On paper, the decision to force PC games to maintain a persistent Internet connection as part of their DRM protection measures is a terrible one - yet this week it's been revealed that Electronic Arts plans to follow in Ubisoft's footsteps by forcing Command & Conquer 4 players to remain connected to EA's servers while playing. Any interruption in the connection will result in the game being suspended - even in single-player mode.
EA obviously sees some merit to this system which the rest of the world has missed. To describe Ubisoft's similar protection methods for Assassin's Creed II and Silent Hunter 5 as "much-maligned" would be understating the case quite dramatically.
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Hammered before launch by critics for being yet another example of DRM which cripples the products purchased by legitimate consumers but does little to hamper those who planned to pirate the game in the first place, the system proceeded to score a PR own-goal by dramatically failing on the first weekend, when Ubisoft's servers went down and prevented customers from playing the games. Meanwhile, a crack appeared for Silent Hunter 5 within hours (although it's purported to have problems which have yet to be ironed out by the hackers responsible), and hacker groups around the world are competing furiously to be the first to break Assassin's Creed II's protection.
If Ubisoft had wanted to illustrate its support for the argument that restrictive DRM simply endangers your relationships with legitimate consumers while affording minimal protection from pirates, they could simply have sent out a press release. There really wasn't any need for this melodramatic stage production of a DRM worst-case scenario.
Yet here we are, a few weeks later, watching EA start down the same path. To the rest of the world, it looks like Ubisoft exchanged an uncertain promise of temporary protection from piracy for a vast chunk of consumer goodwill, negative press and almost certainly the loss of a number of legitimate sales. It doesn't look like a good deal. What does EA see in it?
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The obvious answer is also the most depressing one, and it's that EA is following along the time-worn path that's led to most dodgy DRM decisions in the PC market - the need to be seen to do something. There's no question but that PC gaming is plagued by piracy, but publishers and industry bodies have talked up the threat of copyright violation in this market to such a fever pitch that they've effectively painted themselves into a corner.
The implementing of stern (but largely useless and counter-productive) DRM measures can be seen as a result of believing their own hype around piracy. Worse, these measures may be implemented in order to appease shareholders and executives who don't fully comprehend the issues around piracy and DRM, but are scared witless by the terrifying revenue loss figures which the creative industries routinely make up to try to convince legislators that the sky is falling.
There's no doubt that this is a factor in the adoption of harsh DRM on the PC platform. It can even be viewed as a vicious circle, where harsh, restrictive DRM discourages consumers from buying PC games, sales fall further, and publishers blame piracy, thus moving to implement yet more restrictive DRM... And the cycle continues.
Yet at the same time, publisher concerns cannot entirely be dismissed. The DRM measures presently being rolled out are no solution, and may do more harm than good - but that fact should not blind us to the harsh reality, which is that for large swathes of the PC boxed games market, the sky really is falling in.
This is a market which shrinks year on year, and piracy is most certainly to blame for some of that shrinkage. The PC is by far the easiest platform to pirate games on, being an all-in-one device which is perfectly capable of downloading, installing and playing a pirate game, without any of the technical know-how or specialist equipment required to achieve the same goal on console platforms. No DRM system implemented thus far has been successful in preventing this, and it's extremely unlikely that any straightforward DRM solution will ever provide even a modicum of protection from piracy.
What has, however, thwarted the pirates is a shift in business models. Massively multiplayer games, for example, are played predominantly on publisher-controlled servers, and can safely be made entirely DRM-free - since what you're monetising isn't actually the game code or assets, but the right to access the servers. People pay for an account, a service - not a product. In fact, many MMO publishers have realised that a quick way to build a business is to distribute the client software as widely as possible, even uploading their own software to popular BitTorrent sites in order to achieve this.
Digital distribution, too, has impacted on piracy. It's not that games distributed on Steam and other such services aren't also readily available for free on pirate networks - rather, it's the case that these services bring the fight to the pirates' own turf, offering a significantly better user experience than the pirate software does. This has been one of the tragic mistakes of the PC games industry for years; pirates, in general, have enjoyed a better user experience than legitimate consumers. One wonders, for instance, how many people first began pirating their software after being introduced to the shady underbelly of the Internet by hunting for NoCD cracks for their PC games, simply so that they could play legitimately purchased games without having to locate the install CD every time they wanted a quick game.
