Does Always-On DRM Matter?

A long while back Ahmed wrote a piece that seemed to open a can of worms when he discussed the problem with Diablo III‘s launch.  He touched on the negative side of always-on DRM, namely that you’re really screwed should the servers crash and/or you lose access to the net, etc. He didn’t look at all the positives that come with always-on DRM outside of putting a stop to piracy, namely the prevention of hacks and other game-breaking issues that have plagued countless releases over the years. All of those good discussions came from the comments section. So why do I bring this up again, well because another high profile title just launched and has been having so many issues that many gamers have simply given up on it. What game is that, SimCity.

Before we get started, let me give you a little background info. Ever since I built this new gaming rig PC I have been playing countless PC games, on top of my regular console titles. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Crysis, Tomb Raider, and many others. I’m not a n00b in any sense of the word, having played PC games for decades before my recent resurgence, but something that I am not used to is always-on DRM. The ultimate question is, does always-on DRM really matter for PC gamers?

For the most part the answer to that question is no, it doesn’t. Why is that, well basically because virtually all modern day computers are online. Hell, a lot of videogames are only available from digital services to begin with, or at the very least are purchased through these services more so than physical discs. Steam, Origin and Battlenet are prime examples. These various outlets sell millions of pieces of software digitally each and every year. How else can you download the games if you’re not online?

Always-on DRM also prevents hacks, which really got mass media attention during the Diablo and Diablo II days. Players were able to enhance their characters, duplicate weapons and more. Go back and play the original Diablo and you’ll see how many cheats/hacks are available for it, millions. The solution to this problem was to force gamers to always have an internet connection. It makes sense for games like Diablo III, or World of Warcraft because by their very nature they’re always online to begin with. Sure there’s a single player version of D3, but you can swap back and forth, therefore making the two seamless. With SimCity‘s recent launch, the question of whether or not always-on DRM should be abolished has come full circle yet again.

SimCity Woes On Tuesday March 5th gamers were treated to one fact, they couldn’t access the game. Tempers flared and suddenly people were demanding EA give them their money back because they had in essence purchased a piece of plastic or a bunch of zeroes and ones they couldn’t use. The sad truth is that these very same people fail to realize why the always-on DRM is there to begin with. Does it suck we have to live in a world where the game must verify with a server that you’re playing a legal copy of the game, yes it really does. Would I prefer to have a game just play when I boot it up, you bet I would, but I also don’t want people to exploit the game and make my gameplay experience worse as the game ages. If anything it should get better, not plagued with unfair exploits and hacks. I do believe some sort of middle ground needs to happen, because what ticks me off the most about always-on DRM is not being able to play the single-player version of certain games while on a laptop. Games that feature no multiplayer component whatsoever. Does this happen frequently, no not at all, but it’s still annoying when it does.

So ultimately where does this leave us? Piracy is one issue, exploits and hacks are another. Then there’s the console space. Having always-on DRM for consoles may seem absurd, but eventually it will happen. The closer consoles come to becoming full fledged PCs, the more open to hacks they become. Once we reach a level where players can tweak and modify parameters for gaining access to achievements, infinite health and life, you can bet we’ll start to see this evolution happen. We’re already there in a sense. Xbox Live is the first step towards an always-on DRM solution. If you hack a game and then play it online through Live, chances are you’re going to see the ban hammer come out. The catch with consoles is that their history isn’t so directly connected to the net as PCs are. I mean honestly, who doesn’t have an Internet-connected PC today? We all do, but with consoles that number decreases significantly. Some people are frightened by routers, don’t know what WiFi is, etc. So forcing an always-on connection will prove to be a very uphill battle for consoles, but it’s one I assure you is coming.

To wrap up, let’s go back to SimCity and Diablo III. For every game like that, there are literally hundreds that get released that have always-on DRM where their launches go off without a hitch. It’s whenever a huge, multimillion selling game hits where you’re going to run into troubles. The best solution I’ve come up with, is to simply pretend the launch is a week after the company says it is. That way a patch is released and/or server woes are fixed and presto problem solved.

So where do you stand on this issue? Do you think no games should require an always-on Internet connection? How do you feel about hacks or exploits, and how they relate to this topic? I’d really love to see an updated reaction to this hotly debated topic.

4 thoughts on “Does Always-On DRM Matter?”

  1. Regarding DRM, I still stand by the fact that it should be in a case-by-case basis and not to every single game in existence. From what I understand, this new SimCity is a community-based game in which each city may affect other players, so the use of DRM and Cloud assets to stream in is justified as the game is designed for community aspects. In hindsight, Diablo III also has similar design aspects to SimCity so maybe I was too harsh in my editorial. Still though, The Diablo series and SimCity series have always had offline solo modes too. My argument is that why don’t they include both in just to be safe? Have your DRM always online game mode, but build a mode that’s offline-based too. What if years later popularity wanes on both Diablo III and SimCity? Once you shut the servers, you have a useless game that no longer can be played.

    Speaking of which, servers and demand seem to be a major problem here as well. When these launch debacles happen, developers tend to repeat the same old phrase of “we didn’t know the demand would be this high”. I find that very hard to believe. Add that to the fact that SimCity has no servers in Asia, and you screwed a lot of people right there as a publisher. If you’re going for always online gameplay, at least meet the demand of the consumer in terms of servers.

    1. “What if years later popularity wanes on both Diablo III and SimCity? Once you shut the servers, you have a useless game that no longer can be played.” – For this you’re 100% right, that there will be no official way to play these games if/when the servers are no longer active. At that point in time the developer/publisher either has to release a patch which would enable the games to be played offline or players will have to resort to other means.

      The reason why many games that are build around community and/or online systems don’t include an offline mode (as much as I wish they would) is mainly because then they’d give hackers access to the source code. With that they’d be able to interfere with the mechanics and eventually break the online version as well. Not to say this doesn’t already happen, but their logic is that they can pool all of their resources into one version of the game.

      It’s going to be extremely interesting to see what happens during this next generation of consoles because in time eventually all games will be online-enabled in some way, shape or form and we all know more and more publishers will want to move to an always-online security system.

      1. I really hope it’s as simple as releasing a patch and turning it into an offline game. Because Maxis makes it clear that it’s not as simple as that in their case as their framework is online-based. Either that, or they’re just spewing out PR bullshit to protect their game.

        While online connectivity may have its share of advantages from a gameplay standpoint and anti-piracy measures, it’s going to be a very painful transition for all games to make, particularly handheld ones. I really don’t want to worry about launch day server overloads and the inability to play a single player game if my internet decides not to work for the day. I’m happy that my country at least has caught up with the fiber tech for high internet speeds so that’s not a bother, but imagine others which still operate on older tech with slower speeds. I feel that the backlash will be insanely negative.

        1. Kotaku actually reported that if you remove only one line of code from SimCity, you can play it offline forever. Sad that developers and publishers need to lie about their real reasoning for why these games require a constant online connection. They should just say it’s for anti-cheating and piracy measures and leave it at that.

Leave a Reply