The whole video game piracy and Digital Rights Management (DRM) debate is rather interesting to watch. In one corner, you have the video game companies singing the blues about sales lost to piracy, while at the same time touting DRM as a necessary measure to ensure that only legal copies find their way into the hands of gamers. In the other corner, you have the gamers who feel that DRM is more of a hindrance than a help, and that the losses from piracy are exaggerated in order to justify charging high prices and restricting content. Objective observers tend to fall somewhere in the middle.
In an interesting turn of events, two heavy hitters in the digital video game distribution industry have weighed in with their opinion on these matters, and their viewpoints might surprise you. Marcin Iwinski, CEO of CD Projekt and Guillaume Rambourgh, managing director of Good Old Games (gog.com), both point out that the perceived loss of sales due to piracy and the benefits of DRM are exaggerated. More to the point, they could be more detrimental to the customer experience.
Using the release of The Witcher II: Assasin’s of Kings on the PC as an example, they describe the difference in piracy rates between the DRM-encoded retail version, and the DRM-free digital download available on gog.com. Rambourgh asserts that it was the former, not the latter version that was pirated the most. In an interview with Forbes Magazine, he expressed his surprise at this fact.
“Most people in the gaming industry were convinced that the first version of the game to be pirated would be the GOG version, while in the end it was the retail version, which shipped with DRM,” Rambourgh stated, with Iwinski adding “We were expecting to see the GOG.com version pirated right after it was released, as it was a real no-brainer. Practically anyone could have downloaded it from GOG.com and released it on the illegal sites right away”
It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance, so if the expectation is for people to take the easier route and pirate the DRM-free version, why did the majority of pirates sail in the opposite direction? Iwinski points to the culture of game hacking, a form of jailbreaking of sorts, in which people rush to crack a game’s DRM code as quickly as possible.
“My guess is that releasing an unprotected game is not the real deal, you have to crack it to gain respect and be able to write: “cracked by XYZ.” Iwinski theorizes, going further to say “The illegal scene is pretty much about the game and the glory: who will be the first to deliver the game, who is the best and smartest cracker. The DRM-free version at GOG.com didn’t fit this too well.”
It seems that the desire to take the easy route is not embraced by those who dabble in code cracking and game piracy, who seem to favor the riches and metaphorical spoils of cracking a DRM code and taking the glory. In that context, having a DRM-free version handed to them on a silver platter doesn’t have quite the same apeal.
So does piracy really equate to lost sales, and is DRM something that can prove itself useful in the long run? Both Rambourgh and Iwinski have their doubts. It is estimated that The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings has been pirated more than 4.5 million times, however these numbers don’t take into account how many of the downloads were considered “trial versions” by people who downloaded, some of whom likely went out and purchased the game after they decided it was worth investing in. The fact that first Witcher has sold 2.1 million units (and counting) lends some credibility to this to this theory.
Their opinion on DRM is equally pessimistic. Since there is a community of hackers who continue to break the DRM and find relatively easy work-around, the usefulness of DRM is null and void in many cases. Iwiniski also pointed out the fact that it negatively impacts the experience of the end user, since the online authentication processes and serial numbers required can often slow down the game considerably and bog down the experience in general.
Protecting the bottom line is important for any company, but it shouldn’t come at the price of jilted customers. There have been recent stories about restrictive DRM, including games like the recently released Diablo III and the upcoming Sim City that require a constant internet connection even when playing in single-player mode. Opinion is divided on how effecting these measures are, but needless to say, the feedback from gamers has been mixed and in many cases quite negative.