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The Problem with Online Distribution September 19, 2010

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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Right now it’s a hot topic so I figured I might as well talk about the elephant in the room that gamers are looking at right now, especially after the shutdown of Good Old Games, which as far as I know was the only DRM-free game distribution service online.  I want to talk a little bit about the history of online distribution and the DRM that has come along with it, and why unfortunately even while it’s creating record breaking money in sales, it is still based on a broken system which the customer will suffer for.

What follows is an original article created over two and a half years ago which has been updated to reflect the current times.

For the longest time online distribution and DRM have gone hand and hand with each other, because for some reason never made clear making something available for download online, even if the person is paying for it, was scary to publishers.  If they were going to do it, they were going to make it as restrictive as possible to the end user, both as a deterrent for them to use it, and for the “true owners” (IE the people with the millions of dollars who financed it, not the people who bought it) to have a minor sense of comfort over what they were doing.  Of course DRM can be broken as fast as most people can click a simple button, and just because people are downloading their games after paying for them, the same percentage of people who would unfortunately do illegal things with their data would be just as likely to share a physical copy of anything as they would a digital copy.  So already the whole system was started with a flawed argument, and unfortunately everything since then has been based on that flawed argument.

People have been burned pretty badly by DRM used by online distributers in the past, not just because of the game industry. Sony Connect was Sony’s failed attempt at competing with Apple’s iTunes at online distribution of music.  Their biggest promotional call was when they gave out codes to the soundtrack for the first God of War game for free to anyone who bought the game and registered their manual’s promo code on the service.  However, while people were fine with redeeming a simple code for some free DRM filled audio content, they had no interest in buying anything else through the Connect while better options like iTunes already existed.  It was a massive failure, and Sony eventually decided to shut it down.  Famously, when Sony’s Connect system was brought down around 2007, making any DRM protected files you purchased through the system no longer accessible, and making anything still protected by it forever locked after it was shut down. Sony famously sent an email telling all their customers to simply copy their files to mp3 after burning the files to CD-R while the service was still on, which is basically the way to remove all DRM from audio files that will allow you to burn them to CD.  If the customers didn’t do this while the service was still running (or hadn’t done it before already) they would not be able to listen to their music ever again, music they paid the same price for as they would for a CD.  So basically they openly advocated the procedure they didn’t want their customers doing just so their customers could keep listening to files they paid for. Will I complain? No, my only files were the God of War soundtrack and it was free and I had removed the DRM immediately anyway upon purchase. I still had the master files backed up just in case, but that turned out to be pointless.

On another side, I had purchased one of the initial download copies of Half-Life 2, downloaded through Steam, unlocked through Steam when released, requiring an internet connection to get to work. And you know what? It worked fine, and did not take my rights away from using the game. In fact it gave me more rights, I had the ability to download the game onto any computer at one given time and access it with a simple password and username like I would use AIM. No need for discs, no need for installation. It worked, and worked well, and all my impressions of Steam are positive.  But what if the time comes when the Steam service no longer exists?  Will I still have access to my games?

Something like that did happen, just ask any of the early digital downloaders of the game Prey. I saw no point to getting the downloadable version of the game through triton as what I wanted was the retail collector’s edition. I got it, and installed it just like any game. It functioned perfectly fine. Then in three weeks or so everyone who had Triton versions of the game were no longer able to play it because the company went out of business. Their money was wasted and they had no game to play. To save face 3D Realms gave free retail copies at their own expense to all triton purchasers, and made the Triton access codes compatible with Prey’s Steam release.   The damage was still done, people finally saw just how fragile digital distribution and rights management could become if the master the protection needed to phone home to no longer existed, they were screwed and completely out of money.

So now the Good Old Games owners are feeling the burn of online distribution, and from what I can tell online, they don’t like it.  Unlike the Prey users, they’re fortunate enough that their downloaded copies still work, if they were smart enough to back up their installers, but you know if DRM was included on those games it would be a whole lot worse.

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GOG.com Has Shut Down September 19, 2010

Posted by Maniac in Game News.
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In a surprising move, the online game distributer Good Old Games has closed its virtual doors, and shut down its website, preventing its users from downloading the games they supposedly own.  GoG was (as far as I know) the only online distributer of DRM-free games, and heck, even I bought a copy of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh through the service.

The shutdown was extremely abrupt, as a customer I received an email notifying me of the weekend’s sales (as usual).  I don’t think there was any way to tell the service was going to just shut down.

Their website teases that a way for the customers to redownload their games is coming, but until then, you’ll have to rely on your own local backups.

This is (in my opinion) a major blow to the legitimacy of online distributors everywhere.  If a service like them can just up and shut down, preventing their customers from obtaining the games they legally own, it really makes a good case for the fact that physical media is still the best way to buy your games.