In Defense of DRM (And the Importance of Steam)

XKCD In the Rain

Arguing about Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a lot like talking politics or religion. The two sides immediately polarize into their respective camps and begin lobbing angry comments at each other over blog-walls and forum moderators. For me, the usefulness of DRM isn't a polar decision. Information doesn't "want to be free", and limited-activations are an unreasonable limiation to force on consumers. I have a suspicion that the usefulness of Digital Rights lies somewhere in between those to viewpoints. I have a sense that there’s something of value to the perception of protection, even if that perception is flawed or outright incorrect.

While DRM solutions like those offered by Electronic Arts have been roundly criticized (and from all accounts, rightly so), it doesn’t follow that all DRM systems are created equal. The online activation methodology used by Steam in particular seems to be a measure that PC gamers can get behind. And still, it’s despised and spit on as a prelude to a “rental society” where we can no longer truly own anything. To the folks who would have us toss the baby with the proverbial bathwater, that see all DRM as a waste of time and a slap in the face of consumers: lighten up. To the free-love hippies that see no problem with pirated games as far as the eye can see: get a job. Seriously.

The middle ground between these two poles, the quietly successful business strategy powering Valve, is the Steam publishing service. It's DRM for the common man, and a service well worth defending.

This is obviously a subject that's been tackled on Gamers with Jobs before. The Stardock viewpoint on this issue, both sides of EA's DRM decisions, and even the horrors of Starforce have been explored by fellow GWJ writers. What hasn't is the "reasonable" rights management offered by Valve. Its place in the PC games industry and the ultimate goals of the platform publishers are all given short shrift by commentators on the hard-core anti-management side. That needed addressing.

Anti-Steam Argument #1: Purchasing a game through the service precludes reselling it or lending it to a friend.

You can’t resell a PC game you’ve purchased through Steam to a shop like Gamestop, and there’s no physical media to allow you to lend a game to a friend. This is an understandable frustration, and is the source of the ‘rental society’ crack that so often gets levied against Steam. The ability to make use of your property however you wish (be it to sell it to another party or just give it away) is one highly valued by consumers. There was, no doubt, a goodly amount of ‘re-gifting’ during this holiday season just past for that exact reason.

The issue of reselling games at all is a thorny one, and not worth addressing here, but it’s important to note the relative resale value of PC games generally vs. console games. Piracy has changed the retail landscape when it comes to gaming on the PC platform; that’s the number one reason that PC games can’t be resold to big games resellers like Gamestop. Pawn shops and smaller resale establishments aren’t so picky, but even there I challenge you to get a good value for the game you’re offering. Assuming you exclude cutting-edge graphical hogs and their associated hardware requirements, PC gaming in general is a less expensive hobby than its console cousin. The games are cheaper (usually by at least $10), the barrier to entry is lower, and there are a vast swath of games out in the PC wilds that cost absolutely nothing to play.

As for lending titles to friends, a few of my friends (GWJRabbit among them) delight in sharing their steam-based games with friends. It's actually easier to share a game with Steam than it is with discs - no physical media. A violation of the Steam terms of service? No doubt, but as long as only one user is actively playing on the account at a time it's hard to see a real problem. Just because things may appear harder with the new fangled do-dads and services doesn't mean they really are.

Anti-Steam Argument #2: Online activation is a hassle, and playing games in the future requires you to be online.

Valve has responded to this criticism definitively by providing users an Offline Mode. You don't need to be internet connected 24/7 to fire up Portal in the middle of the night. As long as you keep your games up to date via the online update service, there's no reason you couldn't play Half-Life 2 in the middle of the Sahara.

Many commentators are grumpy with the requirement that their PC be online to activate the title in the first place. In an increasingly connected society, in a culture that more and more values the virtues of online experiences, I find it hard to stomach this as a realistic argument against Steam. Twitter-using Netflix-streaming online gurus can’t have it both ways. It is a restriction, to be sure, but it’s one you have to personally balance for yourself. Purchasing, downloading, installing, and updating a Steam game is entirely done via an internet connection. How is activation of the title online a burden on top of those steps?

Anti-Steam Argument #3: “Will I be able to play this game in ten years?”

