E3, DRM, and Celebrating the Temporary Lack of Searing Ball Pain

Some of this was culled from and inspired by a few updates on my Twitter Feed. Apologies if you find it repetitious.

Holy shit, you guys: Did you hear the news from E3? Sony is going to keep doing the same thing they’ve always done! Fuck yes, celebration time: Not all of gaming is not going to slide further down the maw of the DRM Sarlacc. Break out the bubbly!

Isn’t that sad? This extraordinary sense of relief at simply not being completely fucked over? We’ve officially stopped focusing on and rewarding promising new features, and instead rejoice at the preservation of the status quo. DRM has so completely inundated our lives that the mere prospect of it not invading further is cause for a fucking party. It has wormed its way into our movies, books, games and gaming services to an unacceptable degree. I fully believe that artists should be supported and paid for their work — I’m one of those bastards, after all — but at what point did intellectual property become the bad guy? The abstract stance that you should not steal media is sound. You’re an idiot if you argue that. If you don’t support creators, they will stop creating. They cannot subsist on your good feelings. The joy of your audience cannot be exchanged at the Safeway for Hot Pockets and beer. But I just want to know who proposed, with a straight face, that the solution to IP theft is not to let anybody own media at all.

“People are stealing our books!”
“Well, sir, we can’t just stop releasing them…”
“That’s exactly what we’ll do! No more releases! Now they have to make an appointment, come into our office, and sit in a monitored white room while they read, completely naked. They will not be allowed to take any materials out, and we’ll charge them for the privilege!”

And not only did the corporations not laugh that guy out of the room, they gave him a promotion and a corner office. DRM has slipped so subtly into our everyday lives, that we’re only shaken out of our stupor by the extraordinary: The Xbox One literally proposed to monitor our living room with spy cameras connected to the internet. Then they kindly offered to do away with the concept of ownership, and threw in persistent connectivity requirements as well. They stopped just shy of offering to kick all of our puppies for us – you know, save us the muscle strain of doing it ourselves. These kinds of restrictions would be a dealbreaker for a free, ad-supported game service – and they’re proposing it for a console that costs you $500.

If you guys like being abused so much, I know dominatrices that charge way less than that just to stomp on your balls for a few hours.

But all was not lost: After Microsoft was done spitting in gamer’s mouths so much that we nearly drowned in hate-saliva, Sony came out and kindly, graciously offered not to add further injury. Seriously, it’s weird that Sony’s “features” were mostly just the absence of threats…


“Still own things you buy! No always on connection! Will not actively try to bang your mom! Your console will not chase you into the bathroom and yell slurred threats through the door! It will NOT give you Hepatitis! No always-on camera monitoring your living room! NOT ENVENOMED!”

If you don’t think that approach is absurd, try it out in the real world. Take Sony’s lead on job interviews: Instead of talking up qualifications, just point out that you won’t set the place on fire. If they ask for your references, give them names of strangers off the street and tell the interviewee to ask if any of them have been assaulted by you. When the answers come back “no,” say “see? I don’t randomly beat pedestrians!” Then, to really sell your case, point out that the last guy they interviewed was a convicted murderer. “Sure, I killed a guy one time, but I’ve never been convicted!”

If it seems odd that I’m giving Sony shit for bragging about not being evil, while going comparatively light on Microsoft’s full descent into supervillainy, that’s probably because I assume the Xbox just committed brand suicide. Or at least I hope it did. I may complain, but ultimately I don’t have any passionate feelings against the Xbox One, because I know they’ve already cemented my decision: I won’t be buying it. End of story. If I do buy a console, it’ll be something different. Playstation, or Nintendo, or somebody else wanting to fill the gap. It’s only if the Xbox One sells really well that I’ll be disturbed. If anybody actually buys one of these things and proudly sets it up in their living room, happily forfeiting the right to own or use their stuff while simultaneously forking over objectively large amounts of money, corporations will know they can get away with anything. I can avoid the XBOne, but if it succeeds and proves the concept is sound, others may follow suit to the point that non-ownership and constant surveillance becomes the norm.

