By saying on a video game site that Digital Rights Management (DRM) sucks, I'm preaching to the choir. We've all heard the stories about and, in some cases experienced, StarForce, SecuROM and other schemes of various effectiveness to prevent the piracy of video games. Most of us are aware about how futile it is, and I'd guess that a significant portion of you have pirated a game that you legitimately purchased so that you could enjoy a DRM-free experience. Many companies have gone with an explicitly DRM-free model, favoring indirect copy protection measures, whether that means a rise in MMORPGs, where server verification requires that you have a key to create the account, or providing bonus content for verifying that your copy is legitimate. DRM remains a scourge of PC gaming. It's an unfortunate element of gaming that companies would love to pass off as a necessity, but gamers question its existence altogether.
However, one aspect of it that many players haven't experienced reared its ugly head in the direction of my PC when I tried to review FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage. Yes, it's an old game, but someone's got to work on clearing the backlog, right? (Coincidentally, that could be you, but I digress.) Upon loading the game, I was presented with the Games for Windows Live dialogues. I'll admit, this was the first time I had seen them. Immediately, the game started requesting a login, and thankfully, my Xbox Live credentials worked. Then the game started to download a patch that could involve restarting my PC when the game download did not. The patch hung forever. If I canceled it (as I eventually did), I could not sign on to Live ... and could not save my game progress at all.
A little research showed that the FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage publisher had gone kaput. Empire Interactive was gone, and with it, the patch servers, and the ability to save the game. The game's DRM, in the form of Games for Windows Live, essentially prohibited progress in the game without being able to download that patch, which no longer existed. The results aren't pretty when you try to review a racing game and can't access more than the first (admittedly enjoyable) track and initial three cars.
What's stopping this from happening elsewhere? Just ask anyone who has enjoyed many NCsoft games that are now lost, seemingly forever, to the mists of time (and ones that soon will be, like Dungeon Runners). I wonder what will happen to that icon of the industry, World of Warcraft, when Blizzard finally decides that it's time to move on once and for all into its next MMO or RTS. Look at fans of Burnout. Even on the Xbox, where Live is supposed to allow servers to remain up indefinitely, older versions of the game can no longer be played online, removing large chunks of replay value from those games.
To quote TVTropes, "in the event that the company goes under, no one will ever be able to play their games ever again. But the companies don't care so much about that. In fact, some rather like that they can simply turn off the activation server for Mega Quest 2005 and thereby force all their users to buy Mega Quest 2006."
That's precisely what happened to me with FlatOut: Ultimate Carnage. I'll never be able to see what made this game tick at more than the most superficial of levels, as one critical part of the game's security is gone for good. DRM has, unintentionally killed this game, which is still available for purchase at my local Gamestop. It's fortunate that older games — ones that won't hit WiiWare or GameTap — are seeing some more significant efforts to save them from being lost forever as older systems inevitably die off, but why aren't we, as an industry, taking some effort to ensure that this isn't necessary in the first place?
Perhaps it's because more companies would love to see themselves in headlines like "Don't Buy Batman AA for PC." Or maybe they'd rather be like Titan Quest, whose attempts at subtle copy protection (i.e., copies would crash) may have destroyed the developer.A few companies get applause for their efforts to end this DRM nightmare. Valve promised that if its company ever goes kaput, a Steam patch will be pushed to remove DRM to ensure that all your Steam-bought games remain largely playable. EA scaled back the planned SecuROM DRM in The Sims 3 to a traditional, future-friendly, reasonably effective CD-check and serial number, along with bonus content for registration. Stardock gets a general pat on the back. 2DBoy showed that, in spite of World of Goo having 90 percent piracy rates, the game was highly successful in actual sales, thus proving that piracy can, with the right game, increase legitimate purchases.
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