Yesterday morning, I tried to sit down and (finally) record the first episode of my Let’s Play series for Anno 2070. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been procrastinating on this project. I’ve got tons of excuses, some of them even good ones, but in the end it comes down to the fact that sitting in front of a screen and talking to it makes me feel… odd.
In any case, I had once again built up the courage to give it a go, but when I double-clicked Anno I got a strange message from Uplay: my Internet connection was down so it couldn’t start the game. Well, that wasn’t so weird – my current Internet service is, at best, unreliable. So I dropped into my web browser and checked. Nope, Internet was running fine. Then I checked Steam – also working perfectly well. So, back to Anno 2070. Despite all the other evidence, Uplay disagreed about the state of my connection.
Well then. I went back on the Internet and did a Google search. “Is Uplay down?” I asked. Uplay itself, along with UbiSoft, replied, “Nope, everything is fine.” The rest of the net, however, politely disagreed. I found a chart that showed the number of Uplay complaints rising over a two hour period. Yup, the problem was Uplay and not my computer. I wanted to sit down and play a game, single player, with no need for an online connection at all. But I couldn’t play because someone else’s system was down. My Let’s Play would have to wait for another time.
This is the legacy of DRM, short for Digital Rights Management. DRM is nu-speak for anti-piracy software, the kind of language neutering that people have been railing against for decades. It is the perfect choice, then, for a system of corporate-speak bureaucracy that punishes the people who buy the games in order to disincentivize those that don’t.
You cannot play Anno 2070 without opening Uplay, Ubisoft’s invasive Steam-like gaming client. That means, for most of us, playing 2070 requires having two background programs running (Steam and Uplay) that aren’t even the game itself. Yes, there is multiplayer in the game. Yes, there are a few network-only features like player-response driven polls that distribute bonuses for certain factions and even a kind of public quest system for big, landscape altering events. Anno 2205, the latest offering, has the same online-only requirement but doesn’t even bother to have any online-only content. Seriously, we’re talking about a game that will be played solo yet requires a constant, steady Internet connection. In the words of ethicist and philosopher Immanuel Kant, that’s some serious BS right there.
I have no intention of playing Anno 2070 online (nor Anno 2205, nor the latest SimCity, nor Diablo III…), but I am constantly beholden to some distant collection of computers that determine whether or not I can play the game on my own. The people who illegally downloaded those titles, however, do not have that problem. So… ummm… yeah.
Stealing is bad. No, really.
Rather than continue to just throw out examples, I’ll start at the beginning. DRM, or what we now call DRM anyway, has existed for as long as there has been digital media whose rights have required protection. I was 12 or 13 and looking through the Front Page Sports: Football instruction booklet for page 103, paragraph 4, line 2 to authenticate my purchase every time I wanted to play. Today’s Uplays and Steam keys are not all that different. So having to put in some password in order to play my game at age (well, let’s just say not-13) isn’t really all that invasive.
In fact, we can go even further back than that. As long as there’s been ‘stuff,’ there have been people who want to steal that ‘stuff.’ Some, because they need it. Others because they want it and can’t afford it. Some people steal because it imparts some illicit thrill. Some because they see theft as part of a larger political campaign against the current state of the culture. There are millions of reasons why people choose to steal, honestly. We could spend an entire article just listing them. The reality is that theft is a part of all civilizations and probably will be forever. DRM is no different than the guard at the front of the jewelry store or the metal detector in the mall.
Yet thieving still goes on because there is no 100% effective system of theft prevention. Mostly, these things exist as deterrents – ironically, the more involved the deterrent (see reactance theory, about halfway down), the more it seems to invite some people to try to overcome it. Some people just want to watch the world burn, eh Batman?
There is also a contingent of people who will tell you that gaming piracy is not theft. These people say that they are justified in stealing games because they are overpriced. There are gamers, people you probably know, stealing a game right now because they want to ‘stick it to the man.’
So let me be unequivocal about all this: That is utter garbage.
People deserve to be rewarded financially for their hard work. Every time. I don’t care if they’ve already made millions of dollars (a la Taylor Swift) or they’ve barely eked out a damn dime. Making games may seem like fun, but it is hard work and the people who produce games deserve every dollar they get for your entertainment.
