Tag Archives: DRM

The ethics of gaming with non-free software

You’ve probably already read my rant about how PC gaming is looking doomed due to overpriced games, no second hand market, and most importantly; DRM. I haven’t really brought that many games since then for any platform; I’ve been cutting back since I was previously purchasing games quicker than I could play them. As such, I’ve been left with an overwhelming number of nice looking titles on my shelves; many of which had never even been loaded! Time to do something about that…

You might be wondering why, as a free software advocate, I allow myself to run non-free gaming software? The problem is that the FOSS development methodology doesn’t lend itself well to creating surprises. Take any FOSS FPS for example; these have been gradually developed in public, and project updates have been reported across various websites throughout development. There is little surprise.

Games are more than just being about software, hardware and reflexes. Generally, the type of single-player game that interests me will have great story telling, artwork, suspense, puzzles, music, and essentially provide a great overall experience. Hypothetically, if a FOSS game was under public development until completion, by the time the game was finished many aspects of it would feel old. Puzzles would have been solved in the betas, any surprises would be expected, and suspense would be eliminated because one would know what was coming from all the pre-releases.

There are exceptions. If a game looked sufficiently boring that I didn’t bother to look at it during development, I might look at it for the first time as a finished product. More likely though, it’s probably not my type of game and wouldn’t be played at all.

Another exception would be if the game was developed behind closed doors, and released once completed as a FOSS product. I would imagine this would be more likely to happen from a commercial game company that used an existing FOSS game engine and wanted to make money by licensing copyrights (such as artwork and in-game text) and possibly whatever trademarks they have registered. Although I haven’t researched it, I don’t recall this ever happening. It seems these days, companies are more interested in paying for an engine that gives developers and publishers the ability to redistribute the game in a non-free form, and then slapping DRM on top of that.

Looking at games from the angle of a user mainly interested in multi-player, FOSS has a real chance as many of the limitations I’ve mentioned don’t exist, or exist to a lesser extent. Unfortunately, I’m more of a single-player gamer; I often enjoy the feel of a totally new experience, and I don’t know a lot of other gamers. I also don’t like being restricted to gaming when my fellow comrades are interested or available, and don’t find it so fun to always play against strangers. Further, LAN parties aren’t easily accessible with events seemingly becoming more rare and PC equipment becoming increasingly heavy (and I rely on public transportation). Online gameplay also isn’t so fun when your wife is always downloading via bittorrent and the router doesn’t support prioritization.

Due to the above, I’ve come to depend on proprietary software for much of my gaming. Traditionally, this has meant dual-booting my gaming rig with a Windows OS. Great… more proprietary software. As of around mid last year, I’ve been actively looking for ways to minimize my reliance on it.

By late August, I had completely removed my dual-boot configuration in favor of a single GNU/Linux installation, with WINE.

I’ve completely installed all my games into their own individual wine WINEPREFIXes (jails, if you will). When it came around to testing the games, to my surprise most of the games in my collection actually worked. My success rate was around 55%, and that was with barely trying! With such a large collection already working, and WINE steadily improving to increase compatibility further, there was simply no need to reboot into Windows anymore.

Now I know a lot of people will be skeptical about such a claim. I expect some readers would point out that having a game run and be playable are two completely different things, and I agree. As such, to prove the maturity of the WINE platform and GNU/Linux in general, I’ve recently been saving to a log the games I’ve actually finished as I complete them! For games that have multiple campaigns (eg. 4 campaigns for WarCraft II Battle.net Edition) I finished all of them.

2009-08-29: BlackSite (WINE + mousepatch)
2009-08-30: F.E.A.R. 2 Project Origin (WINE)
2009-09-11: Quake 4 (native GNU/Linux)
2009-09-13: Unreal (WINE)
2009-09-14: Frontlines: Fuel of War (WINE + mousepatch)
2009-12-12: Unreal II: The Awakening (WINE)
2009-12-13: Wolfenstein (WINE)
2009-12-20: Crysis (WINE + regression patch)
2009-12-25: Crysis Warhead (WINE + regression patch)
2009-12-28: Red Faction (WINE 1.1.33)
2010-01-03: Red Alert 3 (WINE)
2010-01-08: Red Faction II (WINE 1.1.35)
2010-01-30: Half-Life (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-02: Half-Life 2 (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-02: Half-Life 2: Lost Coast (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-05: Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-02-06: Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (WINE 1.1.37)
2010-03-14: Portal (WINE 1.1.40)
2010-04-04: WarCraft II Battle.net Edition (WINE 1.1.41)

