May 21, 2022

I Dreamed of No DRM…

… and it was good.

No, seriously, full credit to Eurogamer for their article, but for so many people inside the industry there is a disturbing lack of common sense that really, truly makes me despair for the future of some companies.

“Piracy levels, depending on country, range between 40 per cent and 80 per cent” says one Sony man, who has worked with the SecuROM DRM. Another lamented that they have seen only a 10% legitimate userbase, and people calling for support with their pirated copies.

The figures vary from game to game. Some it is 50/50. Some 90%. But there is no denying it – piracy is a problem.

But, it is one that DRM has categorically FAILED to make any impact on – quite the opposite, if the pirates are anything to go by. Some relish the challenge of fresh new walls to break down, whereas others are quite boastful that with all the barriers being put up, legitimate users are turning to piracy to get a better gaming experience – a significant victory, it seems, for the little man.

Whatever the truth, there is no doubting in the past few years, piracy has become a big issue yet again. Steam has a massive market share, and yet tackles piracy as well. EA are suggesting that Origin is not merely a new store, but a whole new method of verifying users. Companies spend millions upon millions on new encryption techniques, new compression methods, new ways to trip up pirates and hackers.

And by and large, most games end up on pirate lists in a week. Often less.

So, DRM doesn’t work. It’s not tackling piracy – and the numerous keys and online checks that have to be done on legitimate copies, there is significant evidence that quite the opposite, DRM is turning people off. It’s a lot of hassle, it’s a pain in the backside and the hilarious and sad part is, the people it is MEANT to hurt – the pirates – aren’t being hurt at all. The ones who get the bitter pill are those who have spent money on a legitimate copy of their game, and then have to spend half an hour to two hours jumping through hoops designed to stop illegal copies doing the rounds, and it doesn’t work.

And we all know it. The industry, loathe as it is to acknowledge it, knows that DRM is having no impact on piracy. If anything, DRM in recent years has been a proverbial public relations disaster for the majority – Ubisoft noted sales dropped, Capcom were ripped new ones by fans angry over restrictions, SEGA and EA also haven’t had nice times.

This is all based on the false logic that each pirated copy is a lost sale – well, in some cases, but this isn’t 100% conclusive by any measure and is an industry fallacy designed to convince themselves that they should be making more money. Pirates do steal games – but that doesn’t mean they’d buy it brand new either. Some may wait for second hand sales – or not buy at all. It is in this that the idea of lost sales becomes rather meaningless – you can’t guess at what you’re losing, because it’s all just theoretical guesswork. It would make more sense that developers and publishers looked at what they were making money-wise and asking themselves whether their game is selling. And if not – why not?

DRM costs these companies millions – they employ people to try and dream up new ways of securing their game, only to watch helplessly as a bunch of largely self-taught coders often break it wide open days afterwards, even hours after an official release. It’s money that is being wasted, money that may as well be thrown on a fire or flushed down the drain or staked on the Million Pound Drop. The industry complains these days it is making less money – but they’d make more if they were not so insistent on a system of protection that is expensive and ultimately failing to do what it was intended to do. All game releases carry an element of commercial risk – the idea is to limit your overheads. DRM is an overhead that the industry really seems to insist on dangling over its head, like some twisted and warped Sword of Damocles.

So, what is the alternative? If I could stop DRM, what would I replace it with?

Simple – better customer service.

For example, if someone bought a game I had been marketing (let’s call this theoretical game Super Happy Finish: Volume 3, or SHF3 for short), the first thing would just be to parade it around as DRM free. This might seem like a red rag to a bull, but you may be surprised at how many people would very likely support a game that comes with no DRM. See the GOG version of The Witcher 2 – most people bought that, it was DRM free and as a result, that DRM-free version was less buggy and technically demanding than the version WITH DRM. A lot of people will support games that don’t treat them like crooks. Especially when the crooks aren’t being treated like crooks.

Secondly, you want people to buy it brand new. So I’d want to include a code for at least 3 months worth of content patches or 2 DLC/Expansion Packs for SHF3. Whichever comes first. And DON’T off it as an option for second-hand sales – not until that three month period is gone. Harsh as that may seem – giving with one hand and taking with the other – the reality is a lot of second-hand sales are often done in big branded superstores like Argos and GAME. You devalue the second-hand value of a game right there, and that should – at least initially – mean that you hurt those unscrupulous retailers a little harder. Most second hand shops I know of clearly label games with no code – at significant markdowns. Good for customers, bad for dodgy retailing – seems win/win to me.

And finally, I’d stop going on about piracy.

We get it. We really do. But the movie industry is heavily pirated – and it still survives. Music is still heavily pirated – and yet it survives. TV shows get pirated across the world – and yet, yes, the industry survives.

Game developers and analysts need to realise that we’re sick of hearing it. Boo hoo we’re all butt-hurt and feel violated – congratulations, now you know how directors, actors, musicians and other talented professionals the world over feel at some stage in their careers. If you can go after those pirating – do so. But the numbers are vast, and that must be a warning light that something isn’t going quite right somewhere. When your games are at least being pirated 50/50 to legit copies, you ask yourself three questions.

1) Is my game crap? If review scores say no, then proceed to 2.
2) Is my game too expensive? Look at sales figures. If all rosy, see 3.
3) Has our PR pushed users, gamers and others away from our brand?

There may be many other questions, but generally speaking – as a gamer, I like content. I like quality. And I like to feel that, as a customer, I am valued in some way. That I am not seen as a potential pirate, but embraced and cuddled with love and kindness and love.

This can be done with personal messages, this can be done by making a solid game, this can be done by including toys, maps and figures as standard with games. But by making a connection with me, as a user, I am more inclined to follow someone who is friendly and warm to someone who seems to think I’m going to rob them blind at any moment.

The irony of it all is simply that we know for a fact is that piracy numbers are going up, not down. DRM has, in the past few years, made absolutely no difference or discernible impact on this front, and has been the bane of legitimate and respectable users the world over. And in that, it has been a failure, an apocalyptic pile of balls that most publishers would be wise to ditch as soon as possible.

And then replace it with something else. Hell, you’d save millions of dollars – so why not lavish some of that wasted money on, well, your games?

I know, it’s a crazy idea, it’ll never catch on…


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