My stance on DRM has always been a simple one—I don’t like it. I find most current forms of anti-piracy methods to be either intrusive and annoying or an excuse to price gouge customers with day one DLC. The answer to combating piracy is an elusive one, but I’m fairly certain it isn’t making paying customers pay more while, at the same time, treating them like criminals. No matter how much gamers complain, though, the game industry seems to have no desire to listen to them. DRM gets more oppressive and less stable every year. A more cynical man would start to think that they just use the specter of piracy to justify anti-consumer policies and squeeze more money out of loyal fans. Luckily, I’m not very cynical.
Either way, it is hard to not see standard DRM as an archaic idea, a hold over from an era before digital distribution became profitable and commonplace. For all the talk major companies do of being innovative, it is strange to see them cling to something that so many people find frustratingly counterproductive. In 2012 there should be an alternative to protecting your intellectual property that doesn’t make it more difficult for actual customers to enjoy your product.
Thankfully, some companies realize this as well.
While traversing the single letter based image boards of the internet’s underbelly, I saw some interesting conversations about The Darkness II. For those who don’t know how piracy works, this is a loose breakdown—a group gets a hold of a game through any number of means, and then figures out how to get around the copy protection of the game by “cracking” it. This means they edit whatever files they need to in order to allow the game to boot up without a disc, without checking the internet and without checking your blood type or social security number. In a very simple way, they find whatever little pieces of code trigger the copy protection and take a chainsaw to it. Sometimes, the process takes a while, but generally the pirates beat it in a matter of hours while the legitimate owners of the games are still subject to whatever copyright measure the company put in effect.
This is what happened to the Darkness II. Hell, this is what happens to every game ever. So, on said imageboard, they were discussing the merits of the game. People who legitimately owned it were talking about it with people who pirated it, and all were relating their experiences. This lead to a bit of a discovery by the pirates.
Their version of the game had no gore.
Even some of the kill animations that became the focal point of the combat system were missing. The Darkness II sort of revolves around a 70s exploitation film level of gore and blood, so lacking any of that was a bit of a blow to the pirates’ enjoyment of their ill-gotten game. None of the people who legally purchased the game ran into this issue, of course. Eventually, the people on the more illegal side of that divider attributed the lack of gore to a bad crack. What this means is that, when the group who put the game online for download edited the game’s files to make it playable for pirates, they made a mistake somewhere and this lead to the removal of blood in the game.
I, however, started to think that it might not have been a mistake by some intrepid internet travelers, and was instead an instance of creative DRM—something that games should take advantage of more.
A few other developers have dabbled with some interesting copy protection in the recent past, so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that Digital Extremes could have placed some seemingly unimportant line of code in a spot they knew the crackers would mess around with, leading to a diminished experience for those who played the cracked game.
One of the more well known incidents of this was in regards to Batman: Arkham Asylum. While Arkham Asylum had traditional DRM—the much maligned, activation-limited SecuROM which, as usual, forced regular customers to suffer through a litany of issues related to it, it also had a much more effective deterrent buried under those layers of typical SecuROM bullshit. The initial pirated version of the game booted up fine, all the options were there and you could even get into the game and get through a part of the first level—until your cape stopped working. The game became absolutely unplayable to pirates by pulling a Bane on Batman, nuking most of his moveset. Eventually, the pirates cracked this too, but it took them longer than getting through SecuROM. A more telling fact is that people who bought the game had plenty of complaints about SecuROM causing problems, but none of them ran into the broken Bat.
A more successful example of creative DRM use is also one of the most recent ones. Croteam did what multiple borderline-evil security companies couldn’t do: beat the pirates (at least for a longer time than normal). Croteam’s DRM took significantly longer to remove than even Ubisoft’s self-described uncrackable DRM, and all without being maligned by the gaming community. How did they do this, you wonder? It wasn’t online activation, or needing a constant connection. It wasn’t with installation limits or root-kits. It wasn’t by holding content hostage. It was a super fast, immortal scorpion with duel wielded chainguns. When booting up an illegal copy of Serious Sam 3, players had to deal with this unstoppable dromopoda. Their only options were playing with cheats on and dealing with it or buying the game. When this was defeated, pirates ended up bumping up against a another level of protection in later levels that was even more game breaking. The camera would start spinning more than the ceiling in my room after a bottle of Wild Turkey. This proved to be even more difficult to fix. It took the scene community over a month to finally get a supposedly playable version of Serious Sam out, and by then, most people either bought the game or moved on. Even now, three months later, it is difficult to find a straight answer on whether or not the game has a working crack at all.
This isn’t just limited to modern PC games either. My personal favorite anti-piracy measure is also the most evil, and it belongs to the SNES game Earthbound. My love of Earthbound is almost as well documented as my hatred of DRM and modern DLC formats, but even if you aren’t a fanboy, you have to acknowledge the sheer brutality of Earthbound’s copy protection. See, back in the salad days of 16-bit gaming, piracy wasn’t quite as rampant as it is now- but it still existed. Earthbound decided it wasn’t going to take any shit from game copiers, and included a number of protection layers. The first was just a screen that said how illegal copying a game was, it was also small potatoes for pirates even 15 years ago. After that, things become way more subtle. A pirated copy of Earthbound spits out a drastically increased number of enemies, making the game as unenjoyable to play as possible. Even then, though, Earthbound was so great that maybe nobody would care about having to fight more. After all, you’ll just level up quicker and be able to defeat the final boss more easily… right?
Nope. When you reach Giygas at the end of your journey, after fighting dozens and dozens more enemies than people with a legal copy of the game, Earthbound freezes. No big deal, that stuff happened all the time back then. Just restart, and go to your last save. Except, as soon as you got back to the loading screen, all your saves were gone.
All of them.
That’s right, Earthbound would let you play the entire game, invest dozens of hours in its story, and then delete your save while imploring you to purchase the game legally next time. That is so fucking brutal that it makes black metal bands look like pop rock in comparison.
The beauty of DRM in this style is that it protects consumers while completely degrading the experience for the pirates. That should be the goal from the start. The odds of the pirates getting through it are just as high as any other method of more invasive DRM, and they did in The Darkness II’s case a day later when a new crack was released that included the delicious blood splatter, but the odds of a legitimate gamer having a diminished experience because of it are next to nothing. Even if Digital Extremes didn’t program their game to subtly show the finger to pirates on purpose and give them an extra headache, they should have.
If there is one thing the game industry should know by now, it is that the answer to every problem is always creativity. Piracy is no different.