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6. Musings 44: PC Gaming? Maybe it's on Life Support
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9. Musings: Stardock, DRM, and Gamers' Rights
10. Musings: How DRM Hurts PC Gaming
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Musings: How DRM Hurts PC Gaming
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: September 24th 2008

Over at Penny Arcade, Tycho and Gabe took a week's vacation. In their place, a set of strips and some guest commentary work their way in. The topic du jour? That omnipresent bogeyman of the PC gaming industry (and to a much much lesser extent, consoles), DRM.

I've railed on Sony's shortsightedness with the PSP many times, but the console industry has been all at once largely insulated from the problems of copyright infringement (the words "piracy" and "theft" will appear here precisely once, only to remind readers that these terms are NOT the proper wording to discuss the unauthorized copying of computer programs). Indeed, at times when the console industry made decisions based 90% or more on copy protection, they have almost invariably found this to be bad for business.

Let's start with the most obvious historical perspective: set the WABAC for the early 1980s. In those days, prehistoric PC devices (Apple II's, Tandy, IBM, Commodore) competed with each other and with consoles like the Atari and Coleco lines, sometimes highly interchangeably, for a budding user productivity market and games market. Games got re-coded for half a dozen or more platforms. Discs were relatively easy to copy - that is, if you had a blank free, or enough space to fit the game on an existing one. A decade after, ad campaigns like "don't copy that floppy" reminded users how easy it was to simply copy a disc's contents for play, almost anytime. The "Dongle" of choice was pack-in materials, things like code sheets (necessary for a point a certain way into the game) that were notoriously to read without a flashlight shining directly on the page, or 300-page manuals where you needed to look up the 3rd word of the 2nd paragraph on page 263, or even the dreaded decoder wheel.

Today we're lucky that a lot of people did copy their floppies - time and time again - or a lot of these programs might be lost entirely to the ages. After all, most of those computers are long gone, and the average shelf life of floppy disc media is pretty short.

Money was made, games were played... and then, 1984. The market crashed. People stopped buying consoles, stopped buying games... and two years later, Nintendo and a plumber named Mario were all the rage. But the NES had a trick up its sleeve compared to the various PC gaming options... it, like its previous brethren, ran on ROM cartridges. While it's possible to copy these (and today, flash-RAM carts make it easier to do at home), it wasn't easy. Copyright infringement on these was the domain of surreptitious clone copy makers in warehouses, with ROM burners and a plastic fabricating unit capable of making something shaped close enough to a Nintendo cartridge to fit into the console and make contact with the slot pins. And for two generations, this worked well for Nintendo, and for Sega - their consoles were (amazingly) able to do tricks PC graphics couldn't do until a couple enterprising coders from a little shop called "id software" came up with Dangerous Dave and showed the world that they could duplicate the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3, fully scrolling, on an EGA display. And even then, PC graphics cards were inferior: the NES could do 45 compared to EGA's 16, and early 256-color VGA paled in comparison to the Genesis's 512 (with flicker simulation taking some colors further) and the SNES's whopping 32,768 (15-bit RGB). It wasn't until the PC got graphics accelerator cards, and games like Mechwarrior 2, that PC gaming overtook the consoles in visual quality.

Then, Nintendo screwed up - they dropped a proposed CD-rom unit venture with Sony and decided, based on the risk that CD's would be too easy to copy, to make the N64 another cartridge-based device.

Now here's the thing about cartridges: at the beginning of time, many programs were distributed on them. Those "home PC" early generations? Many either interfaced with a console (like Coleco's ADAM), with a ROM reader (dozens of "Atari 2600 port" adapters abounded, since most of the PC's used the same CPU that the Atari did, or one similar enough to run the 2600 programs), or even had their own cartridge bays on the back for their own proprietary cartridges, like chess programs for the Commodore line that needed an extra math coprocessor. But cartridges are also expensive as hell, compared to optical media or magnetic media (CD's and floppy discs), to produce. If you're making cartridges, you need your own factory. In 1986, Nintendo had that market virtually cornered and lorded this over publishers, prompting companies to play games and make shell corporations (Konami created Ultra, for example) to bypass the limits on how many titles Nintendo would allow a given house to release per year. By 1995, however, this put the bottom line at risk - the market was big enough that producing the games (whether on CD or cartridge) both cheaply and in great quantity meant better profits and more market penetration. Sony could push out a ton of CD-Roms, and all their licensees needed to do was locate a factory and have them burn the disc image in a lot of however many, while Nintendo had to produce a ROM chip, plastic sleeving, and circuit boards for each cartridge.

Despite some nifty hardware and gaming capabilities, the N64 hurt for the larger storage space the CD offered. It hurt for how many cartridges, compared to CD's, could be produced. Nintendo repeated this mistake with the Gamecube, choosing to use nonstandard DVD-rom-ish hardware in a bid to prevent the discs from being copied - again hamstringing their hardware with less than enough storage space. To be sure, Nintendo's hamhanded behavior towards third party game developers during the NES/SNES days did them no favors in the mid-to-late '90s, but attempting to use their hardware as a clumsy DRM didn't help them at all.

