The DRM Problem Is Worse Than You Think

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, August 12, 2011 at 9:00 am
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The gaming community has been incredibly vigilant when it comes to calling publishers out on DRM. When Ubisoft tried to shackle their games with DRM that requires an always-on Internet connection fans, journalists and consumer's rights advocates raised a furor. In January several of the company's PC games were patched so that you could play the games offline. The move was a major victory for gamers who like to unplug the Ethernet cable from the back of the computer before they play games.

But that was only the first victory in an ongoing battle. Recently Blizzard had the audacity to host all Diablo III gameplay on servers, forcing solo gamers plug those pesky cables back in. That says nothing for gamers who had hoped to play Diablo III on airplanes. Sadly, Blizzard doesn't look like it is going to change its mind when it comes to the draconian DRM they've concocted for their latest game. And speaking of "draconian" you're really going to flip when you hear the insane, new DRM scheme Electronic Arts is rumored to be cooking up for Dragon Age 3

A source close to Electronic Arts (a homeless man named Carl who I met on Venice Beach after a visit to EA's Los Angeles campus) told me that the company will require everyone who plays Dragon Age 3 to be in possession of a real, live dragon. Now, you and I both know that video game publishers can be really bone-headed when it comes to DRM, but this just seems beyond the pale. I don't think it needs saying, but dragons are mythological creatures. They just don't exist. So this DRM would punish only customers who follow the rules of nature. Pirates will just steal the game and figure out some way to conjure a dragon. But those of us who play by the rules will get stuck with a sixty dollar book end -- and no bad-ass monster to devour our enemies.

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Carl's words had a profound impact on me. So I decided to step back and take stock of the gaming industry and attempt to look at the way we play games with fresh eyes. Always-on Internet and mythological creatures couldn't be the extent of egregious anti-consumer DRM. After one or two puffs of the magic cigarette that Carl sold me I felt the scales fall away from my eyes. I had an epiphany and had to find out if it was true. So I sat down at my kitchen table, poured a bowl of Fruity O's and attempted to play a round of Torchlight. My hypothesis, as far out as it was, turned out to be absolutely true. Torchlight comes with DRM that forces you to play it on a computer. I stared into my swirling bowl of generic fruit rings for hours and never even saw the title screen. I tried using first-party cereal like Fruit Loops but had no luck. My mind reeled at the implications. Because what proved true for Torchlight wound up applying to every game since Pong

And the rabbit hole went even further down. Let's say you're some kind of sell-out and you're okay with the videogame industry requiring you to buy an expensive piece of hardware in order to play the games that you own. Did you realize that there's an additional, incredibly insidious form of DRM that they slap over the top of the already outrageous requirement of owning computers, consoles and other electronic devices? And this bit of DRM is one that has ties, no joke, to a former president of the United States.

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Turns out that all videogames are also saddled with DRM that requires a constant connection to electricity. I know. You're probably thinking, "What about handheld consoles and the iPhone?" I thought of that too. They have batteries! When those batteries run dry it is still impossible to play all the games you downloaded from app stores or purchased with your hard-earned money at retail. When I made this realization I was absolutely floored. And totally starving. I was out of cereal though, so I had to drive all the way to El Pollo Loco to get a three-piece chicken meal with that delicious Tropical Habanero sauce drizzled all over the skin.

It was during this drive that I decided to go all the way to the top, make a few calls and get to the bottom of this whole conspiracy. I planned to contact actor Jack Coleman, a living relative of Benjamin Franklin, to find out if our founding father has in cahoots with the Masons or Activision or something when he invented electricity. But do you know how hard it is to get in touch with celebrities? I just went with my gut and decided that Franklin must have made some deal with the ancient ancestors of Nolan Bushnell and Bobby Kotick. And when he sold the formula for electricity to Thomas Edison that sealed the deal. The future of videogames and the insidious always-on electricity DRM was etched in stone before any of us were ever born.

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At this point I was feeling kind of woozy so I crashed on the couch and fell asleep watching The Big Lebowski. When I woke up at three the next afternoon I was more than a little hung over, but the realization I made the day before was still with me. It shook me to my core and, honestly, I still don't know what to do about it. 

Some people suggest that gamers vote with their dollar when confronted with bullshit DRM. But I looked into that too. Turns out that most states require that you use official ballots, so voting with your dollar would be a waste of money and your vote. You could also opt to only play physical games, like chess, that aren't limited by insane requirements like dragons, computers or electricity. But my spirit animal, and favorite chess opponent, tells me that many board games require at least one participant to have corporeal form -- or at least be in possession of psychokinetic powers in order to move the pieces around. So those of us who like to play Go while having out-of-body experiences are shit-out of-luck. 

It turns out, gamers, that DRM can't be escaped. It has been around since the olden days when chess was invented and it looks like it isn't going away. We might as well get used to it. Carl tells me that his magic cigarettes will help ease the pain of playing Diablo III online. It's worth a shot.

Pretension +1 is a pointless column by Gus Mastrapa that explores, and frequently pokes fun of, the culture of videogames. It is okay if you're mad.

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