Sitting on my desktop is my Diablo III shortcut icon, un-clicked for the past two months. Why?
My internet was down. Oh, it's back up, I assure you! But, regardless, the two and a half weeks I spent without internet (while sorting out an excessively-high internet bill that ended up being the company's fault) killed any interest I had in the game.
Upon every start-up of my PC, Steam would also chime in. "We cannot verify your online connection". And what did that mean? It meant I couldn't play my Steam games (even offline, single-player-only games), not until I got back online. Good grief! And here I thought that Steam was supposed to be the savior of gaming! Yeah right...
Gamers have a lot of things to complain about these days. We teeter on the edge between being informed consumers who demand quality and being loudmouthed crybabies who want everything handed to us on a digital platter. But let's take a break from the "controversy" (read: idiotic White Knighting) surrounding the supposed sexism, or lack of it, in God of War, Tomb Raider, or bit.trip Runner2, or Angry Birds, or any other game that happens to have a female character.
Let's talk about DRM.
"Digital Rights Management" is a pretty simple term. It means the company from which you bought a game wants to tell you how to use it. We see it all the time. You buy a game, but you only have such-and-such number of installations (a number of EA-published PC games). Or, you can only use it on the hardware you bought it for (Nintendo Virtual Console). Or, you can only play the game while connected to the company's server (a growing number of PC games).
I hate it. I do. There are times when it makes me want to go back to buying clunky cartridges. But through the frustration, I'm eager for a digital future. No, not because of "teh cloud". Not because of cheaper prices (it'll never happen) or something like that. And no, not because I love DRM.
The reality is this: a digital future is the only way we're going to be able to own our games.
Let me sidetrack a bit and talk about backwards compatibility (BC). I promise, it will all connect. BC is somewhat of a fuzzy concept. Plenty of successful consoles haven't had it, but gamers always seem to shake their fists and demand it every time a new console is revealed. I get it. It's fun being able to play your old games on new hardware. But BC is one of the things to blame for the PS3's initial high cost. Every PS3 had a PS2 wedged inside. The reason? There really wasn't any way to emulate those games. At least, that's what Sony tells us, until they started churning out HD Collections and PS2 Downloads available on PSN. The issue of BC goes hand in hand with DRM. BC is, in fact, the oldest form of DRM.
Take Nintendo's leap from the NES to the SNES, for instance. The NES used 72-pin cartridges. 10 of those pins are reserved for a lockout chip that (in theory) would only allow Nintendo-approved cartridges to work with the system. But that isn't the DRM I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is that when Nintendo moved to the SNES, they went from 72-pin slots to 62-pin slots. Why couldn't they have fashioned the new SNES cartridge slot to accept NES cartridges? It isn't as if the SNES had MORE pins. That, my friends, is an early example of how a gaming company restricted you from playing the games you bought. I'm not complaining. It sounds like I'm babbling, actually, but this issue of hardware compatibility plays a large role in DRM and digital copies of games and owning our own games and all of that.
PS4, according to Sony, won't be able to play PS3 games. As a PC gamer, this baffles me. I'm accustomed to a new PC always being able to play an older game, regardless of when it came out. Well, as consoles become more and more like PCs, hopefully we will see this archaic form of DRM fade away. To me, it doesn't make sense. More powerful hardware should always be able to play software that was optimized for less powerful hardware, right? Okay, okay, there are some exceptions (good luck emulating SEGA Saturn games, even on a powerful PC), but the concept should be a no-brainer. Truthfully, when a console isn't backwards compatible, it's because the company is calling the shots on what games should (and should not) be playable on your system. It sucks.
