Digital Rights and Wrongs: The state of DRM
Last week, Ubisoft announced their Online Services Platform. A mechanism by which they can offer gamers “exceptional gameplay and services that are not available otherwise“.
Upshot: If you go to a video game store/download service and purchase a Ubisoft game for the PC, you will not be able to play this game unless you are connected via the world wide web to Ubisoft servers. If you are playing a game, and your internet connection cuts out, your game will pause until it is able to reconnect. In return, there won’t be any CD checks, and they will offer (translation: force) cloud saving. The first game to be affected is going to be Settlers 7 (£26.73 delivered), but you can expect Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Silent Hunter V, Splinter Cell: Conviction, R.U.S.E., Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and other future titles from Ubisoft to use the online services platform.
I have lots of thoughts about this, which I’ll get to eventually, but I thought now would be as good a time as any to take stock of the state of DRM in general, and some of the surrounding issues. I spoke to lots of different people, all with different perspectives on DRM. Here’s what they said.
Richard Wilson, TIGA
Could you start off with giving an explanation about what it is that TIGA does, and what your role entails.
TIGA is the trade association representing the UK’s games industry. The majority of our members are either independent games developers or in-house publisher owned developers. We also have outsourcing companies, technology businesses and universities amongst our membership.
We are nothing if not ambitious: TIGA’s vision is to make the UK the best place in the world to do games business. We focus on three sets of activities: political representation, generating media coverage and developing services that enhance the competitiveness of our members. This means that TIGA members are effectively represented in the corridors of power, their voice is heard in the media and they receive benefits that make a material difference to their businesses, including a reduction in costs and improved commercial opportunities.
Piracy is a very real part of the games industry, what kinds of steps are UK developers and publishers taking to reduce the impact piracy has on their revenue?
TIGA’s research shows that the majority of video games developers (60%) see piracy as a problem for their business and most also see this as a constant or increasing problem for their business going forward (90%). However most developers view the actual threat of piracy to their business survival as low (60%) with only 20% ranking the threat as medium and only 10% considering the threat to be high (10% had no view).
Developers are pragmatic and proactive in finding solutions to deal with the threat of piracy. 50% said they are considering different ways of doing business as a consequence of piracy, with 75% of that 50% citing digital distribution, subscription based services and/or ad supported free games as the ways they would or could change their business models. Video games publishers equally recognise the need to address piracy through technology and new business models.
Do you think games that use DRM systems which require constant internet connection to allow games to be played, like Ubisoft’s recently announced system, should perhaps have some sort of standardised label on the packaging, to help customers from being stuck with a game they can’t use as they would like?
I think that it should be made absolutely clear on the packaging if games require constant internet connection. In time, this will probably be the case.
The PC games market will probably come to depend on this type of technology. Most consumers will probably not find this to be a problem but clearly they should be properly informed before purchasing a game.
Do you think that there is anything that the government should be doing in response to piracy?
In principle, the Government needs to create and sustain an environment which protects intellectual property rights. A failure to do so could have damaging economic consequences.
The current Government plans to tackle piracy through slowing down or cutting off the broadband supply of pirates. Video game developers had mixed opinions on this proposal. Our research shows that 50% of developers agreeing that this was a good idea and 50% disagreeing. Rights holders need to help themselves as much as possible by developing and embracing new business models to protect themselves from the damaging impact of piracy.
One impact that DRM schemes have on gamers is that it can often make it much more difficult, sometimes impossible, to resell games. The secondary market is pretty important to a lot of gamers, and retailers, do you think publishers should have a responsibility to ensure their games can be resold?
No. It is not the responsibility of publishers to sustain a secondary market in games. In fact, some game developers believe that their businesses have been damaged by the secondary market in games.
What do you think the games industry can learn from the successes and failures of other entertainment industries attempts to manage piracy?
Piracy is a perpetual problem. Government alone cannot solve the problem. The games industry needs to take the initiative when dealing with the issue of piracy and look for new ways of delivering content and communicate directly with their consumers.
Nihal de Silva, Direct2Drive UK – Product Marketing Manager
How difficult do you find it to explain to you customers the nature of DRM?
We recently ran a comprehensive survey of our UK customers and found that 89% stated that they knew of and understood the term DRM.
Is there any level of DRM that would stop you selling the game?
We are DRM agnostic and happy to work with publishers/developers whose products carry DRM as well as those with DRM free products.
Does DRM in general affect interest levels amongst purchasers?
Results from our recent survey show that 58% of our users believe DRM is negative and that the majority of users polled (70%) would be more likely to purchase a DRM-free title over one that had DRM wrapping. That said, we haven’t seen any sales patterns to indicate the our customers are specifically NOT buying games because of its DRM.
