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The Fascinating Story of DRM: Part Two, The Origin of Launch Week Battle

2014-12-16 00:45

In my last piece, I explained how Nintendo’s experiences with piracy and copy protection helped shape the current video game industry, where Sony has been a major player for nearly twenty years now. Technologies like the 10NES lock-out chip didn’t just help Nintendo and authorized thirdparty developers, they also benefitted consumers.

Take my word for it, unlicensed NES games were really awful. If you won’t, install an NES emulator on your PC, smartphone, or tablet, and torrent a ROM for Sunday Funday, or Myriad 6-in-1. That’ll be minutes of your life that you’ll never get back, and you don’t want to punch a hole through your monitor.

But more recent DRM developments with multibillion dollar publishers like EA and Activision have been very unfriendly to consumers. I can empathize with wanting to make it difficult to play pirated copies of games that often cost more than $20 million to develop. But when people who actually spent $60 on their legitimate physical or digital copy of their game can’t play it either, that spells trouble for quarterly earnings reports.

Always On Your Nerves

Steam, an online PC gaming and retail platform launched by Valve in 2003, took the industry by storm. Not only does the service allow PC gamers to play online in multiplayer mode, it also retails games from most major PC game publishers and a multitude of independent PC game developers. Game developers and publishers like how Steam handles DRM. They have the option to use their own DRM software, Valve’s, or none at all.

Valve doesn’t publicly release sales information. But knowing that they have over 100 million active users, and roughly 70% of the online PC game sales market, it’s safe to assume that they make over a billion per year.

One of the biggest game publishers in the world, Electronic Arts, wanted a piece of the action for themselves. Piracy really worries big corporations like EA, and it’s nice to get the retailer portion of game sales revenue in addition to the portion that publishers usually get.

So, EA launched a similar service exclusively for games they publish, Origin. Origin launched for Windows on June 3rd, 2011, and for Mac OS X on February 8th, 2013.

When the first SimCity game debuted in 1989, it initiated a craze for simulation genre PC games that lasted throughout the 1990s. Game designer Will Wright cofounded Maxis to publish his game. When Wright was developing Raid On Bungeling Bay for Broderbund in the mid-1980s, he found the map creation process to be a lot of fun. SimCity was inspired by that, and may have even used some of the same code.

Maxis developed and published a number of other simulation titles in the wake of SimCity’s commercial success, such as SimAnt, SimTower, SimHospital, and SimCity 2000. Other developers created competing games, many of which with “Tycoon” in the title. Wright and Maxis’ success led EA to acquire Maxis in 1997. That was a good idea, because when The Sims was released in 2000, it quickly became one of the most profitable PC games of all time.

After a third SimCity game, and lots of expansion packs for The Sims, SimCity 4 was released in January 2003. That was a smart move by EA, because by the end of the year, SimCity 4 was the seventh best selling PC game. Four of the top six were expansion packs for The Sims.

It took about a decade, but a fifth SimCity game launched in March 2013, named simply

SimCity. (The 1989 SimCity game was renamed SimCity Classic years ago.) I was disappointed by the smaller map sizes for cities. But I was even more disappointed that unless one found a way to crack the game accordingly, game saves could not be written on local HDDs. Nope, games could only be saved on EA’s servers. Also, one always must be connected to EA’s servers in order to play… even for singleplayer mode. Argh…

SimCity (2013) screenshot, courtesy of Wired.com

I never bought the game. No, I never tried pirating it, either. Friends would tell me how cool it was that a new SimCity game was out, and that they wanted to buy it. “I don’t recommend it,” I’d tell them.

It wasn’t just that players are forced to be “always online.” It wasn’t just the small map sizes, and dumbed down, I mean “casual-friendly” game mechanics. Nope. People who legitimately bought SimCity and tried to play it couldn’t play the game at all. The servers for EA’s Origin couldn’t handle the traffic from such a popular new PC game that demands constant connectivity.

