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GOG.com Discusses DRM with AusGamers in the Wake of the Xbox One Debacle
Post by Dan @ 02:57pm 01/07/13 | Comments
Digital Rights Management (DRM) has a long history in games, with publishers burdening legitimate customers with the likes of codebooks, encrypted discs, and software rootkits over the years in attempts to thwart distribution of unlicensed copies, with questionable effectiveness. We chat with DRM-free chamions, GOG.com about the issue

DRM in videogames became a red hot topic again recently, when following the unveiling of the Xbox One, Microsoft representatives revealed that an Internet connection would be mandatory for playing all games on the upcoming console, then back-pedalling on the new restrictions due to vocal consumer concern.

Digital distribution platforms present rights holders with the most far-reaching options for controlling the terms under which consumers can use their purchased content yet, but not everybody in the industry thinks such restrictions are particularly effective, or even necessary at all, and GOG.com is one such outlet.

GOG.com began life as an online distribution platform for classic PC games, and now also serves as a digital storefront for a growing collection of new release games from independent developers embracing the retailer’s position that combating piracy should not inconvenience, or compromise the fair use rights of paying customers.

With consumer’s rights to the games they buy getting muddier in the digital age, we talk to Trevor Longino, Head of PR and Marketing at GOG.com, to find out his take on the situation, and explore GOG's plans for the future of digital games distribution.

AusGamers: With the recent explosion in crowdfunding, we’ve seen many independent studios promising to publish DRM-free copies of their completed games, but all major publishers remain averse to even experimenting with selling their smaller budget new release games without copy protections. What do you think the main reasons for that are?

GOG.com: First and foremost, the reason for using copy-protection is "decision-making by spreadsheet." For some of the mentally lazy people in the industry, putting a tick in a "piracy protection" box is enough to help them sleep at night. DRM, of course, doesn't do anything to fight piracy, as it is the first thing to go when a pirated game is uploaded to a torrent site. The only people affected by the DRM are, unfortunately, the legal users who bought the game with their own money.

As to crowdfunding, it is actually an interesting way to combat piracy, because you are actually selling the game BEFORE it's possible to pirate it. It is another instance of the human relationship acting more effectively than any DRM to boost sales - whenever the creators have an ability to show their face and showcase the people and process behind game development, they become humans and not a faceless corporation. This makes convincing people to pre-order much easier.

AusGamers: It’s clearly absurd when rights holders directly attribute every unit pirated as a lost sale, but do you think some games are more at risk for potential revenue to be impacted by piracy than others, such as those with more casual-user appeal?

GOG.com: I don't think that distinguishing between casual gamers and hardcore gamers is helpful here; I think that people who have created something that is distinctive and different and have put the time into building a passionate community are more insulated against piracy than people who release shovelware. People are smart: when it looks like a developer didn't care about the game, then they tend not to either. Passion, engagement, craftsmanship - these are the things that put value into a game, and that value, in turn, is what sparks the gamers to invest their money into it.

AusGamers: Even with old classic games, I expect large publishers would be extremely reluctant to allow those to be sold without any copy protection. What is the general approach GOG takes when convincing publishers that making their game available in your store is in their best interest?

GOG.com: In business, the most convincing arguments come from hard numbers: when we started in 2008 with the Interplay catalog we had help from sister company from CDProjekt, who had been distributing games in Poland since the 90s, about the correlation between sales and DRM. The data supported our belief that DRM does not increase sales or limit piracy in any way. Along the years we have been able to gather more data on the subject specific to different types of games we have been releasing: classics, but also newer AAA titles and brand new indies.

Across all those game categories the numbers show how useless DRM is at everything it was supposed to achieve. So why penalize the gamers for no reason? More and more publishers are understanding our message and our data is enough to convince them to give it a try. However, some companies are just not ready to go DRM-free yet, even if they understand and agree with the numbers we provide. There is only so much we can do.

AusGamers: Microsoft surprised a lot of people when they announced unprecedented protections for software on the Xbox One, then surprised us even more with their change of heart. What’s your take on that?

