Four years ago, I wrote a four part article here on Review Lagoon called Exploring Digital Distribution explaining how digital distribution is an unsustainable model and that Digital Rights Management would never be the glory child that Content Owners want it to be.
Despite all my anti-DRM tirades I have adopted the game delivery system Steam as my choice for acquiring and executing games on my PC and have recently denounced GOG.com’s rival product GOG Galaxy and their efforts to deliver DRM free games to the market.
To those who know me best – this seems like a huge departure from my core values and belief system. I figured a nice article on the subject might be worth writing and certainly is well-timed.
Digital Distribution vs Digital Rights Management Primer
If you haven’t read my article on Exploring Digital Distribution (yes, it is long and in four parts) I suggest you take (another) look at it.
I defined Digital Distribution as: In its simplest form – Digital Distribution is about the removal of the distribution of a physical product in favor of providing the content in a non-physical means.
Digital Distribution is not inherently evil. It is the wrapper of Digital Rights Management where it becomes dangerous territory. DRM is about control over both ownership and usage:
- Who – Who is allowed to use this intellectual property.
- What – WHAT the “who” is allowed to DO with the intellectual property.
- Where – The platforms you can experience the content
- When – How long will they produce the content? When can you get it in the USA vice Europe? Of course, how LONG you can play the content (online or even offline).
- How – All the rights of the consumer fall into this.
When DRM becomes draconian and these areas are leveraged in the sole favor of the Content Owner? The consumer suffers.
My father once told me, “Locks are to keep honest people honest.” I think DRM needs to listen to my father and do exactly that; keep honest people honest.
DRM from the Financial Point of View
I once fell into the camp of “No DRM is acceptable”. As usual, only Sith Lords deal in absolutes.
The honest truth is, DRM tends to increase proportionately to the cost of the property it is looking to protect. Music companies finally figured out that music was going to be pirated regardless and that the bar of entry to piracy of a 5MB file (aka Google Search) simply didn’t make it cost effective enough to exert the necessary cost and effort in protecting it. So they lowered the price, offered SERVICE (this is important) around the music such as discovery, radio mixing, etc. and stripped off the DRM – giving people what they wanted; clean MP3s in high bitrate.
That is a great success story. But it isn’t one that will be easily shared by TV, film and the video game industry because these properties are costing tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to make. Indie artists are able to record albums in their basement using modest PC-based studios.
To believe that “no DRM, ever” is going to be a reality – is foolish. So what we need to do is figure out how to leverage the evil in our favor.
Instead of getting up on the soap box and screaming about DRM being abolished (a fight I couldn’t win) what I really should have done was listen to my Econ 101 teacher and concerned myself more with ROI: return on investment. How can I make the evil work for me?
Gamestop is evil. Ask anyone. We all put up with Gamestop but let’s be honest; evil incarnate right? But as I’ve stated numerous times – Gamestop can be leveraged in the consumer’s favor. After all, try buying a game at Target and taking it back after seven days because you don’t like it. Or because you already beat it in seven days. Whatever. Not going to happen. Gamestop, on the other hand – happily accepts all used games back in seven days; no questions asked and no limitations. Your cash back in hand (not store credit or vouchers). Why not use Gamestop like the digital whore that it is?
ROI comes in many forms; short term gains, long term gains. It comes in the way of financial windfall as well as non-financial benefits.
Looking at Steam both as a DRM wrapper AND with ROI in mind it is easy to see why I would embrace it.
Steam as a DRM Wrapper
Let’s look at who, what, where, when and how (all the things we mentioned above as Content Owner DRM wrappings).
Who is allowed access to the content you pay for? Obviously yourself. However there are services built around (Family Sharing) that relax this requirement quite a bit. Many people don’t realize this is even possible.
What are you allowed to DO with the game you download? You can mod it. You can archive the entire game (although it cannot be played without authentication back to Steam, so that’s almost worthless). You’re also allowed download it unlimited times (unless of course, Steam pulls the game – which does happen – but it is rare). You are allowed to do a full install.
Anywhere you can install a Steam client. Windows, mainly although there are clients for Mac and Linux too. The games themselves vary by platform.
I would have said 6 years ago that Steam would have been gone by now. I would have been wrong. Windows version launched in 2003 (yeah, that’s twelve years ago). But they have survived. With PC gaming getting more and more popular (PC gaming finally has it’s own platform at E3 which shows it isn’t going anywhere). Other services like the horrid Games for Windows and others have come and gone; Steam has held on.
Games can be played on or offline (provided the game itself provides an offline experience).
Again, Steam WILL disappear at some point. It simply WILL happen. There have been promises that if Steam goes away, they will provide some magic key to unlock everything – but I’m 99% sure this is an Urban Legend and they don’t have the authority to do that anyway.
