Economics of Gaming: Digital Rights Management

My PC build is two years old, loaded with top of the line hardware at that time. I can still run nearly every game at max settings, something my previous ten PCs couldn’t do for more than six months.

Yes, the industry is slowing but one of the reasons is because publishers have little incentive to make exclusive content for PCs given the level of piracy. This occurred recently with Dead Space 3, which was not refined to a huge extent for the PC. It’s not because it was too difficult to update the graphic level of the Xbox to the PC, and it’s not some bullshit reason of making every experience the same; it’s because to them it’s not worth it. The PC market share, though on the rise again, took a huge dip in the last ten years, amounting to as little as 5% with certain titles. This explains why so many game companies need to release their products in each format. Alas, this is going to get worse. Yes, we have new consoles arriving this year, but if you have a PC and you know of the hardware being promoted in these new generation systems, you know that the technology is already two years old. Yes, it will run as well as my current PC I bought in late 2009. Not a good sign…but companies have little incentive to change. Console game sales are too high.

Games exclusive to a PC, or a game whose format only works well on a PC, should either be made for pennies or have some way to counter piracy. The first solution is the online multiplayer games like MMOs and MOBAs. However, the latest attempt is always online DRM for single player games. This means that even though you don’t play with anyone else, your PC must be connected to the internet for the game to work.

Alas, this practice has proved disastrous. Ubisoft had to issue a patch and an apology when they tried it and EA got raped recently with SimCity attempting the same. Why are they doing it? To cut down piracy. It makes sense for games like Diablo 3 and SimCity to have difficult anti-piracy models in place—games made exclusively for the PC. There is a large number of PCs in the world and if piracy can be prevented, then the sales should be able to follow. The problem is these companies are still not playing fair. They’re adding in micro transactions with full-price titles. They’re not released demos for many of their games. The gameplay they do show is not a reflection of the actually game purchased. And on top of that the always online requirement is also finicky, prone to failure based on unreliable communication lines and huge server populations. With the controversy around Diablo 3 and the problems surrounding SimCity’s launch, one would think we’re unlikely to see it again, but that’s where I would disagree. In fact, I wouldn’t even be reaching on a limb by saying it will occur again, stepping out on the precipice by even offering the speculation that always online DRM will be the staple of all exclusive PC games in the future. But why, you ask; why would they do that? They have a very good reason.

Diablo 3 sold 12 million copies.

That’s it. That’s all that matters. 12 Million copies all on the PC. The market is there. If you cut piracy out and have the type of fan support Blizzard has, you’d be foolish not to go always-online. Blizzard had to have known there would be issues, experienced from years of World of Warcraft. They probably didn’t implement the DRM with Starcraft 2 because they knew their servers couldn’t handle it at the time, meaning EA really dropped the ball when they released SimCity, knowing full well their system wouldn’t be able to handle the stress. Another counterargument would claim not everyone has an internet connection. They live on a farm or at an oil refinery camp. It’s unfortunate to upset you, but they don’t care about that. Obviously they don’t and seriously, there aren’t enough people in those areas to matter economically to counterbalance the need to combat piracy. Look at the statistics as evidence of your lack of relevance. In 2000, worldwide, there were estimated to be around 361 million people with internet access. By just the middle of last year, that number had grown to two and half billion people, a growth rate on average of 566%. And it’s still growing. Every year millions of people gain access to the internet with an increasing segment gaining access to reliable broadband. So seriously…if you don’t have internet, they don’t care about selling you games. Take it up with them…they have the data to back their claim. With rumors that future consoles may be always online, people jumped onto the forums with figurate torches blazing, but if it isn’t this generation that does it, it will definitely be the one following. But consoles don’t really need it…I mean piracy with consoles is a drop in the bucket compared to people on the PC who pirate games. Everyone…and I do mean everyone knows not one, but several friends that pirate games. And with all my friends having at least one console, I don’t know a single one that has modded their console to accept pirated software.

Eventually, new servers will be brought on board, the programming refined, and in time, always online DRM will be part and parcel for the entire PC market, a market that will account to nearly the entire population of the civilized world. And should we welcome that? I think so IF there is a silver lining…but this lining must be glazed by the companies, and they’re not known for their charity.

If we address some of the arguments people make about piracy, is there a way to reduce its level by simple customer service. You’ll never win over people who simply don’t want to pay or who want to see big game companies fail, but to the others, what harm could there be in releasing demos, or opening the population of beta testers. Valve and Blizzard both take pride in their fan loyalty, a loyalty stemmed from product quality rather than economic imperatives. This equity can easily be compromised by a change in policy. Bioware was the “golden child” of the industry until recently. Gearbox lost a lot of supporters after the release of Duke Nukem and now Aliens. The final point concerns this silver lining I’m hoping forms. If the PC market shifts almost entirely to always-online (at least where AAA games are concerned), thus greatly reducing the level of piracy in the marketplace), could this then encourage big publishers to return to exclusive and refined PC content? Would Dead Space 3 have been refined for the PC if they could’ve eliminated piracy? Could new games be produced which actually push current game hardware, finally digging out of this performance rut we’ve been living in for the past five years? If big publishers can discover an economically successfully model in the PC market, it would then extend to hardware manufacturers in marketing top end parts to play new games. I used to need to buy new parts for my PC every six months. Two years later and only recently with Bioshock Infinite have I found a game that could challenge my system in any way. Alas, I doubt this silver lining will come; it’s based on the assumption that game companies will stop producing the level of shit they have been delivering for the past few years.

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Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

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