Bioware's highly acclaimed and formerly XBox 360 exclusive RPG Mass Effect is fast approaching its release on the PC. Most PC gamers were undoubtedly pleased to hear about enhanced graphics, faster load times, and a re-designed menu system; but it's likely that fewer were happy to hear about the evil digital rights management that will be unscrupulously bundled with the game.
Like an increasing number of PC games nowadays, Mass Effect will require an online activation when it is installed. This has been common practice ever since Half-Life 2. But Mass Effect will also "phone home" every 10 days to make sure the key is valid, and it will carry a three-install limit. This has set many message boards afire with rants about "draconian" DRM and people threatening to pirate the game precisely because of the DRM.
It's times like this that I wonder why people are so adamantly opposed to DRM. It's worth noting that piracy came first; if people didn't steal their games, there would be no need for DRM. But the argument is something like this: the game will be pirated anyway, and DRM just inconveniences those who legitimately purchased their game.
But let's shift gears for a moment. The music industry has been similarly ravaged by piracy. It's easy enough to avoid any DRM simply by purchasing a CD. But that's not what most people do. The number one retailer of music is none other than Apple's iTunes. That's right – the same iTunes that gives you songs at 128kbps AAC and won't let you burn any song to CD more than five times. Apple has tried to appease the DRM-haters with iTunes plus, but it's a pretty small percentage of iTunes songs that use the "plus" format.
How has Apple managed to become the number one music retailer with such evil DRM? It's simple: most people don't care about DRM. I mean really, when you buy a CD, do you make ten copies? Twenty? Why on earth wouldn't five copies be enough? And the vast majority of people cannot tell the difference between a 128kbps AAC song and an uncompressed song on a CD. It's hard to imagine how iTunes songs would really inconvenience anyone.
So let's look again at Mass Effect. Is it really draconian to expect gamers to be connected to the internet? Sure, some people may want to play offline for some arbitrary reason, but is that really going to comprise a significant percentage of players? And what about the three-activation limit? How many times do you plan on re-installing the game? How many friends are you going to "loan" it to?
Here's the thing: due to various upgrades and reformats, I've passed the activation limits on one or two of my games. I simply contact the support with a request code given by the game, and they activate the game for me. Big. Deal.
The resistance to DRM like that seen in Mass Effect does not, in my view, come from a real belief that gamers are being inconvenienced in any significant way; rather, it comes from the belief that if you buy a piece of software, it's your property and you should be able to do whatever you want with it. But here's the thing: it's not your property. You are paying for the privilege of using the software, not ownership of the intellectual property.
But to the larger question: Does DRM really inconvenience legit gamers while utterly failing to combat piracy? Sometimes, yes, it has. But as long as piracy remains rampant, developers have every right to try to protect their software as best they can. Online authentication is perhaps the most promising form of piracy protection, and it's likely that more and more developers will use it, particularly as PC games move from the retail shelf to digital distribution.
Futhermore, I always have to cast a skeptical eye at those who claim that copy protection such as SecuROM causes bugs and glitches, because in the two and a half years that I've been a PC-only gamer, of all the 30 or so games I own, not a single one has caused me any problems at all due to copy protection. While it's not impossible that some users have legitimate problems, I feel that it's more probable that copy protection is often erroneously blamed other system issues.
Ultimately I feel that those who raise hell about DRM are in a minority. The alleged inconveniences are incredibly trivial, and if DRM can reduce piracy, it's good both for developers and gamers. And those who threaten piracy because of DRM? Well, those schmucks are probably already familiar with getting the five-finger discount. I challenge these irate gamers to offer their own solutions. PC piracy numbers are staggering, and causing many developers to leave the platform. If gamers don't like DRM, what other solutions might there be? What are these gamers accomplishing by throwing a fit and threatening more piracy, aside from egging developers to develop even stricter DRM?
DRM is not going anywhere. It's here to stay and until our society becomes a utopia where everyone is honest and nobody steals, gamers are just going to have to suck up the horrible inconvenience of plugging in their ethernet cable.