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Steam and other such services turn the tables. Yes, Steam carries a hefty payload of DRM, but in return, it offers fantastic functionality, such as keeping all of your games patched and up to date and making them portable between systems, so that when you buy a new PC your games are made available simply by popping your Steam username and password into the client. It's hassle-free and extremely useful, and as examples such as iTunes Music Store have shown in the past, a huge swathe of consumers are happy to pay for their media as long as it's delivered in a convenient manner. They're even happy to trade off certain freedoms to DRM, as long as the convenience factor outweighs the restrictions - this, to give a relevant example, is exactly the trade-off which consumers make by playing console games. The games are protected, the consoles themselves operating a form of DRM, but the convenience offered by console hardware is seen by most consumers - consciously or unconsciously - as a reasonable tradeoff.
These progressive changes in business model take place against the grim background of falling boxed game sales and shrill outcry over piracy, however, and so the peculiar, impenetrable calculations of publishers regarding DRM continue, as do the laments over the death of the PC market (highly exaggerated) at the hands of pirates (true only to a certain extent).
This, however, suggests a further solution to the question of what, exactly, EA and Ubisoft are thinking. If we accept that the PC boxed game market is in decline (with the exception of a handful of products which have carved out healthy niche markets), the question for these publishers may no longer be, how do we resuscitate this market? How do we prevent piracy from hammering our profits in this sector?
Rather, it may be - what's the most effective form of damage limitation? If we accept that piracy is rife in the boxed PC game market, with legitimate consumers moving to services like Steam instead, then how do we nurse this sector through its final days? Most importantly, how do we prevent that piracy from spreading out and damaging our revenues in the places that we actually make money - such as console game sales?
Herein, I suspect, lies the real nightmare scenario for publishers. Boxed PC games are pirated widely (often, sadly, by the same people who then loudly lament the death of the PC games industry, blaming "profit-hungry" publishers - well, yes, businesses do have a strange liking for being paid for their work), but the sector is not yet small enough to ignore entirely - there's money to be made from a PC version of most games, despite the falling sales. The night terrors arise from the idea that console gamers will see the widespread piracy on PC and realise that this is a platform where they can game more cheaply. The cancer spreads; the PC's malaise starts to consume console gamers who previously paid good money for games, especially since the relentless march of system requirements for games has slowed down, and PCs capable of playing modern games are much cheaper than they used to be.
I don't know how realistic that scenario is - after all, many console gamers' reasons for shunning the PC are to do with strong personal preferences regarding the gaming experience, which the ease of piracy won't change. It's worth pointing out that when Microsoft banned thousands of Xbox 360 pirates late last year, those interviewed talked about thinking about buying a PS3 (for which piracy is as yet impossible) as their next console - not jumping to the PC, where they could pirate with ease.
However, I can see how it would keep publishers awake at nights - and how it could quite easily justify moves such as Ubisoft and EA's DRM, to their minds. Certainly, these systems annoy legitimate consumers on the PC. Unquestionably, they make the platform less appealing to gamers in general - something compounded by the fact that many games now appear on the platform late, ported from console versions and thus sporting graphics significantly less high quality than the PC systems are capable of rendering. Yet these very factors, which seem insane at first glance, serve to make it less likely that PC piracy will cannibalise sales from consoles.
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Of course, they'll also hasten the death of the PC boxed games market as a whole. That much is a given. For PC gamers, this is tragic - but will the publishers lament the end of yet another platform for them to support, a platform with complex technical requirements, infinite combinations of different hardware, and an enormous piracy rate? No, they will not. If measures like "constant connection" DRM are helping to prod PC gaming along towards an early grave, then the sad reality is that this may seem like a bonus, rather than a downside, to game publishers.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the ongoing debate over the status of Assassin's Creed II DRM.