Duel Shock: Online Stores and DRM

Sim City’s launch was plagued by server issues, locking people out of their single player games

 

Redartifice:  Welcome back to Duel Shock, where I and a sparring partner talk about an issue that faces the video game in 2013. This edition, I’m joined by both Alex AND his Pants to talk about online gaming retail and the dreaded Digital Rights Management, DRM. I’ll get a working definition up on DRM: DRM is a software or hardware tool that restricts or locks a digital file to a limited set of users.

Alex, it seems like over the last few years we’ve seen the developer views on DRM change a little. We’ve seen some high-profile developers go to a minimal or no DRM path, with many just using Steam’s inbuilt version. On the other hand, many big companies have used online sign-ins and portals to regulate the use of their games. Two big ones that come to mind are StarCraft 2, which needed a login to earn single player trophies, and of course Sim City, which requires an ever-present internet connection to run. Do you think developers are changing their views on DRM? I’d also be interested to hear your opinion on DRM in general- is it a good thing?

Pants: Hey Red! I’d say I’m not the biggest fan of DRM like most people, but I can certainly understand why it’s there. I’d make the argument that approaches to DRM are changing, that some developers are making it more manageable or outright doing away with it, but then we have EA’s approach with Sim City and suddenly I’m not so sure.

The problem of course is that it’s often so intrusive, requiring you to log in to something extra before you can play the game. It just feels like an extra obstacle at times, which is really annoying when you just want to dive into a game. Then there’s the more frustrating ‘always online’ option. I’m always connected to the internet when I’m playing anything but that doesn’t account for hiccups and dropouts. So if my internet connection is down due to no fault of my own, I can’t play Sim City? If my connection drops for a minute, what happens to my game?

Things like that are frustrating, and I think sometimes they affect what we buy. I know the always online requirement turned some people away from Sim City, for example, and it was definitely something I thought about when I was considering buying it. Has DRM ever had an impact on your decision to buy/not buy a game?

Steam’s online store is much loved by gamers for its ease of use and lack of onerous DRM

 

Redartifice: That intrusiveness would really annoy me, especially if you’ve been in the game for ages. It’s a pity that SimCity has turned out the way it has, as I kind of like the idea of a game fully utilising a cloud server for calculations, especially in a complex simulation. The DRM/always online thing definitely has impacted my view of SimCity. A game I may once have picked up in the first month or so of release is now one I’ll only pick up if it’s cheap, which is a damn shame.

I can’t say that DRM has really turned me off a game…yet. My primary gaming platform is my PS3, which has an inherent DRM to it. I have noticed myself straining a little against the DRM I do have of late, especially on my PC. I recently moved house, so I’ve not had internet, so even signing into my Steam account has been difficult. Not being able to sign in to Steam has meant that I’ve not even been able to access my offline games like The Witcher, leaving a sad Red. I think in the future if I thought I was going to be without internet for so long, I’d buy a couple of games from DRM-free retailers (such as Good Old Games, gog.com) so that I could tide myself over.

Speaking of Steam, who really are the biggest player in games, what do you think of the way that they go about DRM? Do you think that their online service is all it’s cracked up to be? How do you think they could improve?

Pants: I don’t think I’ve ever had an issue with Steam’s DRM, beyond what’s already been mentioned – random service dropouts and inconveniences with offline mode when moving things around. I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect service, but my experience with it has for the most part been really good, and it’s not a situation where I’ll turn on Steam and shake my fist at it or be annoyed in any way.

I think what you said about moving house is important, though. There are situations in life where we’re simply not going to be connected to the internet in any way, and while we could probably make do without games for a couple of days if need be (and I guess sometimes we do), the fact that the option to play isn’t there is really what gets to people. Particularly if you’re wanting to play a singleplayer game, or aren’t wanting to use the online features of a game – the fact that the offline content is also locked off is a nuisance.

That’s likely why so many people reacted the way they did to the Adam Orth ‘#dealwithit’ Twitter fiasco. He came from a completely different perspective to his audience, and the level of ignorance he spoke with (although some parts were meant to be jokes?) represents a disconnect between company and consumer that is certainly a bit worrying.