But hey: Sony’s still out there, if not being the good guy, then at least not being the worst guy. Of course, amid all the cries of relief, you may have missed that they’re allowing third party developers to institute their own DRM – which you’ll note is a step backwards from the current console market.

“But it’s such a small step,” we whisper, tears of joy streaming down our face, “compared to the giant boot to the face Xbox offered!”

Don’t get me wrong, I know Sony is just caving a little to pressures from major publishers. And though I do not intend to own their console at any point in the future either (I was a console gamer all my life, but switched to PC recently precisely for these sorts of concerns), I am still abstractly relieved that it’s not on Xbox’s level of fuckery. But still: The state of gaming is a little worse, all around, and here we are rejoicing that the loss of ownership rights isn’t as bad as it could have been.

But hey, Watch Dogs looks rad. So I guess tumbling head first into a consumer dystopia is all worth it.

Oh, right and I guess Nintendo probably exists still.

27 thoughts on “E3, DRM, and Celebrating the Temporary Lack of Searing Ball Pain

  1. Andrew

    I think a lot of more serious gamers will switch to PC or go Sony after this, but im not sure about casual gamers. Will they check the specifics or just assume its the same as the 360 but better? I’m not sure. I hope most gamers continue doing what they do best: spewing hate-bile at anything they don’t agree with.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Well, truly casual gamers are either going Nintendo or not at all. Android, IOS – that’s casual gamer territory now. They don’t buy consoles anymore. Or at least not often. If you’re interested enough to consider a console investment, you’ll probably have heard of this stuff and avoid the XBone. At least I sure fucking hope so.

    2. KaeYoss

      I think it’s funny that with one opportunistic presentation, Sony is suddenly the good guy.

      Sure, MS has tried something bad here (and pulled back once the backlash was too public), but it’s not as if Sony never did anything questionable. They infested their Music CDs with malware that was to act as copy protection (and, of course, opened up the computer for countless other types of attacks) and their “excuse” was “Most people don’t know what a rootkit is, why should they care about it?” They repeatedly mocked the competition – and right after that copied the exact same thing they mocked (only worse). They are known for ridiculous lawsuits. Their reaction to the PSN hack was slipping shifty clauses into their EULA with a mandatory update (making you waive your right to participate in class-action lawsuits against them).

      I’m quite sure that they were geared up for doing something very similar and only changed their mind when they saw that not all consumers are sheep that let themselves be fleeced quietly.

      They do have some very interesting patents, like in-game advertising (both placement in the game world and ads that interrupt gameplay). They even have a patent for a type of ad you can’t just click away but must interact with to make it go away and release the game it just held hostage.

      And while not every patent will find its way into the final products, it’s nevertheless interesting that they even think about things like that.

  2. War2d2

    Nice writeup, Robert. I agree with everything you say vis-à-vis DRM and media ownership, and you know that’s important because I’m the kind of guy that uses words like “vis-à-vis.”

    The one issue I have is saying that you moved to PC “precisely for these sorts of concerns.” As a casual console gamer I may be way off here, but haven’t PC titles basically been doing what the XBone (LOL GET IT??!1! IT’S LIKE A PENIS) promises since time immemorial? When I bought the DVD version of Half Life 2 way back in 2004, it was with the belief that I could both install it AND play it. Ridiculous, right? Turned out I could not, because Steam had not yet “released” it. On top of that, I paid an extra $5 for the honor, and also didn’t get the “Half-Life Source” game because I didn’t buy it through Steam instead. I was angry/vindictive enough about the experience that I bought an original XBox and went full-console, and haven’t looked back since. ALSO! I cut off my nose to spite my face. Stupid face anyway.

    I haven’t used Steam since that time in 2004, so they may not do the 24-hour check in stuff, and they may allow you to sell your used games, and they may allow you to loan games to friends, and etc etc etc. I’m not going to bother looking up any of that, because this is the internet, and I wouldn’t want to set some kind of weird precedent of citing actual facts. I’m just saying, PC gaming isn’t a bastion of fairness and egalitarianism. Maybe. Again: facts.

