Company Ethics – Always On DRM

Recently we looked at the case of Paragon’s Devai being banned live on stream for no reason at all. In the article, I wondered about the use of Blizzard’s, essentially, spyware technology that monitors all of our ingame activity looking for potentially suspicious behaviour, and the ethical implications of such a system. The same kind of concerns will soon face gamers of any genre, as console developers seem set to embrace ‘always online’ requirements for their consoles. An intersting article over at Rampant Games hints at some of the ethical implications of moving in this direction, and why this is a bad thing from a consumer perspective. Here is the article in full:

COHgameboxLast night, I was cleaning up some some things around the office, and I stumbled across my box for City of Heroes. City of Heroes was an awesome MMORPG I played for a couple of years. While I hadn’t played it in a while, I was sad to see the game shut down completely not long ago. That meant my box – and my corresponding box for City of Villains – advertised a game that no longer exists anywhere. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the box away. At least not yet. It’s a reminder of some pretty good times.

But it’s dead. I couldn’t play it again if I wanted to.  And believe me, if it was possible, I would have been tempted. But the box is not much more than a grave marker today.

Pretty soon, almost every video game will be like that.  Dead, useless, gone from all but history.

It’s called, “Always On DRM.” Publishers freaking LOVE the idea.

A couple of weeks ago, something of a crapstorm took place over rumors that the next-gen XBox was going to have the dreaded “Always On” restriction: If you lose your Internet connection, the console shuts you down. Apparently (the rumors go) after a little bit of a grace period to allow a reconnection, you are unable to even play single-player games.

A Microsoft creative director who nobody had really heard of until that point made a series of inappropriate tweets, mocking those who were alarmed by this rumor. His said things like, “These people should definitely get with the times and get the Internet. It’s awesome.” and “I want every device to be ‘always on.’ “  When people argued with him about several places in the United States where getting Internet connectivity was difficult, he flippantly commented, “Why on Earth would I live there?” For those who complained about Internet outages, he said, “Electricity goes out, too.” During the exchanges, he used the hashtag, “#DealWithIt.”

orthmemeShortly thereafter, he resigned from Microsoft, presumably under threat of termination. He was not a spokesperson for Microsoft and was simply speaking his own mind, not realizing his comments to what he thought was an audience of mainly peers, would end up turning into an angry meme. Sadly, many on the Internet took great glee in his loss of his job (presumably over this affair). The angry villagers and their pitchforks won. That, I find pretty disturbing.

I’m afraid Mr. Orth learned the hard way one of the perils of being “always on.”

While I am revolted by the behavior of some people on the Internet who were cheering Mr. Orth’s removal, I can’t say I’m completely unsympathetic to their views. And I do hope Microsoft gets the message. But, sadly, it sounds like they won’t. And I won’t be adding the new XBox (code-named “Durango”) to my inventory, if this is the case.

But I’m afraid too much of the gaming world (and the software world in general) is completely on board with the “always on” idea, simply because it is a convenience to the publishers, and it allows them to exert control over their products “in the wild” that they could not exert otherwise.

My take on it is much like my take on telemarketing: It’s my phone, and I pay the bills, and therefore my phone exists for MY convenience, not yours. Likewise, my Internet connection is for MY convenience, not yours.

Hey, kids! You know what you call software that goes out on your computer and does stuff without your knowledge, permission, or … let’s be honest … benefit?

Malware.

Oh, of course, now it’s not “malware” because you gave it permission when you installed the software. Yeah, there are a whole bunch of horrible programs out there that will make your computer run like a 386 and inform every marketer in the world of your bathroom habits that use the same excuse.

The thing is… well, maybe young gamers really are that ignorant, but those who understand the world recognize that games frequently have an online component, even if it’s just updating a leaderboard. No problem. But we also recognize which components are critical to us playing a game. And that’s really limited to playing simultaneously with friends on the Internet, or playing in shared world. Oh, there are minor conveniences or nifty items, like having our saved game in the cloud so we can resume from a different computer (something relatively few gamers actually use, but I occasionally do), or leaderboards, or having the game directly announce news and updates for us. But we recognize that these are not critical to playing the game.

We also recognize that this is nothing more than a control grab by game manufacturers, an attempt to force us to their door so that we can pay for a game like it was a product, but use it only at their discretion as if it was a service. It’s the best of both worlds as a publisher, and the worst of both worlds as a consumer.

So what does “Always On” DRM get you as a consumer?

