I would’ve laughed at the DRM issues that hit the PC world this week if they hadn’t hit me as well.  In fact, my flatmate did laugh.  Me, I’m going on a rant so buckle up.

It all started on Tuesday with the release of Bioshock.  What little I had read about the game sounded interesting (I really enjoyed System Shock 2 back in the day) and the demo convinced me it was worth buying.  I was holding off on the purchase, trying to decide if I wanted to use my download quota on the Steam edition or pay the extra A$15 and get the box.  I was also waiting for someone to resolve the widescreen issue (a user-created patch is now available).

This turned out to be an accidentally fantastic idea, because the shit hit the fan on release day.

The game uses a particularly heinous version of copy protection, which limits all users to 2 installations.  This is taking DRM a little to far – yes it’s very similar to the iTunes model, where you can uninstall one machine to free up a license – but music can be transferred to an iPod and is in almost every respect completely different to a PC game.  Restricting use to this level is just absurd, I’ve never uninstalled anything before formatting my computer and I shouldn’t have to.  To make matters worse, the game sold at a pace they weren’t expecting and the activation server crashed so unless you got in early, you couldn’t install the game at all.

The part that really pissed me off though was the inclusion of this atrocity in the Steam edition.  Steam, for those who don’t know, is a bit like a console interface for your PC.  It provides the ability to play your list of games anywhere, while ensuring you can’t play the game in two locations at the same time.  More secure than CD keys while retaining the ease of use for those of us with the hard drive space and bandwidth to download their games.  Apparently not secure enough for some people.

Including this extra layer of DRM is not only unnecessary, it goes against the nature of Steam and the forums are rife with people boycotting Steam and all other 2K games until they fix it.  I would rant further but 2K Games have apologised for the mess, upped the installation limit to 5 and, much to my satisfaction, promised to remove the copy protection after a few months (which a lot of developers are doing these days).

 

That story may sound bad, but DRM caused even greater headaches over the weekend.  I finally purchased Bioshock on Saturday, had some crashing issues and one of the recommended solutions was to update DirectX.  Unbeknownst to me, Microsoft’s WGA servers were in the middle of a meltdown and anyone trying to use a WGA service found themselves branded a pirate.  This is particularly unacceptable because they upped the stakes in Vista to piss off the pirates – which has ultimately backfired and pissed off paying customers.

I was lucky enough to not end up in Vista’s total lockdown, all I had to put up with was the ugly UI mode and wondering when Microsoft Support would respond.  Others weren’t so lucky and the official WGA forum is a mess.  The only saving grace in this was the timing – very few users need WGA checks outside of Windows Update patches so the damage was somewhat contained.

It’s all resolved now, but both issues bring out a very important point.  Requiring remote activation of software, and denying access to it when the activation fails, is the stupidest idea anybody has ever come up with, ever.  History buffs may scoff at that, but think about what would happen if this WGA failure happens again in a few years, once Vista becomes as mainstream as XP is today.  In our computer-reliant world It would be a complete disaster.

Or it would be, if enterprise customers had to put up with it – and they don’t.  Enterprise customers demand offline activation, and that’s what they are given – the latest Vista cracks install an OEM key just like the ones used in pirated copies of XP.  Completely offline self-contained activation that doesn’t require access to Microsoft’s servers.  It’s so good in fact that it will pass a WGA check (and the only way to prevent that is to deactivate the key, denying access to the enterprise customer it was created for).  It doesn’t matter how smart your developers are, there are equally smart people in the world who can crack your activation in much less time than it takes to write.

 

The beauty of it all?  The people that these useless restrictions were invented to stop wouldn’t even know about the issues unless they keep up with the hardcore tech news.  Their software is cracked to remove all activation requirements and just works (Vista was cracked before it hit retail, same with Bioshock).  Meanwhile, customers who are doing the right thing and paying for their software find themselves locked out and branded as pirates because a sysadmin screwed up.

The music industry is starting to wake up to the fact that if you trust your customers and give them a reasonably priced DRM-free option, they’ll take it.  The PC world needs to grow up – I realise we’ll never be free of copy protection but systems like Steam are highly successful and prove there’s no need to make it so restrictive.

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