A couple of months ago we saw the release of SimCity for the PC, which I won’t go in to about here other than to talk about an interesting issue the Maxis guys had with the game – the always on DRM (for those who don’t know what it is, DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, think of it as a way of storing the licenses you have for your game and then the game having a way to verify that you own that license when you run the game). The problem with this was the fact that on launch day there were massive numbers of gamers who couldn’t access the game because the servers couldn’t keep up with the load, so the gamers that had been patiently waiting for the game were unable to get it, despite having paid for it and installed it. There were numerous articles about it at the time, discussing how it is a flawed concept that will never work, referring to it as a :pipe dream” that will only ruin game launches – I wanted to call this out though and discuss it in the light of some of the announcements that have been made about the Xbox One and some of the announcements that were made in regards to this and the second hand games market.
Now when you go looking around for information about Always On DRM scenarios, the history of it isn’t great. But like a good cleaner, the work is really only noticed when it’s not done right, and there are a lot of very passionate gamers out there who like to vocalize their rage about not being able to play their games on day one that want to write this concept off completely as something that shouldn’t be done. But I want to argue this fact a little and shine some light on some successful DRM based implementations that do work and work quite well.
So the first thing to call attention to – massive server load isn’t something that can’t be dealt with, and hasn’t. Think about the really big Xbox titles of the last 12 months, how many of them do you think had some massive numbers of players jumping online right away? Think of Halo 4 and the way it connects back to their servers with stats and info from every single game and every person connecting to the game – it’s not exactly a small load. Now I’m not saying this is some simple thing to do, clearly it’s not – but the fact is that it is do-able and to throw the whole idea out the window seems a very bleak approach to innovation and progress in my book, since when has something being hard to do been a reason to not do it? Now lets put in to context the announcement about Xbox One and the increase of servers used to run Xbox Live – currently Xbox Live is powered by around 15,000 servers internationally. At launch of the Xbox One this number will be 300,000 – that is a massive leap in computing power and being able to successfully implement this sort of thing will become dramatically less prone to issues than they may have been in the past.
What I think is a more realistic approach to the DRM angle is to look at taking it out of the hands of individual developers/publishers and moving the DRM components to people who can specialise in providing this service. There are a number of things that could affect how this works on the PC platform and I won’t even begin to stipulate how that could work – but in the console world there is an obvious solution – give it to the console manufacturers. But wait … this is already happening! If you look at what Microsoft do with the licensing of Xbox Live Arcade games, a form of this DRM is already in place that the game developers (who in some cases are smaller organisations who can manage the overhead of dealing their own DRM implementations). If you buy an XBLA game then Microsoft issue a license to your Xbox Live account, and to the console it was first downloaded on. This means that you can be offline when you play your game on that console, but in all other scenarios and on other consoles you have to be signed in to Xbox Live to use your game. Even being signed in and not connected to Xbox Live will fail, you have to have your connection to the internet to use the game. So this concept of the DRM being managed outside of the game itself is a model that could have some legs to it going in to the future. Again though, this is happening on the current Xbox Live servers, which as I mentioned before will go to 300,000 servers at launch day.
Even looking further than gaming though, Always On DRM is starting to work its way in to lots of other different types of software and content as well. Talking to the Microsoft stuff because that’s what I know, Office365 requires an internet connection to enable your license for that (there is a grace period though which is why you can use it offline, but when you are connected it’s checking it’s license), Xbox Video and Xbox Music are providing your licenses for content across gaming consoles, phones and tablets – even services outside of Microsoft are doing this with multimedia content. Think of music services like Spotify and other alternatives all use online connections to verify licenses, and think about the scale of those services.
So before we go throwing the idea of Always On DRM out the window as a knee jerk reaction to a few bad experiences, lets stop and look at it and how we can make it better. The system has enormous benefits to an industry that needs some help to ensure it will be able to continue, and I think is worth a good look at. But now I would love to know what you think? Hit us up in the comments and let us know what you think about always on DRM? Will it cause gamers grief and make us not want to buy games? Or will it be a useful tool for helping developers make more money from their games so they can keep producing more content?