This post is about Digital Rights Management, or DRM; that annoying technology that some companies like to use to control how you're allowed to access your games, music, or movies. With video games, this usually takes one of the following forms:
* Requiring that the game disc is in your computer while you play.
* Requiring that the computer is connected to the Internet to play.
* Limiting the number of times that you are allowed to install your game on a computer.
Here at Longbow, we're all avid gamers, and we don't like DRM. If you've been following the various DRM scandals and names like StarForce or the Sony rootkit are familiar to you, then what I'm saying isn't very controversial. There have been many people – gamers and developers alike – who have already spoken out against DRM, but it remains an important issue. The market is still flush with games that are laden with DRM, so it's nice to know where a developer stands on DRM.
What the supporters of DRM have to say
The supporters of DRM cite piracy as their justification for forcing their customers to jump through these hoops, but time and time again new games are released and then cracked in less than a week. Even some of the best copy protection ever created only lasted two months before being cracked. But that brings us to an important distinction between the way we sell games and the way the big-name publishers sell games: we sell games digitally.
The big-name publishers primarily sell through stores like GameStop and Walmart. Brick-and-mortar stores, as they're called in the business. In this environment, when your game stops selling in large quantities, they take it off the shelves. Because of this, the big-name publishers sell 30-50 percent of all of their games within the first two months after release. The supporters of DRM say they don't mind that their DRM is cracked within two months, as long as it protects this vital period of sales.
Well, that doesn't apply to us. Since we sell our games digitally, we continue to sell games well beyond those first two months. And since we're independent and we don't have a large marketing budget, we depend largely on word-of-mouth to make sales, so we don't see a large sales spike immediately after release. We're very much in this for the long-haul.
So even if we supported DRM, it wouldn't protect us very well anyway.
Piracy vs the legitimate customer
Okay, so that was me being nice to the DRM supporters and giving their side of the story. Now let's get to the name-calling.
First, let's compare how a pirate gets his games compared to the way legitimate customers gets their games. Here's what a pirate does:
* He goes to a website that hosts pirated games and searches for the game he wants.
* He downloads the game, for free.
* He installs it.
* If necessary, he also installs a crack to strip out the DRM. This step is often already performed by the people who package pirated games.
Now, here's what a legitimate customer goes through:
* He goes to a physical store.
* He buys the game he wants – provided it's in stock – for around $60.
* He goes home and installs it.
At first blush, these two processes seem to be comparable, at least when it comes to convenience. The legitimate method might even seem more desirable, if not for the price and the trip to the store. After all, you get a physical copy out of the deal, along with a manual and anything else that may entail.
But then we get to the hassles the customer has after installing his game, and these are innumerable. Every time he wants to play the game he bought, he has to dig out the game disc and put it in his computer. If he wants to install the game on a second computer – let's say he wants to install it on his laptop so he can play when he's not at home – then he needs to tote the game CD around with him wherever he goes.
Of course, if he was unlikely enough to buy a game that requires Internet access, then he won't be able to play it when he's away from home anyway. And if he was unlucky enough to buy a game with install limits, then once he installs the game three times, he'll never be able to install it on a new computer, even if he still has the original disc. His only recourse then is to call customer support, wait on hold for a while, and cross his fingers that they're feeling nice. That's assuming, of course, that the company never shuts down or gets bought out, an event which seems to happen about once a month in the games industry.
And if he was really unlucky and he bought a game with StarForce, his computer might be subject to all sorts of invasive effects, from degraded CD-ROM performance, to breaking his CD-ROM drive, to having his computer automatically reboot every time StarForce sees something happen on his computer that it thinks is suspicious. If you've ever seen a virus-scanner give a false-positive before, then this should really worry you. And worst of all, all of this could happen even when he's not playing any games.
The pirate, on the other hand, suffers none of these burdens. Piracy isn't just cheaper, and it's not just easier to get, but it's often a better product. And that DRM which was supposed to stop the pirates? They don't even see it. In the end, DRM does nothing but inconvenience legitimate customers.
I don't think that's right. If a customer is willing to pay us for our product, then there's no way we should be allowing thieves to get better service than our legitimate customers. That's why we don't have any installation limits, we don't require our customers to be connected to the Internet, and you're allowed to back up your game in whatever way you want. We don't even mind if you install our games on multiple computers; all we ask is that you limit it to computers that you own.
A little bit about cost
Our games are also a lot cheaper than most retail games. $60 is an awful lot to spend on a game, and while we'll never be able to give our games away for free, we think we can make up for some of the sales we lose to piracy by reducing our prices. We feel that if we sell a game for $30 and make twice as many sales (or sell a game for $5 and make twelve times the sales) then there's no reason not to do that. We make just as much profit off of our work, and more people get to see it! If we're lucky, we might even be able to convert some would-be pirates in the process.
We don't like DRM, as gamers or as developers. And as PC developers, we feel that this is one of the factors driving people away from PC gaming. The hassles of DRM are something that you don't usually see on consoles. But the PC has a lot to offer that consoles don't, not the least of which is a platform for indie developers to create games which are free from the financial and political limitations present in developing games for consoles. The PC is too important to lose over something as stupid as DRM.
Let's keep games DRM-free.