EA’s PR said that SimCity was designed to always be online in order to enhance users’ fun with social functionality. I doubt it. SimCity was designed that way for DRM, in order to combat piracy. But there’s got to be ways to use Origin servers for DRM that don’t require constant connectivity. And not being able to save games on one’s local disk is terrible. Throughout 2014, SimCity has worked a lot better thanks to additional Origin server capacity and patches. But I’d still never buy that particular game. They should have learned from what happened to Activision/Blizzard in 2012.

Blizzard merged with Activision in 2008. Blizzard is most famous for the World of Warcraft MMO, and South Korea’s most popular spectator sport, Starcraft. But their action RPG series, Diablo, is tremendously popular as well.

Blizzard’s online multiplayer gaming service, Battle.net, debuted for the first Diablo game, in 1997. With over seventeen years of Battle.net, plus experience with managing the world’s most popular MMO (WoW, of course) for over a decade, it’s safe to assume that no corporation knows running online PC gaming better than Activision/Blizzard, except perhaps for Valve with Steam.

When the Windows and Mac OS X versions of Diablo III launched in 2012, gamers were really hungry for it, because Diablo II was released all the way back in 2000. But like SimCity afterward, Diablo III requires players to always be online, even for single-player games.

Diablo III screenshot, courtesy of Ubergizmo

In the 2012 launch, quite often people who legitimately purchased the game couldn’t even connect to Battle.net for a single-player session. During other times, even many months after the game debuted, the movement and progression in the game would be frustratingly slow and choppy, even after a successful connection.

Months after launch, and many patches later, a representative of Blizzard said, “We do not have plans to implement an offline mode. While the always-online requirement made the auction house possible, the auction house was never the driving factor in our decision to make the PC version of Diablo III require an Internet connection. The game was built from the ground up to take full advantage of Battle.net, which provides a number of important benefits, including persistent server-side character saves, a seamless PC multiplayer experience, cheat prevention, and Real ID and BattleTag social features.”

I don’t need any damn “seamless multiplayer experience” if I’m only ever going to be playing in single-player mode, Blizzard. Why don’t they just flat out admit that their “always online” is a DRM mechanism?

Earlier this year, Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition came out for seventh generation consoles (PS3 and Xbox 360), and eighth generation consoles (PS4 and Xbox One). There haven’t been any significant problems with that version of the game. Pretty soon, I’ll buy it for my PS4. I like PC gaming as much as I like console gaming, but when I spend my hard earned cash, it’ll be on the version that operates the most smoothly.

By never pre-ordering games, and by buying games with the fewest bugs, I’m doing what I can to send game developers and publishers an important message.

Hopefully, AAA developers will give up the always online DRM trend, and at the very least, implement a lot more consumer-friendly DRM if it’s absolutely necessary to have DRM at all. I prefer to spend the majority of my gaming time fighting AI only, so I also want to see more of a single-player focus in big budget games, however old school that may seem.

It doesn’t usually occur to people, but the DRM in games and applications is an information security issue, even when there are no attacks involved.

Remember the CIA triad- confidentiality, integrity, and availability. DRM may focus on

integrity, in that it tries to prevent technical changes made to software that allow for piracy. But people also forget about availability. If I purchase a game or application, it should be available for me to enjoy. If developers ignore that, they’ll do so at their peril.

The story of DRM is a fascinating one. And the issues with it don’t always pertain to video games. There have been significant DRM issues with utility and content creation applications, as well. In my next article, I’ll focus on Microsoft and Adobe.


SimCity Blackout Is Just One More DRM Disaster- Chris Kohler, Wired

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SimCity Review In Progress- IGN


SimCity updates to 1.8, get your patch notes here- Tim Colwill, games.on.net


Top Selling PC and Console Games of 2003


Diablo III Fans Should Stay Angry About Always-Online DRM- Erik Kain, Forbes


Diablo 3 to remain always-online, despite planned auction house closures- Phil Savage, PCGamer


In The End, Diablo III Just Shouldn’t Have Been ‘Always Online’- Kirk Hamilton, Kotaku


Error 3003 in Diablo 3 is the hottest error at the moment- Edwin Kee, Ubergizmo


Source: /elttab-keew-hcnual-nigiro-owt-trap-mrd-yrots-gnitanicsaf/moc.etutitsnicesofni.secruoser

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