the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Evolution of Bad Ideas: DRM

The Evolution of Bad Ideas: DRM

The Evolution of Bad Ideas reviews concepts, idealogies, and common practices found in the video games industry; looking at how they’ve grown over time, and how they’ve managed to frustrate and interrupt at every turn. Please see the feature’s introduction for more details.


As mentioned in the feature introduction, the origins of this series came from Microsoft’s recently announced (and swiftly recanted) plans for placing among other restrictions, harsh regulations on used game disks for the upcoming Xbox One that would require additional fees to access game contents if sold second-hand. For now, it’s not worth dwelling on the negative effects such a system would impose on the gaming community considering that it’s been dismissed for the time being, although it is interesting to take a step back and look at just how Microsoft’s plan may have come into existence.

Implementing used game fees may be a bad idea by itself, but it’s really only the latest drop in the bucket for the most pervasive bad idea found in the industry known as Digital Rights Management, or DRM for short. There have been many attempts to fashion new and technologically innovative scenarios to apply a level of DRM to video games over the years, each time doing so with admittedly reasonable (albeit financially-motivated) intentions, however in no scenario has DRM been adequately applied without becoming a burden for the consumer audience in the process. DRM is the industry’s proverbial bad penny; sure it has some value, but a pocket full of change can only weigh you down.

What is DRM?

DRM, in broad strokes, is simply a way to allow creators and distributors a level of control over their product after its initial release to a) combat illegal piracy, b) ensure that copyright holders are being appropriately credited for their product, and c) retain the accuracy of the product’s original artistic vision. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

While DRM does exist in many forms of electronic media, in terms of video games, this has resulted in various locking mechanisms, requirements, and actionable procedures bestowed upon the consumer to formally grant access to the product at hand so that the above goals may be achieved.

Admittedly, your own interpretation of DRM may vary, as it can be closely aligned with several similar technologies and business practices; copy protection, anti-piracy measures, technical protective measures; product activation/registration… each of these areas may differ in approach and scope, but are all more or less constructed around the same set of goals. For sake of disclosure, some of the games examples we’ll be looking at may be better classified under one of these terms, however as we are ultimately more concerned with their effects toward consumers than their own operational classifications, we’ll continue to refer to them here as one and the same.

DRM does have its advocates (primarily owners of the intellectual properties at stake), however the use of DRM has been under fire since its origins, not only for proving ineffective towards reaching its own established goals (As our own Ali Nazifpour has previously stated), but for placing additional burdens on legitimate consumers, adding challenges that may inadvertantly deny proper fulfillment of established licensing agreements, and imposing additional challenges at resale to negate industry competition.

How has DRM changed?

DRM has grown both in scope and in capabilities in its longstanding history. With the rise of the internet and other advances in technology, more and more opportunities have risen for companies to step in and act as an overseer to their products and interact with consumers. This allowed for DRM to grow from its initial plans of limiting illegal copying of their software, to enforcement against the copying, manufacturing, accessing, and even editing of their software, which now makes up the bulk of the typical licensing agreement printed on the back of most game boxes.

What’s interesting is that with the increase in company oversight of their product during its shelf life and beyond, an interesting change has occurred in the relationship between the company and its consumer audience. While technology has advanced to better adhere to the goals of digital rights management, the actual “rights” within the equation have managed to change in the balance; from things that are given, to things effectively taken away. This is most evident when we look at some of the industry’s first forays into the realm of copy protection.

To help me demonstrate the ins and outs of the various types of “DRM” at play, I’d like to introduce you to Emilio K. Colchester, PhD… whom we will affectionately refer to henceforth as Dr. Em.


In case you’re wondering, his PhD is in villainy.

The following will represent a brief recap of select digital rights milestones and industry approaches, although to be fair, there are far more examples out there. What I hope to portray here is the overall progression of control between the company and consumer, using some key examples to hint at prevalence, at function, and their overall effects on the consumer experience.

1976: Key Disks

Gamers today now are fortunate to live in a time without floppy disks, however there was once a time when they were the only game in town. One of the first forays into DRM, in retrospect, may seem even now as a simple solution to the problem of piracy. Much how console games only turn on with disks and cartridges inside, Key disks contained encryption codes and variations within the magnetic disks themselves that would not easily copy, and would prevent the game from running if the disk itself wasn’t present in the drive. This would be true for all disks marked as “copy protected,” including one of the first video games ever created; Microsoft’s version of the Colossal Cave Adventure.

