Saturday, July 21, 2012

DRM and Constant Connections

by J. Adams

About two weeks ago, the Midwest suffered from a rare weather phenomenon known as a "Derecho", which resulted in major power outages and extensive damage across the region. Thankfully, my own home was minimally damaged and our power was restored within about nine hours. Being the video game and internet junkie that I am, those nine hours of power loss were fairly inconvenient - and even after power was restored it was an additional 24 hours until I had reliable internet connectivity. During this time with power but without internet, attempting to play some of my favorite recently- released games was an exercise in futility.

Yes, these are most definitely First World Problems, but bear with me – I have a point!

To kill time while my wife was at work, I decided I wanted to play some Mass Effect 3. The game loaded up and, of course, could not connect to the Electronic Arts (EA) servers since I had no internet connection. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was. Without connecting to the EA servers, the game essentially refused to “authorize” the Downloadable Content (DLC) that I had purchased as part of the Special Edition Pre-Order Bonus (the “From Ashes” pack) which included an additional squad member, a special mission, and a bonus weapon. That would have been fine aside from the next problem; because the DLC couldn’t be “authorized,” all the saved files that I already had for the game weren’t able to be used because they “contained content that could not be authorized.”

All right, fine. No ME3 for me today. Not to worry, I’ll go ahead and reinstall a game I’ve been meaning to play through again for a while. I dug out my installation discs for Dead Space 2 and got the installation started. Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to go – or so I thought. As it turns out, this game has a “release date verification” Digital Rights Management (DRM) scheme that requires internet access to run. Now this game was released in January 2011, so one would assume that the publisher (EA again) really wouldn’t be that concerned about someone trying to play the game before it’s released.

Zero for two so far. What I’d really like to do is play some Diablo III but that is, unfortunately, outright impossible without the internet connection. Despite the fact that I play exclusively by myself and don’t use the Auction House, I can’t even load the game without signing in and being authenticated by the Blizzard servers.

I’ve got some games on Steam I can kill time with, so why don’t we start one of those up? Oh, looks like there was an update and it wants to connect to the internet to download and install it. I’ll just cancel it since I don’t have internet access at the moment…wait, what? It won’t let me use a non-updated version of Steam? So the other eight or nine games I could have been playing in offline mode can’t be accessed either. I guess I’ll go read a book for a while.

As I said, these are most definitely first world problems, but since I’ve paid for these products, one would think that I should be able to access them on my terms, not the publisher’s. The legal argument against me, of course, is that according to the End-User License Agreement (EULA) I don’t own the software I am trying to use – I am simply paying for the license; in other words, the right to use it in whatever way the publisher decides is acceptable. Unfortunately, this includes the caveat that I must submit to the authorization requirements, DRM requirements, and internet connection requirements that each publisher is free to decide upon.

DRM has actually been around in some form or another since the early 1990s, when it was restricted to audio CDs and film DVDs using either encryption or scrambling techniques. The most prevalent form of DRM is still the form that cable companies use to make sure that subscribers only have access to the channels they are paying for, usually through an onboard chip in a cable box.

Up until the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, this really wasn’t that much of an issue. Most gaming software was purchased in a brick and mortar store and the most restrictive part of the EULA was basically saying that by agreeing to it, you wouldn’t make illegal copies of the software for distribution or charge people to play it on your machine. That being the case no one really paid attention to the EULA, although that hasn’t really changed all that much (admit it – you click the “I agree” button without reading anything, don’t you? I thought so).

The most basic DRM schemes, before any additional software “locks” or restrictions, was to have an alpha-numeric code sold in the same box as the game’s media. The code would need to be entered during installation and, if valid, would allow installation to continue. In the past, these codes were verified by software on the game media itself, so internet access was not required. Now, with the prevalence of broadband, installations may require both a code and an active internet connection to unlock an installation.

Current DRM schemes for gaming – most notably PC gaming, though the reliance on the internet connectivity of the PS3 and Xbox 360 makes the issue nearly as common on consoles – include limited installation schemes (only allowing software to be installed on X number of machines), with one of the most (in)famous examples being Maxis/EA’s Spore. The limited installation DRM only allowed the software to be installed on 3 machines (or one machine 3 different times), maximum, before the user would have to make a phone call to EA customer support and request more installations. This resulted in a large number of one-star reviews on sites like and, unsurprisingly, an increase in the pirating of this title. Eventually, EA seemed to take the hint and removed the more restrictive portions of their DRM. By this time, though, the damage had been done. 

Another, even more reviled, scheme that has been championed by Ubisoft and their “Uplay” service is the constant internet connection. The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom requires an alpha-numeric code at installation that is validated via an active internet connection, creation of a “Uplay” account, and a constant internet connection for validation every time the game is launched. In addition, if you lose your internet connection while playing, the game shuts down. For people with unreliable broadband or intermittent connection issues, this can make playing games that require this service extremely frustrating to stay interested in. Ubisoft contends that the Uplay account also offers players a unique service by allowing gameplay statistics such as scores to be uploaded to online leaderboards and quick access to the Ubisoft store for additional features and DLC. Personally, as much fun as I have had playing The Settlers 7, dealing with the Uplay and Ubisoft ‘features’ annoys the daylights out of me, so I tend not to play it at all anymore. Somehow I doubt that was Ubisoft’s intention.

This is also the scheme that Activision-Blizzard’s most recent offering, Diablo III, uses. The initial announcement that the game would require a constant connection drew quite a bit of criticism, even from long-time Blizzard fans like me. Diablo and Diablo II had been, for me, single-player games. There were multiplayer components that utilized local area network (LAN) connections or Blizzard’s own Battle.Net, but I rarely utilized them. Blizzard’s arguments for Diablo III included their design philosophy for the game itself – that they were designing the game to be played with others – and was later revealed to be just as much, if not more, based on their idea for the Diablo III Auction House. This feature would allow players to trade items for in-game gold and would be followed by the much- debated Real-Currency Auction House. (An argument could be made that the shared stash feature would require some kind of online component, but the independent hit Torchlight featured a shared stash among a player’s characters and did not require an online connection.)

In my opinion, it’s the addition of the Real-Currency Auction House that led Blizzard to decide on a constant connection because it requires validation of a player’s identity to even log into the player’s Battle.Net account where the funds the player earns through sales are kept. I personally disagree with the Real-Money Auction House on principle (I detest micro-transaction games, which I’m sure I’ll cover in a future article), but the fact that it feels like it’s the only reason that Diablo III requires a constant connection just seems to be salt in the wound.

If you check the message boards on most reputable gaming journalism sites, (,,, etc.) there is most certainly no love lost between gamers and the companies that continually inflict DRM, DLC, and constant connection woes upon us. Even on some developer and publisher websites, you’re bound to see no shortage of “No DRM!!” threads in their forums, and the inclusion of DRM in any form is hotly contested during the development of new titles. I hesitate to mention the number of “if you include DRM I won’t buy this game” threads, but there are also plenty of those. Luckily, the anonymity of the internet allows the folks that post in those threads to go ahead and buy the game anyway, no matter the venomous arguments they unleash in opposition to the decisions that publishers make.

Despite the extreme unpopularity of DRM and the fact that its effect on piracy seems to be more or less non-existent – given the workarounds even to the almost punitively restrictive Ubisoft model – I’m afraid that DRM is something that is just not going to go away. Let me stress that I am not against the developers and publishers being properly compensated for the amount of work that goes into creating my entertainment. I am against the extra hurdles that these same publishers and developers are putting in the way of my enjoyment of that entertainment. Having said that, I’m still 100% certain that I will never actually read the entire EULA before I click “I agree” and go ahead and install my game.

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