Death to Always-Online DRM
Imagine if your car wouldn’t start without an electronic leash from Ford or Toyota’s computer servers. If your mp3 player or ebook reader wouldn’t work because you were in a concrete building. If your guns wouldn’t fire because you haven’t been injected with nanomachines If your bathtub refused to pour water because no one wants to stretch cable internet wires to your obscure town in Montana or the Australian outback.
Sound ridiculous? That’s what gamers have to put up with for our hobby. The “digital rights management” (DRM) is creeping into video gaming lately, and it’s almost universally derided as stupid and selfish. Limitations like 2012’s Diablo III and the 2013 Sim City requiring a constant internet connection have resulted in frequent outages, ruined games, and lack of the promised online support. Nothing but headaches for players and game creators/maintainers both. Yet the DRM is going to keep coming regardless of what consumers think about it.
It’s hard to overstate how irritating always-online requirements are when speaking to someone who doesn’t play video games. They may say things like, “I stream movies on Netflix, what’s the big deal?” But you have the physical disc, you have digital downloads saved to your hard drive, and you can see the movie in a theater. You have options. With an always-online game you have no choice but to accept the game maker’s demands (in addition to already purchasing the game) in order to play it at all. Unless a game cracking group makes an offline version, you’re forced to cram that square peg into a round hole like some demented oppressive game of Perfection. If some blood gets squeezed from the consumer stone along the way, then it’s all worth it to them, regardless of who gets crushed in the process.
The new Xbox console is going to require a constant internet connection in order to run. This is ostensibly to curtail piracy but more clandestine reasons include increasing user dependence on game manufacturers and killing the reselling business. Sure, GameStop exercises immoral business practices and I wouldn’t miss them should they disappear (online buying makes them almost completely obsolete), but used game sales aren’t the cancer that is killing video gaming. It’s the greedy pricks that run gigantic software companies like Ubisoft and EA who care nothing for their customers, who insist on forcing these fascist measures upon their clientele. (EA doesn’t consider online-only restrictions to be DRM, but of course they are because they are unnecessary.) Or at least, the problems with it are identical from the consumer perspective; most people don’t copy PC games, but most people do suffer from ill-advised anti-piracy measures. We’ve been having the same argument since the 1980s about copy protection and the evidence keeps piling up against it and they keep trying harder (at least in part because it’s easier than ever to distribute pirated games, but still). Trying to stop pirates ends up doing more to harm legitimate buyers.
Adam Orth, one of Microsoft’s (former) goons, had no problems with putting us consumer scum in our place by telling us to accept any crumbs his bosses drop for us proletariat filth. Though he was forced to resign over his idiocy, Orth remains a symbol of the callous video games industry, which—like most things run by rich people—sees its buyers not as actual people but as resources to be exploited. To use a dorkwad analogy, we’re the vespene gas and they’re the Zerg overlords getting fat off of our labor. Orth wants a world where we can’t open a refrigerator to get food without the authorization of Wal-Mart, where cats marry dogs, and where people in rural areas with spotty internet connections are subhuman garbage not worthy his consideration.
With this always-online lunacy and Windows 8 (which is apparently harder to shut down than the Zodiac Killer), Microsoft continues to prove that they are a bunch of senseless and depraved bastards even as they construct monuments to themselves out of hundred dollar bills. At least their big shots, I mean. I don’t put blame on the lower-rung workers. That would be as dumb as hating the soldiers while exonerating the politicians who started the war. It’s the programmers, the artists, the QA/bug testers that do the huge majority of the work in creating a big-name game, but they get practically none of the credit. The grunt workers and even jerks like Orth aren’t responsible for this DRM bullshit; Microsoft’s marketers and out-of-touch head honchos are. Microsoft has to know how bad internet connections are in small towns, they control their network and they undoubtedly have performance metrics. They probably thought they could write off backwoods areas completely and still make the same profits.
And Microsoft isn’t alone. Nintendo hasn’t done very well in the past decade. Creatively, not financially, I mean. The only good recent Nintendo games I can think of are both Super Mario Galaxys and Donkey Kong Country Returns. But it’s the beloved Miyamoto/Nintendo brand name that sells casual nostalgia-fueled drek like New Super Mario Bros. U, not the hard labor of the Nintendo employees who bring his tepid visions to life.* But you know what? I can at least play a Wii U game (not that it has any good games yet) without signing over my first-through-third-born children to Satoru Iwata. Nintendo might be past their prime, but they still have more honor than the Western devils who want to turn users into serfs.