    I guess my beef isn’t so much with you, it’s mostly with…the universe? Maybe? But leaving a meandering and angry (so angry! Okay not really) comment on your blog is the closest thing I can get to nut-punching the universe, so here it is. Take that, balls of the universe! BOOM.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      I like and use Steam. I understand some DRM is necessary for the major services to at least make it look like they’re trying to prevent theft. But I’ve never had a problem accessing games offline, or at other computers, or any of that stuff. Plus, the PC isn’t a unified market. If you don’t like Steam, you can still buy games, install them and play them. If you don’t want any DRM, ever, you can only purchase titles that don’t use it. A console makes the rules universal. Or at least, the XBone does: Cannot disable camera, have to connect to the internet once a day, severe restrictions on ownership. Those are all platform wide decisions. As a PC gamer, if a developer did something like that – and hey, Ubisoft, lookin’ at you here, fellas – I would simply stop buying their games. The device I use to play games is unaffected.

    2. KaeYoss

      Yes, on the PC, games with serial keys that make it hard/impossible to resell the game are pretty much the norm. I guess some cheap games (like “Pony Ranch Adventure” and stuff like that) don’t bother with it, but other than that, PC gamers don’t bat an eye at it.

      Things are a little bit different on the PC, though: First of all, PCs have always had bigger problems with illegal copies. Unlike the consoles, the PC isn’t a closed system. You don’t need special hardware to copy games. You don’t need to open the computer and install a mod chip. You just install the crack and you’re set.

      For a time, having the CD in the disc drive was an option for copy protection, but then CD-writers came out. All the little tricks they used to make discs “uncopyable” failed one after another. In many cases, that meant you didn’t even need a crack to play an illegal copy.

      So in the end, they came up with serial keys, and later with internet registration. The better/nicer publishers don’t require you to be always online after you registered the game once.

      It has a nice side effect, though: Since they gave up on using the disc itself as a means of copy protection, and since the PC has always used game installations, games nowadays don’t require the disc to play. Might not be a big deal for everyone, but I like how I don’t have to play DJ any more (especially since I can recall the days of games that came on several discs).

      Another nice thing is that even with the problems you have getting used games for the PC, you’re not stuck with expensive games. Even at release, PC games tend to be cheaper than console games, and they get cheaper faster. Add into that awesome stuff like the regular Steam Sales, and you can get great games for less than you would have paid for a used console game that is the same age.

      The only big downside is that you cannot sell games (let’s not forget that for every game you buy used, someone sells his and gets some money back). But frankly, I was never one to sell games that quickly (I just don’t buy a game if it is only good for a couple of hours, or I wait until it’s really cheap), so that never affected me much, and I think a lot of people are the same.

  3. SteveySteve

    Besides the whole “Spying On Your Children” thing, I was really bummed that the consoles just aren’t doing anything interesting. Just nothing different. It inspired me to write an article, in which I lament the loss of the Power Glove. Check it out if you like: http://goo.gl/k2gq5 (sorry if that seems like spamming.)

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      True. I didn’t watch every second of E3 or anything, but following the coverage, you don’t hear about anything new or exciting: Just bad news and the temporary cessation of bad news.

  4. Scott W

    As a big Xbox fan I was more than concerned about their big brother like monitoring. I did a bit of digging and found that the user can turn off the Kinect if they would like. Also PlayStation will be allowing publishers to determine whether they want to charge for used games or not noted well. As of late I’ve found myself using steam for almost all of my gaming. It got me to wondering if the new generation of consoles will operate on the same principals, and if so am I reacting as if the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      You can tell the software to turn it off. You cannot disconnect it or manually cut power to it. You can only politely request that it not monitor you, and then trust that the internet respect your privacy, and that giant world-spanning corporations have your best interests at heart.

