Games and DRM

04 Feb 2022

[ drm  games  ]

Some time ago I talked about Netflix and DRM. I would like to get back to this topic, but with different entertainment industry - Games. I wrote a little about this topic in the previous blog post, but I think that this deserves more space.

What is DRM?

I wrote about the basics of DRM in the previous blog post, so I will just quickly recapitulate it here. Basically it’s just a tool that controls how you consume your content and where. For example if you buy a car and the car stops when you are trying to use specific road, because car manufacturer doesn’t allow you to use roads that were build by some company. This is a fictional example and ridiculous one, but this is what the DRM does.

If you want to know more about DRM I can point you to, which has a lot more information about DRM.

DRM and Games

In software (not only games) DRM is used to prevent user to run it on other platforms than the distributor wants it to run. Few examples how the DRM could look in games:

  • Need to be connected to online service (Always-On DRM)

    This is one of the popular ones that is also the most troubling one. Why? Let’s imagine that the service is shut down. What will happen with the software that needs to be authenticated with it? Yes, that’s right. It stops working. You wouldn’t be even able to play the game when the online service is down or no longer available. This is understandable in case of online games, but it doesn’t make sense for single-player titles. For example L.A. Noire is connecting to Rockstar Social Club each time you start it and it’s only single-player game. What is even more ridiculous, if you have the game on Steam, your Steam account is linked to this social club account and you can’t change it or use the social club account with different Steam account (I tried to solve this with customer support and it’s not possible, it’s better to create another account in rockstar social cloub than change the linked steam account).

  • Software DRM

    This is the DRM that is distributed directly with the game. It could be implemented by multiple different ways, by limiting the number of activations for the product (Crysis), by checking the content of the game or other. All of them usually just hinder the experience for those who bought the game. Ironically, you don’t have those issues if you play a pirate copy of the game. This DRM protection is similar to always-on DRM in the way that it can’t be disabled and sooner or later you will not be able to play the game anymore (cracking the game will help in some cases).

  • Hardware DRM

    This is not that widespread anymore, but when the games were distributed in physical copies there was DRM directly on the medium. For example SecuROM was a popular way to protect CDs and DVDs against illegal copying, but it often caused that the CD or DVD couldn’t be read by mechanic at all. The SecuROM even caused the Spore game to fail and there was DRM free version available as soon as possible.

  • Not having the copy of software

    There are some services (for example Google Stadia), mostly cloud gaming that allow you to buy games on their service. But you don’t actually own anything, you are not able to play if you are not online. And if the service is shut down, you don’t even have access to games you bought. This is the worse DRM you can find. You don’t own anything and don’t even have control about the service.

Most of the games released today has some form of DRM, especially AAA titles. My opinion is that these are just wasted money, which could be invested better. Those who would not buy the game will not buy it anyway. And those who want to buy it, could be later disappointed by the included DRM.

Games without DRM alias everyone could dream

There are already stores that are selling DRM free games (check the GOG) and as I found out there is even a SteamWiki page with list of DRM free games. As you can see it’s possible to buy DRM free games, but the selection is limited.

So how should the ideal game industry look like? Here are some ideas from my Linux gamer mind:

  • No required authentication with online services for single-player games

    Why even have that? There is no need for this. I’m not against being online on some gaming platform and unlocking achievements, but it shouldn’t be forced.

  • Make the game open source when it’s no longer supported

    This is more my developer mind talking, but if the developer decides to not support the game anymore let’s open source it, so the community could take over it and maintain it or let it die and rot, if it wasn’t good. There are plenty of projects that are trying to reimplement the older games (OpenMW and Warhammer Online) from scratch and this would be really helpful. The game could still be sold, why not. But the community could still fix bugs and add new content.

  • No exclusivity

    This is a DRM as well If the game is playable only on one platform because of exclusivity it’s always a bad news for gamers. I’m not saying to port the game to all platforms (this doesn’t makes much sense in case of profitability), but don’t target only one store, because it gave you money. Epic Store is the most guilty of this. This is a bad policy and just forces the people to use some platform, not because it has better features, but because it has content that isn’t somewhere else. Competitiveness should be done by services you provide, not the content.

  • Platform agnostic

    When possible the games should be platform agnostic. They shouldn’t depend on any feature that is tying them to specific platform (for example SteamWorks). This is DRM by itself and it’s vendor locking for developers as well. You can still use it, but just leverage it and don’t depend on it.

Hopefully in the future we will see multi-platform games being standard and the DRM being the thing of the past. But this would probably never happen.

What I can do about DRM right now?

Right now the options are very limited. You can buy from stores that are selling DRM free games like GOG. But these are usually pretty limited by the number of titles and the functionality they provide. Or you can try to find DRM free games on other stores. See SteamWiki page with list of DRM free games for example.

Next thing you could do is to play open source games, there is plenty of them, but the quality of the game varies. Most of them are still in active development.

Piracy. Yes, playing the pirated games is option too. But I don’t recommend it for multiple reasons. You don’t support the people who developed the game. It’s illegal in most countries. And it’s usually used for distributing malware (malicious software).

Otherwise you don’t have much options, but it’s still better than in movie industry. And hopefully it will get better in the future.

Written on February 4, 2022