, 2010 3:35 a.m.

    Didnt they just write an article about how their sick of people complaining about DRM? Huh
  • EnragedTortoise1 - May 19, 2010 2:22 a.m.

    @Psylockerules: Yes, but eventually THAT will be cracked, too.

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