E-books are not the only medium that has to suffer from Digital Rights Management (DRM). In the past, we covered the backlash against the restrictive DRM bundled with Electronic Arts’s computer game Spore—including a one-star Amazon review campaign that was a precursor to the Amazon/Macmillan one-star review campaign Ficbot mentioned a few weeks ago.

In recent days, another computer game’s DRM has been taking the spotlight. Ubisoft has come out with a much more restrictive than usual DRM system, in place on its game Assassins Creed 2, that actually requires gamers to be connected to the Internet continuously throughout their entire gaming session—even if they are only playing a single-player game.

There are on-line-only e-book readers, of course—web apps such as Ibis—but just imagine if your Kindle required you to be connected to Whispernet at all times or else your e-books would not open. What if you had to dial in to Fictionwise every time you wanted to read an eReader book?

Internet Lockdown vs. Unreliable Internet

The rationale behind this restrictive DRM was that it would supposedly be more effective and harder for pirates to crack, so the games would be limited to people who actually paid the money to buy them. The problem is that this ends up hurting gamers with less reliable connectivity—most notably, American soldiers stationed overseas.

The issue is Internet connectivity. "Net connectivity on some of the larger [Forward Operating Bases]—I’m on Victory Base, it’s HUGE and very built-up—is not terrible. However, we all have severe bandwidth caps with the ‘government sponsored Internet,’ drops in connectivity, or we have to pay a high price for ‘civilian’ Internet," [one soldier] explained.

Other groups affected would include people in rural areas that don’t have access to broadband, people who can’t afford it, and travelers.

xkcd Was Right

And how did this fancy new “hard-to-break” DRM scheme hold up in the real world? It was cracked in less than 24 hours. It seems that the game was made so it could be patched to disable the DRM if Ubisoft ever decided to shut down its DRM servers—which meant that clever game hackers could figure out how to “patch” it themselves.

from xkcd strip #488So once again, DRM turns out to be a colossal boondoggle. Ubisoft spent money that could have been better spent on game content developing a “foolproof” system that ends up only penalizing the honest consumer—those who download the cracked version not only get to play for free but can do so without the always-on-line restrictions of Ubisoft’s ill-conceived DRM. xkcd was right.

Invest in Service, Not Shackles

It seems pretty clear that no matter how gaming companies tighten their grip wiith DRM, in the end the pirated games will just slip through their fingers. How about instead of investing in these useless shackles, software companies instead focus on providing extra service to people who buy their products legitimately?

As I pointed out the other day, Valve is a great example of this. It is continually adding all sorts of value to its software, and of course you have to have purchased it legitimately in order to download and play on-line. It also frequently puts games and game packages on sale in its on-line store, and just as with e-books you can buy on-line for instant downloading gratification.

Of course, this sort of service also makes it less likely you can get any benefit out of buying the games used. Much like e-books with the used book market, digital game downloads and online-value-added games may end up killing or severely crippling the used game market.

If we can get an overall better experience by paying that price, then perhaps it is worth it. But it would be nice to have that better experience, instead of just having the price.

See also: TeleRead’s DRM primer