The trouble with this idea was quickly realized; floppy disks…even when they were the only game in town… were terrible. They bend, they scratch, they melt, they snap, they get dirty, and they get demagnetized, and not even when trying too hard to damage them. The idea that so much value could be entrusted to floppy disks alone without any ability to create backups for their inevitable failures left many consumers willing to pay higher prices for disks that were NOT copy-protected. If you can believe it, a few companies would even abuse this setup by selling protected and unprotected versions of their software for different price points, bestowing on consumers the risk of requiring duplicate purchases if they bought the key disk version. It was a pretty bad idea; course, any attempts to curb piracy at the time while giving up on key disks weren’t exactly great ideas either, right Dr. Em?


1979: “Feelies”

As an alternative to on-disc copy protection, games company Infocom had a different idea; an encouragement for players to purchase the software for themselves by including an array of physical objects as collectibles inside the game box; items they referred to as “feelies.” A purchase of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would net the consumer a nifty “Dont Panic!” button, the game Zork would bestow a detailed history of the “Great Underground Empire,” and a buy-in to the game Wishbringer would net you your own magic rock!

In terms of parallels to today’s industry, these practices more or less continue in the form of the various pre-order and “collector’s edition” bonuses which give consumers an incentive to buy games at or before launch, thereby allowing the publisher to lock down revenues for the games they sell. There’s even product registration centers like Club Nintendo who give out awards to consumers for their purchase loyalty. Dr. Em, of course, has a way of wrecking a good thing.


Unfortunately, any positive effects from this approach are limited primarily to a game’s launch window. Once a game reaches the secondary market, there’s no guarantee that any supplemental materials would be coming with it to match the initial consumer’s experience, creating a shelf-life for the product’s original creative vision. Today, it’s proving difficult for a consumer to track down one of Infocom’s original “Zorkmids” (Only released with the Zork Trilogy box set), just as any future fans of Mirror’s Edge will have to go without the nifty runner’s bag. Companies have even moved away from physical rewards, instead offering slivers of in-game content; Assassin’s Creed IV may turn out to be a great experience, but its fans likely won’t be getting the full picture considering its in-game content has been chopped up and fed to 5 different retail outlets. Feelies can be neat or annoying, depending on your preference; a bigger hit comes when those feelies start to interact with the game itself, which brings us to our next topic.

1981: Passphrases

Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, many computer games made use of product keys similar to those found in other non-game software, although instead of a singular key required to install, many games would prompt a specific code or “passphrase” during the course of the game. The way they communicated those passphrases to the players was greatly varied, from including them in manuals and on boxes, to supplemental “feelies” that contained relevant information to game puzzles, to physical code-wheels that would rotate to form the required code needed. If a consumer was unable to answer the passphrase correctly within the game, they would be unable to continue further. Many games prompted these passphrases at the start of the game, however as an admittedly creative tactic, others chose to delay their passphrase until a certain point by means of marketing the final product to those that did in fact obtain illegal copies (thereby getting them hooked on their product, but denying them completion)

There’s a wide array of fascinating examples to cite, such the ZX Spectrum’s use of the Lenslok device to unscramble distorted images on screen to form a code, or the greatly detailed Guidebook to the Green Isles from King’s Quest VI, which among it’s texts and images, contained a language cypher and image association required to scale steps of knowledge and conquer the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. There were a lot of goofy ideas, and a lot of extra crap to keep ahold of as a result, although the idea perhaps reached its creative breaking point with Space Quest IV,  met in-game simply with a screen saying “Okay, here’s the dumb copy protection.” While some of these passphrase ideas  did prove to even heighten the overall video game experience for their creativity involved (like Secret of Monkey Island’s “Dial-A-Pirate” wheel), most all of them produced the same outcome, as Dr. Em will now demonstrate.


Simply put; these things get lost. Not only were they destructive for any resale value on the secondary market (since boxes, manuals, and anything physical might not accompany the game itself), but they can, and most certainly did, impact the first-sale consumer, ranging from a mild nuisance to an impenetrable force field between them and the games they’ve purchased. Zany Golf is a fun game; it’s one I grew up with and would theoretically enjoy playing today. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to play beyond Hole 1 for two decades now since I lost the code wheel. Oh well, I suppose.

