Internet DRM and the changing online world

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March 29th, 2010

In the old days, it was pretty easy to identify DRM. When a game secretly installed dubious device drivers to make sure that you have the CD installed, that was clearly DRM. However, due to the recent internet DRM controversies I've noticed that the line between what is and isn't DRM seems to be getting a little blurry.

What is DRM?

According to Wikipedia: DRM is "access control technologies that can be used by [copyright holders] to impose limitations on the usage of digital content and devices."

Internet DRM is making things complicated

The latest DRM scandal has been stirred up by Ubisoft (who Jeff already mentioned for their Splinter Cell Chaos Theory DRM fiasco). Their controversial tactic this time has been an internet-based DRM which requires users to maintain a constant connection with Ubisoft servers at all times.

News sites have reported a huge backlash as everything that could go wrong did: the authentication servers went down for a few days during which meant legitimate users could not play their games [Edit: It is worth noting that the servers went down because they were hit by a "massive DDoS attack"], gamers with poor internet connections (including soldiers deployed in Iraq) have simply been out of luck as any interruption in connectivity immediately interrupts gameplay (plus rumor has it that the DRM was promptly cracked anyway [Edit: Ubisoft has denied this rumor and it appears there may not have been a full crack]).

Ubisoft DRM Analogy
A silly analogy Aubrey found about the Ubisoft DRM debacle.

How can a game do this to users?

My first reaction to this was "wow", who would ever make a game that forces users to make an online account and continuously authenticate with a server? And then I realized "WoW" is right. The same "access control technologies" have been in place for years in online games and MMO's like World of Warcraft. However, have you ever heard of a DRM-fueled, anti-Blizzard rebellion due to how they impose accounts on players? No, me neither. In fact in my initial research the only person I found calling Blizzard's DRM was Blizzard's Executive Vice President of Game Design.

How DRM really seems to be defined

In this new online era, I feel that DRM really seems to be defined as follows: "DRM is access control technologies that are UNREASONABLY used by [copyright holders] to impose limitations on the usage of digital content and devices."

So then who decides what is reasonable? The customers do of course!

Where Ubisoft went wrong

So Ubisoft's real crime was not the technology they used but rather the way they violated player expectations. Why the Whale-Man's-Fluke should a gamer be required to maintain a continuous internet connection to enjoy a single-player experience?

Steam: an interesting case study

When Valve decided to make installing Steam mandatory for Half Life 2 players, tons of gamers were upset over this invasive DRM (I was one of them).

However, that hardly reflects the attitude of gamers now; they love Steam. This invasive layer that was originally getting in people's way now helps gamers find out about game sales, chat with friends, download their purchased games to other computers. What was once derided as DRM is now perceived as such a value add to gamers that Gabe Newell can go out in public and denounce DRM and no one really calls him on it.

The thing that makes Steam particularly impressive to me is that while Ubisoft is getting blamed for its brute force approach, Steam gives players the option to play their games offline. The catch is that most of the value add from Steam (from buying games at massive discounts, to chatting, to achievements) happens online.

I don't have the data but I know that personally I never play Steam in offline mode (even when I'm playing single-player games) and I would imagine most users are the same. If that's true, from a consequentialist framework, Steam has done exactly what Ubisoft sought to do, convince players to play their single-player games online where the validity of their user account can be monitored. However while the Ubisoft DRM is hated, Steam is almost unanimously loved.

Smarter moves Ubisoft could have made

  • They could have paired their games with awesome multiplayer experiences run through Ubisoft accounts (Splinter Cell Conviction looks like it already has sweet multiplayer modes). While giving the players the option to be off line, they could unobtrusively check players that are playing online (a la Starcraft).

  • They could have taken the Steam approach and diligently looked for other ways to add value to players' online experience, so that when given the choice most users volunteer to be online.

  • If they had been super ambitious, they could have created an MMO where their online infrastructure would not have been so blatantly unreasonable.


I think the technology-based definition of DRM is outdated and that it is more accurate to define DRM as limitations users perceive to be unreasonable. If Ubisoft had been more sensitive towards user-perception, they could have easily chosen a strategy that wouldn't have sucked so much but still would have discouraged piracy.

The strange thing is that I'm confident Ubisoft was smart enough to see this wave of discontent coming. It's stranger still that after watching this mess, EA is now attempting to do the same thing with Command and Conquer 4. As a PR-minded fellow, I have to wonder if perhaps these DRM stunts are nothing more than a cheap, surefire tactic to get repeatedly mentioned in the news. For all I know the current "backlash" could be driving tons of sales for Ubisoft.

The future may soon take the controversy out of internet DRM

The growing success of social media and cloud computing suggests the world is rapidly moving to a state where everyone wants to be connected to the internet all the time anyway. At such a time internet DRM will not really be an issue.

The biggest game-changer (pun intended) on the horizon is OnLive, a service that runs all its games on a cloud and streams them directly in to gamers. You'll have to be connected to the internet at all times to access their cloud (yes even for single player games) and you won't actually have any of the data for the games you buy stored locally (so far it sounds more intense than the Ubisoft internet DRM right?).

But the upside is users will be free from worrying about game compatibility issues as well as upgrading and buying new hardware to keep up with Moore's Law. It will be interesting to see how gamers respond when OnLive launches this June.

So that's my humble perspective, but I'd be very interested to hear what other people think about rights management for games in this new digital, internet-driven age. After all, it will be you the gamers who determine which products and services are worthy of support and which become unsustainable and extinct.