Former Microsoft employee Adam Orth caused a stir with his comments on always online consoles

 

Redartifice: The point I’d make about always online (and this goes to Adam Orth as well) is that it makes an assumption that consumers a) have internet and b) want to use it all the time. That assumption might be fine to consumers in the US and perhaps Europe, but it’s ultimately a little short-sighted. Countries like Brazil have a rapidly growing games market and markets of the future like China have very different levels of internet penetration and needs. Even assumptions like houses having access to fixed-line broadband as opposed to mobile broadband is very US-centric- in some of these growth markets most broadband comes through mobile devices.

In short, Adam Orth was a moron.

I think Steam does get most things right, as it is relatively benign compared to services like Games for Windows Live. It is kind of a pity that Steam has no major competitors (yet)- The general consensus is that Origin is not quite ready for primetime (even though it’s now carrying Ubisoft titles and a number of indies) and other online retailers are targeting niches rather than trying to encapsulate everything. Do you think Steam has a major competitor, and what do you think a competitor should be focusing on?

EA’s Origin service has been making inroads but is still seen as inferior to Steam

 

Pants: Right now, I don’t think Steam has a major competitor but if anyone is going to fill that position, Origin would probably be the closest. Although, there’s still a big gap between them and a big part of that is simply the audience’s perception of both services. We praise Steam for being widely accommodating, but we also love Valve for being a seemingly friendly company with our best interests in mind (I’m speaking quite generally here, I realize some won’t agree with that and personally I don’t worship everything Valve does). Conversely, EA are more rigid in definition and feel more like a heartless corporation.
Public image goes a long way, and unfortunately for EA, voted the worst company in America two years in a row, it’s clear that their approach to DRM in their games and services isn’t popular. Relinquishing some of those restrictions, on Origin or more generally, is what I’d consider an important part of them being able to step up and stand against Steam as a more popular service. Whether that will happen or not, well…I don’t rightly know.

Redartifice: In terms of the integrated system, I think Origin is closest, though by “close” I mean “goes some of the way but by no means all of the way.” Origin still has a lot of work to do in order to replace Steam as a portal of choice for gamers to access online sales. I think they can get there though- they just need to keep improving the services that they provide and building the catalogue.

They also need to avoid another Sim City level fuck-up. Easy, right?

I think outside of Origin and Steam, one of the closest is probably gog.com- its DRM-free games and focus on specific market niches – old games with value-add like soundtracks – have given it a clear point of difference. The fact that it’s owned by CD Projekt Red, a developer that has a clear position with regards to how it treats its fanbase, bodes well for the future of the service.

Gog.com offers a number of extras to go with its DRM-free classic games

 

I’d love to see someone really capture the indie market too, as even though Steam has a growing indie presence and services like Steam Greenlight, I still feel the indies are competing heavily against Triple-A releases to be noticed in the Steam marketplace. Not that this is by design- Steam by all accounts does support indie developers- but by the sheer fact that if you place Indie art game next to GunWar Explosion 6 it’ll always be a hard sell. How do you think online marketplaces could fill niches that Steam doesn’t cover?

Something else I’d like to also mention is the inroads that the PlayStation Network and XBOX Live have made for smaller games on consoles. If you look at two of the most popular games in the last twelve months (at least within the Potaku Community), Journey and Trials Evolution, these were digitally delivered indie titles given a massive platform to work with on the two major consoles. How would you like to see the consoles build their online stores?

Pants: To be generally nitpicky (particularly with the Xbox Live Marketplace) I’d say accessibility is a big issue for the console download stores. They seem so divided and tucked away from everything. The other week I went to buy some Mass Effect 3 DLC on my 360 and it genuinely took me a while to find it. There isn’t anything under the Games tab that explicitly says ‘Marketplace’ – rather, it says ‘Browse Games’. If you search for a game series you then have to pick out what’s actual DLC and what’s clothing for your Xbox Live avatar. If you consider it a bit of a challenge (or just a bit frustrating) to find big name games like that, it’s going to be worse for unknown indie titles.

