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
Mechwarrior 2, that PC gaming overtook the consoles in
Then, Nintendo screwed up -
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
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
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
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
Now, compare this to the
standard set of steps for playing a brand new game title on
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
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 Blizzard.net 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
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: BoingBoing.net 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
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
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:
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"
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
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
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.
Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
right here for everyone to see!