This is one of the most valid arguments made against Steam, or any DRM service that requires support from an external server. Someday Valve may go out of business, and the future of Steam-supported titles would be in question. A friend also pointed out a possible future where the service makes a massive update to how it protects games, an update that might be financially infeasible to deploy to every title in the service portfolio. In either of these cases, there is the theoretical danger that you could lose access to your games.

Honestly, there’s no logical or fact-based counter to this. Anything could happen in a world of uncertainty. By that same token, though, your house or apartment could catch on fire tomorrow. Every disc you own could be incinerated, depriving you of your gaming collecting just as decisively. For that added measure of security, you can actually back up the steamapps folder and "save" all of the game files. Restoring your games after a reinstall of Windows, for example, can be as easy as installing the Steam client and then copying the Steamapps folder into the right directory.

Purchasing a game through Steam is a vote, a measure of confidence in the work Valve has done and the power of the Steam service as a whole. If it means that there’s the outside possibility my games may be lost at some point in the future, then that’s a risk I’m willing to take on to support the Steam service of today.

Anti-Steam Argument #4: The games all just end up on torrents eventually anyway.

Despite the best efforts of everyone from EA on down, PC games are pirated at a staggering rate. Even Valve’s games, entries in the Half-Life series built specifically for Steam, are available without those hang-ups if you search out the right torrent site. So, this argument goes, what’s the point? Why frustrate the consumer with DRM if it’s just going to end up on a torrent site anyway? Some developers have even bought into that argument, offering up their wares with no rights management strings attached.

The point, missing from this argument, is that the consumer is ultimately not the only player in this picture. If games publishers and developers look out at the PC market and see a commercial landscape impossible to make profitable, it will scare them away. It has scared them away, to a greater or lesser degree. The ‘PC games are dying’ cry that goes up regularly every six months has as much to do with worthless rights protections as it does any other individual factor.

The point then is to offer a balanced solution between what the publishers want (hard-locks, limited installations, invasive DRM) and what the consumer wants (ultimate portability, no locks, unlimited instillation). The balanced midpoint in the marketplace right now is Steam. Valve’s support of the Steam service, and their dedication to walking that midpoint line, has result in votes of confidence not only from consumers but from publishers. When EA itself effectively walks away from its own online distribution model to adopt Valve’s portal, it speaks volumes about Steam’s importance in the modern PC gaming world.

Blaming Valve For the Sins of Others

Above all else, arguments against Steam’s DRM come from a general distrust of Digital Rights Mangement. Not all DRM is created equal, and beliefs about property ownership held by the creators of SecuROM differ drastically from those held the Steam's managers.

Isn’t the strongest argument for Steam the simple reality that Valve isn’t just another soulless corporation? They’re a development house that has consistently put out amazing games. Unlike detached pencil-pushers, lawyers, or IP vendors who primarily care about keeping their property sacrosanct, Valve has a vested interest in gamers actually playing videogames.

At the end of the day, every purchase on Steam is a vote of confidence. Every new game launched on Steam is a promise to consumers. Give an inch, get an inch. Work together with the PC game publishing marketplace, understand that there have to be some restrictions to make sure there’s a profit, and the future of the PC marketplace is assured. Steam is, bar none, the most important force in the PC games industry today. I vote for it with my wallet on a regular basis because – in this case – I love the DRM I’m being offered.

Comments

AlanDeSmet wrote:
heavyfeul wrote:

The owner of the game, in my opnion, is the entity that owns the IP and the source code.

When you purchase a copyright protected work physically, sans a contract presented you before you purchase it, you own that one specific copy. You do not need any license to make personal use. You can use it as intended (read it, play it, watch it, whatever), or use it in strange new ways (decorate you walls with it, shoot it with a gun, wear it as a hat) You can loan it, give it away, will it away, and sell it. Now, you don't have the right to distribute copies, you don't have any right to perform the work publically, and your right to make personal copies is restricted. This is copyright, and the developer or publisher in this case owns that right. This has been the basic state of affairs since 1790.

