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 Amazon.com 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.

Monday, April 6, 2009

I'm On A Podcast

Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer was kind enough to invite me back onto his podcast for some GDC wrap-up thoughts. I've been meaning to write-up some thoughts post-GDC (this was my second year attending) and I haven't had a chance just yet, so this should do for now. My co-guest is the esteemed N'Gai Croal, formerly of Newsweek and the Level Up blog, and we had a facinating talk about GDC, what was said, and what wasn't said (hint: if you listened to the last podcast I was on, you have an idea of one of the topics we talk about for a bit).

There are two volumes of podcasts out there, with a ton of guests that you should go listen to. Lots of riveting conversation abound. Special thanks to Michael for having me back on and N'Gai for being so interesting to talk with.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Play is Everywhere

On my way back from GDC in San Francisco last week, I had a layover in the Minneapolis airport. Walking through the terminal to find my new gate, I came across something I hadn't seen before. It was an advertisement installation from the Traveler's Group that was interactive. I found video of the installation on YouTube, which you can watch here. This should save me from having to explain how the installation works.

What amazed me was what I saw people doing with the advertisement. They were playing. They were running across the screens to change the shape. They were hooting and hollering and laughing. Not children mind you, but rather grown-ups. Some would play as they walked by, waving their hands to break up the image but never stopping or slowing down, as if they had only a moment for play in their busy day of flying to wherever their destination was. Others would stop and try different things, such as trying to destroy the entire umbrella in one swoop, inventing games from the play. They would try to break the rules of the system, as if something so simple would break easily. Others would try to figure out how it all worked. Even those who walked past unwittingly were participants of play. They caused the image to change for others, causing laughter or excitement. Who would think something so simple could be so interesting and entertaining?

This made me think about the nature of play and how it really is ingrained in us as humans and how we can find play anywhere. It's easy when you are engulfed in video games at all moments of your life to forget about play. It's what we did when we were kids, chasing each other in the park. It's how Calvinball was invented. It's why tag was created and how I scraped my knee countless times as a child. Play exists without video games; video games do not exist without play.

Play is around you right now. There are things on your desk you can play with. There are toys in your garage you can play with. There are sticks outside you can play with. We need to never forget this. Play is what teaches us about new parts of ourselves. Play is what helps bring out our inner-child and keep us youthful. Play is beautiful and inspiring, and it rarely lets you down because play is whatever you make of it.

It was nice to have that put in perspective this past weekend. Sometimes I forget that. Sometimes I forget that there was this world of play and games long before computers came along. I shall not forget about play anytime soon, however. Play will always remind me about itself, even if I forget. There is one simple reason for this.

Play is everywhere.