Do you think your customers will happily accept the DRM that Ubisoft is planning to release, that will require constant internet connection?
Cliff Harris, Positech Games
You don’t include any DRM in your games, why is that?
I asked a lot of gamers what they thought was the cause of piracy, and got a huge percentage of people saying DRM was one of the main things that turns them away from playing games, so I concluded that it was probably costing more sales than it was actually helping. I used pretty weak DRM anyway, but I saw the benefit of being able to state that the games were 100% DRM free. For me, it’s just good business to not use DRM. For each company, depending on game genre, audience etc, that answer may be different.
Have you had any feedback from your customers that the lack of DRM was a part of their buying decision?
Yes, I do get the occasional email, or a comment on the order form where people say knowing the game was DRM free encouraged them to go ahead and buy it.
Do you think that the lack of DRM in your games has increased the rate of piracy of them?
I don’t think it has made much difference at all. Maybe a few of the more honest people now buy the game rather than pirate it, but this sort of thing is impossible to measure. You can see how many people are cracking and uploading your game, but tracking downloads is harder. It seems any game, even if its $0.99 has a five hour demo and is DRM-free and done by a nobel-peace prize winning game design legend, will be cracked and distributed on day one by some self righteous teenager anyway. People who crack and upload games don’t give a damn what you’ve done to placate gamers, they crack it anyway.
As a gamer, have you ever experienced any difficulty with DRM systems?
Yup. I have Company of Heroes and can’t play it singleplayer when relics servers are offline. I have bioshock, and it wouldn’t run for the first few hours on launch day. But personally, I’d much rather tolerate that very rare inconvenience than those games not be available on the PC, which is probably the choice that has to be made. Realistically, people spending $10 million on a game need to do what they can to get people to actually buy it, so I’m not surprised DRM is still in use. It does make life easier for me and my customers to not be using any, though .
Dmitry Guseff, StarForce
What is your role at StarForce, and how long have you been with the company?
I’m Deputy Marketing Director in the branch of multimedia and computer games, and I’ve been working for StarForce since the company was established in 1998.
During that time, there has been some pretty major controversy surrounding your products, is there anything you’ve learnt from these?
We started to understand that it’s vital to take into consideration consumer’s comfort and convenience. When we had developed our first system in 1999, our only aim was protection strength and nothing more. We worked in Russia and a little bit later in China and those regions are very fertile soil for piracy. That’s why the only one requirement from our clients was – protection performance and easy implementation.
But since StarForce penetrated into Western markets, we started to understand that for those consumer’s there was other things that we should keep in mind – our software is used by ordinary gamers and that is why we have to think about user friendliness. We were not be able to re-make our system quickly and seems were a little bit late, as Christopher Spencer made a class action against Ubisoft.
So, we got the lesson. We lost several important clients and in beginning of 2007 run the project of total protection re-development according to new conditions and keeping in mind our past negative experience.
The core thing the we learnt was that we have to make a balanced system between user comfort and safeness and reliability for rightowners.
Previous versions of StarForce were notable for being pretty successful at stopping zero day piracy of PC games that used it, do you have any data to suggest that this actually increased revenue for the publishers?
Publishers are rarely share their figures with us. When we meet each other during various events they confirms that are going to use protection as it helps them to reduce piracy rate.
But I think that the fact that they still use StarForce is the best proof that it works. Nobody will pay for something that actually useless.
Typically, how long does it take for hackers to bypass games released with the most recent version of StarForce?
Hm… it depends… some titles are still holding, some have been cracked in a 3 weeks. If we take huge titles like “STALKER Clear Sky”, it took them 3 weeks to bypass which is very good result for AAA class game. For example “Mount and Blade” is still holding since the beginning of December. “Rig’n'roll 3″ held 1 month. “DCS:Black Shark” is holding more than a year. “Man of War: Red Tide” is holding since 15 of December. So, basically AAA titles hold around a month, less important titles much longer. I have to add that if we hadn’t implemented some consumer friendly features those titles would have been held much longer.
One major complaint about previous versions of StarForce was that it damaged peoples hardware. What steps are you taking to make sure that never happens again with future?
First of all I have to said that StarForce never damaged any hardware. The hysteria through the Internet was only unproven rumours. When we recovered first signals on such protection behaviour, we had run a series of tests to find out what is going on exactly. Not only our Q&A lab, but also several our partners and clients all over the world (including Ubisoft) had tested protection but found nothing related to StarForce. We even sent files to Microsoft and got the same result. You probably remember that we had even run the action where we promised to pay $1000 (later the sum had been increased to $10000) to anybody who shown how piece of software protection could break hardware. But we didn’t get any reaction… and even here in Moscow.
