It’s important for video game distributors to combat piracy, or the use of their product without purchase. It cuts into their bottom line, and it’s likely no other industry would stand for it. One of the key ways software and game companies use to combat this persistent problem is digital rights management (DRM). For those unfamiliar with the term, DRM is like a key that unlocks the content. Often, this key is in the form of a code that a consumer enters while installing a piece of software. Other times it’s a code that the software pulls from the disk, again usually during installation.
Often these codes are checked with the distributor’s servers to ensure authenticity – yes, coming-up with fake codes like this is in itself an industry – but pirates have figured out ways around that as well. Therefore, it’s natural for the gaming industry to want to seek out new ways to secure their product.
Issues arise, however, when steps the distributors take to secure their product begin having a negative effect on the legitimate consumers. In my opinion, the first hint of this came from came decades ago when programs began requiring all users to manually enter a product key in order to install the software. While this was an arguably minor inconvenience, in my opinion it required consumers to prove that they hadn’t stolen the software.
As time has progressed, keys have become unique, even generated during installation. More frequently the software even goes so far as to check the key with the distributor’s servers for authenticity. Given that not all consumers have the internet yet, this is usually not entirely required, but rather a process that attempts to run in the background.
This is where, I believe, we started heading towards a major problem. Some recent games have now taken the step past the installation ‘trying’ to check authenticity over the internet, to requiring it to be authenticated over the internet every time the software is launched.
This provides a couple of problems. First of all, from the consumer prospective, this detail isn’t always made as clear as it should be from what I’ve seen. This once led me to purchase a product that, due to not having internet at the time, I was unable to use. This is particularly problematic as many retailers forbid returning software for a refund, also due to the problem of piracy.
Another issue this has caused is that it has given a very real lifespan to software. This is because servers inevitably get shut down. The gaming industry frequently sees this with massively multiplayer online games (MMO games), with some examples being The Sims Online and Star Wars: Galaxies.
The fact the servers get shut down isn’t something I fault the industry with, though. At a certain point, it’s a necessity. A distributor can’t be expected to continue to sink money into a server when the users are turning into a smaller and smaller group. Not to mention, distributors are in the business of making money.
I believe better ways can be figured out for using product keys. Perhaps a way could be made where product keys incorporate the product key for the operating system that the consumer is using. If the way to get the key was complicated enough, it would provide a unique way to get product keys that wouldn’t be able to be distributed in the more seedy areas of the internet the product keys would be unique to that particular machine.
Whether a solution is possible or not, I don’t know. I’m far from a game or security programmer. But transforming software from something that is bought, to essentially something that is rented for however long the distributor sees fit is certainly not a sustainable solution for the game industry. After all, what is stopping the distributor from deciding that they will unplug the servers after, for instance, the high first week of sales?