Yes you do have the right to do all those things, only because the publisher has failed to enforce its rights. Just because the publisher failed to enforce their rights does not give you ownership of the game in the true sense. Publishers have the right to institute draconian DRM schemes if they want to. This is not always the best business decision, though, and in the video game console market it does not make sense for them to restrict you from reselling. They want to, have the right to, but don't.

My main point that I am trying to get across is that the only rights you have over a game are those explicitly and implicitly given to you by the publisher. For instance, if a game publisher only allowed a certain game to be installed on a single computer in some shack in Beijing and you had to travel there and only play it there, they could do that. They don't because that would be a bad business decision.

As long as DRM works and is reasonable it is not an issue.

I believe in DRM, but your(heavyfeul's) entire perspective is that of the publisher. Excluding piracy. Excluding breaking DRM to demonstrate individual freedom. Accepting a Eula, for a piece of software that can no longer be returned by the time you are reading the Eula, without any information on what DRM is included, or what its compatibility/performance impact may be on the consumers computer, is a one-sided demand in a two party agreement.

Being able to lookup what DRM is in place via the internet is not enough, it should clearly be stated on the packaging because THAT is the point of sale. If I'm not buying a product, but am buying a 'service' then sell me the service so I know what I am spending my money on.

Take Spore for example. As originally implemented, EA could have honestly in big letters stated on the boxes front cover "You are buying 3 non-simultaneous installs of the software experience for 1 user." But they dont do that. Their cover essentially says, "Buy Spore and here are all the great things about it." If a consumer is only buying a limited # of installs or a game that must be reactivated every 10 days via an internet connection, just say that honestly and openly on the front cover of every software you sell with limitations. Sell them the service, not the product. It really wouldnt take much space to summarize the DRM's characteristics at all. I wonder why they don't do that? Maybe its because, when there is an unreasonable DRM scheme in place, you really dont want your potential consumers to realize it until they have broken the shrinkwrap, at which point you've got their money and it aint going anywhere.

As long as a game is shipping on a disc, then consumers feel they are buying a product that they expect to work. They have little to no recourse if it doesnt. If the product doesnt work because of a bolted on DRM scheme, I see no issue with them circumventing said DRM in order to personally realize the value of the product they purchased legally. Similarly, if a particular DRM scheme appears to have eroded performance of their pc as a whole, then they should have the right to circumvent it. If access to their purchase is artificially expired due to buggy DRM it is essentially the same scenario as a DRM that is incompatible with drivers or software on their pc and seems another valid scenario for working around the imposed DRM scheme.

Game publishers are positioning access to software as a service, one that they can expire. Most consumers are buying software, particularly on physical media, as a product at the moment they hand over their money. This is the rub isn't it. Consumers are not claiming ownership of the IP, the code or the content, but they expect it to work. I see nothing wrong with that expectation, and if it is broken, then I think it is unreasonable to expect a consumer to just say... Oh well.

As I said in the first sentence, I feel that publishers and developers absolutely must have some form of DRM in place to safeguard their interests. But it has to work, and it can't be unreasonable. Thats part of the seller-buyer understanding. Human nature seems to require some form of protection to demonstrate value in and of itself. If its not protected, maybe its not very valuable after all. It's unfortunate, but true and I find myself second-guessing any publisher or developer who doesnt build some form of safeguard into their products.

I'm talking in the realm of honest consumers here. Pirates and thieves are a whole other realm that there is really little point of discussing. They don't pay for anything.

Damn, this got long. Sorry.

Irongut wrote:

As I said in the first sentence, I feel that publishers and developers absolutely must have some form of DRM in place to safeguard their interests. But it has to work, and it can't be unreasonable.

DRM: safeguarding publishers' interests. Think the sales they supposedly gained by having the DRM will outweigh the future sales they just lost?

Aetius wrote:
Irongut wrote:

As I said in the first sentence, I feel that publishers and developers absolutely must have some form of DRM in place to safeguard their interests. But it has to work, and it can't be unreasonable.

DRM: safeguarding publishers' interests. Think the sales they supposedly gained by having the DRM will outweigh the future sales they just lost?

Oh yeah, even beyond unreasonable, I think that screwup just falls into the dumb category. I just wasnt sure whose mistake it is because I don't know about the digital certificate application process. Is it MS, Epic, Verisign or all three. In a different article yeterday, I had read that LOTRO ran into the same issue a ways back with their digital certificate expiring too, but it was quickly resolved.

