The weird thing about DRM


From what I understand, digital rights management, or DRM, exists because of mistrust between a publisher or developer and their customers. If someone can copy something freely, someone probably will, they just tend to assume that everyone will despite often still managing to get a profit to make the next entry in their really long-running series. DRM also exists because of the need for money. They want to turn a profit so they’ll do anything possible to get in the way of making a free copy, even if it turns out to be complicated and cumbersome and even not work for legitimate customers if every single meticulous thing isn’t just absolutely perfect.

Back in the early days, games would come on media that consumers would most likely have a way to duplicate. The idea of making a copy to “borrow” like any other media like audio tapes didn’t take long to show up, between the ease of access and small allowances and probably some economic problems in general. There were a couple main approaches to this, either make a very specialized media that can only be read by certain devices, like cartridges, or stick to the cheaper copyable formats but try to throw in a trick somewhere. Naturally, people found a way around both.

Things like including a manual which had to have certain specific keywords typed in at a point meant that people would just photocopy the manual as well. Then they printed things in color, which would work until more people had access to color copiers. There were more physical things like a special lens that would be held up to the screen to find a password, but these wouldn’t work for all types of screens and it was easy to have something unfortunate happen to the special decoder lens. Eventually games would come out on CDs, which publishers considered to be “uncopyable”. Not for long, though, CD recorders are pretty much standard these days, on computers that still have disc drives, that is. Even DVD recorders are pretty common, yet Blu-Ray drives, even ones that only read, are kind of a rarity on typical consumer PCs that still have disc drives.

Still on physical media, games would start doing weird tricks to their discs like intentionally adding bad sectors that contain vital data which copiers would skip over, unfortunately regular disc drives might skip them while reading as well and render things unplayable. While this could be considered tough to crack, it also makes it tough to play legitimately. Most regular releases stuck with a CD key method where during installation you would enter a serial number from the case and it would verify locally. Some products tried to verify this through a server as well, but if the server stopped existing or the connection dropped, this could be a problem, as well as reinstalling on a new or restored computer.

When things shifted to digital distribution, things were just files, and files could be copied. So of course they wanted to find a way to make copying difficult. Now that they were entirely in the realm of software, they felt they could do anything, even possibly damage the user’s computer in the process with difficult to remove software plugins which might open up vulnerabilities or impact performance. When the worst of these techniques came to light, potential legitimate customers would end up fearing damage to their computer and they’d rather risk going to a possibly shady pirating site which may or may not even have what they’re looking for, possibly just a way to convince users to download viruses.

Essentially, even with platforms like Steam or Origin which by design include a form of DRM tied to just running the game from the platform, publishers felt that somehow wasn’t enough and decided to add even more layers because clearly the solution is to just add more things in the way of playing the game no matter when or how often they end up getting cracked anyway. Even this new supposedly invincible and non-performance-breaking Denuvo thing has been cracked and people report performance issues as well, even with things related to solid state drives and write cycle life. It’s gotten to the point of having a reputation almost as bad as SecuROM while seeming less inherently evil up front. As well, publishers are even removing the Denuvo protection from a later patch whenever it gets cracked, so even that doesn’t seem to be something they want to stick with as much, yet new games keep showing up with it.

Some platforms go an entirely different direction, like GOG and in part Humble. GOG swears by its DRM-free approach, providing installers for their games with an optional client to manage them, yet anything multiplayer-focused probably still needs a server somewhere to work, even if using the listen server method. Humble offers a mix of DRM-free and locked options, many of which are available on Steam and also exclusively on Steam as well. The Humble Bundle started as a way for DRM-free access to indie games but is now just as big a storefront, as the Humble Store, as any with about the same options, just with possibly more potential towards indie usage. Even the bundles themselves had this happen, with software bundles locked with key access and even console games being sold through it. While they still aim to support charity with the purchases made, they are much more of an official licensed key distributor than a DRM-free storefront. The options exist, but they can be hard to find. Meanwhile GOG is still its own service with its own game access, even having the option to link a Steam account to get DRM-free versions of a game when applicable. This doesn’t happen often, mainly reserved for times of big sales, but it exists sometimes.

Generally speaking, there’s a difference between adding in way too much DRM and actually trusting the consumer. There are platforms which already do the general management of things so adding anything on top is just redundant for releases on those platforms. Ubisoft still seems to stick by its Uplay requirement for most of their Steam games even though it has its own Uplay storefront separately. EA just went the route of keeping their games on their own platform once it existed fully. Even console games for a while had this online pass thing which would come free with a new copy but required a purchase with a used copy. This didn’t last long, yet they still feel free to try to add more levels of DRM on PC versions. As well, the more complicated it gets, it locks out access to Mac and Linux users even though distributing games on those platforms has become easier in general. Specific DRM setups are often specific to Windows, and publishers are too afraid to go without them, so they just only release on Windows, if and when they do.

From my point, Steam seems okay for the moment, as far as a platform to play games, it’s generally out of the way, but I would prefer to get more games on GOG and such when possible. Even bigger publishers are putting their older games on GOG, even if they do keep their newer ones on Steam, it’s a step somewhere. Ideally companies and consumers would be able to trust each other more, but it’s a long road until that point.