Why Always-Online DRM Needs To Go Away

It’s rare to come across an article that discusses video games in a positive light while browsing through mainstream media – and today was no exception. Seemingly, Amazon has suspended the sale of SimCity due to the ongoing issues the game has faced since its launch four days ago. Take just a moment to re-read that sentence – and the article linked above (but make sure to come back!). This is just a day after Electronic Arts had to turn off ‘non-essential features‘ to try to mitigate the server issues they have been facing. Soon, these issues will be resolved and gamers will be able to enjoy building ‘Boobsville™’ again; however, I hope that the fallout from this whole debacle isn’t shelved and ignored like it never happened.

DRM (for those that don’t know, that’s digital rights management) is a dirty word acronym for many video game enthusiasts. Similar to those stupid ‘Hate Piracy’ ads before cinema screenings that get edited out in the copied versions (how surprising), or the FBI warning messages in front of DVDs and Blu-Rays that are missing from the pirated disk (again, how surprising), the majority of digital rights management systems end up hurting legitimate consumers rather than pirates – the intended targets. Despite Ubisoft seeing the error of their ways and deciding to ditch always-online DRM, other publishers have not been so quick to follow their example. It boggles my mind that, in a time when the industry is struggling due to issues that are largely outside its control, one issue that is well within it, is hampering the quality of the products it makes.

Even the best example of an always-online game distribution system, Steam, is not without issues – although the problems the service experienced at launch have been largely solved, the Offline Mode that Steam offers is flaky at best. If Valve cannot make such a system work, how can mere mortals like EA be expected to? Good Old Games seem to be leading the way, providing older games without DRM. Will other online distributors embrace such a stance? It would seem to depend on the market – that means us, and our way of telling them what we want is to vote with our wallets (or purses!)

Even if companies do somehow make always-connected DRM work, the giant elephant in the room is undoubtedly the reliability of consumers’ broadband. If you are like myself, and are currently serviced by Rupert Murdoch’s Finest Interwebs, you will know that an always-online connection is more of an inspirational statement than a promise. The reliance on such a service by the gaming industry seems like lunacy to me and, with the ongoing lack of investment by Governments around the globe in broadband infrastructure, this is not going to change any time soon.

Recent rumours that both Sony and Microsoft are looking into baking some variant of always-online DRM into their next-generation hardware have been met with consternation. Quite rightly too – especially when you take into account the fairly regular, planned outages for maintenance – let alone the unplanned ones – on both platform’s online services which can last for most of the day. These outages would metamorphose from mild inconveniences to apocalyptic events that effectively turn your new PlayStation or Xbox into large, shiny glorified paperweights. One can only hope both companies are paying close attention to the current situation and are hastily re-writing their E3 presentations!

We, as consumers, cannot allow companies to dictate how we use the gaming products we have bought (or, at least, licensed) under the guise of protecting their income continue. Voting with wallets, purses, bum-bags and fanny-packs will certainly help keep the topic alive; I just hope the people in charge will take notice (that means you this time, EA!).

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  1. Dangerous Brian

    Me and my terrible internet agree.

  2. I dislike any obstacle to me enjoying a game and badly implemented DRM will always incur my wrath, but as I was discussing on Twitter yesterday, people are not complaining about the right issue with regards to Sim City. Digital Rights Management (DRM) and a game that exists on a server are not the same thing. They may have the same end result, but DRM is about artificially creating an obstruction to piracy and connecting to a server is not JUST about the concerns of piracy.

    Understand that for me, as soon as they announced this game was located on servers, I walked away from being interested, as server queues and the other issues that surround servers do not make for an enjoyable gaming experience for me.

    I have recently been playing both Simpsons: Tapped Out and Jurassic Park Builder on Android and both rely on you connecting to a server to play your game. Both are free to play so there is no need for any DRM (through covert servers or otherwise) I don’t know how the argument holds up from a technical standpoint, but that would indicate to me that having it all based on a server is just a good idea for the city building genre.

    By all means complain. Complain that it requires to connect to a server, but don’t falsely claim it requires a constant connection to block piracy. I am not saying that they would not see the added benefits of making the game this way and it will be difficult (although most of the internet has long decided that evil EA is evil) to say how much this factor influenced the design choices, but it is a function of the design that also happens to act as a limitation.

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