Gaming: New DRM to combat piracy, drive away customers

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There's no question that piracy is a big problem in the video game world, but what's the solution? More DRM? That seems to be the direction we're headed as evidenced by a pair of recent stories.

Sony's PSP has suffered greatly thanks to an enthusiastic modding community that isn't shy about ripping UMD games and distributing them digitally to anyone with a BitTorrent client and a "jailbroken" PSP. So now Sony is trying something new. This week it released SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3 both digitally and on UMD. Both versions require online registration through the Playstation Network. SOCOM is primarily a multiplayer game so presumably most purchasers will have their PSPs online-ready; at first glance this system isn't too big of a deal, at least for purchasers of the digital version.

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But where it gets really interesting is with the UMD version of the game. When you buy it you'll find a code inside that you can use to register your copy of the game, binding it to your Playstation Network account. This code only works once. If you give your copy of the game away, or sell it back to Gamestop or some other used game dealer (assuming they'll take it) the next owner won't be able to register the game. Sony will sell them a new code for $20. Since the game retails for $40 new you'll have to find a used copy for less than $20 to save money, and that assumes the game isn't being discounted new (which it is already, just a few days after launch it's available for $37 at Amazon).

Sony says this is a move to combat piracy, and I believe that is part of the reason for this scheme, but I think the system is just as much designed to limit used game sales. It's no secret that game publishers hate the used game market (since they see no revenue from used game sales) but there isn't a lot they can do to stop it. Or at least there wasn't, until now. IGN has an interview with Sony's John Koller about this new DRM system. He claims to think that fans will react to the system quite positively. If he really believes that I think he's in for quite a shock; there are a lot of gamers that look forward to trading in old games towards the price of new ones. They're probably going to be out of luck with it comes to this new SOCOM game. Game dealers will either refuse to buy it, or offer very small sums for it.

Now, requiring gamers to register a multiplayer game online is one thing — after all, they're going to be playing it online anyway — but what about single player games? Ubisoft is in the hot seat for its DRM on the upcoming PC version of the single-player game Assassin's Creed 2. The game doesn't release until March 9th, but press copies have gone out, and what we're hearing is disturbing. Not only do you have to register your copy of Assassin's Creed 2 online, but you have to be online whenever you're playing it, for as long as you're playing it. If you lose connection to the Ubisoft validation servers, the game pauses until the connection is restored. If it isn't restored quickly enough the game lets you save your progress as of the last checkpoint and then quits to the desktop.

Now granted a lot of us are online all the time anyway, so you might not think this is such a big deal. But consider those bad internet days when your wireless connection is being flaky or your ISP is blipping in and out for whatever reason, or the day Ubisoft's servers are down (which will almost certainly be the one day you have plenty of free time to play). Or the day they announce that they're shutting down validation service for the game, turning your Assassin's Creed 2 DVD into a non-absorbent drink coaster. Consider the times you want to throw a couple of games on the laptop to play while on the road and you're not going to have internet service. Ars Technica makes the good point that this pretty much rules out the game for our servicemen and -women overseas. The point is that once again, honest buyers are being inconvenienced because of the actions of the people who steal games (and who will undoubtedly crack the DRM on the game before it even hits store shelves). There's a bitter irony in the fact that you're probably better off buying a copy of the game, leaving it in shrinkwrap, and grabbing a cracked torrent from somewhere so as to avoid this validation system and play without the additional hassle of having to check in with Ubisoft's servers.

As I stated, piracy is a big problem in gaming and in particular on the PSP and PC platforms. But I can't help but think that DRM systems like these are just going to drive more people to steal games. Not because they want to save money, but just because they want to avoid the hassle of dealing with DRM. Particularly in the case of single-player games like Assassin's Creed 2.

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