Understanding Video Game DRM

by on June 12, 2013

Put down the pitchforks people, I don’t actually support DRM and I hate the restriction it creates. This piece is more about understanding this oft-maligned creature, sorta like Silence of the Lambs.

I was watching bits and pieces of E3 footage with some friends and we got to the famous video where Jack Tretton kicked Microsoft when they were down by mocking Xbox’s used-game policy. As he gloated I wondered, ‘Sure, we can trade games freely and we can lend them to our buddies and we can have all the fun we want, but why is this so good for you?’

Game companies don’t make money off used games.

Obviously Tretton was happy because he could take digs at the competition and score free internet points (which is a meaningless currency everyone seems to want these days). Behind closed doors though, I think he’s less excited about it. Look, put all the spin you want on it, but one fact remains: Game companies don’t make money off used games.


Now, this is obviously a bad thing because they’ve been having some trouble with the whole ‘making money’ thing. And so they’ll bitterly cut some of the fat down. Specifically the linear single-player fat.  Games like Max Payne, Bioshock and God of War are really good fun but the fact is that most of them clock in at an average of 10 hours for a complete run, which discourages gamers from buying them at launch. Especially when they’re placed alongside the neverending slew of deathmatches and foul-mouthed children that is Call of Duty.

I see Microsoft as a company that wants to keep its games profitable, which is a good thing, because it ensures lots of nice new titles and even *gasp* new IP. Enter DRM, the good intentions that pave Microsoft’s road to hell. I mean, DRM has this nice, innocent name: Digital Rights Management. It’s so innocuous, which makes sense ‘cause they can’t call it ‘stupid useless piece of garbage that stops me from having nice things’. As far as solutions go, it’s got the same approach as the chastity belt. And like with the chastity belt, some people might go vanquish a dragon for the key and others will just find the loose women of Sony and nail them instead.

Enter DRM, the good intentions that pave Microsoft’s road to hell

I was talking to a friend yesterday and telling him that gamers weren’t voting with their wallets for DRM. Diablo III and Sim City both sold really well and they managed to completely sidestep piracy. However, he rightly pointed out that these were really, really big established games with massive fanbases that had been assembled over goddamn decades. Sure, gamers put up with DRM for Diablo and Origin for BF3. But I doubt they’ll make the same sacrifice of time and money for games they’re not rabid fans of. And yeah, Xbox has that. I’m pretty sure at Halo launches there are kids that throw money at the store clerks and demand the gizmo what plays the Halo thing, but a lot of other people may not think it’s worth it. People probably won’t put up with it for new IP like Sunset Overdrive.

So what could be more effective? Well, the solution that many people have proposed directly addresses the problem that’s probably going to end up undoing the console industry. Make the games cost less to develop and create a budget market. Shiny, graphics-heavy, oh-god-my-eyes-it’s-so-brilliant games are terrific for trailers and reveals, but when the thirty million dollar bill shows up and less than a million people buy the thing, you end up looking kinda silly. Game companies need to find a way to cut corners and bring down development costs where they can. This wonderful piece by Verge explains just how deep a hole they’ve dug themselves with their bloated budgets and it paints a grim reality of an industry that’s just plain wasteful. Tablet games cost a fraction to make and subsequently a fraction to buy and so they’re the more promising investment from where everyone’s sitting.

Tablet games cost a fraction to make and subsequently a fraction to buy

Xbox One’s tactic doesn’t seem like the right move because they’re not in a position of power here. In total fairness, they’re definitely looking into the future. However, they’re doing so by making their new device a one-stop-shop (the name makes sense now!). But the same can be said about the $100 Ouya, which competes with Xbox in both price AND stupid name

I don’t feel DRM represents a money-grub; business-wise these guys aren’t swimming in money like they’re Scrooge McDuck. This is them trying to recoup their investment. But the most effective way to do that is not going to be the one that asks skeptical consumers to pay even more for these products.


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