While all this was going on, of course, the PC gaming market didn't stand still. High-level graphics cards, up until recently, were capable of producing graphics that the consoles could only dream of; console ports of popular PC titles were often pooh-poohed as being stripped down or graphically inadequate by PC partisans, while at the same time PC gamers chomped at the bit to get ports of the latest hot console titles. During the "glory days" of PC gaming (approximately 1997 to 2002 or 2003, depending), PC partisans could point to the vastly superior hardware and certain high-quality, classic titles as proof their chosen medium was king.

But it didn't last. Some publishers abandoned the PC, or left it to sit on second-rate or ported titles only as consoles have once again begun to catch up in processing and graphics power and bang-for-the-buck. What's worse, game companies' insistence on ever more draconian DRM on the PC has harmed the game experience - and as the market for video games expanded beyond nerds and into the more casual market, the damage has become more and more severe.

The Game Experience

Take yourself through the steps, if you will, of playing a brand new game title on either the PC or a game console. On the PC, it goes roughly as follows:

1. Insert disc into machine.
2. Run installation program.
3. Let it copy tons of files to hard drive. Swap discs as needed. Get lunch/read a book/whatever else you do when really, really bored.
4. Finish install program. Reinsert Disc 1 into 5 1/4" Dongle Bay (aka CD/DVD Drive).
5. Launch game program. Utter sotto voce prayer to spaghetti monster that nothing on computer (another game's DRM, virus scanner, another program) causes game not to run.
6. Spend a good half-hour tweaking visuals of game to your particular hardware and framerate tolerances.
7. Try to play game.
8. Spend another half-hour RETUNING visual settings now that you know how much the game's actually taxing your hardware.
9. Either start finally enjoying game, or give up and go do something else.

Now, compare this to the standard set of steps for playing a brand new game title on a console:

1. Insert disc into machine.
2. Play game.

Note the difference? The route to PC game usage is fraught with peril, heartache, boredom. Some of this is caused by the different hardware inside a given PC (and there's a heck of a range). Game companies (some at least) are trying to do a better job in helping users figure out their settings from the start. The rest of the headache, meanwhile, is caused by DRM.

The most "benign" form of DRM is the need to have the original game CD in the drive. In the beginning, this was fairly simple - the game installed a file when it installed indicating what drive was the CD-Rom, then looked for a corresponding file. When that was easily hacked, game manufacturers switched to having the production lines deliberately burn "bad" sectors into their CD's in a known pattern that could be checked for; the idea is that home CD burning software automatically corrects these when copying the CD, and so a copy won't be seen properly by the game code. Of course, the fix for this is similarly trivial. Savvy programmers would fairly quickly patch a given game's loading code so that the check routine simply reads "return:valid result" no matter if a CD is present or not - the omnipresent "No-CD Patch" seen online.

Many gamers I've talked to consider the No-CD patch as one of the most important software patches available, allowing them to store their game CD's in a safe place (and not scratch them to unreadability), or swap out their laptop CD/DVD drive for an extra battery (or less weight) for a laptop on the go.

With the No-CD patch in play, DRM software has got worse. The next evolution was the CD Key - an alphanumeric string representing "a license" to install the game. CD Keys used to be tied to a numerical hashing program in the game's installation routine (which once reverse engineered becomes the basis for simple key generator programs). Modern day productivity software packages (such as Adobe's popular CS suite, or Microsoft Office) still use these as well. The difference between productivity software and games is that software companies know darn well that using the 5 1/4" CD/DVD drive as a dongle is unacceptable - and thus you'll never see MS Office, or Matlab, or Adobe CS requiring you to keep the CD in the drive. It would defeat the purpose to not be able to keep productivity software open while other programs are running. Game makers assume that (a) the only thing you are running is the game and (b) that you are willing to keep the CD on hand in order to play it, even when you've installed the entire game spawn to your hard drive anyways.

Of course, the game companies wanted to find a way to get past the key generators, and they turned to a solution that works well for multiplayer titles (MMORPG's and ones with "stat ladders", like for Starcraft). The solution was to let the software periodically (usually, on connection time) check its key to see if it was in use anywhere else. Bear with me on this - it works really well for games that require you to be online. In fact, it works so well that MMORPG makers have come to the conclusion that they don't care how many machines you install your copy of the game on, because you're buying a separate set of account credentials to log in anyways. They have no problem if you bring the game over and install it on your buddy's computer, because he will need to buy his own account in order to play. Thus, no MMORPG actually requires you to leave your game CD in the drive anymore, and it's quite refreshing.

But what about those pesky single-player titles? This is where it's gotten really devious. Failing to get something bulletproof out of online checks (the general and simple workaround being to install the game with your ethernet cord pulled, then patch the game with a No-CD patch that just so happens to remove and/or alter the registration routine so that it returns a happy "success" result on any occasion), they went even more devious and started installing malicious software.

