Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why always-on DRM is bad, and companies using it should feel bad

Always-on DRM means that a video game requires a constant Internet connection to be able to play. The reason companies use it is that it is currently the best means of preventing piracy. By placing a large amount of the game's logic on the servers, they can insure that pirates cannot simply crack the game overnight, anyone that wanted to crack the game would have to write their own version of the server's logic and build it into the client, and on top of that they would have to strip the existing client of all of the calls to the server for that logic.

Ok, but why is this bad?

- The company can patch your single player game at any time. You just wanted to sit down and play for 15-20 minutes? Sorry, you'll need to download this patch real quick. And "real quick" completely depends on how bogged-down their patching servers are. Besides that fact, they're patching your single player game, let that sink in for a minute. What if you already liked the game exactly how it is? Too bad, you have to accept the patch to play. Anytime there are patches there is also a potential for new bugs, I've seen games get much worse after a patch.

- You have to have an Internet connection. For some people this truly isn't an issue, but others may not have a decent Internet connection, or they may have bandwidth caps. What if you want to play the game while on a trip, or in the airplane? Tough cookies.

- You cannot play when their servers are down. Even if your Internet connection is reliable, the EA servers aren't, and when they're not working properly you may not be able to play at all. You will have a game that you paid for, and you cannot play a single-player experience because of some server issues 800 miles away. Or maybe you can play, but your city that is saved on their servers becomes corrupted, and you have to roll it back. Someday the servers will be shut down, and when that day comes you'll no longer be able to play Sim City 5, you'll never get to play it again. You can go back and play Sim City 1 still, but not 5. Some people play old games and aren't comfortable with their $60 being for a temporary experience with a game.

- You cannot play if your account gets banned. EA is notorious for banning players accounts due to stuff like a forum post that they don't approve of. I understand EA potentially banning them from the forum, but they also ban the player's Origin account entirely, which blocks them from playing any games on Origin. I'm not sure how this is even legal, but I'm betting EA covered their asses in the EULA for stuff like this.

- Servers cannot handle the same computational load per player. There's a lot of logic going on at any given time in a city, and the more logic the server wants to handle the more CPU power EA's servers are going to need. EA will only have a finite amount of CPU power to give to each player, so they'll either need more servers, which will cost them money, or they'll need to scale down how much CPU power the game needs. Why is this bad for you? This is the reason why SimCity 5 does not allow large cities, the computations that the server would have to do would become exponentially larger as the cities grew, and so rather than cut down on the simulation level to allow for a larger city, they chose to cut down on the city size itself. Had the game been running on your CPU instead of theirs this likely would not have been as much of an issue.

- Finite content due to server space. Because the plots of land are server-side, they take up space on the servers. If they allowed every player to deform their own terrain, they would have unique plots of land on a per-player basis, which would take up more space and could potentially cause issues with the simulation on their end. So because the game runs on their servers, you cannot have deformable terrain. SimCity 2000, which ran on DOS 5.x before Windows 95 was even released, almost 20 years ago, will allow you to deform terrain, but SimCity 5, which runs on a computer in your home that is several hundred times more powerful, does not.

- You cannot save your city locally. Some people like to save their city, make a copy and then burn it to the ground, or watch Godzilla tear it down. Then they have a copy where they can reload the city and all is well again, and good fun was had. But you cannot save versions of your cities on the cloud in the new SimCity. Also, the servers are having all kinds of issues with losing progress on people's cities, if those people could have save copies locally this wouldn't really be an issue.

I understand why companies use DRM, but there is a point when they take it too far and it negatively affects the experience for the customer. In this case EA screwed up large parts of a great game franchise in order to save a few bucks. I'm curious how much it will even save them in the long run as they have to maintain and run servers 24/7 during the life of the game.

Here's how I would've implemented the DRM. Single-player mode would be entirely offline, so you have no required connection to play the game. Single-player cities can never communicate with cities your friends have made, if you want that you have to play online. If you play online you get the exact experience that EA created with the current game, all the connectivity with your friends' cities, or the cities of complete strangers. This means the customer gets the best of both worlds. We're talking about a better game experience, and the publisher has denied the customer this experience because they want to make an extra buck.


My experience with SimCity 5 so far:
  • Didn't purchase the game on day 1 because I knew it would be a disaster. And it was indeed a disaster, most people couldn't play.
  • Purchased the game on day 2. Installed the game. After the game installed it ran an update and said the game was ready.
  • I run the game's launcher and it then downloads another update. After this update completes it says to relaunch the game.
  • I click the relaunch button and the launcher crashes. I run the game's launcher again, and it downloads another update. Again it says to relaunch the launcher.
  • I once again click the relaunch button, and the launcher crashes again.
  • I run the launcher again and the game finally says that I can play my single-player game that I have a physical copy of.
  • All of the servers for North America are full, so I connect to a European server.
  • I wanted to join with a friend's private region, however SimCity cannot see any of my friends from Origin, and they couldn't see me either, so I cannot play the game with my friends.
  • I decided to try making my own region. When attempting this I got an error saying I could not create my own region right now. Tried this every 5 minutes for the next two hours.
  • Finally it let me create a region, and now I have to pick a plot of land within the region to create a city. I chose my plot of land and now I get an error saying I cannot create a city right now, and that I should try again later. Tried this every 5 minutes for another two hours.
  • I finally gave up after a total of 6 hours with the game. I spent those 6 hours entirely within the game's menus.
  • I wake up the next morning and try again. This time when the game starts up it takes me straight to a tutorial mode, I cannot skip this tutorial.
  • The tutorial loads up a small city, and then the city sits there doing nothing, I cannot click on any of the UI for the city and I have no prompts telling me what I should do. Hitting escape does nothing to get me out of the tutorial. I do have some UI at the top of my screen that I can use to go back to the main menu or to quit. I go back to the main menu, which then sends me back into the tutorial, which still does not work. So I quit again.
  • 2 hours later I try again. I start up the game, and this time the tutorial is gone. I check my friend's list, and that is still empty. I try creating my own city again, and I'm back to not being able to create my own region.
In summary, I can't play multi-player, I can't play single player, and it's day 3 since the game was released. I'd consider this to be a failure of a game launch. If I cannot play the game on day 5 I will be demanding a refund from EA. And I'm not likely to purchase any of their games again anytime soon, I cannot support a company that puts a little bit of money above the importance of their customer. There are plenty of companies out there doing just fine without always-online DRM, so until it is problem-free it really shouldn't be used.

2 comments:

  1. I like your post. I'm very disappointed that Nintendo decided to put this DRM on their mobile game Super Mario Run. Yes, a MOBILE game. I understand certain games require internet connection, I do agree if they require internet connection if its a multiplayer game (such as an MMO). But for being a sole reason for piracy makes this game not worth for buying, even if it is free.

    The interview even stated on nintendo for this decision: http://mashable.com/2016/12/08/super-mario-run-shigeru-miyamoto-interview/#W5_xxaMxhiqG.

    Why the f0ck is this even called a mobile game? If you cannot play it in such places, then it isn't mobile.

    Thank god that nintendo didn't do this on their nintendo switch (hooray for removing the region lock too, you can even have more languages on that console too (it has english, japanese, etc))

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  2. I guess as with diablo 3, their "server rocket" didn't fly to the "cloud computing", as the launch was a failure.

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