Later in 2007 (if I’m not mistaken) Microsoft released an article within its trouble base where they revealed that optical drive may stops working if it doesn’t get an answer from OS within certain period of time. To get the drive working back you needed to reinstall optical drive’s drivers.
Investigating this issue we came to an agreement that our special anti-emulation technology that called Direct Hardware Access (DHA) could be a reason when drive doesn’t get an answer from OS. But also it could be possible due to other software which works in PC’s optical drive subsystem – for instance Burners and Emulators (especially when you want to emulate protected disc). So, it is not possible to clearly understand what was really the cause of optical drive stops working. In every case it was need to deeply investigate the certain system to find the right source.
I think that emulators like Deamon Tools are the most probably the cause of it as they do not have any certificates and have ever been tested for Windows compatibility. While StarForce received all Windows Certificates, has became Microsoft certified partner, Technology partner and got all the compatibility logos for Windows XP-7 in 2006 already.
So, we decided to remove DHA, as it could be the reason, I doubt it, but it could. It’s need to say the DHA technology was extremely powerful feature against emulators. You probably remember, but people needed to manually switch off the power of optical drive to be able to run emulated copy of StarForce protected game. When any hacker’s group released ISO of StarForce protected game, the instruction on how to make it works consist of several comprehensive points. Removing of DHA was tough decision, but as I said above we decided to became more safe and comfortable and stop using our own driver. Sure, we lost something in reliability against emulators, but we greatly increased compatibility and safeness. Now, as you see, more and more DRM vendors are using online activation schemas. Why? Because it’s simply impossible to effectively struggle against emulators (which actually utilize have its own driver) and be compatible and comfortable enough. You probably rail at Bioshock 2 DRM measures, that were published not long ago, but it is reality. Publisher want to have insurance for its investments. But personally i believe that Bioshock’s DRM is surplus.
Currently, in a lot of ways, piracy offers more convenience than legitimately purchasing games. Do you ever think there will be a time that legitimately purchasing games is more convenient than piracy?
Personally, I do not suffer using legitimate games. If game uses online activation (with limited amount of activations) or uses disc that is needed to be placed into drive every time I want to play – there are no problems for me. I’ve never used all my activations, all discs are in good conditions and I store them properly. Also, legitimate product often offers more quality support. I think real inconvenience is that you need to download multigigs ISO, install it, use emulator (tune it up for certain type of protection). Pretty often ISOs are downloaded with errors and are needed to be downloaded again. Those who want just to install a game and run it should move to consoles. On PC platform, that is pretty open for everyone include hackers, if you need protection you HAVE to implement something that will be hard to reversed and circumvent. Probably 95% of users are pretty delightful with current protection measures, but minority – the most active gamers, who write blogs, participate in forums, comment etc, will be always displeased. Such users make content for game portals and you start to think that everybody on the world think as they do.
Nevermind, StarForce is aimed to make a real comfortable solution for gamers without slide of protection performance for publishers. And I’m sure we managed to do it. Recently we’ve passed our protection for testing on ReclaimYourGame.com (which call themselves – “drm watchdogs”). In a few days they promise to make a public report, that, as their testers said, will impress public. StarForce has changed and I want to say thank you all the game community, for criticism, for feedback – you really helped us to became better.
(Note: English is not Dmitry’s first language, he did an admirable job of answering in English, but some of this interview was conducted through a translator and I have tidied up some of his answers grammatically)
Bram, pz1, Breeze – RLSLOG
What is RLSLOG, and how does it work?
RLSLOG is an informative website that gives people updates on the latest scene-releases. This can be movies, games, tv-shows, audio or e-books. We also intend to place download-links for our visitors so they can access the release in no-time.
In your experience, what kind of difference in time is there between when a game gets a release, and when it is available to download?
It kind of depends on who leaks what and how hard it is to crack. Usually games appear 3-4 days prior to their release day on the internet. This includes Xbox 360 games. PlayStation 3 games are currently not relevant since the PS3 can’t play pirated games.
However, sometimes games appear 1 month before release date (Fable 2). Rockstar Games are really making it difficult to release the game prior to the release date (GTA San Andreas, GTA IV) because the cracking process is complicated. These games were released 7 days after the release date. Sometimes software (game in this case) can’t be cracked so easily and it takes a while to crack it. Example: Mass Effect 1 was hard to crack. There were may ingame triggers that went off if the game detected that you are playing a pirated version. If you are playing properly cracked game DRM doesn’t have any influence on user at all.
How effective are most forms of DRM at preventing zero day piracy of PC games?