Oddly, Steam accounts for anywhere from 50-80% of downloaded PC games (about $4B annually) and developers/publishers seem to enjoy the profit margins which is reportedly at about 70% of the take (to contrast; PC games at retail only tender about 30% of the price).
What about the consumer’s rights? What if Steam DOES shut down? Can Valve just turn off all your games? What happens in 20 years when you want to play <insert game here that you played on Steam in 2010>?
There is a lot of Urban Legend around this too. There are claims that Valve stated they would issue keys to unlock Steam DRM (yet I can find nothing but conjecture about this). If you do a little searching, you’ll also find that Steam DRM is the absolute easiest protection to break (one hacker claimed “two minutes for any Steam title”).
Unfortunately, if you do your own research, you’ll find that it isn’t Steam that is The Great Satan with regards to DRM in PC gaming. Most AAA publishers have their OWN server-side protection going – which means even if Steam DID open the floodgates, some of your games aren’t going to play.
That, my friends, is really the issue we need to look at. The true issue with modern gaming.
Why Steam’s DRM Doesn’t Matter
My rants against DRM stemmed from the fact that I’m a preservationist. I’m still playing games from 1980 (and earlier). These games existed on physical cartridges. Then CDs. Then DVDs. Physical products that couldn’t be deactivated, revoked or otherwise taken away from you for any reason. Tetris on Gameboy WILL live on forever. You will ALWAYS be able to play Superfrog on Amiga. This is fixed, preserved content – be it on physical media or in a ROM image file somewhere. It doesn’t phone home. It doesn’t have online multiplayer. It doesn’t have network leaderboards. It was done when it shipped.
It is … eternal.
Disc-Driven Digital Distribution
Take your pick of games today. Pretty much ANY game … GTA V … Witcher 3 … Mortal Kombat X. Buy it on disc, buy it online. The end result is needing a server online somewhere to deliver you the 1-40GB “day one update” to make the game whole. Even PLAYABLE in some cases. In 20 years, you may still have a PC/console and still have that MK X disc in hand. But preservation will not be protected. Those patch servers aren’t up anymore. Even if you HAD the patch file to install, when you run the title and it cannot contact the server to check Faction Wars or whatever it is phoning home for …? Maybe it will still operate. Maybe it won’t.
According to the research I’ve conducted, even if Steam “unlocked” it’s DRM, AAA game companies like Activision and EA have their OWN server-side protection checks that you won’t be able to get around if those servers are off-line.
Physical ownership USED to mean something. Sure, you can still count on Nintendo to usually get their products right “day one” but more and more frequently, I’m seeing updates and patches going out for Wii U and even 3DS games.
The concept of “patch system” is great; until you realize the negative aspect of it – if it is there, it allows unfinished products to be shipped either physically or digitally.
I dare say, it encourages the behavior.
Trade Service for DRM: The ROI
So, we’ve established that Digital Distribution is here, isn’t going anywhere and invalidates true ownership of games – digitally or physical copies.
We’ve established that as DRM goes, Steam is really just keeping honest people honest.
Much like we relinquish our privacy to Google in exchange for free services, we need to start looking at what we are getting in exchange for giving up true ownership and succumbing to DRM.
Unlike the aforementioned free Google apps, we’re expected to PAY for games while accepting Digital Distribution and DRM’s rules.
Let’s look at the positive ROI we get by using Steam as our personal game delivery system. Remember, ROI isn’t always financially based.
Single Point of Access
One of the things I’ve truly grown to appreciate with Steam is the “single point of access” approach to managing, launching, updating, storing my game library. The Steam client takes care of all the dirty work while providing me with a simple shortcut icon on my desktop that I’ve grown accustomed to. Everything for every game is in a uniform presentation. It might be easy to argue that a folder filled with your game’s shortcuts provides a similar solution (and without the Steam client) – and that is true to a point. You can pound in a nail with a screwdriver too – but a hammer just works better.
Care and Feeding
Here is what I really like; I don’t have to MANAGE my games. Updates, backing up save files. Steam handles all that for me. Sometimes I just want to play the damn game; not wait for a system update to download and install, wait for a game update to download and install. With Steam, my games are just “always ready” and there is value in that.
Plus, the Cloud services of Steam are great. C drive go out on you? System crash? New computer? No problem. Your save files are tucked away in the cloud and are safe. Sure, not EVERY game supports this, but most do. That’s value add in my book.
Uniformity and consistency in presentation and operation becomes more and more important to me as I get older. I want to know that taking a screenshot or joining a multiplayer game or any number of different evolutions I conduct while gaming provide a consistent interface. That’s what made Xbox Live so great. My wife games too, and knowing she’s using Steam also makes it very easy for me to help her out and troubleshoot her issues.