We are walking down a very dangerous road in this culture, where people seem unwilling to spend their money on music, TV, movies, whatever entertains them, like it’s some sort of intrinsic right. I can promise you this: if you don’t reward great creative people, they will go away. You are not protesting the corporate culture. You’re not keeping some asshat from his fourth Mercedes. You are reaching into the pocket of someone who works very hard for your entertainment – you are punishing them for good work.
Why do people steal? As a culture, how can we prevent theft? Should we? What is an acceptable loss due to theft? This is all great philosophy and we could spend pages here. I won’t.
Does Reality Match?
So then, let’s ask the question: does DRM even work as a deterrent? In other words, do games with DRM get stolen less than games without? Sales data for games is notoriously iffy and theft numbers are even moreso. A game that was famously pirate-prevented like SimCity simply doesn’t publicize how often it was stolen. If anything, numbers appear whenever a company wants to complain about piracy, yet mysteriously are unavailable once an anti-theft measure is made available. Gee, I wonder why that is?
Companies are more than happy to spout out that The Witcher 2 was pirated roughly 4.5 million times within a span of several months, while it was actually purchased only 2.2 million times. Where do those numbers come from? How was ‘pirated’ defined vs point of sale purchase? If we can really get that granular with sales data, why is there no information on a DRM-protected game? What’s the goal for your anti-theft measures? Don’t say zero tolerance, that’s ridiculous. Is 20% theft prevention enough to justify pissing people off? What about five percent? Where do we draw the line? Companies are making us swallow an assumption – stealing is so bad that we must effectively hinder our games – that I’ve yet to see adequately proven. It seems like a simple question: are games without DRM more likely to be pirated than games with?
Other companies, usually smaller, have gone the opposite direction. Brad Wardell at Stardock famously declared that his games would eschew obnoxious copy protection, though Stardock certainly has their own form of DRM. The makers of World of Goo included no copy protection at all (and saw roughly 80-90% of their game sales downloaded illegally for their trouble).
Here’s another example. MuHa games, makers of Thea: The Awakening, chose to release a Linux version, allowing those who want to play their game without DRM to do so. In a recent exchange regarding MuHa’s attitude toward DRM, they said “[providing a DRM-free release of Thea] creates a good vibe about MuHa. [We were] quite surprised and flattered to see several people say that they pirated the game initially, but then decided to buy, afterward.”
Again, we just don’t have reliable data to judge whether the choice to support customers and ignore the possibility of theft was rewarded or not. The gaming community loudly trumpets these decisions as consumer friendly, but then, like the case of World of Goo, gamers go ahead and pirate the game anyway. Way to reinforce good decisions, people.
So what data do we have? To put on the hat from my old career of writing about clinical studies, the information we have is really, really limited and, honestly, not very good. There are small sample sizes, all sorts of source issues, and, of course, none of it is the kind of randomized, double-blind study that is far better for drawing any type of intelligent conclusion. So, yeah, big grain of salt.
What we do have, however, paints a much more complicated picture of piracy, one that often goes against conventional wisdom.
For instance, pirates (Australian ones, anyway) tend to spend more on media than their law-abiding buddies. Now, there are some massive caveats here. Australia is a very unique market that pays an incredible mark-up on almost all media. We also don’t have key information here such as economic backgrounds that would help us make better sense of the data.
The UK has done similar studies and the data there suggests that, again, pirates aren’t just ‘people who steal’ but rather people who tend to acquire media in a number of ways, including theft. It may very well be that the people who are doing the most stealing are also the best customers.
One last study, this one conducted for The Software Alliance. Does decreasing software theft improve a country’s overall GDP?
Yes it does. Shocker. On the other hand, simply encouraging people to keep stealing would still seemingly provide a $20 billion dollar boost to worldwide economy. That’s… a far less common conclusion. What we have here, then, isn’t exactly an indictment of the problem of theft so much as it is a reaffirmation that what it is that really makes economies go: access (legal or otherwise).
So am I saying that we should just continue to pirate games without legal recourse? Hardly. All this data shows is that we’ve done a truly terrible job of understanding the problem, which is probably why we’re so lousy at fixing it. There just isn’t enough data out there to understand this type of theft, its causes, how it is accomplished, and what the true cost is. We’re trying to keep the house safe from infestation, but no one knows whether it’s ants, bees or butterflies. So we’re just putting steel plating up everywhere. That is a remarkably stupid way to go about things.
What’s to be done and how we can fix this?