  5. John

    It’s worth mentioning that Sony’s stance isn’t slightly worse for the PS4 than the 3; it’s exactly the same. Current publishers are free to lock their content behind any software DRM they choose (see dragon age and arkham city, and multiplayer online passes). The PS4 won’t support that kind of behavior further, but also won’t stand in the way.

    The potential difference is that 3rd party publishers are more likely to push the envelope now; even with EA ditching online passes some sort of online DRM will likely surface. The worst offenses have by and large also been the most recent.

    It is a distinction worth keeping, though.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Yeah, that’s been pointed out. When did that happen? I sold my last console (owned both Xbox 360 and PS3 back in the day) a few years ago, and there was no 3rd party DRM whatsoever. Now it’s the norm?

      1. John

        It came in slowly. Dragon Age in 2009 was the first experience I had with the sort of ‘Always On’ DRM. You strictly speaking didn’t need to be online to use it, but if you downloaded any of the free DLC that came in a new box you would need to sign in every time to continue having access to it. Especially with the DLC quests, once your save was linked up you would need to sign in to be able to load that save.

        In 2010 EA started up the ‘Online Pass’ phenomenon where multiplayer/online access was a separate facet of the game. The original purchaser got a code that gave them free access to the content. Used game purchasers had to pay $10.

        The general sentiment (making generalizations on the internet is hazardous, I know) was that this was a measured and appropriate response to GameStop’s overall villainy – GameStop’s reputation being about as far in the gutter as possible in that 2009-2011 area – and while people grumbled the overall outrage was very low. Importantly, if you only played games single player and never went online, you would never interact with the Online Pass system, even if you always bought used.

        It’s far from the norm, though, even now. Look at games like Blizzard’s Starcraft 2 (2010) and Diablo 3 (2012). Both games have some form of ‘always online’ requirement that fans largely attribute to DRM no matter how often they deny it, and in both cases there was significant uproar at the announcement. It is and should still be news when a company decides to ramp up their DRM, especially if it’s a console manufacturer.

        And there’s still a countervailing current against DRM in general,. We saw it with music, where you can largely buy DRM-free now; books are not there but there are sites (as you know) where publishers can at least get in the game with DRM-free content. Ubisoft announced last year that they were discontinuing DRM for PC games, and EA discontinued their Online Pass scheme this year due to actual financial backlash.

        Gaming and software piracy has been and remains a Big Deal and an increasingly big deal as the market becomes more and more global. So for all that DRM might eventually go the way of other forms of copy protection over time, products-as-services incorporating always-online ‘features’ that incidentally check your license constantly will become more commonplace. We should also expect to a continued push toward digital delivery, where you give up any pretense of ownership in exchange for a (supposedly) cheaper product and the convenience of access from anywhere (think Steam).

        1. Robert Brockway Post author

          I guess I sidestepped most of this by accident: Wasn’t interested in Dragon Age, don’t play sports games, don’t buy used, don’t generally play multiplayer. I feel like I’ve been skipping rope in the middle of a hurricane. It amazes me that the people affected by it have been dealing with it at all. And as to your point about other media: eBooks are laden with DRM. All publishing services offer it, some mandatory, and you see console exclusivity DRM too (both Nook and Kindle strongly discourage if not outright forbid outside-of-store content on some devices.) I have to go through and uncheck DRM boxes — many of them — to self publish my stuff.

  6. Scott W

    Hey just a heads up, Microsoft pulled a 180 on their DRM policy. The Xbox one will now only require a one time set up online. After that you are free to play anything offline for as long as you would like.

  7. Julien Brightside

    Nice post. Man, that Xbox one is a bad move.

    It is not like they are turning 180 because they suddenly have a change of heart. IT is more that they are just waiting for another time when they can do this again.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Eh, they’re not evil. Just greedy – as all corporations are. Every one of them will try bullshit like this in the future – it’s just a matter of not letting it stick.

