Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mea Culpa - The Black and White World of DRM

IMPORTANT NOTE: I originally wrote a rant about DRM and how Demigod and Stardock's failure to include a CD-Key in the game was unethical and irresponsible. Thing is... the game has a CD-Key. I had bad information, and it's my fault for not fact-checking it. So, my sincere apologies to any who read the original post (it wasn't up long) and to Stardock and Brad Wardell for calling them out when I was just straight up wrong. I will strive to do a better job in the future about getting my facts straight before writing blog posts. I've include the original post below so you can mock me and because I believe in owning up to one's mistakes. Again, apologies. Also, DRM apparently doesn't include technologies such as CD-Keys so I've also stretched the definition of DRM. Yeah, that makes me 2-for-2 in making a fool of myself.

Original Post
When you ask most people about Digital Rights Management (DRM), they usually treat the issue as black and white. Some feel like the image on the left - DRM exists only to screw you. Others say DRM is necessary to combat piracy and is the only way companies can stay afloat.

Take Brad Wardell. Wardell is the CEO of Stardock, the publisher responsible for games such as Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, and the recently released Demigod. Wardell is also stuanchly against DRM. He feels he can run his company and still make plenty of money without having to use DRM to protect himself from pirates. In fact, last year he announced the Gamer's Bill of Rights. The list included the following rights that seemed aimed directly at DRM:

6) Gamers shall have the right to expect that games won’t install hidden drivers or other potentially harmful software without their consent.
8) Gamers shall have the right to not be treated as potential criminals by developers or publishers.
9) Gamers shall have the right to demand that a single-player game not force them to be connected to the Internet every time they wish to play.
10) Gamers shall have the right that games which are installed to the hard drive shall not require a CD/DVD to remain in the drive to play.
Now, I agree in principle with these items - they make sense. However, when I find out a game like the recently released Demigod had over 100,000 pirated copies in use compared to 18,000 legit copies during peak hours at launch, I get very angry at Wardell. Yes, I get angry at Wardell, not the pirates. Why?

Demigod is a primarily multiplayer game. Its single player mode is just playing multiplayer against the computer. There is no campaign. There are no tutorials even. The game is intended to be played online. Yet, this online game doesn't even have a CD-Key system. A SIMPLE CD-KEY system that have existed since CD-ROMs became standard in PCs. The only explanation as to why, is because CD-Keys are a form of DRM and Wardell is above that.

You've got to be kidding me! CD-Keys don't solve the piracy problem, but they stop an awful lot of casual pirates. The game connects to Stardock servers - it puts Wardell in control of shutting people off from his game who aren't legitimate users. Which one of his rights does a CD-Key violate? Typing in a CD-Key one time at install does not treat me like a criminal anymore than typing in my user name and password when I sign into does.

I am not naive enough to think that every pirate would go out and buy the game. Hell, I don't know if even 1% of those pirates would go buy the game. However, I'm 100% positive that at least one person who would have pirated the game will buy it. I'm confident in stating that. There is at least one person out there who would have bought Demigod if their attempt to pirate it failed.

So why am I so angry about this? Because, by being an eternal optimist (or making a strategic business move that may very well fail for this product) he is hurting the industry. Gas Powered Games, the developer of Demigod, is still independent and recently had layoffs. Any lost revenue due to piracy hurts GPG more than Stardock. Stardock is diversified enough amongst enough products to keep their heads afloat through a few bad products. Developers, especially independent ones, are not.

The companies with the most money that are independent are diversified in product range: Epic Games has the Unreal Engine. Valve has Steam. Gas Powered Games and other developers for publishers have the advances given to them in their contract as well as the hope for future royalties if their game is a substantial hit. Often, the success of a developer is directly tied to a single game's success (See Hellgate: London and Flagship Studios if you don't believe me).

By not including the most basic form of DRM, a CD-Key, Wardell and Stardock have robbed Gas Powered Games of at least one sale for no good reason. What if the studio shut down because of Demigod's sales (there is no indication that's actually going to happen, I'm just presenting a hypothetical)? It doesn't mean things would be better if there was a CD-Key. But they wouldn't be any worse. At the very least, the legitimate customers wouldn't have had so many connectivity issues the launch weekend, primarily due to pirates.

Publishers like Stardock have an ethical obligation to do everything in their power to make sure their developers succeed. That includes basic forms of piracy protection. Failure for a developer is a failure for the community - it robs us all of the next potential game, the next potential hit.

DRM isn't the Anti-Christ. We are allowed to protect our products with at least basic features such as CD-Keys and user accounts. Sure, we don't need crazy activation and de-authorization schemes, but sometimes the debate isn't just black and white. There are shades of gray to consider. I hope Wardell is able to come to grips with that for future products. I would hate to see a game or a company fail because of piracy when a publisher doesn't even attempt to stop it. It strikes me of being disrespectful to the developer and the community as a whole. Or maybe I'm just the eternal pessimist.


  1. Hey, thanks for keeping your post up and not just deleting it. I actually found the combination of article and edit illuminating with regard to the DRM debate (and the emotions surrounding it).

    - A Game Designer

  2. I agree with you Manveer. It's one thing to be philosophically beyond the DRM, but business is business, and business knows not philosophy.

  3. Can't blame you for it... DRM is the most unfair way of treating customers I can think of (other than plainly yelling at them that they are thieves and assigning a policeman to each person as soon as they are buying a game). So it's no wonder you were a bit emotional about it.

  4. Bravo Manveer! Anyone who can openly and honestly admit to a blunder like this has my utmost respect and admiration. (Lets be honest, who hasn't done something similar anyway - difference is it usually goes unnoticed...)

    Again, a fantastic spirit, Manveer, and DRM is always a contentious issue. Glad to get your take on it.

  5. Great read, graphic was very telling.

    I think it just all comes down to people get very particular about their IP, their actions not always the best course of action unfortunately.

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