Built In Sharing and Community
Steam is a lot more than a DRM delivery system. It offers hubs for community interaction. Voice chat. Instant Messenger. A Steam Trading card system (don’t knock it ’til you try it; it is addictive). It allows direct access to developers and publishers. Curation and sharing between users. Ask your Nintendo fan how great Miiverse is – that’s what being part of Steam is like (without the penis artwork).
Game discovery. Freebies. Sales. Betas. Early Access. Wishlisting. Gifting. Trading. The list of Steam’s offerings go on and on.
It Is Free
A lot of things out there are free. Sure, Origin, UPlay and GOG Galaxy are “free” also. What isn’t free are console-based services like Live and PSN. To pay for online services that you’re REQUIRED to have in order to actually play these games seems almost ludicrous at this point. After all, the days are gone that you can buy a console and a game; go home, plug it in, turn it on and start playing that game. Gotta have broadband. Gotta have Live/PSN. Hidden fees in gaming.
At least Steam itself and all of its SERVICES are free.
Possibly the best part of Steam is that it is a free, open market economy. You don’t HAVE to buy games FROM Steam to play them ON Steam. Just like you don’t have to buy console games directly from Microsoft or Nintendo. So how does Steam trump the free market of consoles?
Because there is no free market with consoles; it is a fantasy. You pick the location; Target, Walmart, Gamestop – Mortal Kombat X is the same price. It’s fixed. That’s not free market. What’s worse? The digital copy is the same price as the physical copy.
With Steam and it’s game activation system, I can buy keys from anyone and there are a multitude of digital stores out there that can get me 20-40% off brand new, top name AAA games. The price of games digitally on PC fluctuates more than on consoles too. Steam (while not always the best price in town) runs frequent deals and sales.
Heck, since going to PC for gaming – I haven’t paid full price for a game yet. I PRE-ORDERED MK X for $39. That’s ROI for adopting Steam.
Digital Distribution removes the ability for me to resell my games; there HAS to be a trade off for this – and the trade off is lower prices across the board. If you bought MK X for $60 at Gamestop, then traded it in for $38 – you paid $22 to “rent” that game for that period of time. You no longer have it – or your $22. When I paid $39 for MK X – I didn’t pay much more and I still have the game.
So Steam is Great; Why Not GOG?
This argument has nothing to do with GOG specifically. In fact, GOG with their anti-DRM stance falls more in line with my belief system from the beginning. So why would I not only pay MORE for the Steam version of say, Witcher 3 but also go so far as to denounce GOG Galaxy’s launcher?
Steam offers more value. I get more service by owning the game on Steam. I get trading cards. I get unified point of entry to my game library. I get cloud-based saves. I get automatic updates. Plus, I only have to run and care/feed a single client for my games. If and when I have to refresh my computer or get a new one, Steam gives me the ability to easily restore my games without additional installations of “3rd party launchers”.
My issues with GOG match my issues with EA’s Origin and Ubisoft’s UPlay. I want “one client to rule them all” – and so far, Steam is it. It plays host to 99% of the games I want to play. It offers a more rich, mature feature set than any other “launcher”. It allows me to add non-Steam games to it – offering me some semblance of unity.
In short, it offers me more ROI on my “investment” of giving up physical copies of games for digital ones and GOG’s claim to fame; the removal of DRM does not offer me the same ROI. After all, just because it is “launcher DRM free” doesn’t mean you’re not a slave to the update server. In 20 years, the best you can hope for is a buggy “day one” release (hopefully someone isolates the patches off-site) – just as if you bought it on disc for a console.
Why GOG, Uplay and Origin Actually Matter
They matter because they are competition to Steam. They may all pretty much suck and offer significantly LESS ROI – but they have value; that value is in keeping competition with Steam. Competition can do nothing more than help the consumer – and I’m all for it. Just doesn’t mean I’m going to use it. It is good that Kia and Hyundai are around as car makers; but I’ll continue to buy Honda brands because they offer a better ROI.
You can say I’ve “mellowed in my old age” with regards to embracing Steam. After all, a few years ago I would have been on my soapbox denouncing it, too. Truth is – Digital Distribution and DRM aren’t going anywhere. You either spend your life fighting it – downloading DRM-free versions of 10 year old games or chasing down pirated copies … or you embrace it, use the “evil” to your advantage and profit while still playing the latest games and having the most fun.
Remember, the Steam Summer sale is coming (June 11th is the rumor) and I’m ready to get top notch gaming for a fraction of the console prices.
You should come too.