Legal stuff: don’t take any of the following to mean I am in any way condoning or promoting taking any illegal action. This is simply my observations on the evolution of DRM and its effect on the future of the software industry and the consumers who pay for harmful software.
Two days ago I received my brand new copy of Fallout New Vegas. As any PC gamer who has not been living in an underground vault this week knows, this game has some very serious issues. The most egregious of which (corrupt save game files) appears to stem from the Steam-powered DRM software Bethesda shipped with the product. I am a big fan of Bethesda’s line of RPGs and Fallout 3 easily rated one of my top games of all-time (which is saying a lot seeing as I have a soft spot for turn-based RPGs like Planescape: Torment and the Baldur’s Gate series). Just so you know I have nothing against Bethesda as a company. They have simply fallen victim to the same mindset that pervades the rest of the software industry these days: treat everyone like a criminal.
According to all the forums I have seen, the pirated version of this game does not have this obviously game-breaking issue. I can’t say first-hand not having tried it. Instead I am shelving the game until Bethesda releases a patch (a patch was released today but does not appear to address this issue). Meanwhile, the DRM which was meant to prevent piracy was cracked before most of us even got off work on the release date and the pirates are happily playing a version of the game that actually allows them to play freely without communicating secretly with a foreign server or corrupting their saves!!! And those of us who paid for it wait.
It’s as if you bought a car and the brakes didn’t work only to find out the manufacturer placed a device in the car which disabled the brakes and everyone else who bought it had the same problem. Then the manufacturer told you it was illegal for you to remove the device which you could easily do in five minutes because doing so violated their terms and they would take you to court if you actually fixed your damn car!
I remember the early days of DRM, having to place a physical dongle on the parallel port of your computer in order to use a program. The dongles could get lost or damaged and the software company would usually give you pure hell or charge you a small fortune to replace it. I now long for those days. The DRM of today makes even less sense than it did then. They are all fairly easy to circumvent but even if we pay for the software we are now forced to agree to licensing terms which prohibit us from removing the harmful portions of the purchased product. Anyone remember a little thing called Starforce (search for it)?
Ubisoft already landed themselves in hot water this year with their new DRM move of requiring a constant Internet connection while playing all their new games. Even for single-player offline games, if you lose your Internet connection (or simply don’t want the game using your bandwidth so you block it at the firewall) the game will immediately CTD. The backlash from the community was severe and even this extreme DRM method has not stopped cracked versions of Assassin’s Creed 2 from being readily available via torrents.
I understand that software piracy is a very real and prevalent issue. But where is the data to show that software-based DRM solutions have ever stopped or even stemmed piracy in any way? It appears we are entering a new generation of DRM. The old standbys like Starforce and SafeDisc were so widely used that once they were cracked it was easy to crack all future titles that relied on them. So developers/publishers are starting to create their own DRM solutions and hard-coding them into their applications. This never worked for Microsoft and it obviously isn’t working now. So, as always, the pirate isn’t hurt in any way. And people who would normally be all too happy to purchase a title will instead start pirating because it is easier, cheaper, and actually safer for their PC.
As a programmer, I understand the anger and frustration of having an app stolen that you worked long and hard to develop. License keys are obviously flawed because they can be easily shared. The new reality though is that if people like your product and you don’t screw them, they are far more likely to pay you for it than if you treat them as if they are guilty of a crime they probably haven’t committed. Oh wait, this was the old reality too wasn’t it? Commerce hasn’t changed with technology. There were always thieves. There always will be. And there will always be more people willing to pay for something if they are respected as human beings.