What's it going to take for PC game publishers to drop DRM altogether?

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For all of its stupidity, the music industry should be commended for relaxing its DRM requirements. Every single song on iTunes is DRM-free, as are the songs on Amazon MP3 and electronic music specialist Beatport. The Zune Marketplace works a little differently, but many of the downloadable songs there are DRM-free, too. But PC game publishers? They’re still bat-shit crazy, as evidenced by the DRM requirements of BioShock 2 and presumably every single one of Ubisoft’s upcoming releases. What’s it going to take for PC publishers to step back and realize that DRM does absolutely nothing to prevent piracy? Not only that, but that it encourages piracy because the pirated version of the game ends up being superior to the legitimate copy?

DRM’s purpose, nearest I can tell, is to control the distribution of copyrighted works. Company A sells you Its Stuff but doesn’t want you to make copies and give them your friends, or to several thousand of your online “friends” on BitTorrent. That’s fine theoretically, except that the DRM implementations are often destructive pieces of junk, gunking up your PC with all sorts of unwanted nonsense. Never mind the fact that they simply don’t work.

I remember when Half-Life 2 first came out, in 2004. People didn’t think it could be pirated because it required Steam server validation. So what did pirates do? They reverse-engineered the handshake between the game and the servers, then created an emulated server for the game to connect to. Congratulations, you just cracked Half-Life 2. And this wasn’t months later, either, but within a few days of the game’s release.

The point is, what was considered to be an uncrackable game was cracked without breaking a sweat. I mean, people have been cracking games for how many years now? It’s an awful lot of programming know-how to draw upon.

The DRM only serves to annoy legitimate customers. You need to enter a CD key. You need to keep the disc in the drive. You need to authenticate your installation at first launch. You can only install the game five times before having to call the FBI to get permission to install again. A CD key I can see; that’s only fair. But why do I need to keep the disc in the drive if I’ve already installed the game to my hard drive? Why should I have to authenticate when I just put in a CD key? And what happens on release day when your authentication servers are getting absolutely hammered, and are unable to authenticate a damn thing? (What happens if the authentication servers are disconnected in five years?) Why if your lousy DRM totally trashes my Windows installation, and I have to reinstall the game? What happens in that happens five times?

All the while, Mr. High School Pirate can hop on BitTorrent or Rapidshare or whatever, download the game as fast as his connection will allow, copy over a CD crack, then have to put up with none of the above. The DRM has stopped nothing, and the pirate has a better gaming experience.

I understand that publishers freak out over piracy, particularly PC piracy where the perception is that it’s easier to pirate a PC game than it is a console game. (That’s nonsense, by the way. Any 16-year-old kid with a free afternoon can hack his Xbox 360 and pirate games all day long.) But it comes to a point where they have to realize the only thing that DRM does is to upset legitimate customers. That’s putting it lightly, for it’s not uncommon for DRM to totally hose a system.

Can we all agree that, for a while there, the music industry was dumb as a box of rocks? And yet those guys got off their DRM kick. How long is it going to take PC publishers to set aside the notion that you need to lock down a person’s gaming experience in order to protect their investment? I think you’ll find that treating PC gamers, who are a prickly lot to begin with, would like to be treated with a bit of dignity.

But that’s probably too much to ask.

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