Let’s ramble: Are digital rights a game component?

A few words on digital rights management.

Oh, digital rights: it’s impossible to imagine a future without you. At your absolute best, you’re an annoyance; you’re a nuisance that only patience and a five minute boycott can fix. At your worst, however, you’re a debilitating disease, bringing even the greatest games to their knees, and their legitimate, paying owners with them.

Our grievance with digital rights, then, isn’t some overwhelmingly complex ethical or philosophical issue. It’s not even about the nature of ownership and licensing (at least not yet) – it’s about the ability to play the games we payed for exactly when we choose to. It’s a lot to ask, I know.

What’s more, we can be against excessive anti-piracy measures and still be vehemently against piracy. How? By purchasing legitimate copies of games.

Publishers: if you insist on a constant internet connection to access your product – even whilst playing alone – and your servers are taking a holiday at launch, you’d struggle to convince many as to why this shouldn’t be reviewed similarly to any other part of your game.

It’s inherent to your product and a requirement. It’s something that you mandate. As with any other component of a product, drastically diminish its quality and the rest suffers. Imagine if publications added a ‘DRM’ box to their review breakdowns. Imagine if crappy implementation inclined a publication to give a game a lesser score – is that fair?

Of course, this invites a whole host of questions. If a game’s DRM policy is changed or entirely removed – as was the case with The Witcher 2 – is a score to be revised? Is a title without it to be scored a ten in that particular category? A game with always-on, a zero?

Conversely, by incorporating digital rights into our model of criticism, we begin to straddle acceptance and legitimacy – we’re essentially saying to publishers, “Yeah, it’s totally fine to control something I bought. See, we even gave it a score!”. That said, it’s not unrealistic to expect digital rights management in every single game we buy in the near future, regardless of our supposed stance.

But what is our stance? We parade on message boards, deploring the existence of always-on DRM. Others hack games merely to prove how largely ineffectual it is. Yet it’s wallets, not words, that’ll get publishers to listen. That’s the disconnect – we berate what they do and yet still invest in products that embody what we hate. That’s true support.

As publishers stuff more money into development, there’s no doubt that they’ll be searching for ways to protect their ever-growing investments – regardless of how much that inconviences those who actually give them money. Play time is serious business, and to render a costly investment useless, particularly when many dedicate precious time off work to do so, for a matter of days is something that shouldn’t be discounted. We don’t buy games to wait three days to play them.

So, should DRM be considered a game component? Simply put: I don’t know. If I bought any other product that failed to work out the gate, due to a glitch or otherwise, I could never recommend that title to a readership if the issue is widespread. And yet to diminish the perception of a fantastic game due to what may very well be a temporary issue – if servers don’t work or key codes fail – seems somehow wrong.

As we head towards a future where a dodgy internet connection could render someone’s game collection entirely inaccessible, the job of critics to warn consumers of lamentable DRM is increasingly important. It could be said, too, that a fantastic game with ruined by technical faults would receive less than brilliant reviews. It doesn’t seem like a leap to include digital rights as one of those technicalities.

And as we head towards a future where DRM is likely to be ever-present, we head towards a future with inevitable and countless mess-ups, where people will be unable to access the products they purchased at the very moment of purchase. If a publisher decides to implement online DRM, the cost and onus is on them to provide a consistent service.

The “why should they waste money on servers just for a one-time launch capacity” argument doesn’t cut it. You decided to integrate it into your product – deal with it.

Please, share your ramble below.

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