What Is DRM and How Does It Affect How We Play Games?
Not so long ago, gaming was a simple hobby. You bought a game, put the cartridge or disc into your console, played the game, and then took it out when you were done. At any time, you could re-insert the game and pick up where you left off with no hassle. It was even possible to lend a game to a friend for a weekend, no problem.
Yet, this is no longer the case. Thanks to the power of the internet and the ability to download and play entire games digitally, no discs are needed. This is really convenient, and allows smaller developers to get their games to the masses, but it comes with its own problems.
What Is DRM?
As digital versions of all media became popular, it became clear that something needed to be done to control piracy. Sites like LimeWire and similar media sharing sites were running rampant, letting people download and enjoy stuff for free that they should have been paying for.
Thus, in an attempt to control this, companies focused on creating digital rights management software that would become attached to digital versions of entertainment. Basically, the premise of DRM software is to encrypt the entertainment in a specific way that can only be decoded using a specific tool. That tool then checks to make sure the content was obtained in a legal manner and won?t decode it if it wasn?t. This encryption can be done both with hardware or software, both with their own strengths and weaknesses.
A common DRM software that most people use in their daily lives is Netflix. Netflix is authorized to distribute and play copyrighted movies and TV shows to its customers. The files for the movies are encrypted, meaning that even if an unauthorized person downloaded the video from Netflix, they wouldn?t be able to watch it. When people stream shows and movies, the Netflix player decodes the files and allows people to watch it.
DRM in Gaming
Alongside movies and music, the game industry was realizing that piracy was a very dangerous issue. With large-budget games costing millions of dollars to make, any profit stolen was frightening.
This was especially a problem in PC gaming. Pirates could simply download a game, install it, play it, and then share that file with others. To stop this, many publishers and platforms implemented DRM into their games, requiring players to install and use a specific software to play them.
The biggest example of this in PC gaming is Steam. When a person buys a game through Steam, they must install and launch Steam anytime they want to play that game. If they don?t, they are denied access to it. Similar launcher softwares from Ubisoft and EA use this same idea with Uplay and Origin, though they are less popular.
Other forms of DRM require the player to be connected to the internet either regularly or constantly in order to play the game. Basically, the game software checks in with the company to make sure it is a valid copy of the game. If shared copies of the game are ever online at the same time, it blocks access to all copies, either temporarily or permanently.
Consoles have their own types of DRM too ? the biggest one being that you can only download digital games through their online store. You can only get Playstation games from their digital store, and the same applies to other consoles. They do have other ways they control the games though. For example, for digital games on Playstation, if a PS4 isn?t the ?primary console? on an account, any digital games on secondary consoles require an online check in order to play.
Why Gamers Don?t Like DRM
DRM raises a lot of issues for gamers. When they purchase the game, they don?t actually own the game, they buy the license to play it. Because of this, game companies can place restrictions on what gamers can do with the game and how they can enjoy it. They have to jump through hoops in order to get the game to play. DRM creates inconveniences to how they want to play.
Let?s say a specific game has a DRM that prevents one purchased version of a game from being installed on multiple computers. Let?s say one person own a home PC and a laptop and wants to install the game on both. That way, they can play the game at home and when traveling. Because of the DRM, they can?t install the game on one of his devices and play the game they wanted their way.
Similarly, let?s say there is a DRM that requires a player to be constantly connected to the internet, or at least check in once a day. Players who live in extremely rural areas or don?t have easy access to the internet are effectively blocked from playing these games. If this example sounds familiar, it?s because this is exactly what happened when Microsoft tried to impose DRM software on the Xbox One entirely, preventing people from playing any kind of game without a persistent internet connection.
DRM can become a major barrier for enjoying games for some people. Some DRMs negatively affect the performance of some games because of their constant checking to make sure the game is a valid copy.
DRM Is Necessary, and Can Be Done Well
In the current world that we live in, DRM is necessary. For many people, it makes no sense to pay for something when they can get the same product for free. Piracy costs the software industry billions of dollars every year, which in turn can lead to fewer jobs for people in the world.
The question becomes: how does a video game company implement DRM without hurting its customers? Well, the best answer is to make using the DRM extremely easy and consumer friendly.
For example, let?s look at two very popular services that are, in a sense, DRM platforms: Netflix and Steam. They both control how many devices their content can be played on at a specific time, they encode the data so it can?t be stolen and played outside of their platform, and both are extremely easy to use.
The biggest barrier to piracy is that it requires a bit of knowledge and work in order to get entertainment for free. If a company provides a service that accompanies their DRM that makes a consumer?s life easier, not harder, then people will use that instead of pirating.
Netflix made watching TV easier by letting customers stream the content they want on demand. Their DRM only limits how many devices you can watch it on and requires you watch the content through Netflix.
Steam offers a massive library of games plus occasionally great deals, and have a few, but reasonable, restrictions on how to play them. Gamers have to have Steam installed, and it must load before a game can start. But the PC doesn?t require an internet connection and can allow some games to be installed (but not played at the same time) to multiple devices.
Basically, the key to doing DRM well is for a company to protect its games, make it extremely convenient to use its service, and have boundaries that could only be broken by somebody looking to exploit the system.