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Own to Rent

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Social gaming and cloud computing are powerful alibis for always-on digital-rights management, which makes players into tenants

SimCity, Electronic Arts’ online multiplayer reboot of the long-­running SimCity franchise, was supposed to be available for download and play on March 5, 2013. The download part mostly worked. The play part did not.

The problems were wonderfully and excitingly diverse. Servers refused to authenticate people’s games, friend lists didn’t show up, and many players received the ominous message “unable to create your city at this time.” A day after, the issues weren’t resolved and people were getting angry. The very concept of “launch” is that the game launches and you’re able to play the game you paid for from the launch date on. The game should function, should be complete. The most egregious bugs should be worked out ahead of time. “Launch” is not “beta-testing.”

This essay appears in TNI Vol. 17: Games. Subscribe for $2 and get it today. The problem — and this became very obvious, very quickly to most people — was that SimCity was designed to be played with an always-on Internet connection. It required authentication by EA’s servers to work at all. EA claimed that authentication was only part of the deal; SimCity, the company said, was designed to function by offloading a significant number of the game’s calculations to EA’s servers. The always-on component was a crucial part of what made the game run. It would require “significant engineering,” EA said, to change.

Then some gamers noticed something interesting: SimCity could play offline. It could actually play offline beautifully — up until a 20-minute time limit. At that point, a code in the game would sense the length of the online disconnection and slam the door. If the game needed to be constantly online so that part of its computing load could be carried elsewhere, why those 20 minutes of play?

Why the time limit? Were the company spokespeople mistaken? Misinformed? Were they lying?

Everyone was talking about DRM except EA.

***

Digital Rights Management isn’t confined to games, and neither are its myriad issues. It has a long history of creating fun and interesting problems around all kinds of digital products, from requiring online authentication to limit the number of devices on which software can be activated, to encrypting e-books in such a way that sharing is constrained, to encrypting movies and music to make copying difficult. But what’s probably most important and certainly most insidious about DRM is that when it works best, it’s invisible. DRM that disrupts the function of your device — that acts as a clear and present barrier between you and its basic functionality — is not just bad but bad DRM. It tears down the curtain and lets you in on an ugly secret: This thing that you paid for isn’t ­really yours.

The best way to hide DRM is within the routine function of the thing it “protects.” This is why games are the places where DRM becomes most violently apparent. This is also why games are particularly suited to act as laboratories where DRM can be tested and refined.

With the rise of massively multiplayer online games, the presence of an Internet connection becomes the point. You need to be connected in order to play with your friends, because why else would you play at all? The presence of a constant Internet connection becomes commonplace — largely unquestioned. People aren’t aware of it except when things go wrong.

And when things go wrong, people really notice if they go wrong for reasons that can’t be justified by the way the game is meant to be played. When the hotly anticipated ­Diablo III was released in May 2012, it failed in the same ways that crippled SimCity, and for the same reason. But Diablo III is not just an MMO; it’s a single-player game with a multiplayer component. Many people play it alone, hacking and grinding their way through levels in a solitary fashion. An Internet connection should be needed only to authenticate the game and to engage the multiplayer feature, but that’s just if you’re not considering Blizzard, Diablo III’s developer, and its interest in making pirated copies of the game unusable.

In Kotaku, a gaming blog, Kirk Hamilton, wrote an opinion piece about Diablo III’s launch issues and conceded that Blizzard may have had many reasons for making Diablo III the kind of clunky MMO/single-player hybrid that it was, and not all of them necessarily had to do with DRM. But it seems a stretch to think that DRM wasn’t part of the rationale.

Had there been no server issues, most people wouldn’t have made anything of the always-on requirement. But there were, so people did.

***

As of this writing, SimCity’s problems have not been fully resolved. But for the most part, the initial uproar has quieted. John Walker of the gaming-culture site Rock Paper Shotgun has suggested that the silence is actually the result of EA’s refusal to comment, which prevented most gaming outlets from picking up the story. We still don’t know whether EA was lying when they insisted that it was SimCity’s design as an MMO — and not DRM — that justified the need for an always-on connection.

But regardless of their true intentions, what happened with SimCity highlights a larger problem with always-on DRM: It threatens to erode the distinction ­between the owners of code and the users of processes that someone else owns.

Our particular understanding of private property involves the assumption that once you pay for something, it’s yours, and  within reason and the law, you can use it how you please. This idea has run afoul of corporate copyright defenders before, prompting Congress, for instance, to declare noncommercial audiocassette copying fair use in 1992.

The concept of “fair use” is typically thrown up for grabs when copyright issues are argued in the courts, but what’s unusual about always-on DRM is that the “fair use” argument isn’t as prominent. Instead, what gamers usually make the most noise about is inconvenience, of being unable to play a game they played for at their pleasure. Their use is severely constrained by the makers of the game; the company retains tight control after money has changed hands, and the results look like a lease far more than a sale. When owners are required to constantly authenticate their identity and the validity of their transaction — with use suspended as soon as authentication fails — they are being treated like thieves by default.

But gamers want to play games, and are willing to put up with a certain amount of this kind of treatment. Games that feature a heavy online ­multiplayer ­component
are becoming the norm. So in the end, DRM arrives within a Trojan Horse of playability, generally unnoticed and unremarked upon until instances of dramatic failure. Players come to implicitly accept a transaction in which they don’t truly own the thing they’re buying.

A game that’s programmed to become unplayable after a period of disconnection from the Internet is basically a broken game. But when Diablo III’s launch failed spectacularly, the ire of many players wasn’t so much directed at the design of the game as at Blizzard’s overwhelmed servers. They wanted to play with their friends anyway; that functionality was assumed. Why blame the game for simply looking the way it was expected to look?

***

More than one game company has announced that they now consider DRM of the kind seen in Diablo III and SimCity a nonstarter and a mistake, to the point of occasional harsh self-criticism. In 2011, Gabe Newell of Valve condemned the industry for depending on DRM and went so far as to suggest that by limiting the use of a game, DRM actually decreases a product’s value. Even EA has recently made public statements against DRM, calling it a “failed, dead-end strategy” and insisting — again — that SimCity was constructed to be an MMO, which is the only reason the always-on connection was built into the design at all.

But how credible is all this, really? Given the design choices, the 20-minute time limit, and the claims that the game was impossible to play offline, there seem to be only two reasonable possibilities here: Either EA was initially misinformed about the details of the game’s design, or they were demanding that gamers pay no attention to that man behind that curtain. The company doled out free copies of a very small selection of EA games by way of apology and waited for everything to blow over.This essay appears in TNI Vol. 17: Games. Subscribe for $2 and get it today. 

The strategy seems to be working. EA isn’t talking about DRM in SimCity. Most people aren’t talking about DRM in SimCity. As the technology gets better, as it fits more seamlessly into the function and design of a game, fewer and fewer people will be talking about DRM in any context. The SimCity disaster was more than a massive inconvenience for gamers; it was a warning bell. A system contains foundational elements that can’t be seen until that system fails.

But the system is self-repairing, self-­correcting. It learns from its mistakes. Gamers start to settle happily into a kind of DRM that works, and all of us slowly come to accept a model of technology use that subtly erases the concept of ownership, that places more and more power into the hands of the technology’s manufacturers, that does so smoothly and invisibly. At first, we don’t see until it’s too late. Eventually we’ll no longer see it at all.

The best thing about the SimCitydisaster is that it happened. The worst thing about it is the prospect that someday it might not happen anymore.

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