Monday, August 22, 2011

Owning From Dust

The video game you see above is called From Dust, and it's representative of a digital revolution. Two of them, in fact.

The first revolution is one I'm happy with. After years in which every new video game was some variation of man-with-gun-shooting-terrorists, there's been an explosion of small-scale, creative development on the gaming scene. The lead designer of From Dust is something of a game designer auteur, and the game itself is a product of an unusual and novel vision.

It's about as unique a game as can be imagined: it's about geological sculpting. Players build mountains, watch forests emerge, guide rivers as they erode the landscape and eventually form gorgeous deltas when they reach the sea. I played a demo a few weeks ago and it was entrancing. It's every bit as stunning as this proof-of-concept video.

So it's all the more shame that the game is now better known for the controversy it's kicked off than its originality or beautiful design. And the controversy points the way to the second revolution it's helping lead.

Explaining the controversy will require some background. It starts with Ubisoft, From Dust's publisher. Ubisoft, is notorious for treating PC consumers in a manner charitably described as "flippant" and less charitably described as "utterly callous." (For instance, they've developed a habit of unaccountably delaying PC versions of their titles at the very last second -- sometimes literally hours before the scheduled release -- while other iterations are released as planned. Naturally, PC gamers who have preordered the game -- in other words, paid a premium in order to have it delivered to them as soon as possible -- are infuriated by this, because it totally obviates their investment.) Nowhere is Ubisoft's disregard for its customers more readily apparent than its enthusiastic embrace of DRM.

For the uninitiated, DRM stands for "digital rights management," and is shorthand for any sort of technological lock-and-key placed on film, music, or games, that prevents it from being used or copied by a person who is not the rightful owner. Over the last decade, content publishers have evolved a veritable menagerie of DRM.

DRM comes in varying degrees of aggressiveness. It can range from relatively benign -- including an encrypted registration key with the product, which is used at installation and unlocks the content -- to the malicious. For instance, the mid-2000s saw the rise and fall of Starforce copy protection, which essentially rewrote the drivers of a computer's CD-ROM drive, sometimes destroying the computer in the process. Fittingly enough, it was largely utilized by shady fly-by-night Eastern European game development shops, and thankfully seems to have passed out of common usage.

The current trend in gaming DRM is online authentication keys. The advantage is obvious: unlike encryption keys, which relay on a client-side algorithm and can therefore be generated en masse by cryptographically-gifted hackers, online keys are checked against a database held by the publisher. As a result, no fake keys can be used, and real keys can only be used once.

But online keys have a disadvantage, as well: they preclude any consumer without access to the internet (or any consumer suspicious about letting a product communicate with a third party) from using the product. And they're hardly foolproof -- enterprising pirates almost immediately devised ways to spoof confirmation from the publishers, fooling programs into thinking they'd been authenticated.

The response from publishers has been predictable: they've made their online authentication ever more draconian. Which brings us back to Ubisoft.

Ubisoft has taken this principle of online verification to its logical end, and devised what may be the most intrusive copyright protection of all time. Many of its games now require online verification every single time they're used. Meaning that if you've legitimately purchased a game, and your internet connection is down, it's useless. Or if you're on an airplane. Or if you can't get your router to forward its ports properly. Any number of common and predictable scenarios render Ubisoft games complete wastes of hard drive space.

And it gets worse -- Ubisoft has intvented a second, even more aggressive variation of its DRM, which requires an internet connection at all times while the program is active. If at any point, for any reason, the user's internet suffers a hiccup -- as my wireless does about 30 times a day -- the user is booted back to desktop, with any unsaved progress lost.

If this had been an accidental addition, it would constitute a massive software bug. "Network traffic causes random crashes" would be an unforgivable and laughable flaw. But because it's done in the name of combating piracy, consumers are expected to buckle under and accept it.

The great irony here is that Ubisoft's abusive DRM does very, very little to protect copyrights. Let's return to From Dust. It originally shipped with the latter, worst form of copyright protection (after assurances to the contrary, which mysteriously disappeared off Ubisoft's site the day of release); after a huge outcry, Ubisoft downgraded the DRM to the still-bad "authenticate at startup" variety. The pirates were undeterred, and a complete, working version of the game appeared on the internet, sans any DRM, within hours of release. In other words, the copyright raiders weren't bothered at all, stripped the game of all copy protection, and in the process created a far more functional product than the officially-sanctioned, artificially-crippled version Ubisoft had published.

In the meantime, Ubisoft has weathered a huge public relations storm. Big-time, commercial reviewers have recommended against buying the game, solely on the basis of its aggressive DRM, and smaller, independent reviewers have actively advocated that consumers pirate it instead. The situation is almost unheard of. The latest news is that Ubisoft has finally caved to pressure, and is removing all online authentication.

That's a small victory. But a bigger question remains: why did Ubisoft insist on using such obtrusive DRM in the first place? To be clear: it's no surprise that it failed to prevent piracy. Literally every single major game release is pirated quickly after publication, and nobody in the game industry labors under the illusion that DRM of any stripe will remain secure for very long. In the end, hardly a single person who wanted to pirate the game was prevented from doing so, and many more were probably driven to pirate the game in order to avoid dealing with the DRM in the first place. Worse still, many, many legitimate consumers, who had paid cash for the game, were forced to make do with a half-functional product. None of these things were unpredictable -- in fact, this whole dumb farce has played out many times before.

Ubisoft's behavior seems almost mind-bogglingly stupid: it treated its customers like criminals, while failing to prevent piracy in the first place! How does this keep happening? None of it makes sense at all.

Unless Ubisoft was never trying to prevent piracy in the first place.

And they weren't. This is the dirty little secret of DRM. It's not about stopping pirates. Pirates are here to stay. Every game, movie, and album finds its way onto the internet eventually. DRM is a response to internet piracy, but it doesn't work by stopping pirates. Instead, it makes up for piracy's losses by squeezing legitimate consumers for every last drop.

It does this by fundamentally changing the nature of the content consumers are buying. Prior to DRM, a video game, movie, or album was a piece of property. You bought it, and then you owned it, and you could resell it. But today, you more often buy the right to use content, in specific circumstances and on specific pieces of equipment. When you try to use your content outside these established parameters, however, it breaks. It doesn't work. That means if you want to sell it to your friend, you can't. They have to buy their own copy, for full price, from the publisher.

Of course, Ubisoft acan't say this out loud. Can you imagine? "We've installed a system of locks and failsafes into your game, so that you can't sell it to your friend. You're stuck with it, and they have to pay us instead." So instead, everything is rationalized as copyright protection. Nobody can argue with anti-piracy measures. So anti-piracy measures we get, and they're omnipresent, even when everybody knows they don't work.

In this sense, From Dust, and games like it, signal a revolution, all right. But it's not a good kind of revolution. It's something much more ambiguous, where personal property is being transmuted into something cloudy and communal. And it's increasingly commonplace.
Ubisoft might be the among the most flagrant and aggressive purveyors of DRM today, but it's not the first, it won't be the last, and it probably won't be the worst for long. Songs and movies cost less than games, but they're subject to the same restrictions. Ebooks, too. These tricks are pervasive.

This change has social and legal implications, which I'll probably talk about at a later date. But for now, I'll just leave off by pointing out how it disrupts something fundamental and simple and universally understood about ownership. Everyone understands the simple concept of owning an item: "I bought this, and now I can do what I like with it." Now, instead, it's, "I paid for this, but it's a tangle of legal obligations and electronic mechanisms that I don't really control." How is that desirable?

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