Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why Online DRM Is Bad, And Should Feel Bad

I don’t want to talk about games right now. I’m too annoyed, and perturbed, to talk about games. Because, all said and done, the subject I’m talking about is something that should be detached from games, and so I feel it deserves to be talked about as a separate entity. I’m not going to talk about it as it effects particular titles; I believe it is a practice which is as disgusting and fraudulent, whether a game works around it or not. So, now that that’s out of the way.
Let’s talk about always-online DRM. 

My former editor-in-chief at Boss Dungeon, Tobbiichi Karlsson wrote an overwhelmingly positive review of the latest SimCity. She thought it exceeded her expectations and delivered her such an enjoyable experienced that it deserved the highest score they at Boss Dungeon can bestow upon a title – a 10/10. She does mention of the always-online aspect: “I will not think less of the game for the online only aspect, as I feel they’ve made cause enough for it.”
While I think that’s a fair point, there’s a line to be drawn between always-online as a development decision… and always-online as a business decision. I can’t say if it was Maxis or EA who decided for it. I don’t want to imply that EA may have been twisting Maxis’ arm, or that Maxis was issued an order that they were merely complacent with. These are big companies, and they don’t make dumb decisions, no matter how we may perceive it. They have enough resources to do the maths and figure out if an always-online style of game will benefit them in the long run.
…but that’s it.
It’ll benefit them.
The thing about these always-online systems that I think is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle: the only people who actually benefit from them are the publishers (and developers). I don’t care how good the game uses an always-online system to its advantage. The only people at a loss are paying customers. That may seem a bit like hyperbole, but I honestly believe it is the case. And if you don’t believe me? …why not read on, and maybe – just maybe – I’ll change your mind.
So. Ubisoft has taken a lot of flak for implementing always-online DRM in its single-player games; essentially holding paying customer’s ability to play and save their games at the whim of their often erratic servers. Games like Splinter Cell: Conviction, Assassin’s Creed II, and most notoriously ANNO 2070 were received poorly by players and were less commercially successful than expected because of the so-called “Ubi DRM.”
Now, the reason for Ubisoft’s extreme use of digital rights management? Piracy. Their games were pirated a whole fucking lot on PC. Most of those games were single-player games. Frankly, from Ubisoft’s position, it just makes sense. They have to protect their bottom line, and making an activation system that constantly checks in with a server? That’s hard to crack. …it proved crackable, but that’s an engineering blunder there. Concept-wise, Ubisoft wanting to protect their games from being stolen – an always-online check is perhaps the strongest kind of lock you can put on these things.
It was at the expense of their customer’s convenience, though. Servers crashed, servers were overloaded. Save games were lost because they were stored elsewhere than the player’s PC. People who bought the games perfectly legally were faced with a system that basically assumed they were criminals – while pirates received a game that was better than the one actual customers got. That is to say nothing of people in regions where high-speed internet is patchy or unavailable – people who found themselves with games they were unable to play. Needless to say, Ubisoft eventually realized it was a bad idea and patched it out of all their games… albeit it not soon enough.
So. Onto this new breed of online digital rights management. I call it a “new breed” because, much like the humble Xenomorph, this vile villain is constantly adapting to its new environments. It has found a new, snug home, though… in the chest of so-called “social single-player.” Or single-player plus. Or whatever Cevat Yerli wants to fucking call it. Traditionally single-player experiences – solitary activities, for by-ones-self quiet-time. Not so anymore, apparently. It’s share with others, or don’t play at all!
Diablo III was the first. Released last year, the third installment of a series so often played by people either by themselves, or on an offline network with friends, was tied to an MMO-like frontpage and persistent servers – one which players now had to remain connected to at all times, even if they wanted to play it alone.
And then there’s SimCity. Again, a series which has often been the domain of singular players, wasting hours at a time creating, building, and destroying cities with a meticulous level of control – one diminished by the influence of other players and their surrounding cities in the multiplayer “region.”
And NO. NO. I don’t want anyone to pipe up, at this moment, and say that these games are “meant to be played online” or whatever! Don’t give me that crap. These games aren’tMMOs, where you have to play with other people and form groups and team up to take on challenges no one player can tackle alone. No, you can play Diablo III alone! There are other people on the server, sure, but you can take on its dungeons by yourself! And SimCity, for all its persistent online regions, can be played on private regions resided by only one player. It is inconvenient, perhaps, but the co-operation aspect is completely diminished by ones ability to remove themselves from the outside world entirely. No. If these were truly MMO experiences, they’d put a lid on that.
I don’t want to do any speculation, though. Alright? I want to think this through logically, with what evidence I have. I want to draw a reasonable conclusion here. I don’t want to assume that Maxis or EA are on some kind of anti-consumer bent because all they want is your money and to hell what you think. I don’t want to assume Blizzard didn’t make Diablo III offline because it was for their convenience, not yours. But… there’s not anywhere else to go.
These systems are for their convenience. Not yours.
With Diablo III, they implemented a player-run, real-money auction house. It’s one in which all items sold get a chunk of their profits taken out of them by Blizzard. And an always-online DRM solution is the easiest way to make sure people don’t cheat Blizzard out of their cash. A single-player or LAN mode would only remove people from that blanket, and probably open up a realm of cheaters or hackers. I mean, I’m not programmer, I’m no online engineer, but that seems pretty logical. No single-player, no outliers.
