Mass Effect, piracy and DRM, part 2

The response to my previous post has been remarkable; clearly, many gamers are passionate about DRM and its place (or lack thereof) in PC gaming. I've read through all the comments, and would like to take a moment to respond to them.

As a few responders noted, EA has now relaxed the every-10-day "phoning home" rule; now, Mass Effect will authenticate only when new patches or content is being downloaded.  

Gamers have pointed to Stardock as an example of how to run a successful PC studio without DRM; however, I feel the comparison is moot, because Stardock is a very small company and games like Galactic Civilizations and Sins of a Solar Empire are not expected to sell, or be pirated, on a scale comparable to games like Crysis, Call of Duty 4 and Unreal Tournament 3, all of which were very heavily pirated on the PC. Because a small company like Stardock doesn't have the tens-of-millions budget that a company like EA or Epic has, selling a hundred thousand units would be considered a big success for them, even if another three hundred thousand pirated the game. With big budget games, the risks are greater and the effects of piracy are more serious. It's also worth noting that piracy has indeed crippled small developers, as was famously borne out recently when Iron Lore shut down, which was followed by a passionate criticism of PC gaming (and PC gamers) by THQ Director of Creative Management Michael Fitch. 

Gamers also need to understand that DRM is not intended to stop piracy. No developer in their right mind would be arrogant and ignorant enough to assume that even the most sophisticated DRM would be bullet-proof. Rather, DRM is intended to reduce piracy, to make it harder. If simply increasing the time it takes for a game to be cracked may improve sales significantly, the developer would view the DRM as worth the trouble. 

People complain about the games being "too advanced", like you need some sort of supercomputer to run Crysis, or it's required by law to be able to play games at maximum settings despite the fact that nearly all games are designed to be scalable across a broad array of platforms. I do not buy this as a reason or an excuse for piracy. Clearly if someone has a system that can play these games, they can afford to pay for their games too. In fact as this recent article shows, piracy is as much a concern for the "casual" PC game developers as it is for the big boys like EA.

There's also a lot of confusion about "rights". Players want to believe that when they purchase a game, they have the right to use it however they want. That's simply a fallacy—the owner of the IP gets to decide. This is plainly evident in the fact that every game installer has an "End User License Agreement"; it's safe to say that most users simple click "agree" rather than actually read through all the legal mumbo-jumbo. Suffice to say though that it is the developer and publisher who have the right to decide how their software will be used. Love it or hate it, DRM is well within the creators' rights.

Do I like DRM? Of course not. I don't like inputing a CD key. I don't like CD checks (I avoid them, though, by purchasing all my games digitally). I don't like the rare occasion when I have to contact a publisher because my SecuROM activation limit was used up (happened once). But they are incredibly small niggles, a meager price to pay for the greatness of PC gaming. Perhaps the best DRM models are those such as Steam, which imbeds its DRM within a digital distribution and community-based service. (I rather like that Steam requires no keys or CD checks, and updates games automatically.)

And while piracy numbers are certainly high for PC gaming, much of the fuss has come from the supposedly poor sales of high-profile games like Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3. These stories were based on brick-and-mortar retail sales tracked by the NPD. However, PC gaming is fast moving away from this; as many have pointed out,  when one factors in sales from digital distribution (such as Steam, Direct2Drive and the EA Store), e-tail, and subscriptions, PC gaming is in all likelihood doing much better than many would believe. I would add the acquisition of Alienware and Voodoo by Dell and HP, respectively, along with the blooming boutique gaming PC market, as further evidence of a growing market for PC games. Neither piracy nor DRM is damaging the market as much as many would believe.

Furthermore, it's quite difficult to quantify how many pirates equal lost sales. Certainly it's not 1-to-1 (likely far less). Yet when you have developers like Crytek, id and Epic counting piracy as a primary reason for a move away from PCs as a central platform, it's tough to discount the notion that piracy does indeed translate to significant lost sales in many cases. After all, who would be so naive as to assume that the millions of people downloading music illegally from Napster in the late 90s would never have bought any of that music anyway?

DRM is a necessary evil. Gamers must realize that reducing piracy is good for developers, and the problems some people face with DRM (including Steam) must be viewed as collateral damage—assuming, of course, that the DRM is actually the issue, which may often not be the case. The challenge for developers is to find a DRM scheme that is as unintrusive as possible. EA's move to change Mass Effect's DRM shows that they are indeed cognizant of the notion that certain types of DRM may repel some gamers. Yet for current piracy rates to be reduced significantly, DRM must continue to be a reality. Here's hoping more developers can follow Valve's example, and that developers and gamers can reach a mutually beneficial solution.