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 thepointlessness (opens in new tab)of crying about DRM, but we also said that real discussion can be useful. And discuss in detail we will.

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.

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.