Playstation 3:
2010-01-10: Turok
2010-01-13: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
2010-01-26: Army of Two
2010-02-28: inFamous

Xbox 360:
2010-01-18: BioShock
2010-01-26: Halo 3

By comparing against the games I finished on the PS3 and 360, it is clear that I did most of my gaming under WINE.

The excitement doesn’t stop there. Most of these games contained some form of copy protection, and in almost every case WINE was able to satisfy the copy protection software’s requirements – even those that used DRM. Some of you will remember that I had previously mentioned on my blog that I wouldn’t be able to purchase Red Alert 3 for the PC because what could be done with it was restricted by DRM. In the case of this game, I believe it allows you to install it a limited number of times, and each time it connects to EA’s servers to reduce your remaining available install count. The great thing about WINE is that WINE mimics an entire Windows system, but with very little disk usage overhead (currently 39Mb for WINE 1.1.42 on my x86-64 system). This means that I can install the game, have it reduce my available install count by one, and then back up the entire wine prefix. When I restore it, the game will still be activated so won’t need to reconnect to the servers. It’s the best solution to this kind of DRM system I’ve seen (aside from simply not using it at all).

Unfortunately, just when I thought I had the DRM problem figured out, Ubisoft and EA go and release even worse DRM still! The latest versions require a constant connection to the Internet to both verify that you’re not running multiple instances of the game simultaneously, and to store all of your save games on – effectively making it Software as a Service. I fear there really is no nice solution for using these kinds of games, but they have some of the properties of multi-player gaming that will keep me away from them anyway, eg. if my wife’s running bittorrent I won’t be able to play my single-player game effectively.

Once again, I am reverting back to being very cautious about buying PC games, and may find myself returning to get a another look through those second hand bargain bins. :)

DRM possibly more damaging to gaming industry than anticipated

First and foremost, I used to always consider myself a PC gamer. PC gaming has so much going for it compared to its console-based competition; better graphics, higher resolutions, superior controls (I’ll take a keyboard and mouse over a game pad any day), bigger game selection, cheaper game prices, generally no need to insert game discs (after installation)… the list goes on.

As gaming became more mainstream, consoles gained more popularity. The purchase of an Xbox 360 or PS3 (while both being quite expensive) is still quite cheap when compared to the up-front cost of a modern gaming PC. For many, having a PC is an essential requirement for home so the real cost is actually only the difference between what they need for home and what they need for gaming. This would imply that for many, a reasonable gaming PC could be the cheapest solution for somebody already in the market to make a PC purchase. However for the masses that have no idea how to spec their own computer, let alone identify what would be a good graphics card for gaming, making such a purchasing decision is beyond their capabilities. For them, a gaming console may be the only safe choice.

I have always built my own PCs, so I am confident in my abilities to create powerful systems at an excellent price. As for the kinds of games I play, maybe 3 out of 20 PC game purchases I make will be for RTS games, and 1 of 20 will be an adventure game. The remaining 4 times out of 5, I’m purchasing a FPS. Anyone who is heavily into PC FPS and RTS games will know that it is a huge ask to make the jump over to console gaming, as using a mouse and keyboard is the only natural way to play. It doesn’t matter that a game might be playable with a game pad, because the PC gamer will still feel frustrated that he or she cannot maneuver as efficiently as is accustomed to. If a game isn’t enjoyable to play, it’s pointless. Despite all this, I find myself making the switch.

Around eight months ago, I discovered first hand that PC gaming had gained a significant disadvantage; DRM. It wasn’t the first time I had been exposed to this nasty technology; ever since the the introduction of Windows XP I have been strongly opposed to this technology. It raises a great many concerns, the largest being the question of what will happen when the game publisher’s activation server goes offline? The logical answer is that the software will no longer be usable. Thus, one can conclude that anyone who licenses and installs software containing DRM is exposing their computer to a hidden time bomb.

