The headline that ran across this piece when I was moving through my rough draft read “Always-On DRM Should Throw Itself Off a Tall Bridge into a Craggy Ravine Filled with Broken Bottles and Shattered Dreams.” It was a little long, so I was forced to cut it down to what you see above. Of course, SimCity is really the icing on the Always-On DRM cake of doom, so let’s just go with that.
Always-On DRM is terrible. It’s a zero-win system for consumers, and consumers, brace yourselves, are what make the gaming industry work.
As an aside, I wrote this entire story while waiting for SimCity’s servers to come back up. Laugh with me.
What is Always-On DRM?
Okay, so, it goes like this… DRM stands for “digital rights management.” It’s essentially a way for companies to make sure that their products aren’t being misused or pirated. It’s a system of protection measures meant to keep non-paying customers away from media.
Always-On DRM is one of the more recent variations of this system. It requires that customers connect to an online server in order to gain access to the media they purchased. So, in the case of a game like, I don’t know, SimCity, gamers have to stay connected to EA’s servers in order to play.
Anyone with even a modicum of experience with online gaming can already spot the potential problems that a system like Always-On DRM brings to the table; but, we’re going to go over them anyways.
Why is Always-On DRM a problem?
Gamers rely entirely on the quality of the servers running their recently purchased games in order to play. With SimCity (or Diablo III before it), the servers simply weren’t meant to handle the load of players trying to play at the game’s launch.
Servers fill up and paying customers are left standing out in the virtual cold, short $60 and a ton of hard drive space.
It goes further than opening weekend, though. Whenever servers crash, gamers won’t be able to play their game. Whenever servers need to be updated, gamers won’t be able to play their game. Whenever internet connections are lost (during outages or when playing from a plane or train), gamers won’t be able to play their game.
Like I said, Always-On DRM requires that gamers are always connected to a game’s servers in order to play. Take away that connection, in any way, shape or form, and you take away a player’s experience.
This is a major bummer for single player games.
EA, Ubisoft and Activision will always dress up their Always-On DRM practices as new ways to play. You’ll be constantly connected to friends and strangers in the new SimCity, and that requires an Internet connection.
The problem? SimCity is, by and large, a single player experience. You can collaborate with other mayors, but it’s not a requirement for play. In fact, I’ve personally logged more than eight hours of solo play in this mandatory multiplayer experience so far.
Always-On DRM doesn’t understand the term “single player;” it doesn’t even accept that such a method of gaming exists. Except, guess what, plenty of gamers like enjoying games by their lonesome. Especially city management games.
The scariest part of Always-On DRM?
What frightens and upsets me most as a fan of the gaming medium when it comes to Always-On DRM isn’t the server downtime at launch or the fact that I won’t be able to play from an airplane. What gets me most is that major publishers are now toying with the preservation of games.
EA, over the last several years, has been shutting down servers for the multiplayer elements of some older games in their sports and racing catalogue. Once those multiplayer servers are down, the multiplayer is down for good.
Now, consider this: EA might want to move away from this new SimCity 10 years from now. Or, perhaps, EA will collapse and stop existing entirely 20 years from now. Either way, they won’t want to (or won’t be able to) pump money into servers for aging games.
Suddenly, that game you once paid $60 for becomes entirely unplayable.
Look, I play all sorts of games. I play new ones, and I play old ones. There’s a reason why my Super Nintendo still occupies space in my entertainment center. I play classic games constantly. Heck, I fired up SimCity 2000 like three months ago. That game is approaching 20 years of age.
Always-On DRM means that we’ll never be able to play these games again if EA (Activision, Blizzard, Ubisoft or whoever) decides they don’t want to pay for servers anymore. The game goes away, entirely.
If you view games as a historical medium worth preserving, this would be tantamount to what old Hollywood did to their films when they ran out of storage space. They tossed them.
Always-On DRM is a scummy, garbage practice.
But, look, the only people you’re really messing with are your paying customers. Pirates will develop cracks and find a way to play the game they stole without issue. Paying customers will have to wade through server downtimes, botched launch weeks and the possibility of losing their game entirely in 20 years.
As a gamer, as a customer and as a lover of the medium, I’m telling you it’s time to figure something else out. Always-On DRM, no matter how you dress it up with words like “social” and “connected,” will be a massive thorn in the side of gaming.
Stop using it.