GOG.com: I have to say we are quite gratified to see the strong reaction from the community about the system's DRM and how it has brought the downsides of DRM to the community's attention. The fact that a corporation as big as Microsoft decided to walk back big changes such as the "always-on" DRM or the re-sale restrictions shows that if you treat your customers like thieves, you're gonna have a bad time.

AusGamers: There was a lot of Microsoft PR talk about hypothetical benefits of having every Xbox One customer with a guaranteed Internet connection, with respect to cloud processing and social functions. Do you think there’s any merit to such functions being a justification for the mandatory Internet requirement?

GOG.com: Is there any merit to such functions as a justification for DRM? Well, Steam, which has DRM-ed social features, remains the market leader in digital distribution for PC games, so it is possible to have DRM and not alienate your users. Attempting to do the same for consoles is understandable, but the console gaming market is quite different from the PC market.

Many PC gamers are already accustomed to downloading their games to their PC and probably have faster internet connections as a result. Console gamers frequently find themselves in places where they can't access the Internet often--if at all. Whether you're talking about a soldier deployed overseas, a gamer living in a rural community with dial-up internet, or just someone who never ponied up for the wi-fi dongle for his or her console to connect to the house's wireless, the need for Internet has always been much less obvious on consoles, and that's been a big draw of them for a variety of people.

I also believe that, depending on the level of security, relying on cloud architecture for offloading game processes might end badly for Microsoft. This is a very risky way to increase longevity of a console's hardware;if for some reason the service is interrupted, the gamers will not be able to play the games they bought for that console. Imagine telling them that the new AAA XBox One exclusive won't work properly on their console, because the cloud service is experiencing problems, be it from launch day overload or DDOS attack.

AusGamers: What is GOG’s position on secondhand sales of games, and the different customer expectations there for digital downloads versus games distributed on physical media.

GOG.com: Secondhand sales are tricky. At GOG.com we have DRM-free games available only as digital downloads. I'm not a lawyer, but in America we have a right to first sale. There is, however, a catch to this: this right was introduced into the judicial system at a time when it was not possible to sell something and also still own it. I'd say that for digital content such capacity for resale is problematic. A DRM-free digital transaction pretty much requires that you buy a license with no right to resell; there's nothing physical to move ownership of.

AusGamers: Console platform holders obviously have a complex relationship with brick-and-mortar retailers, in that they still depend on their shelf space for a significant portion of games sales, but secondhand copies are often promoted over new ones, and exclude publishers from the transaction entirely. Do you think there are better ways to combat this than the Xbox One’s original strategy (forcing all users to authenticate their games daily, and dealing only with approved retailers for digitally-transferable secondhand games)?

GOG.com: Let me answer with a question: do you know what is the strongest correlator for literacy in a community? The availability of libraries. As a child, as you acquire the passion for reading, you get the majority of your books for free. That, in most cases, triggers you to start buying lots of books with your own money as you grow up.
To foster the passion, you need to allow for the young people, or the people who are just beginning their gaming experience, to have an easy form of access to this medium. As they get older, or simply more immersed in the medium, they start to pour money back into the games industry, buying more games, upgrading their hardware, buying new consoles.

If you are trying to limit the second hand market you are obviously solving the short term problem, but damaging the long term strategy of building bigger and bigger future generations of gamers. But turns out the people at Microsoft might have seen the light in the end.

AusGamers: In the PC space, the unobtrusiveness owed to Steam’s reliability, honed user experience and Valve’s enduring benevolence has cultivated an apathy towards its DRM implementation, to the point where many gamers will still choose a new game locked to that platform when a DRM-free alternative (sometimes even cheaper) exists, just for the convenience of having everything in one place. I suppose that’s effectively a consumer having the freedom of making that choice themselves for those particular games, but would you have anything to say that might encourage them to take the platform-liberated option?

GOG.com: I don't think Valve's approach is the reason for less DRM outrage towards Steam. For most Steam users the DRM is imperceptible until the first moment it stops them from doing something. So for those users who haven't experienced the downsides to DRM, there are still plenty of reasons to check out GOG: we have tons of additional content for the games we sell, a fantastic community, the best games in history, and we provide tech support for all of the games that we sell.

