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DRM, in its form as copy-protection for computer games is completely backwards, and accelerating rapidly in that direction.

The basic notion is a sound one, but seems to have been completely forgotten over the years:

Make things harder for those who acquire the game without buying it, while not making things any more difficult for your customers.

It’s a simple-enough principle, but that isn’t how it works in practice.

The DRM is generally applied to the software by the publisher (by sending it through the DRM provider) at the end of the development cycle, after acceptance-testing, and after quality assurance. The DRM is usually only then bolted onto the final product, and done at some considerable expense (typically, each application of the DRM costs money in fees).

What does that mean in practical terms? It means that once the DRM software has been applied to the software, there’s usually not a lot of testing happens to see that combination of the game and the DRM play nice together.

Historically, the game+DRM may run slower and may crash more often. Even worse things may result, as most copy protection schemes rely on fairly low-level access to the operating system and hardware, and sometimes one copy-protection system interferes with another.

I once got a game from the store, installed it and tried to play it. The copy-protection check on the disk messed up somehow, and the DVD drive hardware obviously became confused. The drive ejected the disk, but without stopping the disk first, resulting in the disk shooting out of the tray and across the room. Thankfully, nobody was in its path.

I checked a few other disks in the drive, and everything else worked fine.

I went back to the store with the disk (which was now in two pieces) and had a great deal of difficulty getting the staff member to believe my tale. Nevertheless, I eventually got a replacement. Instead of doing anything with it right away, I nervously worked up my courage over the course of a week.

Then I uninstalled the old game, and reinstalled it. I ran it, and the copy-protection check kicked in. There was a nasty grinding noise from the drive, and everything hung. Unable to eject the disk, I powered down and used a paperclip to manually pop the disk out. It was badly scored. I tried two other disks in the drive, both of which were destroyed.

My next trip out was for a new DVD drive, and back to the store for a second replacement. This time, I had no trouble with getting a replacement. The ‘flying disk of death’ event had happened to several other customers. I did have to wait a couple of weeks for new stock. This time, I waited about 2 months before daring to give the game another try.

This time, I installed the game fresh, went online and downloaded a crack to bypass the copy protection. Finding and downloading the crack via the Web search-engine of choice took about five minutes, and at the end I was satisfied that nothing would go wrong. Indeed, the game played just fine after that.

Other games I’ve had have been laggy or crash-prone – until, that is, you grab a crack off the Web, and all the game-stuttering and poor-responsiveness and crashes go away. To be fair, the DRM isn’t the problem in every single instance, but it has been in enough of them that applying a crack to the software is just almost a routine part of installation. They’re generally available on the day of release, so there’s no waiting.

Certain copy-protection systems have been known to do nasty, permanent and fatal things to CD and DVD drives, and a couple have been used as avenues for self-installing malware by providing an avenue for privilege-escalation attacks.

So, what’s the lesson here? People who are breaking the copy-protection on the games are having an easier time and a better gaming experience than the people who aren’t.

Seriously, that’s just screwed up.

I paid for the game, so shouldn’t I be getting at least as good an experience as those people who didn’t? Apparently not. They’re getting a better experience than me, in many cases, unless I use the cracks they produce.

And rather than try to correct that balance, it seems the publishers are intent on making it worse, rather than better.

That’s just so seriously backwards.

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