So what happens when the servers for these games eventually die, as did Microsoft’s original Xbox Live in 2010 or the various MMOs which have disappeared into the internet aether? The more always-online games that will be made, the more that will eventually be lost forever, and not after a lengthy period of time. In 1995 Nintendo created some games (including a freaking Zelda game, you know, that franchise that everybody worships) that required a Super Famicom and a constant internet connection, and of course they’re gone forever. Gaming archivists like the good people at Home of the Underdogs will probably never be able keep copies of these always-online games after they cease to be supported. The historical legacy of games will be unexaminable if the games won’t run because the authorization server shut down twenty years ago. At least there are some offline versions of World of Warcraft available so your transhumanist grandchildren can use their cyberscreens to kind of see what online gaming was like in the dark ages before all entertainment was replaced with market-tested endorphin-releasing brain implants.
So what I propose is that when an online-only game’s servers close permanently, the game should be made open source. It usually costs the game creator nothing and it lets their fans carry the torch for as long as they like. (Of course, many games are built on top of commercial engines that they can’t open source, and there is also the issue of trademarks and intellectual property.) Sadly, I can’t see any major game companies doing something so shockingly friendly, especially with the United States’ copyright-dominant culture. Or they can find a way to make money off of it. Wasn’t the commercial failure Hellgate London sold to another company that retooled it into a free-to-play game? A lot of games are going to be lost to the ages, and that is a shame. Ironically, a measure intended in part to stop piracy will end up hurting pirates—not the ones who steal everything a day before it’s released commercially, but the altruistic pirates who keep games alive and fresh for years after their creators abandon them.
Id software makes their game engines open source when they’re more or less two versions old. They got their game made on it, they were able to license it to other game companies, then they open source it. The problem with that is that they don’t open source the game assets, art, etc. It’s not ideal, but it’s a big step forward that other companies should emulate instead of charging us five bucks for twenty year old games we already own on a dozen platforms and have been emulating the past decade anyway.
Always-online requirements are a horrible idea for a number of reasons, which I have already enumerated. Pompous (but usually correct) limey Jim Sterling spoke on this subject recently. Half the internet is up in arms about how terrible and abusive this always-online DRM is towards game buyers. Complaining on the internet appears to be more effective in spreading the message to these rich assholes than boycotts, so by all means, continue to gripe on blogs and message boards. It’s quantity, not quality, that speaks to most people. It’s better to bitch than to boycott because they make enough sales with or without you, but bad publicity actually hurts them.
They aren’t even sitting around rubbing their hands and cackling while thinking up evil ways to torture us. They are literally the embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. They’re cheating us because so far it’s good for the bottom line and that’s all that matters. Why would a guy like the CEO of Nintendo USA have come from Pizza Hut? It’s because he doesn’t really care that much about games when you get down to it. He’s ostensibly an expert on running companies regardless of what they sell. These are the kind of people who give us a share button that no one asked for and call it an amazing innovation.
The legacies that will be left behind by these always-online required games are irrelevant to their creators. Who cares if people remember if Halo: Resurrection or Madden 2027 or whatever was any good in the future as long as they keep that gravy train rolling for now and can make that easy content-light sequel next year? Come to think of it, internet protesters like me are probably a minority compared to the masses who don’t care in the slightest about these fascist measures. Or, to be more accurate, we never care until we are inevitably burned by them. But after we fume, we go right back and fall for it again. That’s how badly gamers want their games.
Literally almost every gamer I know has been stung by a game that won’t install because of copy protection, or won’t install because they already installed it on one machine, or already installed it on one machine, didn’t deauthorize it before upgrading their PC, had a rootkit installed by a game company that crashed their system, didn’t find out it required a constant internet connection until they opened it… it just goes on and on. The wealthy will probably not be persuaded by the truth, but we should still make an effort to tell them how bad their ideas are.
If the next Xbox console turns out to be a big success, its always-online infection may spread to other game console manufacturers. We’re going to be covered in chains from these blind billionaire morons and the industry will suffer. It’ll be stagflation like you’ve never seen as we get fifty Assassin’s Creed titles per year and Squeenix cranks out endless anime detritus. The worst case scenario will be that PC gaming is the only worthwhile gaming platform. Freedom from always-online shackles, user-made content, and frequent patches without having to jump through ridiculous/expensive hoops (oh hey, it’s Microsoft again) have already ensured the PC is on top right now; in the future, it might be the only game in town if you want anything other than Michael Bay games that come with ankle monitors.
The new Xbox console might very well have good games on it, but I will not buy one. I can play most games on Steam even when my terrible Iowa ISP decides I don’t need internet for a couple hours in the middle of the day (though Steam can cause its own headaches from time to time). And I can’t believe I’m saying something nice about a corrupt and horrible company like Sony, but at least they were smart enough to dodge this particular bullet. Death to always-online DRM.
* Don’t get me wrong, Miyamoto gets a pass for life for his phenomenal work in the 80s and 90s. He could probably devour puppies on national television and we’d still love him for eternity, and he would have earned it. But remember that the same man who gave us Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda is also responsible for Nintendogs and Link’s Crossbow Training.