The awkward obsolecense of the compact disc (ramblings about DRM, Digital Dist. & other stuff)

[Warning: Very long & quite possibly very unreadable rambling diatribe below]

As anyone with a pair of eyes might have noticed, EAs use of DRM for their upcoming PC titles Mass Effect & Spore (& in all likelihood all their future PC titles) has kicked up quite a stir on the web, not leas on BioWare's Mass Effect forum. It was while reading through one of the threads on the Mass Effect forum that I noticed an interesting response from Derek French (one among many responses) in justifying the use of DRM. In effect, his reply was that he would be happy go through SecuROMs system because it meant he wouldn't need the hard disc to play the game, just to install it. In other words; not needing the disc to verify if the game was real or not & the convenience that supposedly brings was justification for the use of this new authentication system.

But I wonder, is a CD that much of an inconvenience? Is there something about requiring to insert a CD into a CDdrive to play a game that is so frustrating that it demands systems like SecuROM to replace the process? Do the benefits from online authentication & also Digital Distribution systems over the traditional method outweigh the new problems that also come with them? Finally, why does the industry refuse to abandon the CD, despite moving to make it all but irrelevant?

One criticism I often see of CDs is that by requiring a physical object to use something, you are instantly limited to one concurrent use unless you buy multiple copies. The argument is that most homes these days have multiple computers, therefore why should a household have to buy multiple copies of a game to play it? For multiplayer games I understand this criticism. PCs, unlike Consoles, do not really allow for more than one person to use it at the same time. But for single player games, like Mass Effect in this case, this argument does not stand up because PCs in this respect are not unique. If two people in a household want to play want to play, for example, Assassins Creed on the x360 concurrently, there are two options: You either buy a second console & copy of the game, or you take it in turns to play one console. This is no different from PCs, & so to me it is not a legitimate criticism of CDs as a system.

Concurrent running off one CD is, anyway, a can of worms in itself. The main push against gaming piracy is, ostensively, because of the losses in profit caused by it. But in my mind allowing multiple active installations off the same CD has the exact same effect. In the case of the system EA is intending to use for Mass Effect & Spore, 3 concurrent active installations are allowed. This, in my understanding, means only 1/3 of the people playing the game actually have to have bought a copy. Now, I'm sure there are a number of people who will use this limited installations for themselves, having multiple PCs/laptops which they want the game on. But a number of people wont be in this situation. Indeed a number of posters on the Mass Effect topic that started me off on this asked, quite plainly, "how many friends can I lend this too before I wont be able to play?" The answer, given by French himself, is three concurrent users can play off One CD, meaning you & two friends can play having only paid for one copy. To me, this approach sounds like an effective counter against pirated copies of games, but for the wrong reason. Depending on how it works in detail, it will result in less people using pirated copies of games, because they can use a legitimate copy for free instead.

As for security, the argument goes that CDs based anti-piracy efforts are too easy to crack. Certainly there's no denying this, but previous examples show that those which use online authentication systems are just as easily to get past. Bioshock's release on PC last year was greeted by its authentication system being cracked within the week. Indeed I have seen several proposed workarounds for the DRM system Mass Effect & Spore will use, & its not even released yet. Whether or not these will work remains to be seen. But I have no doubt it will only be a matter of time before the SecuROM system is made obsolete. Indeed I think anti-piracy efforts will always be behind the hackers, precisely because they're seemingly not designed (& certainly not employed) pre-emptively, but reactionary. The current wave of anti-piracy software is made to counter the last wave of pirates, not the next one. The unintuitive & potentially awkward system may even push those who previously didn't use pirated games/illegal cracks to do just that.

Well that's the online authentication side of things done with. I will say that there are some games that do not need the CD that I think its a good thing for. Company of Heroes & DoW Dark Crusade being two examples of games that work, or work limitedly, without the disc. But these neither have limited installs, or require a tedious registration system to work. Even Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts, which requires registration to use the game without the disc, still works with the disc if you don't. This is the approach I personally like; using online authentication & registration gives you an advantage, but doesn't overly penalise you if you opt not to use it. I may not be able to play CoH:OF online without registering, but I don't play online anyway so that doesn't bother me. Spore, by contrast, will not work at all not only if I don't register/authenticate, but also if I don't have an internet connection ready at its beck & call so it can keep confirming its authentication.