1990: Limited Installs

Limited installs is, of course, a concept that’s as self explanatory as it is terrible, although it does provide us with an interesting multi-approach case study based around the same idea.

StarTropics is a more-or-less forgotten NES game, and it’s a shame because it’s really great; the game was essentially a cross between the Zelda and Mother (Earthbound) series of games, taking the action adventure genre into a more modern setting (complete with yo-yo and baseball bat). Like the examples above, the player is tasked with obtaining a passphrase using the game’s supplementary materials: within the game box is an official letter from the protagonist’s uncle that when dipped in water, reveals a code written in a special ink! It’s a pretty neat trick, but as Dr. Em points out, a funny thing happens when you dip paper in water…


StarTropics not only set up a need for a passphrase, but destroyed its delivery mechanism in the process. Nintendo provided a single-use gimmick that only the initial owner could fully participate in, leaving the rest (including all rental outlets) at the mercy of the Nintendo Hotline. While that may have been a setup that has since been remedied (the password is 747, by the way), consider that in 2011, Capcom released Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, which while simplistic in function, managed to force a hard save on the game disk that’s irreversable following its initial use. Consoles and portable devices are now fully capable of overriding the user experience; even users who have come into their product by entirely legal means.

Of course, the larger issue of limited installs is primarily geared towards the PC market. Mass Effect, Company of Heroes, Far Cry, anything on G4WL; many products only have a set number of times one can install on a new PC. While again meant to combat piracy, their implementation only seems to propogate the idea that the product maintains its own shelf life for relevance. I don’t know about you, but I have quite a few games I enjoy playing even though they came out over 20 years ago, and I’ve gone through at least 6 PC upgrades in my lifetime. But hey; maybe I won’t ever feel like playing Rocksteady’s Arkham games again; they weren’t that great, were they?

As an alternate case study, the game Spore launched in 2008 with a limit of 3 installs forced on legitimate buyers of the game. Spore was also the most pirated game of 2008. It had no effect on piracy; in fact, it may have even encouraged it; much like our next set of bad ideas.

1994: Software Tampering and Payloads

Some developers choose to focus their efforts solely on piracy, hiding code payloads and checksums within their games to detect pirated copies, and alter their contents to subtly render the game unplayable. A few 80’s games toyed with this idea just like many games still do today (from Sid Meier’s Pirates and Zak McKracken, to Arkham Asylum and GTAIV); combining their payload tactics with previous passphrases and install requirements, but some games also chose to skirt additional user interaction completely to make the payload a complete surprise.

Earthbound for example has no passphrases or install limits, but contained a series of checksums that if being played on a pirated copy would increase the number of random enemies the player would be forced to fight. It also had a forced game freeze towards the end of the game that would delete all save files. Ouch!

As game media advanced to disks, so too did payload abilities. Codemasters even developed a software system called FADE that would replicate game scratches on disks, which when copied would be removed, thereby enacting any number of repercussions; developer Bohemia Interactive has used it in their games like ARMA 2 (more commonly known as “that game you need to buy to play DayZ“) to decrease the player’s accuracy when shooting, or to complicate steering when driving vehicles.

The concept persists simply as a way to mess with those using pirated copies, and while it hasn’t held a great amount of impact on the legitimate consumer, its still not without a few missteps. For one, it’s basically an invitation to pirates and hackers to either crack their codes, or experience the at-times humerous payloads for themselves. Serious Sam 3, for example spawns an invincible spider enemy that attacks the player constantly; that’s oddly enticing. This inviting behavior even goes back to 80’s computing, where illegal copies of the Commodore 64’s Ubik’s Music netted you a free variant of Space Invaders… That’s no longer an anti-piracy measure; that’s a glorified easter egg! Arguably it’s unwise to dedicate so much time and money to developing a punishment that becomes a reward.

More importantly, the simple subversion of more up-front DRM has also managed to go over a few heads, right Dr. Em?


Gamers who pirate disks are still gamers, and gamers have big mouths. Don’t give gamers with big mouths the impression that your game isn’t very good before they realize their copy’s not playing right on purpose.

2007: Online Authentication

Online authentication, at least in terms of the PC market, did not initially pose a large burden for the internet-ready individual. Client services like Steam would require an initial authentication for their purchases (you were online when downloading them anyway), and still allowed for an offline mode for players to be able to access games at any time (although some now do come with additional requirements). Arguably, the issues at stake involving online authentication first presented themselves on a grand scale with the PC release of the original Bioshock back in 2007, when a botched global release led to authentication difficulties due to the game’s use of the SecuROM security software, prompting separate authentications from multiple users on the same device.