Makes me leery of any game purchase that would require a digital certificate as part of their DRM, but how can you even tell?
Leaves me with other questions too.
Is this brought about by the GFW Live application or the Unreal Tournament 3 engine?
If its GFW Live, is this a DRM 'timebomb' that is lurking in every Games for Windows application?
Does something like STEAM itself, wholly seperate to this particular issue, also depend on digital certificates for its authentication client to run?

Even with thse more recent GFW LIVE client improvements, the exec running that program was tossed out too late. He squandered a major opportunity and did significant damage to the potential of the program I think.

I have an unopened copy of PC Gears of War sitting on my desk right now. I got it as a present for Christmas. DRM idiocy has now made it obsolete before the box seal has even been broken.

What happened to you Epic Games? You used to be cool.

Irongut wrote:

Oh yeah, even beyond unreasonable, I think that screwup just falls into the dumb category.

I'd say it falls into the DRM category - no DRM, no dumb mistake. Since the DRM does nothing for the customer, this is essentially a value-added bug.

Makes me leery of any game purchase that would require a digital certificate as part of their DRM, but how can you even tell?

The certificates were found in the game directory, I think, so you'd have to look. Of course, you'd have to buy the game to do that.

Is this brought about by the GFW Live application or the Unreal Tournament 3 engine?
If its GFW Live, is this a DRM 'timebomb' that is lurking in every Games for Windows application?
Does something like STEAM itself, wholly seperate to this particular issue, also depend on digital certificates for its authentication client to run?

I don't think Valve is that stupid. Microsoft, on the other hand ...

Quintin_Stone wrote:

What happened to you Epic Games? You used to be cool.

Epic Games: We're still cool! We're still cool! The patch is totally in the mail, man!

BadMojo wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

What happened to you Epic Games? You used to be cool.

Epic Games: We're still cool! We're still cool! The patch is totally in the mail, man!

I know they mentioned they are preparing a title update. I'll be curious to see how a local install gets the title update, if you can't run GoW, to connect to GFW-LIVE, which would then patch your GoW with the title update. Hopefully its a standalone patch.

I suspect a serious and stupid problem like this won't drive most developers to non-DRM at this point -- it'll drive them to Steam, because that's a solution most customers are comfortable with.

Hopefully, as discussed previously, the drive to Steam will be like the drive to iTunes that eventually resulted in everything being DRM-free.

To emulate the iTunes path, it would be helpful if Impulse managed to put pressure on Steam with its non-DRM service. If there is no non-DRM service that manages to put pressure on Steam, then the end result may be less likely...

Deadron wrote:

Hopefully, as discussed previously, the drive to Steam will be like the drive to iTunes that eventually resulted in everything being DRM-free.

To emulate the iTunes path, it would be helpful if Impulse managed to put pressure on Steam with its non-DRM service. If there is no non-DRM service that manages to put pressure on Steam, then the end result may be less likely...

That's reasonable, but Valve could do better by seeing the writing on the wall and taking pre-emptive steps to preserve their business.

I still don't think Valve has much to do with it. If Steam dropped all DRM tomorrow and didn't allow it, I suspect they'd lose a large batch of their game suppliers. This isn't just a question of what Valve chooses to do, it's a question of the game publishers getting comfortable with a non-DRM approach...

Pressure from a service like Impulse (or pressure from some influential source) is needed to get the publishers actually looking for a non-DRM solution. If publishers felt it was in their interest (as they did when they wanted to try and take a chunk out of iTunes), they would flee to the service that supported non-DRM as an option, as music publishers fled to Amazon.

The missing piece here is the publishers, not the service, since we already have support for distributing non-DRMed games.

It's quite possible that the "influential source" will turn out to be the ratings bombing that people have been doing against DRMed games. That may have at least led to the first step of heading to Steam...

Well, they don't need to enforce it on their clients - they could just remove it from their own games. Lead the way, so to speak.

Epic releases the PC Gears of War patch after 9 days. And naturally, it's being hosted on gearsofwar.xbox.com.