Experienced Points

DRM Systems and the Publishers Who Love Them


At the start of the year, I thought that stupid, self-defeating DRM was in decline. EA had changed their tune and dumped the online activation in favor of more conventional forms of copy prevention. Since they were one of the big leaders into this madness, I thought they were leading us back out of it. Sadly, It looks like everyone else has decided that the problem with DRM systems of the last couple of years is that they weren’t restrictive enough.

Let’s look at what everyone is up to these days:


When Spore came out it was more famous for its obnoxious DRM than for its gameplay. This led their most “protected” game to end up being one of the most pirated, ever. Fan reaction to the DRM in the PC version of Mass Effect wasn’t nearly as bad, but it was still negative. Maybe it was this backlash that changed their policy. Maybe they ran the numbers and realized what a waste of money it was. Maybe they finally grasped the super-simple concept that what they were trying to do is impossible. But whatever the reason, I was delighted to hear that they were declaring a cease-fire in their war on their own customers. (Okay, it was a war on pirates, but the only people who were hurt were customers.)

While they’ve backed off of full online registration, EA is sort of working on a sneaky half-measure of the same idea. They give away free DLC on day one, but of course you have to register the game to get it. What happens next is a bit uncertain. I’ve gotten multiple reports from people saying that if you don’t sign in to EA when you launch the game, your DLC content is missing. Others have reported that you can’t load a save that contains DLC items if you don’t log in to EA. I just tried it with my copy of Mass Effect 2 (a digital purchase through Impulse) and didn’t have any problems using my DLC content. This system is obviously still in flux, and it probably depends on what game, and where you got it.

It’s certainly making the whole thing a lot more complicated than it needs to be.


It has been said before: Steam is online activation. Although in return for activating your game, Valve offers unlimited installs, download anywhere, auto backup, auto patching, cloud savegames, and community-rich service. Valve is making us register games, but they try to sweeten the deal with a lot of perks.

I don’t blame people who refuse to deal with Steam. I also don’t have a problem with people who love the platform. It’s compromise, but at least they’re trying to make the deal enticing.

2K Games

2K Games ran the same playbook for BioShock and BioShock 2, which goes something like this:

2K: SecuROM will give every gamer a kick in the balls before the game will launch.

Gamers: This is an outrage! BOYCOTT!

2K: Oh. We’re very sorry we upset people. We had no idea customers felt so strongly about being kicked in the balls. Moreover, we didn’t mean to make female gamers feel excluded. So SecuROM will give you a punch in the gut instead.

Gamers: Wow! They listened to us! This must be what respect feels like! Let’s pre-order the game right now!

In both cases they offered a horrible, incomprehensible mess, and then let the community simmer for a while. Then they rolled out something that was just as big a hassle but was slightly less restrictive, and gamers came back and stood in line for their gut-punch.

You can compare their system to Steam to see just how reprehensible and insulting the 2K Games policy is. (Assuming you can make sense of it.) 2K Games is saddling us with the same restrictions as Steam (online activation) and then they put a cap on the number of activations, and in return for our cooperation they offer nothing.



When it comes to idiotic, pointless, and unwelcome DRM schemes, Ubisoft has recently rocketed to the front of the pack. The system they’re using for Assassin’s Creed is so aggressive that even people who shrug at SecuROM are doing a double take.

Basically, the single-player game acts like an MMOG. If you lose connection, you get booted out of the game. Except unlike an MMOG, you’ll lose all of your progress since your last save. Even a network hiccup can yank you out of the game. They’re selling this thing as a friendly, helpful system that lets you share save file between computers, but gamers aren’t falling for it. Their salesmanship is so disingenuous that it’s difficult not to simply call it a an outright lie. If they really were simply employing cloud saves, then there would be no reason in the world to make it mandatory. And it should only need to connect to the server when you launch the game and again when you exit. And no matter what reason they give, there is no sense in insisting on an uninterrupted connection under pain of exit-game-without-saving. Do they think you will suddenly become a pirate? While playing?

(I’m leaving out most of the issues that have been brought up a thousand times already: People with capricious mobile connections, people behind university firewalls, people on metered connections, people without access to always-on broadband, people on the road, and everyone else who plays single-player games because playing online isn’t a viable option for them. This system excludes a lot of people. It’s worth noting that these are the people who would have the hardest time pirating the game.)

This system can’t possibly survive the level of rage that gamers are hurling at it. I imagine at some point they’ll steal from the 2K Games playbook and ratchet the system back to something still annoying and offensive, but less outrageous than what they’re offering now. Many gamers, having memories no longer than a year or so, will mistake this move for “progress”. Given the fury gamers have expressed, leaving this system in place is basically the same thing as not putting out a PC version at all. The only people who will buy the game will be the ones who don’t know what they’re getting into because the fine print on the box can’t possibly paint them a full picture.

Some people suggest that the systems based around online activation aren’t really there to fight piracy, but are instead intended to kill the second-hand PC game market. That sounds plausible enough, except the used PC market is pretty much dead already. Retailers no longer deal with them. So why do the systems continue to become more obtrusive, restrictive, and and complicated? Last year Ubisoft released Far Cry 2 with standard online activation. (It sickens me that we can now refer to this dreadful business as “standard”.) Surely that killed any resale or rental potential of the title. So why this difficult new system? The only conclusion I can draw is that the people helming Ubisoft really are ignorant enough to think that ramping up the DRM will diminish the number of pirates. That’s a pretty horrifying thought. It would mean that there are people running an entertainment software company that understand nothing about piracy, DRM, or computer software in general.

For years I’ve been looking at DRM and thinking we’ve finally hit rock bottom. And then the publishers invent new ways to drag things down even further. But I really am at a loss this time. What could possibly be next? How much worse can they make things and still claim to be offering a product? We’re pretty close to them just charging the user $60 for a blank disk and a rude note calling them a pirate.

Where will they go from here?

Shamus Young is the guy behind Reset Button, Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings and Stolen Pixels.

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