Digital distribution. Many say its the future; Microsoft certainly think so. yet for all its championing, the big PC game publishers seem oddly cautious about it. Steam, Metaboli & other distributors show that its certainly a doable, if not flawless, system. Valves approach to Steam has also made it double as a pretty efficient anti-piracy tool, killing two birds with one stone. Yet these systems are still used primarily for older games & those made by smaller developers/publishers. The Big Boys don't seem to want to play just yet. That's not to say they aren't moving that way; CDs increasingly seem only to be used for installation purposes, after which they just gather dust till you need to install it again. Yet they still refuse to abandon the CD or often even provide an all digital download alternative to them.

Of course Digital Distribution isn't for everyone. For starters, it requires a broadband connection to really be used, which many people still don't have. Given the obscenely large file sizes of PC games these days (10+ gigabytes is no longer unusual), even a decent broadband connection still means games take hours to dl over the phone line. Indeed in Metaboli & I think Steams case you require an internet connection to play the games at all; which makes it as frustrating as the anti-piracy software that demands the same. In metaboli's case there are further problems. For starters several games don't work because they still require the disc despite being a download. There's no denying you get your moneys worth, but neither are there that many high quality recent titles to choose from. So while a handy alternative to CDs; they have not yet, in my opinion, reached the point that Digital Distribution can be seen as a replacement.

But there's another reason I think major publishers are hesitant about moving into Digital Distribution: It makes a key part of their purpose obsolete. Publishing houses are key for developers to get their games onto high street store shelves. The marketing side of publishers is something developers need to get their game to sell. But remove the need to sell your game in GAME, GameStop or wherever, & suddenly the demands publishers make on Developers seem disproportionate to what they're getting out of it. Till such time as the big publishers like EA et al find a way to employ Digital Distribution without risking their profits; I don't see them showing more then a passing interest. I certainly don't see the average retailer being all that keen on it.

Finally, I am one of those people who loves CDs. I have a (legitimate) album collection that contains well over 5000 songs & spans almost 8years of collecting. I have piles of DVDs ranging from blockbuster films to the complete collection of Inspector Morse. I like having a physical object; something I can pick up & use even if I don't use it all that often. Its reassuring to know that if my mp3 player/computer explodes I wont lose 1000+ worth of music in an instant (though a house fire would have the same effect :-P). I like the artwork that adorns the boxes &, often, the discs themselves. Although PC games seem to have sadly abandoned this latter feature, I still see things like the Pizza Connection 2 box as original & imaginative products in themselves. While my games collection is much smaller than my music or movie one, having those CDs to hand to use as & when I wish is both psychologically reassuring, & more convenient than them being stored in digital purgatory.

So let me try to draw all this together. I suppose my general theme is that the PC games industry is seemingly moving away from the physical CD, while steadfastly refusing to abandon it & embrace a new medium. I have looked specifically at The EA DRM example, & the flaws both in the system their using & the reasoning behind it related to this topic. Finally, I've looked at Digital distribution as an alternative to a physical CD, & tried to explore both the reasons the former cant yet replace the latter & why even if it could the major players in games production aren't inclined to adopt it. Ultimately, I think it all comes down to what's the most convenient for the consumer. As yet, Digital distribution isn't more convenient to the (average) games consumer compared to a physical copy. Equally, EA's SecuCOM DRM system is as, if not more inconvenient, to a consumer than finding a cracked/illegal copy of the game. It may succeed in stopping the pirates, but it may also result in the games abandonment by consumers unwilling to put up with the system in the name of fighting piracy. With economic recession & a crowded marketplace, it certainly isn't a good time to alienate your customers.

That's a lot of words.


1800 words approximately. Exactly 2 sides of A4 paper using size 10 Times New Roman font. It certainly is longer then it perhaps needs to be. But since it was just something that took about one & a half hour from inception to posting I didnt really have any urge to cut it down. Probably could be paragraphed better, maybe I will do so later.

Woah, Haliwali was banned? We need him. There's trolls on the loose.

Im sure its only temporoary. After all, it is alot of words.

But when it comes to what can be construed as un-constructive the mods of The Escapist arn't interested. They just dont care for it

Well, for whatever it's worth, I tried to pirate Bioshock when it was released, failed, then went and bought it. So Bioshock's copy protection directly converted me into a sale.

I know that's something that pirates and DRM opponents don't like to hear, but it's the truth.

If it convinced you to buy it rather than just go without, then that is a good thing. My point was that, if the copy-protection is too...over the top, then it may well beat the pirates but also cost the game genuine customers as a result. Im sure this SecuROM thing is being blown out of proportion, but I would be lying if I said I didnt consider these things when deciding whether to buy a game or not. Company of Heros: Opposing Front I had to block with the firewall so I could get it to work without it spamming me to register it (which I couldnt do having forgotten both my relic accounts password & screenname, & cba to find it out). If games start to get anymore frustrating then that to get working I think ill have to join the unwashed hoardes & abandon PC gaming altogether.

