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Musings: Stardock, DRM, and Gamers' Rights
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: October 17th 2008

Stardock, and CEO Brad Wardell, have become something of celebrities in PC gaming circles recently for their fight to try to get the larger gaming industry to treat gamers as customers (rather than all evil, theiving "pirates") and pushing for a "Gamers' Bill of Rights." Most recently, in Stardock's Customer Report, they've tried to "clarify" their position based on feedback from the other side of the industry - the designers and publishers. There's obviously a lot of give-and-take and wheat to separate from the chaff, and they're getting closer, but they're definitely not there yet.

According to Mr. Wardell, of course, they might never be "there." He states quite clearly:

There is no solution to the issue of protecting intellectual property (IP) that will satisfy all parties.

Part of the problem, obviously, is that some parties don't want to be satisfied. Some of these are game companies that simply make crappy games, but use the excuse of "piracy" to explain to the shareholders (who probably don't play the games either) why their crappy game either (a) didn't sell or (b) are already sitting in the bargain bin or at stores like Half-Price Books and now "retail" for, say, $5 apiece. Some of these are game companies that have pretty much abandoned the PC market anyways, and in slowly making their way out the door are putting out far-inferior ports of their console titles while thumbing their nose at the consumer. Some are simply crazy people on either side - either the "information wants to be free" types, who view any and all restrictions on anything as Bad, or the "we must control everything" types from the DRM purveyors (Macrovision, SecuROM, Starforce, etc) who think that "IP" is something they hold on to like Smeagol clutching the One Ring while whimpering "my precious" over and over again.

Wardell attempts to separate out the various complaints he sees gamers making about DRM into areas of "legitimate" and "illegitimate." I'll give him credit for trying, but he needs to take a step back, read some of these aloud, and realize what he sounds like. I'll be fair and take each in turn. Remember, Wardell is NOT a bad guy - on the contrary, I think he's one of the best guys in the industry, and he's definitely trying to find that "fine line" where the game can be protected, where the people who really enjoy the game will pay and the studio will make a good return on their time and money invested, and they can go on to make MORE games that people will want to buy.

Borderline: Requiring the user to have an Internet connection to install a game.
Legitimate complaint: Activation-based DRM means that if the publisher goes out of business or simply stops supporting their content that the customer can no longer use their legally purchased item.

I simply can't see this one as a "borderline" complaint. Seriously... this is one screwed-up idea, either way he phrases it, and I find it interesting that he phrases it both ways and claims one phrasing is "legitimate" while the other is "borderline." If you're required to have an internet connection to go online... where is the software connecting? Quite obviously it's connecting to some form of an activation server, which will die when the company dies (or simply decides that the game's not making enough money to justify keeping the server online any more). If you're talking about an online game, like an MMORPG, this might be "borderline" in the sense that the game will have to be updated to get online and play it anyways. For a single-player game (or a game with both a single-player and multiplayer component), requiring any form of "install activation" means that you put one more hurdle in the way of legitimate customers getting the game installed once the activation server is gone, or if they're one of the potential customers (more prevalent than the industry likes to admit) who lack an always-on internet connection.

Mr. Wardell, please think again on this point.

Legitimate complaint: If a program wants to have a limited activation system, then it needs to provide a way to de-authorize other computers (ala iTunes).
Legitimate complaint: Having an arbitrarily low limit on personal activations makes the program feel like it’s being rented.
Illegitimate complaint: Keeps people from installing the program on as many PCs as they own. I own an office full of PCs. I don’t think Microsoft would be happy if I installed Office on all of them.

Two of these he pegs as legitimate; one illegitimate. Again, these are very connected complaints. A limited activation system goes back to the point above (activation-based DRM) wherein, should the publisher die or decide to kill the server, the game becomes unusable. This also hits on the whole "like a rental" thing; nobody likes buying something knowing that it's going to self-destruct - that's why Circuit City's "Divx" platform failed, that's why the "goes opaque in 48 hours after you open the sealed envelope" DVD systems have failed. And if you're looking at a multiplayer setting, these don't really matter. Most of the MMORPG games out there don't really care how many times the client is installed - you pay for the expansion sets on your account, the fact that you've paid is stored on their servers, and it doesn't matter if you log on to a friend's PC who hasn't also bought the latest expansion - he has the content you need to see, and your own account will still see it all, because at any time someone with that expansion content (unique items, world map, etc) might run by and interact with him and his client has to be the same as theirs in order for the two to interact correctly.