AusGamers: To Ubisoft’s credit, they released a couple of their more contemporary (albeit not new release) titles on GOG early last year, but none since. Can we expect more titles of that calibre from major publishers on GOG in the near future?

GOG.com: Yes. ;)

AusGamers: The rumours of Valve developing a Linux-based PC platform around Steam, tailored for lounge-room gaming, have been cause for excitement among those disenchanted by the console market. Presuming that it would be an open platform that could run other software, is the concept of a “Steam Box” a positive prospect for GOG?

GOG.com: As gamers, we are always happy to find new ways to play. The biggest explosion in gaming lately has been mobiles with the proliferation of Android. Currently 10 times more people than just a few years ago think of themselves as gamers because they played Fruit Ninja, and that's cool, because people who have been playing less popular games for a long time have just become a part of a much larger community.

The concept of offering gamers a choice of a less heavily DRM-ed console alternative might be quite interesting. It would allow us to see what market there is for such a platform. I don't think that there's any future prospects of GOG games being on the "Steambox" or any alternatives at the moment, but as gamers and people who are interested in where the market is and where it is going, it will be interesting to see what happens and how it unfolds.

AusGamers: Does GOG have any hardware aspirations of its own?

GOG.com: Other than the GOG book, we haven't had any new hardware projects on the horizon. ;)

AusGamers: Although the Google Play store is rights managed, games and apps can be distributed DRM-free and sideloaded onto Android mobile devices. Has GOG considered expanding to Android mobile games sales? Or titles for the OUYA console?

GOG.com: While we always like to deliver new ways to play to gamers, we currently have no such plans.

GOG.com's #NoDRM Summer sale runs until July 5th 2013 GMT. Head over to gog.com/NoDRMSummer for the limited-time deals.

Latest Comments
Posted 03:22pm 02/7/13
Nice interview, I especially agree with:
The only people affected by the DRM are, unfortunately, the legal users who bought the game with their own money.

I really like GOG and really need to start making more purchases from those guys. Problem for me is I'm stuck in the whole 'I want everything on one account' so tend to buy everything on Steam.

But, seeing as though GOG are getting more recent games these days hopefully I start to throw some money at them.
Posted 04:32pm 02/7/13
Haha, I remember code books!

"What is the 3rd letter of the 2nd sentence of the 3rd paragraph of page 15 of your manual?", and Leisure Suit Larry's 18+ confirmation with an adult question like "What was Elizabeth Taylor's name in "Giant"?"
Posted 04:43pm 02/7/13
Yeah haha Street Rod has one of those too. I used to guess and guess until I got it right. Eventually between my brothers and I we had memorised them all
Posted 05:08pm 02/7/13
How about the the codewheels Darkhawk?

Or even better (I recall 'Battle Chess' doing this) the pages that couldn't be photocopied (black text on a dark gunmetal page).

I seem to recall one flight sim I used to play featuring a compendium of all of the different aircraft types, and the game would prompt you to give the 'operating range of a frogfoot' to get in.
Posted 05:12pm 02/7/13
But they made the books hard to photocopy, like make the words red, so you would end up having to manually fill it in.
Posted 06:24pm 02/7/13
I liked the drm scheme for the xb1. Install your game and never have to bother with the disc again? Yes please.
Posted 08:07pm 02/7/13
I never liked Steam for it's DRM, when I stumbled on GOG in 2011 Immediately fell in love with it, no DRM, no client download needed for the games.

GOG truly offers everything I was looking for in a digital distribution and I'm currently sitting at 49 games in my collection, with more incoming.

When he said "it's the first thing to do" in reference to the DRM, it reminded me of Skyrim. I had preordered that game 1 month before release and I've played it with a crack upon receiving the game, simply cause I don't want Steam.
Posted 08:22pm 02/7/13
Which is funny, because you didn't need a crack for Skyrim at launch. They patched in the DRM.
Posted 06:30am 03/7/13
I'm a massive fan of the 'rework' GOG give some of the games.
The installer UI's are sleek and lightweight, and if you don't like the some of the changes they've made, it's typically done through dosbox so easy enough to adjust!

I've become pretty serial about my purchases on GOG and with this current sale have recently passed 150 games!
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