[As the controversy over DRM in PC games continues, Gamasutra talks to 2D Boy and Stardock on their attempts to pioneer less restrictive or even non-existent DRM, as Ubisoft and EA comment on their loosening of protection controls for Prince Of Persia and The Sims 3.]
If 2008 was the year of consumer resistance to digital rights management (DRM), then 2009 seems to be the year that developers are seeking more relaxed, gamer-friendly ways to thwart piracy.
Indeed, some outspoken developers have even suggested that game makers suck it up and accept the piracy, perhaps generating income in alternate ways, like micro-transactions.
Even leading publishers, like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, are softening their DRM efforts. Ubisoft, for instance, shipped its Prince of Persia in December with no DRM whatsoever.
And EA has announced that when The Sims 3 is released next month, no online authentication will be required to play the game, simply a CD key.
"I definitely believe this is all the result of a change in the public perception of DRM, a sort of grass roots uprising," observes Ron Carmel, co-founder of San Francisco-based developer 2D Boy. "Gamers are much more vocal about it than they used to be, perhaps because they are so accustomed to downloading music without too many restrictions."
Carmel believes that the extent to which a game is pirated is approximately the same whether it uses any of the DRM technologies or not. If it is that ineffective, he asks, why use it at all?
Many PC game retail publishers typically use DRM to limit the number of systems on which a game can be installed -- most games allow no more than five. But that hamstrings customers who own more than five computers, or who have to re-install their machine multiple times.
Additionally, the ways that some DRM-based systems hide their copy protection mechanisms and online install checking within Windows often concern gamers who consider them 'spyware' -- with a few examples of behind-the-scenes systems that affect operating system efficiency.
But in general, the concept that a game is installing something unknown on the user's system to check on them is psychologically unsettling, whether or not it's actually disruptive.
It has been claimed -- albeit without any demonstratable proof -- that, last year, a gamer backlash was a significant factor in EA's Spore becoming the most pirated game in 2008. Critics of excessive DRM believe that some gamers simply chose to pirate rather than buy the long-anticipated game whose DRM technology infuriated them.
"Spore was the final straw that broke the camel's back," recalls Brad Wardell, president and CEO of Plymouth, Michigan-based developer Stardock. "Someone who buys software does not want to be made to feel like a chump for buying it. Much of the outcry came from legitimate customers who said that they shouldn't be restricted by DRM, especially since people with pirated versions weren't."
But the Entertainment Software Association believes otherwise."DRM is a reasonable response to high piracy rates," says Ric Hirsch, senior VP for intellectual property enforcement at the ESA. "Just because some users circumvent DRM protections to gain unauthorized access to game software does not mean that the technologies don't serve their intended purpose. No security technology is 100% effective."
"Most people in the United States who play games do not circumvent DRM in their use of game software, a fact sometimes overlooked because of widespread illegal downloading and usage of games. There is little doubt that piracy would be far more widespread without game publishers' use of DRM."
However, 2D Boy's Carmel says that DRM is used not so much to thwart piracy -- since it's not very good at that -- as it is to combat the used game market.
"Publishers aren't stupid. They know that DRM doesn't work against piracy," he explains. "What they're trying to do is stop people from going to GameStop to buy $50 games for $35, none of which goes into the publishers' pockets. If DRM permits only a few installs, that minimizes the number of times a game can be resold."