Tuesday, August 23, 2011

super.hype: Dog Day DRM

DRM is a sensitive topic for most gamers. It’s also one that’s relatively unique to the medium. Aside from the obligatory hubbub that music moguls and film buffs have made in order to obviate the claims of audio-visual pirates, the only place where DRM has adversely affected the consumer moreso than the creators and publishers is in the realm of video games. It’s restrictive, intrusive, and often downright tyrannical, forcing many unnecessary and difficult hurdles that must be overcome in order to enjoy a legitimately purchased product. But it’s practically a necessary evil; in order to overcome the amoralistic ingenuity of the giant anonymous blob that is the internet, DRM seems to be the only method to obtain at least a modicum of proven sales for distributors and publishers. The controversy yet rages…

A recent casualty of this conflict was Eric Chahi’s From Dust. Originally promised to be devoid of any type of DRM, it was packaged with uPLAY, which requires an always-on internet connection in order to operate. Due to overwhelming indignance and public outcry, Ubisoft has now planned to retract uPLAY’s inclusion with an upcoming patch. But the damage has been done, and many customers are receiving rightful refunds for their purchases.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got
In regards to my gaming history, I’ve not long been a proponent of the PC platform. My incipient years were spent with hands glued to a SNES controller (!!) and even after my transition to desktop contraptions my time was still evenly divided amongst games like Wind Waker, Battalion Wars, and Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door and Diablo II, F.E.A.R, and Counter-Strike. And yet I am still able to pinpoint the moment that, for me, DRM turned from a minor nuisance to an intolerable nemesis.
When Bioshock first came out, the internet exploded with its praise. It was immersive, challenging, and super fun. It was the next level of shooter, incorporating solid traditional mechanics mixed with novel ones artfully woven into a deep, brainy, and twisted narrative. It was released simultaneously on to the X360 and the PC, so the unanimous assumption was that in all respects the game was equally good on both platforms. This was mostly true, and then completely, terribly, and irreversibly not. PC gamers received a game that was overburdened with DRM, while X360 owners were not.
Image courtesy of Twenty-Sided Tale
Gone Baby Gone

The question I have (and have had) for some time now has more to do with the “what” of DRM and less with the “why”. I know the why after all; companies are deathly afraid of losing money. It's not as though they're afraid of their code being stolen or their ideas being copied, they’re afraid of not seeing any of the cash for all the supposed entertainment that they’re doling out. What doesn’t make sense to me is that their goal and their logic don’t match their actions. If they truly wanted more paying customers (as they're assuming that many of their customers are in fact non-payers), they would do things a bit…differently. They've tricked themselves into believing that the only alternative to draconian DRM is lost sales. This logic isn't simply untrue, it's also obfuscating and unproductive in regards to the purpose of DRM.
Image courtesy of The Museum of Unintended Use

What does DRM actually do? Ceteris paribus, DRM schemes have done little more than pack bloat on the product and percolate bile in the consumer. From the implementation of limited installations/activation management hurdles to the ridiculous requirement of a persistent online connection, DRM does everything but give the customer more reason to pay for a product. Early DRM was actually more palatable in this respect, as it relied more on creativity and ingenuity than technology. In cases like Sierra’s classic King’s Quest series (where running the game required you to solve a word puzzle using the manual), DRM, while still unwieldy and circumventable, was not presumptuous or self-righteous, but was rather like the game it "protected". They were humbly self-aware and practically self-deprecating, which reflected a sense of humanity behind the product. This is what I believe DRM is supposed to do: make me appreciate the people who make the game so much that I want to give them money.
All That's Left

Ironically, DRM mechanics ought to be looking backward. Big companies like Ubisoft are shooting themselves in the foot by implementing increasingly aggressive methods in attempts to “promote” legitimate sales, when in fact by simply refocusing their ideals on their actual goals (that is, providing a quality entertainment product) they would serve both the customer and themselves much better. From Dust was one such opportunity for them to do this, but their greed got the better of them. Even with the retraction, it’s too late for Ubisoft to make amends with the community.

Still, there is a silver lining to this cloud. The mere fact that Ubisoft is recanting is a strong indication that PC gamers are occupying an ever more prominent role in the success of gaming at large. I say gaming at large because From Dust is foremost a non-PC game, and the fact that they would go to such lengths to mollify the PC crowd is pretty solid evidence for influence in my book. The only caveat I have here is that even as we gain ground, we also must defend it wisely, lest we give these companies yet another reason to forcibly take it all back. As much as these big companies can learn from their past ingenuity, so we too must learn from our past promiscuity.

As gaming continues to move beyond the technologodrome, gamers and game-makers alike will be faced with new challenges. Let’s hope that both of these parties will continue not only to nobly attempt to surmount them, but also be unafraid to admit their mistakes and learn from their checkered pasts.