Attacking the Customer: Bad Business

This is where it all really got bad. The year is 2006: has just announced that copy protection on hundreds of games is malware. As it turned out, they're not far off - StarForce copy protection sucks, sticking its own driver into users' systems without permission, not cleaning out when the game is removed or not running, and worst of all, interfering with other programs such as legitimate CD-burning and ISO-mastering software.

Or set your WABAC machine back another year, to 2005 - Sony's been caught sticking software on its audio CD's (not PC gaming DRM as such, but bear with me). Unfortunately, it turns out it's infested. Not just infested, but with one of the most devious bits of DRM software yet devised, one that actually did damage to a user's machine when they tried to remove it, and tried to hide itself from detection by the OS or other programs. Indeed, it was so crafty that it's still to this day used in hacking competitions, as well as being used for a time by users who wanted to use certain "helper" software running alongside the notoriously-nosy World of Warcraft client while avoiding detection. Unfortunately, Sony hasn't learned their lesson still - new games are to this day coming out laden with damaging DRM software courtesy of Sony - and again, SecuRom refuses to leave your system even if you uninstall the game it used to sneak in.

The worst part of this? SecuRom constantly phones home and gets "updates" - I can just imagine a greedy set of hackers managing to compromise SecuRom's servers, or else merely redirecting the traffic to their own servers, and slipping some even more malicious code out there. SecuRom also removes the idea of a "sale" of software; if you have the disc, but you have no internet connection, or you've had to rebuild a system a couple times (bad hard drives, large hardware upgrades, etc) you're out of luck: your purchased copy of a single-player game goes away.

Worst of all, it actively encourages gamers who otherwise would be law-abiding citizens, to instead commit copyright violations. The thought process isn't hard to follow:

1) "Wow, this game looks awesome!"
2) "Crap, it's got that DRM stuff in it. Who knows what it'll do to my system?"
3) "Sweet! Someone got it cracked to run without the malware!"

Step 4, of course, involves people playing the game without purchase - but from their perspective, the difference is simple. Refer to our earlier exercise on the perils of an installation and add the following option of Installing a Bootleg Copy:

1: Unzip/Unrar/Decompress game spawn to folder.
1a: If game came on an ISO: run installer (but not registration) as normal.
2: Copy in patched game file.
3,3a,3b: Go through settings (step 6-8 from above).
4: Play Game.

Now admittedly this isn't the exact same ease with which the console game was run - but it's at least one step closer, and it's an important step. You see, the unfortunate side effect of the ever-more-draconian DRM attached to PC games has been that gamers actually trust the No-CD/Cracked/Hacked versions to run better than they trust the official versions. Yes, there are plenty of no-good people out there who might release something saying that it's Game X but instead include a bit of virus/malware - but when there are "known" groups commonly doing the releases, and plenty of people on the net saying "the version from Group X works", and they know for a fact that the official version is already infected with something the gaming/PC enthusiast community considers malware, the calculation on "protecting yourself" gets skewed.

Once DRM malware is in place, the customer's calculation is simple: hacked/cracked versions are a way to protect their computer from malware. Got that, game companies? This, more than anything else, is why DRM is bad for your business - you are quite literally training the customer to trust the hackers more than they trust the game company. Your version fails, or has problems, or worse yet causes problems for other software: their tech-savvy friend comes over, removes your malware, installs the cracked version (or worse yet, teaches them how to find it) along with admonishing them to be careful about the "extras" coming in with these games. Your customer has a choice: either turn to the illegitimate (but only possibly instead of guaranteed to carry malware) copies, or else switch entirely to console gaming where it all "just works" anyways.

The final words of the Penny Arcade guest writer for today, Brian Crecente, are as follows:

Developers and publishers have the right to protect their interests, to ask that I pay for what I play. But don’t we have the right to own what we’ve purchased? To do what we want with it? Are we buying games, or renting them? The industry needs to meet us halfway. This is a problem that hurts everyone, both in its repercussions and its current solutions.

Unfortunately for Brian, I agree with the first: developers and publishers, as well as everyone else involved in making and selling the games, deserves to get paid for their work. The problem isn't that, however - as we've seen, copy protection rarely (if ever) hurts those who will get the illegal copies. Instead, the tactics of the current crop of game companies do something worse: they punish the wrong people (the paying customers) for the sins of the nonpayers, they assume the honest customers are dishonest and hide malicious and unnecessary software on their machines, and they drive off many potential customers into the arms of others - the PC industry damaged by exodus of gamers to the consoles. And who can blame them? Despite the allure of the extras and mods and updates and the potential for more, despite the memories of the glory days of everyone and their brother making map packs for Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, of groups coming together to make wonderful and fun toys like Team Fortress...

The version they can get for the console will, for better or worse, Just Work. And with DRM in the picture, we'll never be able to say that about the PC. 

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Musings: How DRM Hurts PC Gaming

Added:  Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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