May. 13th, 2010

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  • 10:24 @xenscooter Nifty. I'll be keeping my eye on it. #
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I've written before on the various Digital Rights Management schemes used by PC game publishers to prevent piracy.  There's been a new development since then so I thought it a good time to revisit the topic.

The new development is that Ubisoft, one of the largest publishers in the industry, has developed a new DRM technology for their PC games that is especially pernicious.  So far they've included it with Assassin's Creed 2, Silent Hunter 5, and Splinter Cell: Conviction.  The way it works is that it requires you to have a continuous connection over the Internet to Ubisoft's servers while playing the game.  Should your connection be lost for any reason, the game will quit.  Originally, any progress you had made since the last checkpoint would be lost though apparently a patch has been released that allows you to continue the game where you left off.  Nevertheless, you still require the connection to play so you can't play if your Internet connection is down or you are on a portable computer away from any connectivity option.  I was looking forward to Splinter Cell: Conviction having played previous Splinter Cell games on the PC.  This time, if I do purchase it, I will get it for the Xbox 360 or wait until it is released on Steam without this DRM, if it ever happens.  You can buy it on Steam now but it still includes this DRM.

And that brings me, once again, to the reason Steam is a much better way of doing this.  With Steam, your license is tied to your identity, and not to your computer.  As long as you are signed in as you, you can download and play any game you've purchased or otherwise obtained, such as a gift.  Steam has an offline mode that allows you to play if you're disconnected, at least for a time.  In addition to managing your license, it also manages the game files, automatically downloading any updates or patches and ensuring that the files are all correct.  You can back up your games so you can then install them on another computer, or reinstall after a system wipe, without having to re-download them.  It provides social features such as news, groups, forums, etc.

Yes, Steam does install a service so that it can do certain things without requiring you to give it administrator access, such as updating games and updating itself.  But, unlike SecuROM and possibly other DRM technologies, it doesn't care whether you have certain software installed such as CD mastering software.  It just works, and it works well.

The other downside is that you can't resell or lend a game to someone else like you can with most non-Steam games.  For example, I've lent my copy of Fallout 3 to a friend and was able to do so because I bought a physical copy instead of buying it through Steam.  Fallout 3 does come with SecuROM but only uses the disk-check feature and, as far as I can tell, doesn't install the SecuROM service nor register your machine with a central system.  It does also integrate with Games for Windows Live and you do register the game on that service, but you don't have to use Live to play the game, only if you want it to track achievements and use the other Live features.  My friend isn't doing that so he isn't having any issues playing the game.

And some games that originally came with DRM are now being offered on Steam without it, as Steam now takes its place.  For example I just picked up a copy of Dead Space from EA which originally came with SecuROM but has it stripped out for the Steam version.  EA at least has done this with several games indicating that they at least understand that Steam obviates the need for anything else.

Other than not being able to resell or lend games (and I'd like to see Steam add the capability to lend your license to someone else), the type of license management represented by Steam is, in my opinion, far superior to that currently in use by Ubisoft and other publishers.  I'm glad that more games are being released on Steam without onerous DRM software and hope that more publishers such as Ubisoft realize it's a much better way to go.

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