So, I was re-reading some of the posts at Shamus Young’s site, and re-reading some of the discussions on DRM, and what interested me the most was whenever better or ideal or even worse DRM systems were discussed there was a lot of disagreement over which systems were worse, better or even good. And it struck me that game companies, with respect to DRM, really do want their DRM to work in this way: they want to maximize the amount of piracy it stops while minimizing the inconvenience of their actual paying customers. Different companies will prioritize one part or the other, but for the most part they want to inconvenience their paying customers only as much as required to stop piracy. And the problem is that while it’s relatively easy to figure out how pirates pirate copies — and, therefore, how to go about trying to block that — it’s no where near as easy to figure out what will annoy your customers, because there is a wide variety in what actually annoys customers.
Take some standard methods as examples:
1) You have to have the CD in the drive. Since I generally play on my desktop — and keep most of my CDs out — and when I play on a laptop it’s easy for me to just leave the disk in the drive itself, as I’m generally only playing one game at a time. For others, who play more games, this is more annoying, and harder for them to manage.
2) Dongles. They have the same issue: if you only play one game at a time and have a place to store and label the dongles, they’re not an issue … but if you don’t, then they’re really, really annoying.
3) Enter a CD key on installation. This is a bit more annoying for me as it’s both annoying to enter it and it’s annoying to have to make sure you have or find the packaging where the key is, but many people just want to ditch that packaging, and so don’t leave it out like I do.
4) Code books/code wheels. The nice thing about, say, reading something from a journal and entering a code word is that, well, you actually get a journal. But, again, if you don’t keep it then you can’t look it up, and if it’s not a physical copy then you potentially have issues if you go to the desktop to launch it (I’ve had issues with the GOG Gold Box games with that, as when you switch out it drops out of full screen mode, although at one point I figured out how to get back there again).
5) Online activation. Aside from the “limited number of installs” part, why am I going online to play a single player game? And the laptop that leaves the house also doesn’t have Internet access. But if you have ready Internet access, this wont bother you at all.
6) Always have to be online. See 5.
The thing is, the same thing can be done for pretty much every form of DRM you can think of. And the main issue is that if these things aren’t part of or necessitated by the game itself, you run the risk of tacking a DRM scheme onto a game that happens to annoy a significant part of your player base. For example, 5) and 6) aren’t issues for MMOs and mainly online multiplayer games, because pretty much all of those players accept that, well, if it’s primarily an online game you have to go online with it. But many of them will balk at having to keep the disk in the drive for an online game.
Ultimately, I’m still of the opinion that the best way to deter piracy is to include things in the game that is hard to copy and that people want. Soundtrack CDs. Art books. Plush toys. You know, the things people stick into Collector’s Editions to get people to buy them. Or else make registration have benefits, like FTP MMOs do. At the end of the day, the way to deter piracy while not inconveniencing your real customers is to make it so that anyone who would actually buy the game really wants to buy it. But if the free game is as good or better than the game you pay for — even if it’s just that the free game removes annoyances — then, yeah, people will definitely take the free, pirated game over the one they have to pay for.