My personal dream is to see the concept of the "account system" blossom and grow and evolve. If companies keep insisting on giving us digital downloads of older games while cutting out BC for those same old games, they might as well give us a decent account system. I keep bringing Sony up, but that is because they currently have the best account system out of the big three console manufacturers. If I own Final Fantasy 8 on PSN, I can upload it to a PS3, a PSP, a PS Vita, or a PS4 (I would assume) by simply entering my PSN account information. And I only bought the game once! When I boot up the game, it doesn't ask me for my PSN log-in information. It doesn't bug me about updates. And if I'm offline, it doesn't restrict me from playing the game. In a sense, I own that digital copy of FF8 more than I own a copy of, say, King of Fighters 13, which won't be compatible with the PS4 or other future Sony consoles. Nintendo is on the right track by offering digital games on their systems, too, but the problem is they tie it to the hardware. You don't "own" the games quite so much. I'm not ignoring Microsoft to be spiteful or anything. The reality is that their account system spans across one console only. We'll have to see how they handle digital content between the 360 and NextBox before I can form an opinion.
If tying our games to a digital account system is what it takes (admittedly, a form of DRM), I'll take it! A little upstart site called Good Old Games really started to push this concept a few years ago. They began selling old PC games at a reasonable price, with no DRM attached. It's funny: a lot of these old games were games that people would simply go online and download for free. But they made a ton of money! How do people take free games, charge for them, and still get customers? It's because they let you OWN the games. You can burn copies, download the games to any compatible hardware, there are no download limits, no registration codes, and the games always come with a ton of extra goodies. I do like the extra goodies, but what I like the most is that gog.com lets me OWN these games. I don't have to contact Nintendo and cry, "I bought Super Mario Bros 3 on my Wii, but now I want it on my 3DS!". The poor customer rep at Nintendo would simply reply "I'm sorry, sir, but you need to re-purchase that content on your 3DS in order to play it". Baloney to that! I bought the game, didn't I? Sony is a bit further ahead, but they still suck when it comes to a lot of their titles. Why can't I play my PSN games on my Vita? Or, at the least, why can't I Remote Play my games from my PS3? Those "evil" PS3 hackers have been streaming 90% of available PS3/PSN games to their non-hacked PS Vitas for months now. If a lives-in-the-basement hacker can do that, why can't Sony unlock that ability for legitimate PS3 users?
I understand that a lot of people like to own a physical copy. Sure, it does give the impression that you OWN the game. But what happens when a new console comes out? Will that physical copy be able to run on it? Perhaps not. But perhaps a digital copy will. At least, that's my dream.
My only fear (since we see this all this time) is that gaming companies will take too many liberties with their account systems. The stories of EA and Valve Corp banning people's accounts (and therefore eliminating their game collection) is something that sticks out to a lot of people. Yeah, that needs to change. EA's recent crash-and-burn with the new SimCity is another stunning example of DRM gone wrong. Companies should take cues from iTunes. The music industry saw alot of the same complaints that the gaming industry is seeing today: "everyone just pirates our music so we have to protect it with this restrictive music software crap!" And then along came iTunes. iTunes was a huge hit, not because it had the Apple name (iTunes was actually very unknown and unpopular for its first year), but because Steve Jobs said "hey, a lot of people pirate music because it is MORE CONVENIENT! How can we make music more convenient?" iTunes became DRM-free (they let you export and import any music, you can burn CDs, etc) and its popularity went through the roof. Oh, how simple of a concept, game companies! Perhaps if you made your games more convenient by letting us own them through an account, play them whether we are online or offline, and let us install them on our hardware, perhaps we wouldn't be pirating games so much anyway!
Nintendo, I'm sure you're not reading this, but if you would join the 21st century with your online account system and if you'd allow us to buy Virtual Console games on ONE account and use it across our Nintendo systems (all of which are compatible with the same old-school Nintendo games), I would drop hundreds - HUNDREDS - of dollars on your Virtual Console, if I simply had the assurance that my purchases of these old Nintendo games would be valid for future Nintendo consoles/handhelds.
I don't know about you, but I get tired of not owning my games, even when the disc is sitting in the palm of my hand. Restrictive DRM is only one side of the coin: if we insist on sticking with hard copies of games, then game companies will always have an excuse to not make their older games compatible with newer systems, until - of course - they release the Super HD Collection Fun Pack for $39.99...