Summary: DRM got you down? You're not alone. Seems like they're coming up with new ways to inconvenience gamers all the time in a futile attempt to thwart piracy. In this week's Firing Points, Vandy salts old wounds with a retrospective of some of the most nefarious forms of copy protection of the past decade. Don't forget to share your own DRM horror stories and other thoughts on the topic in the comments!
For as long as I can remember, most PC games have used some sort of anti-piracy device. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a unique serial key or disc check, but things have become a lot more complicated in recent years. From online activation to limits on how many computers you can install the game on, DRM is getting more complicated and increasingly invasive. It’s understandable for publishers to want to take measures against copyright infringement, but is it worth inconveniencing legitimate customers in the process? The fact is, they’re the ones that have to put up with the hassle, not the pirates. Warez groups take sport in cracking DRM as quickly and effectively as possible, which means that 95% of games are freely available for download on or before the game’s release date. Ultimately, those that are inclined to illegally download a game will do so, while over-bearing safeguards fail to do much of anything beyond encouraging more people to make that choice. Obviously, no DRM is preferable to any at all, but few game makers are willing to take that stance. I do believe something like Steamworks is the best solution, but let’s look back at some of the most infamous DRM blunders of recent memory. (That we’re even aware of the names of these things is should indicate a problem in itself.)
StarForce is pretty well-known for being the most despicable form of copy protection, having been used in games from the early- to mid-2000s like X3: Reunion, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Heroes of Might and Magic V, and many others. The biggest problem with it -- aside from incompatibilities that prevented some legitimate users from playing the game at all -- may have been the fact that it installed a device driver which remained on the system even after the game was removed. In the midst of numerous complaints that this driver had caused performance and stability issues over time, online publications like CNET likened StarForce to malware and were threatened with legal action by its creator, Protection Technology. Former PC Gamer editor-in-chief Greg “The Vede” Vederman expressed his own frustrations with the software, attesting to the fact that it can screw up an optical disc drive and cause BSODs; he was able to fix his problems with a removal tool, but others have suffered permanent hardware damage. StarForce is still around today, though it supposedly employs less invasive protection methods (why they kept the name is anyone’s guess).
Not long after that, SecuROM gained notoriety through its strict use by Electronic Arts in several big-name games such as Dead Space, Crysis: Warhead, Mass Effect, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, and Spore. The latter was declared the most-pirated game of 2008, which some attributed to its DRM being so restrictive. In addition to the now-standard online activation during installation, it required re-authentication via the internet every 10 days, and the serial key could only be used on a maximum of 3 computers. Every other aforementioned game had similar activation limits, and not all of them allowed for an activation to be “refunded” upon uninstallation. 2K Games also caught some flak for their use of SecuROM in BioShock, which shipped with a limit of 2 activations and required individual users (even on the same computer) be activated separately. While most people don’t have multiple computers that they play games on, this convention also caused problems for people that upgrade their system or reinstall the operating system. I’ve certainly lost “installs” of Crysis and Mass Effect because I reformatted without giving thought to uninstalling games or executing deauthorization tools beforehand…
Most recently, Ubisoft ruffled feathers with its implementation of “always-on” DRM, which requires a constant connection to the internet (and their master server) so that the game can communicate validation codes, even while playing single-player. Surely that would stop piracy, right? Apparently not, as the first game to use it, Silent Hunter 5: Battle of the Atlantic, was cracked on the very first day it was released. Ironically, the only people suffering the wrath of this controversial copy protection were paying customers. Not only do you need to be online to launch the game, but the loss of connection, even for a moment, can cause gameplay to be interrupted, and the player may even be kicked back to the main menu, forfeiting the progress they made since their last save. Pirates bypass that completely copy-pasting a modified executable. The same draconian scheme was also used in Splinter Cell: Conviction, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. EA decided to follow in those same footsteps (albeit briefly) by concocting their own always-on DRM for Command & Conquer 4. Thankfully, the requirements were relaxed for some of those games, and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood will only need to be activated online once.
Firing Points is a weekly editorial that explores popular, pressing, or otherwise provocative topics in the world of gaming. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the rest of the FiringSquad team, or anyone else for that matter.
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