The DRM I discovered was with the purchase of Alone in the Dark Limited Edition from EzyGames (whose parent company EzyDVD has since entered into voluntary receivership). It was not mentioned in the online description that the game required an internet connection to activate the game, although it could be found on the box when it arrived in tiny writing under System Requirements. As my PC is quite powerful and was (correctly) asusumed to be considerably more powerful than necessary, this note escaped my attention. The presence of DRM was only noticed when I skimmed through the EULA displayed by the installation process. I was extremely disappointed, and this DRM later proved to cause me much frustration (as is typical from my experiences) despite my compliance with the relevant license agreements. The experience caused me to pay much closer attention to future game purchases to ensure I didn’t fall for the same trap.

Later, the DRM in the EA title Spore became headline news and was widely criticized. Despite the backlash, EA made the decision to slap DRM into every future title they released. This prompted me to boycott EA titles, which was extremely painful considering how much I really wanted to play Red Alert 3, Crysis Warhead and Dead Space. I have since reconsidered my stance after thinking to myself that EA titles cannot be considered more than a rental, as once the product in installed a limited number of times it can no loner be used. As such, I have allowed myself to purchase an EA title where the game is as cheap as I think it will ever get – and only then if it is a PC exclusive – otherwise it makes more sense to purchase the game console version that can be played forever or potentially resold when the game is no longer used. This thinking allowed me to purchase Crysis Warhead, but the purchase of Red Alert could not be justified as it is still quite expensive and console ports are available.

Recently, EB Games have had some very good sales such as the current 2 games for $50 offer. Most of the games available through this deal are second hand console games, but there are a few new PC games available too (which is how I obtained Crysis Warhead). Generally I don’t go anywhere near the second hand games market as I had previously not considered the titles to be sufficiently cheap, the discs sometimes give you trouble and the instruction booklets are occasionally missing. However at $25 a pop for second hand PS3 games that are generally up around the $70-$100 mark, I decided the price was worth the risk. I was right, as it turned out that almost all purchased games were in such good condition that they might even pass for new.

Something you cannot find as part of an EB Games deal, ever, is a second hand PC game. I am quite sure this comes down to having a different EULA for every title, and many do not allow the resale of the game license.  Nowadays, it would seem DRM is another obstacle preventing second hand PC games. When I purchased the new PC game Clive Barker’s Jericho in conjunction a second hand copy of Turok for PS3 (again, both part of the 2 for $50 deal at EB), the sales man informed me that Turok will have a 7 day money-back guarantee and a 12 month warranty. Jericho on the other hand would not have the same return policy, as the game may require online activation.

To further highlight what incredible value a second hand copy of the Turok PS3 game was, the brand new PC version of the game (also from the same EB Games store) could be purchased for $89.95. Of course I would much rather a keyboard and mouse to play Turok, but not at the price of reading a complicated EULA, possibly infecting my machine with SecuROM, possibly contending with DRM and limited activations, and paying $64.95 extra for the privilege! Sir, do I look insane?

It is interesting to note that many speculated that the idea of introducing DRM into PC gaming was to destroy the second hand gaming market. Certainly if you can only activate a game three times to play, second hand game consumers would need to concern themselves with the possibility that the game may not have any activations remaining and thus be a complete waste of money and time. The question is; what second hand gaming market? Due to licensing agreements potentially making the second hand PC gaming markets illegal, it is almost non-existent. What DRM has done is help push consumers such as myself over to console gaming where the second hand market is thriving! If consumers are prepared to wait until console games reach the second market at reasonable prices (which is generally not long and not hard when the market is flooded with titles – and nobody has time to play them all), the value is incredible. Add to this that the consumer can often then resell the game at half the price they paid, and it just gets better. To think I would have remained ignorant about the second hand console gaming market had DRM not pissed me off!

A few days ago, it was reported that EA might be trying to reverse their mistake. I personally think it’s too late – the damage has largely already been done. I doubt I’ll be paying anywhere near $100 for games any time soon. Well… not unless it’s a special limited edition… and they include a free T-shirt. :)