Game DRM is back-asswards

DRM, in its form as copy-protection for computer games is completely backwards, and accelerating rapidly in that direction.

The basic notion is a sound one, but seems to have been completely forgotten over the years:

Make things harder for those who acquire the game without buying it, while not making things any more difficult for your customers.

It’s a simple-enough principle, but that isn’t how it works in practice.

The DRM is generally applied to the software by the publisher (by sending it through the DRM provider) at the end of the development cycle, after acceptance-testing, and after quality assurance. The DRM is usually only then bolted onto the final product, and done at some considerable expense (typically, each application of the DRM costs money in fees).

What does that mean in practical terms? It means that once the DRM software has been applied to the software, there’s usually not a lot of testing happens to see that combination of the game and the DRM play nice together.

Historically, the game+DRM may run slower and may crash more often. Even worse things may result, as most copy protection schemes rely on fairly low-level access to the operating system and hardware, and sometimes one copy-protection system interferes with another.

I once got a game from the store, installed it and tried to play it. The copy-protection check on the disk messed up somehow, and the DVD drive hardware obviously became confused. The drive ejected the disk, but without stopping the disk first, resulting in the disk shooting out of the tray and across the room. Thankfully, nobody was in its path.

I checked a few other disks in the drive, and everything else worked fine.

I went back to the store with the disk (which was now in two pieces) and had a great deal of difficulty getting the staff member to believe my tale. Nevertheless, I eventually got a replacement. Instead of doing anything with it right away, I nervously worked up my courage over the course of a week.

Then I uninstalled the old game, and reinstalled it. I ran it, and the copy-protection check kicked in. There was a nasty grinding noise from the drive, and everything hung. Unable to eject the disk, I powered down and used a paperclip to manually pop the disk out. It was badly scored. I tried two other disks in the drive, both of which were destroyed.

My next trip out was for a new DVD drive, and back to the store for a second replacement. This time, I had no trouble with getting a replacement. The ‘flying disk of death’ event had happened to several other customers. I did have to wait a couple of weeks for new stock. This time, I waited about 2 months before daring to give the game another try.

This time, I installed the game fresh, went online and downloaded a crack to bypass the copy protection. Finding and downloading the crack via the Web search-engine of choice took about five minutes, and at the end I was satisfied that nothing would go wrong. Indeed, the game played just fine after that.

Other games I’ve had have been laggy or crash-prone – until, that is, you grab a crack off the Web, and all the game-stuttering and poor-responsiveness and crashes go away. To be fair, the DRM isn’t the problem in every single instance, but it has been in enough of them that applying a crack to the software is just almost a routine part of installation. They’re generally available on the day of release, so there’s no waiting.

Certain copy-protection systems have been known to do nasty, permanent and fatal things to CD and DVD drives, and a couple have been used as avenues for self-installing malware by providing an avenue for privilege-escalation attacks.

So, what’s the lesson here? People who are breaking the copy-protection on the games are having an easier time and a better gaming experience than the people who aren’t.

Seriously, that’s just screwed up.

I paid for the game, so shouldn’t I be getting at least as good an experience as those people who didn’t? Apparently not. They’re getting a better experience than me, in many cases, unless I use the cracks they produce.

And rather than try to correct that balance, it seems the publishers are intent on making it worse, rather than better.

That’s just so seriously backwards.

7 thoughts on “Game DRM is back-asswards”

  1. I’ve had this issue several times in the past. For example, the game Command & Conquer 2: Tiberium Sun. My computer (a 450mhz pentium3) would regularly lag out while playing that game, but it wouldn’t lag out for games which were, in theory, more processor-intensive. I eventually tracked the problem down to a strange background process I found, which was eating up LOTS of memory.

    After a quick search on Google, I found out that the program was a copy-protection system. So, I decided to simply play the game on the family room computer, a 1.6ghz pentium4 system. And I ran into the exact same problem!

    I later learned about “swapping”. Swapping is where the computer starts using space on your hard drive for temporary program data, and it usually does so when the computer’s RAM runs out of free memory. Both computers had 512 megabytes of RAM, which is why both systems had the same problem.

    My friend Eren Padar also had problems of his own with DRM: http://elfclan.ning.com/profiles/blogs/ubisoft-loses-a-sale

  2. District court on the united States just ruled that what you describe is now perfectly legal: if you own it, you can legally crack it and patch it as long as it is for yourself only.

    Of course, all the so-called media turned this story into a “it’s now legal to jailbreak your iPhone” story when the bigger story is what you are writing about.

  3. @Ari: If you’re referring to what I think you are, it wasn’t a district court ruling, but rather a “Recommendation of the Register of Copyrights”, an arm of the Library of Congress.

    The ruling has several facets, but the one related to video games (class 4) is not as broad as you seem to imply. You can only crack/patch the software “for the purpose of good faith testing for, investigating, or correcting security flaws or vulnerabilities”. Unfortunately, “for the purpose of just getting it to work” is not covered by the ruling. Although in the case of the DVD-tossing DRM, one could argue that you are correcting a security flaw. (Or at least correcting a safety hazard. :D)

    And of course, the ruling doesn’t apply at all to anyone outside the U.S.

  4. The DRM actually physicly damaged your disc drive to the point you lost other discs not related and was forced to purchase a whole new drive? Damn!!

  5. There are a couple of game DRMs that are notable for creating conditions which could lead to hardware damage. I got ‘lucky’, apparently.

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