This blog is a direct response to Mass Effect for PC: Why do people hate DRM? By Mike Doolittle.

I'll also try to address some of his second article here: Part 2

I'll also be referring to this Wikipedia page on EULA's. Not the most reliable source on the internet, I'll admit that in advance. However it is fairly well researched and referenced so I'm feeling comfortable with it seeing as this is a blog not a scientifically published research paper.

Starting from this it should be simple to surmise I don't agree with his opinions relating to both DRM and the theoretical ownership of a license versus a copy of the software (in binary form or otherwise). I don't agree with his opinions on DRM either, but I think the difference in opinion there is because he's had the fortune to never be burned by the issue.

The single greatest issue I have with Doolittle's arguments is that they are in fact a fully admitted argument from ignorance. The fact that you've been doing something for two years makes you an expert when that something is flipping burgers or managing the fry machine; video games are an entirely different beast, PC games especially. Basically 2.5 years means you've gotten to play a pile of mostly to completely polished games that probably lacked a significant swath of what people label as 'draconian DRM restrictions'. This is somewhat less true if you've played Bioshock on your PC as that has restrictions landing comfortably inside the listing of draconian.

I think the problem may be tackling what we define as draconian however. Your typical (i.e. non MMO) game includes a CD-key and a requirement to dial home when you’re connecting to online games to make sure the CD-key isn't stolen. The highly strict ones allow a single copy of the CD-key to be used at a time and provide the ability to revoke CD-keys for software being utilized on a diverse number of IP addresses. Looser or more 'user friendly' games simply require a valid CD-key to install and two people using the same CD-key can only join a single game (e.g. starcrafts 'spawn' feature).

However the Mass Effect DRM goes stripes beyond what I would list as 'high' restriction DRM, seen in games like the Battlefield series (a necessity considering they are basically online only games). Mass Effect certainly doesn't even qualify for these requirements considering the game is single player only. A simple CD-key that dials home on first activation would solve the problem, a secondary check whenever updates are made or downloadable content is added would be considered reasonable by most. This is in fact exactly how Office 2k7 works, if you decide to use something like a template file it makes sure you’re credible then downloads the file. This is also how the newest latest and greatest DRM plan for Mass Effect works as well, but dial home and CD-key policies are only half the story, and really the icing on the cake for most people who have actually had issues with DRM.

These other problems are rooted in our friends (no) at SecuROM and their competitors. I single SecuROM out here for gems like this. Granted 2k has now removed all SecuROM DRM from its product. This is due in part because SecuROM was nice enough to install a Rootkit on the users’ computers and because in some cases the system lets you install a program and then prevents you from actually running it. This is a core problem of the way DRM has worked for years, one of my favorite experiences with the issue relates back to System Shock 2 (hmm.. a trend?). SS2 would happily install on my system but completely refuse to run, after dropping in a hacked executable (simple no CD crack) and voilà! It works. This problem was also magically fixed by adding a DVD player into my system that lacked burning capacity as a master for that IDE connection. These sorts of issues, while fun to reminisce about are exactly the sorts of things people remember when they think about DRM, and the kind of small joys Mr. Doolittle missed out on. I can’t think of many users who would appreciate being told their machine has the possibility of infringing someone’s copyright so they simply aren’t allowed the play the game. However this is effectively the crux of this approach to DRM.

These systems introduce a second issue, one that people who took a look at steam and went 'hrmm... no.' thought about as well (unless they were busy screaming because steam was awful when it first came out). When a computer game needs to dial home simply to run people become uncomfortable, especially people who own old games and thank their lucky stars those games physically can't dial home. For example, I have a swath of old DOS games I like to play in FreeDOS (when I can make it work). Most of these games are from companies that don't exist anymore, like say.... SSI. Great games, I still play them, they are at least... 15 years old. In 15 years, if I get the fancy to play Mass Effect, it had better work. This is something that is impossible to guarantee with a system like Steam, or SecuROM, who’s to say they won’t have been replaced with some new later and greater system and simply shut down. This is a problem currently facing MSN Music subscribers. They were lucky enough to get a stay of execution but it’s only for 3 years, after that what happens? Now if they proposed to post a patch say... a year after the release of the original game (ok... maybe 2?) that removes the restrictions and cracks the problem like an egg I'd be game. The problem there being in 2 years will somebody actually remember to post said file? I’ll hold my breath, I swear.

Now, Doolittle basically does little (sorry) for these arguments, instead pointing to the EULA and claiming you simply have a license to use the software effectively at the IP owners fancy. This claim has had a number of holes fired thru it, involving small shots and cannon shells. The wiki EULA link above has a number of such cases in its reference listings. A few key features of the problems are 1) you’re asking (mostly) a bunch of kids to sign a contract they can't even read, which lands on the far side of completely illegal (to my understanding, but I'm no lawyer) and 2) shrink wrapped EULA's have effectively no hope of standing up in court as you can't claim that people don't own the physical CD they purchased from you. These claims hold more water when purchased through a service like Steam where you don’t' actually own a copy of the CD.

A final note on the awe inspiring, completely miss guided set of articles Doolittle wrote is his complete dismissal of Stardocks ‘Sins of a Solar Empire’. He mentions them in passing claiming they are totally irrelevant edge cases because they are from a small shop that expects to sell a few hundred thousand copies of a game instead of millions of copies. After this he feels they are just getting icing on their cake so it’s not surprising that they would embrace the model of no DRM. What he failed to mention is that while it’s not the highest grossing game of 2008, it’s one of the best selling games of 2008. The game isn’t selling because it’s DRM free; it’s selling because it’s actually GOOD. A fact he wouldn’t have missed if he had actually played the game. It’s also offered at a compelling price point, I picked up my copy for 40 bucks. A price I was happy to play for a game where a single round can last me an entire night and I’ve yet to even experiment with the multiplayer side of the game.

For most people the DRM issues will be a moot point. This is because most people don’t qualify as enthusiast gamers (you know... the ones that will become obsessed with a game and play it repeatedly for the next 10 years…) so for them DRM activation and general usage issues are at best moot and at worst probably inconvenient. This doesn’t however make these other players in any way edge cases. For everyone else, this will probably cause some sparks and the fade into memory until someone decides to do something similar to moving away from the IPod after buying a repertoire of music thru iTunes at which point they will either grimly decide to buy their entire library over again, or cry themselves to sleep.

Brass Tacks:
Just because enthusiast gamers are harder to court and generally a smaller fan base this doesn’t however make these other players in any way edge cases, as they are the ones you want to be courting for user generated guides ( anyone?), user generated content and finding replay value from the title. These users also prop up the franchise as a whole, especially when the lull between games is more than a year or two. For instance, Fallout 3 finally comes out this fall (we hope…), this is all fine and grand but no one outside the rabid fan base really has a clue what the game is about. This is because it took almost 10 years to get to the point of having a release date. Now do you think that fallout 3 is going to appeal to new people who have no idea what 1 and 2 were about or more to people who have played every fallout game that’s ever come out (including brotherhood for the Xbox, thou we try to pretend we didn’t). Everyone who purchased 1 and 2 is going to buy 3, as the first two were and are still among the best games ever made. Disenfranchising these users by telling them to their face ‘we don’t trust you’ is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot. As these same users will happily slam the game for breaking their tempo of buy once play forever. This isn’t a bad thing if you’re just writing a game for cash and not to tell a story that will last, but if you’re doing that stop writing big budget games, hire yourselves some flash and java script wizards and program at the mobile phone market, your garbage is chumming up the waters.


I thought I'd include some supplemental reading. Apparently the Library of Congress is none to happy about the DRM situation either.