Nothing. Oh, Marketers will offer such empty spin-speak BS as, “To better serve you as a customer,” or will list online features that we know damn well do not need to be tied to an “Always On” requirement.  Or maybe they’ll even stoop to claiming that it will allow them to “keep costs down” with the implication that they’ll pass the savings on to the customers (they won’t, they’ll charge you what they know they can charge you, it just means that they can afford to keep up the nuclear arms race of massive development and marketing budgets with their competitors). I’m sure Microsoft is getting all kinds of support and exclusives for their new machine from publishers with visions of zero piracy dancing in their heads.

But it’s not just about piracy. This is what people are misinterpreting. It’s about CONTROL. Pure and simple. The publishers control our access to the game at all times. We buy it as if it’s a product, they give us the lack of customer support as if it’s a product, but we are allowed to play the game as if it was a service they were providing for us.

What kind of control? Here are the kind of DOWNSIDES that “Always On” DRM inflicts upon real customers – the people who spend their hard-earned cash on these crippled pieces of software that were once called games:

#1 – As game publishers have frequently proven, they will cancel our “accounts” – basically taking the game away from us – for any reason. This can range from true violations of our terms of service, to speaking badly of the game on their forums. This is bad enough in a shared-world MMO where our behavior effects other people. But in a fundamentally single-player game? WTF?

#2 – Also, as has been demonstrated many times in the past, we may get our “accounts” – our access to the game – taken away for no reason whatsoever. A mistake. A false positive on a piracy test. While these can be appealed and are usually cleared up within a few hours or a few days…. WTF?!?!? I am denied access to play this game I just shelled out $60 for because YOU screwed up? Why? The game is right there on my hard drive; let me play!

d3fail#3 – Apparently, publishers have recognized that gamers have short memories, and rather than purchase adequate server hardware to service a big AAA game at launch, they’ll economize and let the players go through hell for the first couple of weeks, unable to play, until things settle down. Then we happy little gamers will forget all about how much the game SUCKED the first two weeks and happily fall for the same B.S. with the next big release.

#4 – Mandatory obsolescence. Like City of Heroes – games can now just “go away.” With the usual apologies from the publisher about how it was no longer cost-effective, hardly anybody was playing anymore, time to move on, etc. Of course, now publishers like EA can throw on a new coat of paint on an older game that is no longer supported, call it a new product, and sell the whole f***ing game AGAIN this year! Just like they do with their sports franchises! It can now be done with EVERY GAME! Quit your whining and give them another $60 + $120 for DLC, you’ve got almost three whole years to enjoy it before we take it away from you!

#5 – Those with less-than-stellar broadband may have to make their kids quit playing games in order to stream a movie.

#6 – It’s gonna be a whole ‘nother pain in the butt for those with spotty Internet connections. Or for people like me who have P.O.S. “refurbished” hardware sent by my broadband provider and and has to be rebooted multiple times a day. I’m fairly convinced that they just have a pool of crap they cycle around from customer to customer, hoping they’ll eventually land at a home where they complain less.

#7 – Oh, yeah, and your play habits can always be monitored. 99.99% of the world won’t give a crap, and some may actually prefer this (there are some benefits, after all), but hey – some people may actually value privacy, and don’t feel that just because they paid for and installed a game that the game-maker is ENTITLED to that information.

#8 – Gaming on the road. My job sends me on the road a lot, and while most hotels have Internet nowadays, it’s either crappy or EXPENSIVE (or both, or either – you can choose gratis connectivity that resembles a 300 baud modem, or pay through the nose for something that sucks less). So I game. Or, often enough, write games, but I play games too. “Always On” could make that very problematic. Particularly since most developers / publishers / DRM providers aren’t particularly respectful of your bandwidth if they don’t feel they have to be. Oh, and while I enjoy “getting away from it all” on camping trips, I still sometimes game on handheld devices when I do. But not if they have “always on” DRM.

Look, I’m a game developer. I’m anti-piracy. I’m not really anti-DRM, just – well, against the kinds of DRM that have come to represent the philosophy. But I’m not anti-DRM as much as I am pro-consumer.

This is why I against “Always On” DRM. It is “anti-consumer.” Look, online gaming is one thing. This is something totally different. This crap has the potential to wreck gaming as I know and love it.

As bad as I feel about Mr. Orth being turned into an industry scapegoat, the industry seems hell-bent on taking this course that screws over their customers for their benefit (gee, I wonder why) and is pulling the same kind of PR blitz and saying the same kinds of things Mr. Orth was saying in an effort to convince us all that it’s not a bad thing, that it’s the way of the future, and really, we should feel happy about companies treating us as nothing more than credit cards with an Internet connection.  And we gamers really do need to fight back and send a message that this is unacceptable.

While “voting with your wallet” is a good thing, when an industry is only treating us as nothing more than a wallet, it may need a little help figuring out why the little wallets aren’t standing in line like they are supposed to.

Article by Rampant Coyote.

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