But that’s all in Blizzard’s favour, though. They get to control their players to make sure they aren’t cheated out of profits. That’s fine. In the process, though, players lose the ability to play the game they bought on their own. Players lose the peace of mind of knowing their game will always work. Players lose out. There are very few gains that are not solely reaped by the developer and publisher, here. That, I think, is what makes such DRM so disingenuous – it’s a system that claims to be for the players benefit, but truly it only keeps a leash on them.
Then we come to SimCity. There are good arguments to say that the forced co-op system is an interesting new way to play, that it’s a lot of fun when it works. I’ll cop to that. But again, like Diablo III, only EA and Maxis truly win thanks to the DRM. The players lose the ability to do certain things.
The game and its saves are no longer on their computers. They can no longer truly play by themselves – despite the game having systems that are more than suitable for alone play, contrary to the idea that it’s “built from the ground up for multiplayer”. The player can no longer avoid the direct sale of DLC and expansion packs. And the player is, like Diablo III, at the whim of activation servers which have proven less than stable – not just when gettinginto a game, but then, once in, losing save data and cities wholesale. Because, I dunno, rats got into the wires?
I said I’d talk about the DRM sans the games, so here I go: this DRM does nothing for the consumer. It literally is only a negative. I can’t think of a single actual positive for the players of SimCity and Diablo III, that the online system provides. And I know… alright? I knowthat some players solely want those cooperative experiences. Those people get what they want, and that’s great. But the people who don’t want that… well, that’s the thing. They canget their single-player game; it’s in both those games, no matter what the developers will tell them. It’s just it is buried under inconvenience after inconvenience after inconvenience – inconveniences that exist solely so the developer and publisher can have more.
I’m a strong believer that nothing that makes a product worse for any group of consumers is good. Especially not a full-price, retail PC game – I mean, discs of SimCity are essentially glorified coasters with holes drilled in ‘em as long as the servers are down. Can you imagine if they did that with movies? “Oh, we’re busy at the moment. You can’t watch your DVD. Sorry!” Not to compare videogames with movies, of course, but as long as they’re sold as entertainment media I’m going to have very little choice.
With these games, what publishers have created are platforms. Platforms on which to hock downloadable content, and to hook everyone who buys the game into. And that’s not good. You’re not buying a game which you own anymore – the game box doesn’t contain everything you need to play anymore. The game box is merely your ticket – your permission to enter someone else’s house, and play with their toys, on a space of their floor, with a bunch of other people playing with us. If we want to play alone, we can’t take our toys outside – we have to stay in a private, yet monitored, corner of the same house.
As far as recommending games like these goes… I can’t. I feel personally affronted by the idea that those kinds of systems – no matter the quality of the games underneath – are being rewarded by people. Even though I absolutely trust Tobbii’s opinion, and I thought his review spelled out a well-deserved perfect score for SimCity – I couldn’t give a 10/10 to any game with that sort of cancerous business model laying on it. It’s like a polyp that keeps gassing you in the face when you start to forget about it and enjoy yourself. I don’t think I’d be able to bring myself to even review a game which such systems, yet along score it in a way that implies I recommend it for purchase. Even if I thought it was the greatest game in the world… I couldn’t do it.
And I want to make this clear. Lest anyone call me a hypocrite. This goes for Steam as well. Steam is less intrusive, no doubt about that. And it is an online storefront – I’m fine with games bought through Steam locking themselves to an account. That’s fine. Also, Steam does provide marginal benefits to its users – unlimited installs on multiple machines, a robust instant messaging service, Cloud saves that work alongside local saves… and other such relatively small things, as well as unique features like Big Picture, and a plethora of free games. Oh, and sales! So many sales. No doubt, there are definite positives to using Steam.
But for all of that, if I buy a fucking game from a store, and it is tied to my Steam account, therefore rendering my game disc, box, and everything else I paid for to be mine at the mercy of Steam? That’s bullshit. It’s not quite as big bullshit as tying a game to a server constantly, but it is still a giant load. Because, at the end of the day, who does it benefit most? Does it benefit you, as a consumer, to have your game attached to that Steam account of yours? Or does it benefit Valve to have you there? Does it benefit the publisher to know you’re in a place where they can specifically target you for DLC and more games? (The answer is it benefits Valve and the publishers, for those of you who haven’t caught on.)
A product is purchased. That is what you give developers and publishers, traditionally – your money, for a product. A game, a game that you can do with what you like. You can play it by yourself or with friends. You can mod it, if you want. But those days are no longer, apparently. The game you pay for is merely permission to play. I don’t care how good the games around that permission are. I really could not give a toss if Diablo III is the best thing ever. If it is built in a way that singular players will play by themselves… an always-online DRM system does nothing but actively take away features from them. It does not provide benefits, only annoyances, and it takes away the game from the paying player and gives it back to those who made it. That’s not how an entertainment product should work. If EA and Acti-Blizzard want to tell us that they are selling us products, when they are actually selling us permissions… yes. Yes, that is disingenuous.
And I’m fucking sick of it.