Publishers: stop punishing your paying customers (or why draconian DRM doesn’t work)


I, like many Filipinos, am guilty of piracy. I’m not going to justify what I did – I’m just going to admit that I did it. But ever since I started working at a place where original content is created through the use of words, pictures and content, I’m on the path of the straight and narrow as far as games are concerned.

But publishers like Ubisoft really make it hard for me to stay on that path.

Let me explain. Ubisoft is a game publisher, and like all game publishers, they have the right to protect their content via DRM (Digital Rights Management). Now DRM takes a number of different forms, which include disc authentication and digital sign-in when you first play the game, and in Ubisoft’s case, requiring you to stay connected on the internet even if you’re just playing the singleplayer component of the game.

Now a lot of you see the inherent problem in this. My internet connection isn’t perfect. It sometimes has a mind of its own, and sometimes, that thing drops out without warning. It’s not much of an issue now as it used to be, but for a small country like ours, I’m in the minority. A lot of people here don’t have the luxury of 24/7 internet access – most use broadband prepaid sticks and USB dongles to connect to the internet, and we all know how reliable those things are – or are plagued with horrible connections.

And yet, games like Assasin’s Creed 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction and more recently, Driver: San Francisco (all made by Ubisoft, by the way) requires a constant on internet connection for you to be able to play it. And anybody who says that always on internet DRM schemes aren’t bad obviously hasn’t experienced playing a game with a bad connection. In both Assasin’s Creed 2 and Splinter Cell Conviction’s case, the game would literally freeze and big ugly notification pops up telling you that yes, your internet sucks and the game hates you (in a matter of speaking). Suffice to say, I’m not buying a Ubisoft title for a while.

What’s annoying here is that schemes like these don’t stop the problem (even if they claim otherwise). Piracy is still rampant for their titles, and in the case of the games I mentioned, they were cracked in about a month.  Steam and Ubisoft’s forums were full of angry customers demanding that they take out the protection scheme. It made people like me, who actually bought the game through legal means, fully regret our purchase. For all intents and purposes, their DRM scheme made legal owners feel like we were being punished, while people who pirated the game were enjoying it without the annoying DRM. I’m not just looking at Ubisoft either. Blizzard has publicly said that Diablo 3 will have roughly the same type of DRM which made me strike that game off of my “must have” list.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that each game NOT ship with some sort of DRM on it. What I am saying is that your DRM protection scheme should NOT interfere with my enjoyment of the game. Publishers say that harsh DRM is necessary because of piracy. I say that that’s not always the case. A report by the Social Science Research Council concludes that media piracy can’t be halted by stringent enforcement of IP, and describes the issue as more of a global pricing problem than anything else. That’s especially true for a region like ours. DataBlitz, one of the few local sources of legitimate software, has recently lowered prices for titles and the market has responded favorably. More and more people are buying original games from them because for the first time ever, the prices of those games are now within the reach of the average gamer locally.

Even Valve head honcho Gabe Newell recognizes that harsh DRM does more harm than good. He was interviewed by people at Kotaku and asked about what he thought of publishers who require a gamer to remain online at all times to play their games. “We’re a broken record on this,” Newell told [Kotaku],”This belief that you increase your monetization by making your game worth less through aggressive digital rights management is totally backwards . It’s a service issue, not a technology issue. Piracy is just not an issue for us.” When Valve first went to Russia, he found out that one of the reasons people pirate games was that pirates were doing a better job localizing games than the publishers were. So Valve invested a lot of money to get games localized in Russian. Now Russia is one of their largest European market outside of the UK and Germany.

At the end of the day, developers and publishers need to realize that it’s not a matter of if their game is going to be pirated; it’s a matter of when. Publishers need to strike a balance between protecting their product and not treating their customers like thieves because even a child knows not to bite the hand that feeds it.