They aren’t preventing it. They are just making the cracking-process harder which delays the scene release. In the early years of StarForce DRM there where some problems cracking it but those periods are over. Mostly because game-producers stopped using that protection because it was also giving problems to people who actually bought the retail game at their local store. Also, PC games sometimes use DRM technologies to limit the number of systems the game can be installed on by requiring authentication with an online server. Most games with this restriction allow three or five installs, although some allow an installation to be ‘recovered’ when the game is uninstalled. But if you are using properly cracked game then you can install in on any PC without authentication with an online server.
What are the main advantages of pirating a game instead of paying for them?
Well, the biggest advantage of all is of course the fact that you don’t have to pay for the game. However, most pirates use their pirated copy as a ‘demo’ to see what the games looks like and if it’s worth the money. If the pirate likes the game, he decides to buy it (mostly because Multiplayer is 9/10 times not available for pirated games since you need a legit serial key for that). Also, installing and/or playing is faster because the data is read from the HDD (if you mount an ISO) instead from the DVD-drive. When a game is cracked it doesn’t need a DVD/CD in the drive. And of course you don’t have costumer support if you use pirated software.
What are the main disadvantages of pirating a game instead of paying for them?
The biggest disadvantage is the lack of multiplayer support. You need a legit serial key to play multiplayer. There are some cracked servers but those are mostly full of cheaters and/or people with slow connections. Also, to reinstall the game you need to re-download the whole game instead of just putting the DVD in your drive and install it right away. Cracks can also give some problems like missing textures or crashing the game randomly, but this doesn’t happen very often. Also, you don’t have all the package of the game (box, manual, prestige of the retail game, goodies). Personally, when i like the game, I’ll buy it.
Do you have any ideas for how publishers/developers could increase the amount of revenue that they get from pirates who are potential customers?
We already think that without piracy the game-industry would be way smaller then it is now. However, we think that focusing on the multiplayer part of the game would convince more people to buy the game instead of cracking it because the multiplayer-part of the game is not accessible in most pirated games.
Lewie Procter, SavyGamer (Hey that’s me!)
I definitely agree with Richard when he says “It is not the responsibility of publishers to sustain a secondary market in games”. However, there is a big difference between doing nothing to actively sustain a secondary market and actively attempting to destroy it. Lots of publishers are using a range of tactics to incentivise people to buy their games new instead of used. Some are detrimental to gamers (limited activations, invasive DRM, and now needing a constant connection to play) and some are beneficial to gamers (good support, drip feeding new content, free DLC). I agree that it is very important for publishers to be honest about their DRM, the only thing that is worse than bad DRM is bad DRM you don’t know about until they’ve already got your money.
It is interesting to me that Nihal reveals that despite what gamers say, there is no noticeable pattern to show that games with DRM sell worse than those without it. Perhaps if it was the case that there was a noticeable dip in sales for games with bad DRM, market forces would encourage publishers to use less of it. Perhaps make it known to whatever retailer you would choose to use for Ubisoft games that you are not going to buy their game because of the DRM, that message will eventually get back to the publisher.
I’m glad that no DRM seems to work for Cliffski, but he is probably right that different games need different strategies.
Dmitry is definitely right that users convenience is at least as important as security when developing DRM solutions. There is a reason I still have a sealed copy of King Kong for the PC, and it’s not that I don’t like Jack Black.
Here’s what I would like to see happen in the future:
Publishers should be absolutely open and honest with what DRM they are using. Everyone along the supply chain should take responsibility for communicating to customers exactly how their digital consumer rights are going to be managed.
Ideally, when the DRM devalues the product, the product should be discounted. Charging £30 for a game that can be resold, and charging £30 for an equivalent game with DRM that absolutely prevents it from being resold isn’t right. They are inferior products, and should be priced accordingly.
Ultimately, market forces are king, and decisions about these things will be made with the goal of making more money. If you feel particularly strongly about DRM, I encourage you to vote with your wallets.
As for Ubisoft, I did contact them for some input, but they haven’t got back to me yet. I can think of plenty of times I would want to play games when I don’t have an internet connection I can use for gaming. Being at halls in uni, being on a train with a laptop, my ISP being down.
I do dislike their dishonesty. They have removed disk checks, but that is not because the game is constantly connected to the internet, that is because they have removed disk checks. They say it enables saving to the cloud, but this could have easily been done optionally. I can’t quite believe they have the audacity to claim that they have added “unlimited installs” to games, as if that was something that couldn’t have existed without the internet.
There is nothing that they are doing that couldn’t be offered as an option, but still allow people to play the games which they have paid for the development of without Ubisoft having a direct connection to their PC.
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