      1. KaeYoss

        Actually, Nintendo is flat out against online passes and reselling prevention. Games that have online passes for their PS3 or XBox 360 Versions don’t have them in the Wii U version.

        Nintendo’s Stance vis-a-vis used games is “We have no problem with it, but then, we try to make games people don’t want to sell the next day. If you don’t want people to sell games again in the release week, make games that don’t bore people after a few hours.”

      2. KaeYoss

        I often hear that argument, but never buy it.

        Sure, the purpose of a business is to maximise profit, but there are huge differences in how they go about that.

        There are some companies that will do everything to maximise their profit – EA and Ubi are two prime examples, with horrible DRM, microtransactions, calling critics gay-bashers instead of improving, driving developers into ruin to get a game done cheap, overpriced DLC and so on – but not all of them will do.

        There are some companies that largely or completely eschew questionable practises. Nintendo is against online passes or reselling blocks, they went up against EA by not handing over their network to EA to infect with Origin. Valve, while having been one of the first to have always-on DRM for their games, are actually doing a lot of nice things, like letting you install your Steam account/games on as many machines as you want (you just cannot play more than once), periodically providing free content for their games (stuff you would have paid 15$ or more were it from other publishers), doing a lot to support indie games, having an offline mode for steam….

        That are only two examples. There are more. Some might be neither very nice nor very evil, and some might just be really good at hiding their questionable stuff, but for me, the “well, they’re just doing what every company does” argument rings hollow.

  8. Harold3456

    Do your opinions change at all now that XBox has backtracked on all their new features? I personally hope that XBox continues to persevere, just so Sony doesn’t gain a monopoly on the gaming market (bearing in mind that Playstation and Wii’s customer demographics don’t overlap that significantly). Now that XBox has retracted EVERYTHING, buying an XBone will no longer legitimize those bullshit features they tried to adopt – hopefully the backlash from the consumer has scared ALL future developers away from that level of Orwellian control at least for a few years or more.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      A bit, though they haven’t backtracked on ALL of their bullshit. Kinect still mandatory, no hardware off-switch, etc. I wish there were new competitors, I wish somebody would look at the market and realize there is a huge spot for a console to compete as long as they’re averse to consumer rights violations.

  9. Daniel Bishop

    This may sound silly, but could the XBox ‘always on camera’ simply be pointed at the ceiling? Or just put a sticker or cap on the lense?

    I know it doesn’t solve the ethical issues of constant surveillance, but the practical issue must be pretty easy to solve… Just point it the other way.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      I would, as a consumer, be adverse to doing that. We shouldn’t have to buy privacy invasive electronics and then try to circumvent them; they shouldn’t be there in the first place. But even if you can move the camera, that won’t affect the microphone.

      1. Tomi U

        On a side note on the camera stuff, couldn’t that be hacked and some hackers could get a private view on your life(Or the lives of somebody famous and then blackmail them with the footage or just if they are speaking something inflammatory). Especially if its always connected to the interwebs. So in conclusion, i would not spend a dime on xboxone, hell or even visit a friend who has one…

  10. Chuck O'Nan

    I thought I had read somewhere that they claimed the mic was always on but not the camera. Not that you would have anyway of knowing. And aside from invasion of privacy concerns, I think their is a hilarious fail lurking in the wings with the Kinect. It’s always on, in part so you can give it voice commands. So when you’re busy playing the new CoD and your friend walks in and sits down, and you say, “Did you watch Game of Thrones?” Enjoy the system kicking you out of your game to the newest episode. I heard something like that kept happening in one of their demonstrations.

  11. Tomi U

    I’m thinking skipping this gen all together, because of the conserns you put on your article. Which is a shame as i have been a gamer all my life. NES was actually my third console. I have a shitty internet connection, so i play pretty much only singleplayer. And fuck no, for camera always on in my living room, too much sex and drugs for them to record(and maybe even contact police, not for the sex part(that would probably go to Vivid) but for all the drugs i use in my living room). So, it seems, i won’t be a gamer no more and as i’m typing this, tears are falling from my eyes.


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