In a single-player game, the question is more troublesome. "Activations" work only so long as the company is solvent and keeps their server running. De-authorization only works if the game is removed due to the decision not to play it any more; the more restrictive operating systems get, the worse this is. Video card failure can be enough to get Windows XP to freak out thinking it's been put in a "new computer" and locking up when the replacement is installed, if anything else (an extra hard drive for more space, a new network card, more RAM?) has been changed recently. Hard drive failure itself is not uncommon, and once you lose a hard drive or your OS, "de-authorizing" from a now-nonexistent install ceases to be possible.

No "activation"-based software as of yet has offered up a "Nuke all existing authorizations server-side and re-authorize as needed" button for their activation system... but if you're going to have "authorization", it ought to be a standard feature.

The idea of someone running around, installing the software on multiple machines, is tricky. One CD, traveling around a home, can't do a ton of damage (assuming, I hope realistically, no more than 3 PC's capable of running a modern game in a household... more for older titles requiring less hardware, of course). One CD, traveling around a business, can do far worse damage, but is also likely to get caught by the normal "catch" procedures (like BSA audits). One CD, traveling around a LAN party, can indeed be tricky. One ISO image, traveling around the world at the speed of a .torrent file... well, that was just rough. Stardock themselves have said, "The focus should be making sure it's more convenient to buy your product than to steal it." I think they've got that idea right, and I agree that it's tricky to argue the point of "ease of use" when the CD image is freely available online - but again, Stardock have come up with the better option (making the "basic" game unimpeded, but updates and free expansions require a simple server check). That's not so different than the old Shareware concept, in which the demo, or even the entire first episode of a multi-episode game, encouraged large numbers of people to buy the whole thing.

If you have an activation server setup, you go back to the point we had earlier about installing requiring an internet connection, and what happens when the company dies or drops their server. If you "promise" to release a patch that allows the game to install when your server goes away... we are counting on (a) your honesty to do so and (b) your ability to somehow provide a download server (or persistent availability of the patch, somewhere) after your company/activation server's demise. While I trust Brad Wardell to honestly mean to deliver these things... I don't know that I honestly can trust most of the industry, nor can I trust whatever company might pick up a bankrupt company's assets to honor these prior commitments.

I'm afraid, as a gamer who will pick up older games to play and who has games I love to go BACK and play, years after their release... I must insist on this point. If you want to require an authorization for "free expansions" and updates or for online play hosted on your servers, fine. But the original disc I bought, the original installer, should not require me to "activate" it to play the original single-player game.

Illegitimate complaint: Keeps people from easily having LAN parties with their game. We allow this but demonizing publishers who frown on this seems unreasonable.

Ironically, one of the largest complaints with the original Halo (on the first Xbox) was that there was no internet play option - it was LAN-party only, until people figured out software solutions to get around it and created a series of virtual LAN parties around the internet. The difference is again what level of control the developer/publisher is trying to exercise.

If you have an MMORPG, a "LAN Party" necessarily has to connect to game servers. And that's fine: everyone who gets on will have an account, and will have paid for access. The worst you're going to do is have a lousy connection speed as you saturate your LAN's outgoing pipes back to the MMO server. If you're playing a multiplayer game on the LAN, and everyone's bought a copy, why worry? They've all purchased the game. It's easy enough to code the game with a serial-number check and have it quit if it sees another client on the LAN with the same serial code. (Yes, the pirates will get around this. So what? The "pirates" will always find a way around any scheme you can come up with.) There is no functional reason to require every single person to be somehow authenticating outside their LAN, although the data requirements are probably (relatively) minimal as long as it's only happening when the game loads.

The problem comes when you have a LAN with no wider internet access, and the game requires a connection back to the server merely to do "online play" between a set of computers that don't have it. Look above and you'll notice a remarkably similar discussion. What's the difference between "you can't play this because the activation server has been taken offline" and "you can't play this because you are offline"? Functionally speaking, there isn't any, and customers shouldn't be penalized - unable to use the functions of the game that ought to be reasonably available - merely because instead of connecting to someone over internet pipes, they're using a local DHCP router or crossover cable to talk to each other.

Illegitimate complaint: Requires people to get updates through a specific source (Steam, Impulse, publisher secure website, etc.). This is one of our biggest pet peeves. If a game ships and there’s some bug found that materially affects gameplay, then sure, put out a patch wherever. However, we’ve had users complain loudly that Sins of a Solar Empire v1.1 (essentially a free expansion pack) requires Impulse to download. Publishers have every right to make sure the people downloading updates are legitimate customers.

I'm conflicted on this one. On the one hand, Stardock have quite adequately (at least to my taste) explained their business model. They've deliberately gone to the bare minimum of DRM/"activation" on their retail product, and the only checks they do are on the various content updates to the game. I really don't want to begrudge them this model, as it certainly beats the heck out of the "infest it with a virus" DRM model that companies like EA go with.

