Always-On DRM and Gameplay Quality

Believe it or not, I have nothing against DRM software. Developers, in general, have a right to be paid for their hard work, and a right to protect themselves against those who don?t care to pay. My issue with DRM isn?t the DRM itself ? it?s the shoddy, half-cocked way most developers tend to implement it. I?ll give an example: let?s say you?re the owner of a small convenience store, and lately you?ve had a problem with petty theft. The sensible thing to do would be to rig up a few security cameras and monitor them ? once you?ve figured out who the thieves are, you can alert the police and have them barred from the store.

What far too many developers and publishers do with their DRM amounts to only allowing one customer in your store at a time. Oh, and you?ve also got the security camera, and a security checkpoint at the front door, and armed guards. Because you can never be too careful where thieves are concerned, right? Anybody who enters your store could be looking to get themselves a free chocolate bar or bag of candy ? you need to protect your wares!

I appear to be getting off track, as is so often the case.

You?ve heard a great deal of this before, I?m sure ? that invasive DRM drives users to piracy, that developers and publishers don?t understand why users are irritated when they?re treated like criminals, that some people get better service from pirates than from the original developers. It?s all old hat to most of you. We?re not going to get too much into that here. Instead, we?re going to address a rather insidious trend that I?ve seen surfacing more and more often in mainstream gaming, much to my dismay: always-on DRM.

First conceived in what I?d imagine was a cocaine-fueled board meeting with Satan, always on DRM is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: no matter what you?re doing, it?s watching you. 99% of the time, it?ll require a constant, active Internet connection. It?s as if the game you?ve purchased comes pre-packaged with your own personal gremlin which will happily position itself on your back to look over your shoulder while you play. Oh, and he might occasionally smash a few buttons on your keyboard, or smack your mouse out of your hand. Maybe he?ll crash the game every now and then, for good measure.

But hey, he?s just doing it to protect the developer?s intellectual property. You might be a pirate.

Nonsensical tangents aside, this vile breed of DRM is a perfect example of a situation in which a developer?s ham-handed attempts to protect their intellectual property end up making their game completely unplayable.

Nowhere was the sheer stupidity of the idea more evident than in Diablo III. Not only was the game entirely unplayable at launch (Error 37 has long since achieved meme status), but the poorly implemented copy protection actually opened up a number of glaring security holes. This, in turn; led to a number of players having individual characters hacked and stripped of their items and gold through no fault of their own; Blizzard?s bargain-bin authenticator notwithstanding.

Yeah, it wasn?t the fact that those people didn?t know how to computer, nor was it, as one Blizzard moderator claimed, some sort of corporate conspiracy. It was the fact that they decided to host at least 50% of the game server-side, meaning that anyone who couldn?t log on and remain 100% connected at all times couldn?t play.

At least the game didn?t get pirated.

Sadly, I don?t think this push towards such copy protection is going to stop any time soon. Developers have discovered a seemingly foolproof way to protect their games from software pirates, so you can bet a great many of them will latch onto it like lampreys, even if it does alienate a huge chunk of their users. Ubisoft, one of the first proponents of such tactics has seen the light and nixed the whole concept?but now Electronic Arts has gotten the idea into its head. And like a kid who just discovered his first curse word, it?s probably going to try to shoehorn it into every title possible.

So?what exactly can we do about this ridiculous trend?

Wait for the storm to pass and hope that most developers and publishers are still sensible enough to realize what sort of impact this will have on their users. I?d say we should all vote with our wallets, but it?s doubtful that?ll work. People will likely still buy the games, even if they can?t play them.

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