DRM May Get Messy As Companies Fight For Control

By Andrew McDanell on July 4, 2013, 3:09PM EDT

No one can deny that the internet has been quite crazy when it comes to the Xbox One. A large part of that has been due to Microsoft's poor PR, but also because fans are just very passionate. Now that Microsoft has chosen to break away from its previous position on DRM and Online Requirements, there's a storm brewing that many do not see. Perhaps it was already upon us, but developers are going to start taking matters into their own hands.

Digital Rights Management (or DRM) has been around for many years. Its basis is to give control of the product to digital product producers after its sold to consumers. It often appears in the form of preventing copying or reselling of content. Many argue that it doesn't prevent illegal action, but rather just hinders legitimate use, taking away rights and ownership from the consumer.

In the gamesphere, DRM has usually taken form as code that prevent software from being copied, pirated, and re-sold. However in today's game market, it has morphed into an online authentication nightmare. Most notably is Online Passes. Deep down, Online Passes allow Publishers to continue to fund servers that used game buyers want access to. But many argue that it's a Publisher's method of gaming the used game market.

Companies like EA have already stepped away from the Online Pass model and don't seem to be looking back. This has remained even after Microsoft's u-turn. While some see it as a good sign, it may be a bad sign. What are the chances that there are different plans for a new type of DRM?

With the advent of the next generation of consoles, one theme seems to be slipping into every game reveal. Always Online and Cloud Computing. Two subjects that may or may not be a good thing depending on what you want from your game.

Always Online is a broad term so let's be specific. First off, you have games that can only be played while connected to a server. These are games like SimCity, Diablo 3, MMOs, and the sort. This type of game genre is being pushed into the home console world little by little. It's not as if MMOs and the sort are bad games by any means. There's definitely a market of people who enjoy gaming with others exclusively. However games that can function as a solo experience shouldn't be restricted to having to be online to enjoy. For the sake of DRM, it's an attempt to keep people in check and prevent control of one's product. At E3 2013 we seen The Division, Diablo 3, The Crew, Destiny, Titanfall, and more all claim to require online to play. Also that most would require Cloud Computing.

Cloud Computing is being used by game developers to send information to servers to have it processed and then sent back to the player. However many claim that this may just be an excuse to force a game to be constantly authenticated and online. When the latest SimCity released to the public, Maxis claimed that there was no offline mode due to cloud computing being a must to crunch complicated features in the game. When the servers had serious stability issues, many found that their games continued to play even without server connectivity. Later after removing a hard-coded 20 minute timeout, a player managed to prove that the game could function indefinitely offline. So the question remains, was this always online a feature or a form of restrictive DRM?

Cloud Computing and Always Online aren't the only methods that we may see employed as forms of DRM. While Developers and Publishers vilify companies like Gamestop (who make 58 percent of their sales in used games), they justify tactics such as Day1DLC. More and more companies are employing this feature as they sell unfinished games and then release cut content in the form of DLC later. Capcom has been known for some time now as a prime example of this by having on-disk DLC locked from consumers until a price is paid. It's a tactic that we may see more of.

One of the more vocal developers against used games has been Cliff Bleszinski who was the lead designer for Gears Of War. He's been more vocal following his departure from Epic Games so one can assume that he may be more willing to say what other developers can't.

Probably one of the more serious moments of his recent Tweet fest was this comment about exclusives. Digital distribution is already the most harshest form of content restrictions currently in the video game market. Just buying a game on PSN over Bluray prevents you from ever sharing, selling, or using your purchase on any device. To then take that model and force it by gutting content from disk based buyers seems a bit too extreme. That's not to say everyone is against having their content in digital format. There is a market of people who actually prefer digital and don't mind not being able to share or sell their purchases. However on the flip side, a majority of people get their media via physical disks and cartridges. Even people who lack internet to download said media (or have bandwidth caps). This group of consumers will have to face their content being gutted and limited while those of digital formats will get full experiences or extra features. We've already seen quite a bit of movement to mobile games already. Though this comment begs the question on how the PC market will be so different as it's one of the most pirated markets at the moment. This could just merely be a scare tactic. As we'll see more in the next comment. Justin Boswell at Firaxis Games chimed in during Bleszinski's tweets to agree on one point. This point has been made many times, without real numbers (which are apparently under NDA), so one can only assume so much. For a moment, let's assume a game sells 1 million copies. They may be seeing numbers that show that game has 5 million+ gamer tags attached to it. Sounds staggering right? However that's not the entire picture. If a game is sold to a household of 3-4 gamers (let's say a dad and 3 kids), then that means 1 game sale will have at least 4 gamer tags counted to it. What's to then say a friend comes over and wants to play online split screen (which Gears Of War supports). There's yet another tag. That's not to say that a good bit of gamer tag inflation isn't caused by used sales. Just that vilifying used games and justifying restrictions is silly. When they see that 5 to 1 ratio, they don't see it as "Hey, we have 5 million players!" Instead, they see it as "Hey, that's a possible 4 million more sales and profit!" They are a business, they can't be faulted for wanting more profits. However attacking consumers, outlets, and models just to push consumer restrictions is just not something that's easy to get behind. The future of gaming is looking more and more uncertain. Even with console developers saying no to DRM and restrictions, it's obvious that this isn't the end. Developers and Publishers looking to maximize profits may still make their move. Unfortunately, console developers will have little to say against it, but gamers will. Voting will be done with wallets.
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