I wrote on this topic many times before, but recently I have realized that most of my rhetoric is often lost on certain kind of people – namely software developers who are trying to make a living selling their products. Lately I have been seeing indie game devs trying to rationalize and justify use of anti-customer DRM techniques. For example take this tweet by Cliff Harris of Positech Games in which he says he is not sure how Ubisoft or EA could protect their games without use of their invasive DRM. I guess I can see where he is coming from – for him selling games is a business. That’s how he makes money, so piracy does affect him quite directly.
So a person like Cliff probably won’t really care that piracy is a social problem, and he is already aware that the main reason people pirate is because they can. Being an indie dev selling his games online, he is already hitting a lot of the things on Kevin Kelly’s list of 8 generatives. But if his games are getting pirated, that does not help him to improve the bottom line. It is easy to see how someone like that could look at the very draconian Ubisoft DRM and conclude that while it sucks, it is probably a necessary evil.
I can rant about how DRM is the root of all evil, and how it only affects paying customers but that does not necessarily mean anything to people who just want to sell the product, and are not happy just ignoring the piracy issue. I do understand how DRM may seem attractive option. I only ask that game makers acknowledge the simple fact that no pirate will ever actually see their DRM in action. By the time the game gets to them, it will have been ripped out and exorcised from the final product. You paying customers on the other hand will see it every day. So the more invasive, and restrictive you make it, the more annoying it will be for them.
In other words, DRM is a customer facing toll gate. They have to pay this toll every time they use your product – not in currency, but in time, effort, or by meeting some arbitrary requirement (CD in drive, internet connection active, hardware check, etc…). Most people are willing to tolerate certain tolls without complaining, but for the others these can be deal breakers. Pirates don’t give a fuck, because they are playing your game DRM free. The only thing this toll gate prevents is casual sharing – like when little Bobby lends his game CD to little Jimmy down the street. And if capturing that market is important enough to you to alienate another part of the market (folks who get easily frustrated by restrictive DRM) then that’s fine.
But there are right ways to do DRM, and wrong ways to do it. Valve does it the right way for example. Steam is nothing more than a DRM scheme dressed up as a delivery service. You don’t own your steam games – you basically lend them from Valve, and you have to log in and authenticate with your Steam account every time you want to play them. And like every DRM system, Steam can lock you out of your games forever.
I know a guy who has lost his Steam password. To make matters worse, the yahoo email he used to create it expire due to inactivity, and then snagged by someone else. At some point he also cancelled the credit card he used to make all the purchases, and when he filled out the account information he used dummy data because he was concerned about privacy. Currently he has no way of proving to Valve that he has one owned that account – so he is out a few hundred dollars in games he purchased there. If he purchased these games the old fashioned way, he would still have access to them. This is a good example of what happens when DRM backfires.
But, you can hardly find anyone complaining about Steam these days. Why? Because in addition to being a DRM scheme it also provides it’s users a tremendous value. Valve will actually store your games on their server indefinitely, allowing you to re-download them at will. They provide a built in community tools including in-game chat, screenshot taking utility that allows you to post your action shots online, an in-game web browser, an option to install the same game on multiple machines, and share saves via Valve cloud service. For me this is a perfect tradeoff. I don’t get to own my games, but I get a lot in return. It works.
So to answer Cliff, how could Ubisoft and EA protect their games? Well, they could sell them on Steam. And barring that, they could try be more like Valve in the way they build their DRM. Little less stick, and a little more carrot. That’s really all it takes.
Just please, don’t try to make your own version of Steam. I really don’t need 57 steam like game delivery systems running in my task bar. Especially since most companies who try to copy Steam, have no clue what makes it so awesome – like EA’s Origin which will delete your games after a period of inactivity. You need to embrace the spirit of Steam and it’s long list of cool, user friendly features, not it’s game delivery mechanic which no one really cares about.
I’m not asking anyone to change their business model. I’m not asking developers to change their philosophy, and embrace piracy as free promotion or anything like that. You can do business like you have always done it. Just stop treating your paying customers as dirty thieves that need to be remindd how privileged they are to be allowed to play your games. Hide your DRM from the customers, or make it seem like something they would want to use. Hell, you can use the Ubisoft always-on scheme if you want, but dress it up nicely as a feature that lets me do something with my game that I couldn’t do before and I might give you my money.
What is your take on this? What kinds of DRM are you willing to tolerate, and which kinds are deal breakers for you? What are other ways companies like Ubisoft and EA could protect their software without pissing off their paying customers?