From DLC to free-to-play: a brief history of everything you love to hate

By Brenna Hillier, Thursday, 19 March 2015 08:40 GMT

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Ports. Platform exclusives. Microtransactions. Horse armour. Refresh yourself on the ins-and-outs of all the things you love to hate.

diablo_3

DRM

Tracing the history of DRM in gaming is difficult, because the phrase “digital rights management” applies to a variety of concepts. The basic definition is a technology used to control the use of digital content and devices after sale – and that can mean a lot of things, from preventing you from copying or sharing the content, to blocking installs, to limiting use.

Usually when we’re talking about DRM in games we mean copy protection: something that prevents you from making copies of the game that other people can play. By this definition, DRM is almost as old as gaming itself. Although some games were (and are) freely distributed, most have been commercial enterprises. Many early computer games had activation keys (although you did not need to access the internet to use them) or passwords included in the manual or game packaging, for example.

The pièce de résistance of unpopular DRM is persistent online authentication – what we call “always-on DRM”. Having to always be connected to the internet makes sense for an MMORPG or multiplayer-only game, but in something like Diablo 3, which you might want to play offline and alone, it can be a pain in the butt.

Pirates always found ways around these kinds of methods, as they do around every kind of copy protection eventually, but they didn’t really inconvenience legitimate end users. It wasn’t until DRM started to be annoying to regular joes that it acquired its negative reputation.

Today, there are several forms of DRM that users jack up over. Examples include those that limit you to one install (especially the draconian ones that mean one ever, rather than one at a time!), which is disappointing for those who grew up hosting LAN parties with one copy of a game, for example. Games that require you to install and fire up an external client, like Games for Windows Live or Uplay, or connect to the internet every time you want to play, are also frustrating, for obvious reasons.

The pièce de résistance of unpopular DRM is persistent online authentication – what we call “always-on DRM”. Having to always be connected to the internet makes sense for an MMORPG or multiplayer-only game, but in something like Diablo 3, which you might want to play offline and alone, it can be a pain in the butt. Taking your laptop with you on holiday? No WiFI in your dorm room? Tough.

Several factors have contributed to help soothe these headaches. First, publishers have responded to backlash to annoying DRM by backing off the most unpopular versions, as well as trying to use more reliable, less intrusive technologies. Second, living in such a connected age means that you’re less likely to be unable to activate a new game, and as one-time online activation is such a common solution, you won’t have too much trouble.

This ill-defined sea of rights and counter-rights was one of the main reasons gamers reacted so badly to Steam. Yes, Steam! Good Guy Valve was once considered a huge threat to gaming.

What’s really interesting about DRM, though, is the invisible side: who owns the content you’re using? You paid for it, sure, but does the content provider have the right to take it away whenever they want? Can you sell it on to someone else if you’re done with it? Do you have the right to make copies?

Copyright is such a complicated issue, and laws vary considerably across territories, so that the answers to these questions are not clear – and change year to year. The EU recently ruled that consumers do have the right to on-sell digital content, which has thrown the cat among the pigeons a bit, but we’re yet to see the consequences.

So back to the history lesson for a bit: this ill-defined sea of rights and counter-rights was one of the main reasons gamers reacted so badly to Steam. Yes, Steam! Good Guy Valve was once considered a huge threat to gaming.

Some of the fear surrounding Steam’s inception had to do with its novelty; Valve saw the future years before anyone else, and many gamers simply didn’t believe in its vision. Downloading full games on a regular basis? Servers that stayed up consistently? Surely such a thing wasn’t possible.

It obviously was, and after a rocky launch Valve proved it. It wasn’t the first digital distributor but its success really established the space, and as such, we can credit it for popularising DRM. Steamworks is one of the most popular gaming DRM systems in the world today, and it’s so reliable and invisible that most gamers have forgotten it is any such thing. Of course you have the Steam client running all the time. Of course you activate games through Steam’s servers. Why wouldn’t you?

Some people still refuse to buy or activate games through Steam on moral grounds; that Valve has never exploited the weird technicalities of copyright law to take content away from players doesn’t change the fact that it shouldn’t have that power, they argue.

This was unthinkable, back in the day. Detractors expected the whole thing to collapse at any moment, taking everyone’s libraries with it, leaving nothing to show for all that money spent. They argued Valve would use the power laid out in its EULA to ban consumers on a whim, denying them access to their purchases.

Some people still refuse to buy or activate games through Steam on moral grounds; that Valve has never exploited the weird technicalities of copyright law to take content away from players doesn’t change the fact that it shouldn’t have that power, they argue.

The upside of all this is the anti-DRM movement has produced some lovely bonuses. The Humble Bundle began as a cross-platform, DRM free scheme and while it doesn’t always stick to that now, it supplies boatloads of cheap games, and exposure for developers who might otherwise go under the radar. Offshoot the Humble Store is a very indie-friendly way to buy games. And GOG remains staunchly anti-DRM – but owes a lot of its success to the popularisation of digital distribution through Steam.

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