Its a good thing that you were convinced to buy the game having falied to pirate it. But on the otherside of that (& speaking personally) I have never been convinced to try & find a pirated copy of a game no matter how easy to do so it was. Well, with the exception recently of Pizza Connection 2. But that game for all intents & purposes no longer exists through legal channels (& ive had no luck illegally either for that matter).

Anyone heard of HVD? It's a new format in development somehow using holographic laser reception of Red, Green and blue lasers to get like 12 times as much space as a Blu-ray disc.

Anyways,I don't think that CDs should ever be outdated. Instead of getting what's "better", why not we just get a disc that's appropriatly comfy for the amount of data. Burning a 60 Minute music Cd? Use a CD. Burning the company's 7GB portfolio? Get a Blu-Ray. Planning on pirating half of Youtube? Get one of those new-fangled HVDs.

I meant CD as in having a solid spinning disc beng slowly sidelined as its is made to serve fewer & fewer purposes. Not CD being replaced by DVD, Blu-ray, HD-DVD etc.

& on the subject of different disc formats (or whatever the term is. My current PC has 1 disc drive. I dont have room for a blue ray/dvd/cd/hvd player/recorder in it :-)

Good post, frankly the whole Digital Distribution thing is nothing more than a pipe dream as long as the size of the content of the big name games is way ahead of affordable bandwidth. Where I do see Digital Distribution taking off is with handhelds as long as they stay in the 4gb range. (Anything more than that starts to get into the same problem as console/pc games being too big to download in a timely fashion unless you have a super connection.) As far as DRM goes all it does is annoy the user, I don't feel like being online just to play a singleplayer campaign, I don't feel like having to mess with my hard drive scheme because some programmer was too lazy to make use of built in operating system environment variables or create their own. I prefer having a disc myself when it comes to installing games, I do crack games to avoid having to bring the disc with me if I happen to be gaming on my laptop.

I agree it makes the product more annoying and frustrating than if you just stole it. It bothers me that you cant even have legal back up programs running or Safedisc freaks out.

I dont think the industry is moving away from needing CDs because its nice for the customer, I think its because the pirates are so good at making no-cd exes, and cd checking software so easy to get around they are trying something "new" to protect themselves.

Half the time I buy a game AND still use cracks/no cd hacks because it makes the product better and there is something fundimentally flawed with that.

Valve is the only company I have seen to avoid this whole mess. I find steam annoying but the fact all I have to do is reinstall steam if my harddrive fails and I have all my games again is awesome. It's constant updating is annoying though.

Yeah, there is alot of convienience beng able to play a game without a disc, especially if your prone to switching computers alot. But I do find the justification French gave for it a flawed one. Being able to play without a CD is one thing; multiple people being able to play off one CD is another. Indeed to my mind it almost defeats the point of anti-piracy as people with friends can now share their game with friends as though each had their own copy of the game. The loner pirates will lose out if they cant hack it; but now people who wouldnt pirate a game can get it for free off someone else. Sure its comes with restrictions (3 concurrent installs only); but like I said that still gives the potential for only 1/3 of active players having paid for a copy.

Personally I do like the Valve approach with Steam. I do worry though, that if more publishers/developers/retailers went that way it could cause problems. I have no doubt publishers like EA or Activision would insist on having their own version of Steam, as could Microsoft, Sega, & even larger retailers like Gamestop etc. If the market becomes too crowded with these things itl just get confusing to the point theyre abandoned altogether. At least with CDs I know I can go into GAME to pickup a new release, & go on Amazon to get everything else (that is still sold).

I also agree now you mention it that the move away from CDs is a response to piracy, for the reasons youve given. I guess all there is to do is put up with the industry while it tests out different systems until it comes across the one that works best & is least inconvienient to the consumer. I dont think EA will stick to their new DRM through hell & high water if it proves massively unpopular...but I have the perception that they would unless the games really dont sell at all; which given the number of franchises they have that would still sell well if you put anthrax in the box wont be a problem.

Thats a thing, though. IS this DRM planned to be used with the usual autumn franchises like FIFA, Madden etc? Id hate to think EA only use this system on games they expect "core gamers" to be a major part of the audience for.

As all anti-pirating solution has been cracked, what's stopping people from making the CD available to more htne 3 people? This would kill piracy AND the business itself.