The other big issue is the pricing of full game downloads. I just took a cursory glance over the Marketplace – Halo 3 is still $50. You can find that game for much cheaper in any brick-and-mortar store. Halo 4 is $100 – you can still find that cheaper as well. Not everything is priced that poorly on the Marketplace but there are some genuinely terrifying asking prices in there. While Steam often isn’t the best place to go for straight-up new releases, older games are generally better priced and everything can get an insane price-cut during one of the big Steam sales.

Steam Greenlight is a great idea but there’s simply more that needs to be done with it and that could be brought into other services. The best aspect of Greenlight is the level of community involvement it encourages, actively asking Steam members to vote for and recommend the games they’d like to see. I think that’s a great filter and works well for the most part. Asking your audience to become involved seems to me like a powerful way of making the service seem more relevant, so while I’m not sure I have any ideas for what others can do to improve it, I hope that level of community is still encouraged.

CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher was released without DRM. The publisher has spoken of its distaste for DRM schemes

 

Redartifice: I agree that the console based stores still have a way to go in offering competitive prices- Steam pricing has really made gamers used to the cheap deals for games that have been part of Steam’s modus operandi. While the PSN store does drop prices over time, it’s still nowhere near the “$2.50 copies of The Witcher” you can get through Steam! I think the big consoles are going to become a lot more competitive in their pricing schemes.

I agree that both console based stores could get a bit of a usability boost- I think with the share-centricity (a word? Totally a word) of at least the Playstation 4 will see the usability of the stores on consoles jump up. It’s hard to remember that downloadable games weren’t really part of the original PS3 strategy- most of the now-familiar Store features came along a lot later. I think in the next console generation both PS4 and Son-of-XBOX 360 will hit the ground running with much more Steam-like stores. What would you like to see on the next consoles in terms of stores?

The other online store player I think we’ll hear about (and I don’t really want to jump in the iTunes/Google Play discussion, as it will double the length of this piece!) is the OUYA store, which offers demos/full game trials for every game. What do you think about this as a concept? Could Steam do this too, or is it just a pathway to piracy of full games?

Pants: I’d like to see ‘next-gen stores’ simply be more competitive in the market. If you want to push digital sales they need to be at least on par with, if not better than, retail copies. Maybe even offer digital preorder incentives, if that’s likely to help, but most importantly price them well. On launch day, faced with a $100 price tag for a Halo 4 digital download or a $70 disc at JB Hi Fi, I know what I’ll be picking.

Full game trials are an interesting idea. If you like what you played, just pay to unlock more. I hate to beat a dead horse, but again that comes down to price. I don’t particularly think that demos or trials are going to promote piracy, but maybe I’m being idealistic. I’ve always seen them as beneficial things, they spread the product to wider audiences. Steam has been doing free weekends for a variety of games, including multiplayer/online content, and that to me is a great idea. In the past I’ve been hesitant about buying a game my friends have, then played during one of these free weekends and either been convinced or turned away.

As a free and easy to access option, they could potentially combat piracy. I have friends who pirate because they aren’t sure of the quality of the game, and don’t want to spend money on it. A multitude of free opportunities like this should hopefully have some sort of effect on that. Again, that’s optimistic, but maybe a little optimism is what we need here.

Redartifice: I definitely think that’s the way we’ll see the industry head, with the online stores being much more competitive with (or surpassing) bricks-and-mortar retailing. I hope that as digital becomes ever more convenient and cheap we’ll also see some of the more draconian DRM schemes end, as I think that the audience for online purchases of games will continue. Hopefully we’ll also see these online stores innovate in how they sell the games to you as well, whether it’s free weekends, trials, demos or other methods. I think consumers are also wising up to the restrictions of DRM on the products they purchase, and I hope that we see more retailers offering low- or no-DRM options.

The next console generation is going to be fought online, even more than this one. The primacy of Steam sets a fairly good example of how to run an online store, and I hope the consoles (and EA, and anyone else) follow Valve’s solid foundation (and ultimately surpass them).

The future is digital, and hopefully it’s consumer friendly.

What do you think about Digital Rights Management and the way it’s implemented in games? What about the state of digital game downloads? Let us know what you think in the comments

I’m forever looking for new partners to step into the Duel Shock ring! Got a burning topic? Just want to muse on your favourite game genre? hit me up on twitter @redartifice

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