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
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
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.