Yeah, I am an evil software pirate, I admit that. I typically used the excuse that I wasn't ever going to buy the game anyway, but that clearly wasn't the case with Bioshock now was it? I am happy to say that I purchased the PC version of Assassin's Creed over steam; digital distribution is too convenient for me to pass up. However then I got annoyed when my router went down and I couldn't play it... So it's a trade off I guess.

As for EA's new copy protection scheme; well if it converts more people into sales like it did with me then I think it's worth it.

Question: Do you think it's pirating if a friend borrows you a game to play? What about renting? Or the used game market?

I dont consider renting piracy because your paying a reduced price in return for only having acess to the game for a limited time. However, renting cant be applied to PC games because as yet (& very frustratingly imo) the industry refuses to give it serious thought. I dont think lending a game to a friend is piracy, if it means you cant play it yourself (ie if you dont have the disc you cant play it). As for the new games market; I personally would like it if a portion of that money went to the publisher/developers. But I dont consider it piracy.

I personally dont like having to have the internet to play a game (except multiplayer games of course). If I lose a disc or even if my PC blows up, the problem ultimately rests with me. However, there are any number of additional factors that can lead to me losing internet access, & not being able to play a game that has no use for online access except to (annoyingly) make it work is frustrating to say the least. If I do get spore (im not interested in Mass Effect) & a crack comes out to make it work offline, I may well jump all over it.

I was going to buy these games when they came out anyway so this nonsense has changed my plans a little: Buy them and never open them, and torrent the things so I don't have to deal with this ridiculous DRM. Seriously, this is going to cost them allot of sales among people who know about it.

Hurrah. Bioware have removed the need for 10day re-authentication; simply requring it to be done the first time you play & when you download new official content. This is a system I personally can live with quite contently. I hope the 10day thing doesnt resurface in future EA titles

I concur that CD's and even DVD's are becoming somewhat obsolete, what with the likes of iTunes and Steam at the helm of digital distribution. Sooner or later consoles and DVD players will start downloading content and saving it internally, while any physical drive used to store data will be as small as a thumb. I never burned a CD since I got my flash drive, which is faster to read from and write to than a CD/DVD is, much smaller and easier to carry than a disc, and is rewritable, unlike most discs.

Very occasionally when a certain piece of software is only distributed on a CD do I actually end up placing anything into an optical drive. Currently, CD/DVD's have a foothold in the movie rental industry, but as I said before, it'll only be a matter of time until all digital content would be downloadable through a high-speed internet connection, including television programming.


Hurrah. Bioware have removed the need for 10day re-authentication; simply requring it to be done the first time you play & when you download new official content. This is a system I personally can live with quite contently. I hope the 10day thing doesnt resurface in future EA titles

Huh. They may find a new way to sell games:

Sold at a very low price, 5 bucks, then you need to authentificate it and pay 10 more bucks every 10 days, over 50 days.

Necro'd for sheer frustration with Relic's ridiculous mandatory patching before you can so much as take a shot at skirmish mode.

It's been about three months since I've last played CoH, and thought "hey, CoH sounds fun, I think I'll play that now". As of right now, I'm forty minutes into patching the game with every single goddamn slight modification they thought to put in. And patching. And patching. And patching. I'm sure I've got another good fifteen minutes to go, and I'm on a cable connection.

Apparently there was a time when this could be circumvented by inserting the DVD and going straight to single-player, but that isn't working for shit anymore. I guess Relic wasn't too hot on the idea of quick, convenient use of a product I'd already purchased from them at full retail price.

You know, if the game simply gave us the option to play offline instead of grinning maliciously the second it detects a hint of internet capability and throwing an impassable log-in screen in your face that says "NICE CONNECTION TO THE INTERNET, YOU GOT THERE, FAGMO. YOU'D BETTER BELIEVE THAT YOU'RE ABOUT TO DOWNLOAD HOURS OF PATCHES, MOTHERFUCKER, BECAUSE I WON'T LET YOU DO ANYTHING OTHER THAN EXIT THE PROGRAM WITHOUT THEM."

If the game wasn't so damned good, I'd /ragequit.

Regardless of how excellent the game is, the whole process still makes my blood pressure spike to hazardous levels.

Hell I feel your pain, when I bought Dawn of War I had to wait neverly 4 hours for Steam to apply updates that only improved Muliplayer.

Ive still not been only line with it in 2 months, and I doubt I ever will.

But dont get me started on Steam I have a 2 page essay on my hatered for it sitting on my harddrive, Ill post it one day.


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