“Success stories” for SecuROM, of course, kept on coming by way of EA, who also chose to implement it with games like Mass Effect and Spore, which elevated the problems further by prompting a new authentication on the same device if the game had been uninstalled, and even having online “check-ins” similar to what Microsoft had recently suggested with the Xbox One (and like the Xbox One, they were also removed based on consumer outrage). Spore even managed to net itself a class-action lawsuit in the process for the files it left on one’s computer even after it was uninstalled, similar to how rootkits functioned.

If these were complications experienced with singular authentications, was there ever any doubt that persistent online authentication would be acceptable?

As if we haven’t expressed our outrage enough, always-on DRM simply does not work. Sim City proved it. Diablo III proved it before that. Silent Hunter 5 and Assassins Creed II proved it before that! Disconnects and interruptions. Flooded servers. Denial-of-service attacks. Lag. Account hacking. All of these things are limitations that while more or less acceptable for online multiplayer gaming (acceptable to the extent that they are an unavoidable risk in order to be connected with others), are an unnecessary imposition on  a single player experience. The suggestion that online may better serve consumers with expedient updates and patches only furthers the reliance on publishers to apply them later on without holding back on product launches, and their continued dependence on server stability and funding can greatly impact their accessibility years after the launch window. Meanwhile, wiith review outlets being granted online access in advance of the general public, minimal server traffic can provide an inaccurate portrayal of how the game unfolds post-launch.


And of course, even if server stability is assured (it isn’t), there’s still the issue of client oversight and censorship, as we’ve already seen account bans and terminations enacted upon users by companies based on something so trivial as forum posts or mod-hacking and cheating; not just singular games in question, but all games tied to that account. We’ve also seen companies take steps akin to Microsoft’s used game fees by imposing additional online authentication following their initial sale. 2011’s Mortal Kombat, for example; a series primarily geared towards competitive multiplayer, that shipped with a free single-use online passcode, forcing used gamers to purchase their online component separately in addition to whatever they paid for the game.

Online authentication yields a tremendous amount of control in the favor of companies with little return to the consumer, and we’ve already seen how that control may be abused.

Can DRM ever succeed?

The success of DRM is arguable, depending on which areas DRM hopes to target. Piracy will always occur, and if a method of DRM was in place solely to combat it without burdening the legitimate consumer, there would likely be no great argument against it. Technology solutions will always become available; online can (and undoubtedly will) get better so problems of the past like authentication failures, runtime errors, and passphrase requirements, can be reduced. The trouble with DRM, remains in its tendencies for shortsighted motivations.

DRM is bigger than piracy, whether it outwardly says so or not. The relationship DRM forges between the company and consumer has fundamentally changed since its origins, from rewarding good behavior (discounted prices for copy-protected key disks, “feelies” to reward purchasers) to punishing bad behavior (additional restrictions for used copies, terminating access for disruptive online activity), and what exactly constitutes “bad” behavior is entirely at the discretion of the company line. Bad idea.

This is supplemental to the consistent frustration and torment placed on those that may have entirely played by the company rules, forcing them to jump through hoops not fashioned for them in the first place. Bad idea.

Simultaneously, DRM continues to wage its own side wars, reducing the ability for games to be resold, shared, and even played by the original owner years from its original purchase date. While review outlets would convince you that games are works of art, or should be appreciated and preserved for the experiences they offer, DRM in video games would suggest otherwise; encouraging purchases up front, downgrading its value at resale, and abandoning all focus on the product shortly after for something new. DRM places control of a product in the hands of its legally recognized owner, however when that owner remains in active pursuit of even newer products, they present a conflict of interest with the longevity and success of the product at hand. It’s the industry’s allowance of this conflict to continue that is perhaps the greatest bad idea of them all.


To read up on additional “Bad Ideas” in the industry, please see the archives. Image credits (and apologies) to Disney’s the Mad Doctor, MC Double Def DP, the Junk Lady from Labyrinth, Gamestop, Dr. Steve Jones, Inspector Gadget, Rainier Wolfcastle, and Uatu the Watcher. This article is dedicated to Tim.

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