So there are really three options that I see here. One is really pie in the sky, but I’ll mention it because, honestly, that’s the dream: We, as a culture need to change how we see art, entertainment, and the cost of creation of those things. There’s a perception, I think, that painting is just slapping some color on the canvas. That game makers mostly mess around, smoke pot, and program which, as we all know, is only the most fun ever.
It’s not. It is hard work to create art or provide entertainment. Being creative is no easier than bricklaying or accounting and often, sorry to say, harder. I know we’re not supposed to say that in the current environment where we’ve come to deify the blue collar worker and demonize every other color. But the truth is, yes, making games is hard. It’s very often not fun. Just because it’s a job that a lot of people would love to have doesn’t mean we get to denigrate it.
If we could change how people see art – if we could make them really respect the effort involved, I think a lot of theft would go away. Would it remove theft completely? Of course not. I’m pretty sure everyone knows how hard it is to make a car, but people still steal them. I do think we’d see a lot less of the sort of entitled culture that currently surrounds piracy.
Whatever. I know it’s not happening. I might as well wish for world peace.
Anyway, option two would be to look at DRM as is, and make it work better for consumers while keeping the benefits for the publishers. For example, let’s say I want to play Anno 2205 on my train commute. Could I ping the server to give me a 24-hour code that I can enter that unlocks offline play for that period? A similar feature could be implemented if the publisher chose to close the servers for a game after several years (obviously, that kind of unlock code would need to have a longer duration for that scenario). This is not going to satisfy some people – I understand that. For a great many gamers, it’s ‘I paid for my game and I should be able to use it how I wish.’ I respect that perspective, but I also think those days are long gone. Something that at least allows for greater player freedom might help soften the blow of some of the more invasive DRM problems.
My personal favorite solution, however – because it’s both realistic and fair – is to move on from DRM entirely and change the way we treat theft in general. Rather than punishing everyone for the actions of a few, why not reward the people who do things right? Fortunately, it seems like many companies are moving in this direction after the negative backlash suffered by some games with particularly harsh DRM. Options like season passes or DLC may be annoying in their own way but they are an example of ways to positively reinforce desired behaviors.
An example: whenever you mention DRM, people complain about Uplay, Battle.net and their ilk. You know who gets mentioned far less frequently? Steam. Can I play a game without Steam open? Nope. But Valve has made Steam about more than DRM. As much as people see Steam as copy protection, they also see it as a gaming community and a place to get good deals.
It wasn’t always this way. Steam was no more than a Battle.net clone in the beginning: a supposedly helpful background client that did more to gank a game than help it. To Valve’s credit, they saw the issue and did their best to make Steam something more. I have no doubt this took a lot of effort: to establish Steam as the foundation for almost all PC gaming. Yet Valve has done that work and they’ve reaped the benefits of it. Sometimes a PR win is better than an actual one. The periodic Steam sale, in and of itself, probably saves Steam millions in bad press.
Customers have complained loudly about DRM and it seems like game makers are beginning to respond. The recent SimCity reboot, in particular, was just a nightmare of a release and more recent games that I’ve seen are at least trying to find another way. The last few big game releases have had more vitriol over DLC than DRM. Maybe we’re just exchanging one problem for another, but it’s a sign that things are at least changing. That’s a good thing. It means people are looking for solutions instead of shrugging their shoulders and saying, “too bad.”
The relationship between the people who make games and those who play them is an ongoing evolution made increasingly more complicated by the speed of technological advance. The days of opening a giant instruction booklet for a password are gone for a number of reasons – heck, they don’t even print instruction booklets anymore – and the burgeoning gamer culture has an extra level of difficulty because of that constant change. There was a time when CD-ROM was the ultimate security because they couldn’t be copied. Yes, really.
The only thing we can say about the future for sure is that it will be different. No matter what the technology is, no matter where the culture goes, so long as we treat each other with respect, then I have hope for the hobby. There are no easy solutions here. As one smart person (or, perhaps, several) said, you know you have a good compromise if both sides feel like they lost. If developers and players can treat each other like valued partners rather than bitter enemies, then I think we will find a middle ground that everyone can at least live in, if not necessarily love. And once UPlay’s servers are back up, I’ll be playing more Anno 2070. I still have that Let’s Play to finish, after all.
Special thanks to Steam user Franknfurter for assistance with the creation of this article, specifically the charts and data.