On the other hand, we reach the point of once again analyzing: what happens if/when you are gone? Counting on the goodwill of a "last, major downloadable patch that updates the game to its final version" that could very well fill a DVD on its own isn't something that customers probably want to go through. Someone who picks up a retail copy years from now, whether through a discount bin or from someone else passing it on, may very well be out of luck? Gamer's Bill of Rights #10 says, "Gamers shall have the right to sell or transfer the ownership of a physical copy of a game they own to another person." The idea of all the updates going "mysteriously missing" seems at odds with the idea of being able to pass the game on - after all, you can give them the original disc, but you can't pass on the other content and if the download server isn't around any more, it's simply gone inaccessibly into the ether.

Again, I see your point. Part of your business model, much like the Shareware model, hinges on a certain amount of "piracy" in which people get the single-player game, like it, want more of it, and get a legitimate copy in order to have access to the expansions. I have no grudge against this - but I also see no "illegitimacy", given the very real fear of companies not sticking around in the marketplace, in worrying that I won't be able to archive these various patches and expansions for the future in case I want to replay the game at a time when whatever company issued the game in question no longer exists.

Illegitimate complaint: DRM is just wrong in principle, you buy something, you own it and should be able to do whatever you want. This is a view held by some but the person who makes the thing has the right to distribute it how they want. If I spend $5 million making a game, someone paying $50 doesn’t “own” it. There has to be some middle ground on serving customers and protecting IP holders.

Much of this line of complaint comes from people who have a long history of fighting against oppressive DRM - and we're not talking just about gamers, here. Consider that the right of technological users to simply make a backup of something they've purchased, knowing how fragile many forms of media are, has been under assault for decades. LP's and Audio cassette tapes didn't have DRM; neither did Laserdisc players. VHS players had circuits that would screw with the picture brightness once Macrovision (a hated company today) figured out how to do it, and that was the beginning. Let's face it; VHS tapes are fragile. Even the ones sold at retail degrade during storage and with every viewing. They're vulnerable to tape getting caught in a malfunctioning machine, to simple breaks/tears, to being dropped or stepped on, and of course to the occasional attack from small children or pets. With an LP, you could "backup" to audiotape (or, these days, to MP3 if you feed the output into your computer). Audiotapes, likewise, and the same with Laserdisc. VHS, people worked on working around it - but the inability to simply make a copy of Snow White and put THAT in the VCR, putting the original in a safe place and keeping it out of the hands (or mouths) of children and dogs, was most consumers' first experience with the oppressive nature of DRM chipping away at their rights.

If you're requiring a CD key to install the game, and you're not requiring the CD to be in the drive as some sort of godforsaken power-hungry dongle, then why do you necessarily care whether or not it's a genuine CD or a copy? CD's break, melt, warp. They get left in the sun in a hot car, or sat on. They wear out and get scratched. Truthfully, they're not all that much more reliable than floppy media or VHS tape. More importantly, if the customer has bought a legitimate copy of the game and has a legitimate CD key, then they're a legitimate customer, right?

The "I can do whatever I want" complaint, I will agree, is illegitimate. But so is the "the customer should have no rights at all" theory put forth by the late, evil Jack Valenti and his assorted cronies spread throughout various DRM companies; the customer does have a legitimate right to take reasonable measures in preserving the value of their purchase. I'll agree with you only on the final point you make: there does need to be some "middle ground" where a customer has recourse should their original media be damaged.

Now to address something that's weighed heavily on my mind regarding the "interim" changes to Gamers' Bill of Rights.

This was the original #10 on the list:

10) Gamers shall have the right that games which are installed to the hard drive shall not require a CD/DVD to remain in the drive to play.

On your new list? It's not there. One of the biggest, stupidest, most nonsensical crazes ever since the advent of DRM - the use of the original install media as a freaking 5 1/4" dongle - is mysteriously gone from your list. Instead, what's there?

5. Gamers shall have the right to have their games perform adequately if their hardware meets the posted recommended requirements.
8. Gamers whose computers meet the posted minimum requirements shall have the right to use their games without being materially inconvenienced due to copy protection or digital rights management.

Two nearly identical items both covering "meet the posted minimum recommended requirements"- and why did you change this wording? I really would love to know why the serious, straightforward request that the install media not have to be worn down and damaged by use as a dongle has mysteriously gone missing. The CD drive as a dongle is one of the biggest jokes in the industry. The first thing anyone does when getting a new game installed is look for the no-CD patch online; those who might play games on a laptop are doubly inconvenienced, being forced to choose between having a secondary battery (for more play time) and a 5 1/4" dongle bay just to play the game.

Please, gamers and developers alike, think on these points.

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at)!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!






Musings: Stardock, DRM, and Gamers' Rights

Added:  Friday, October 17, 2008
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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