The DRM Endgame – What Authors Can Learn From Video Games

Mar 21, 2013 | Opinions

Ah, video games. They’re a wonderful procrastination tool for authors who like to switch off their brain a while. They are also a source of some very interesting technical developments, particularly in DRM – and hoo boy, did we ever get a doozy of a case study to pore over recently.

In Short

Sim City is a long-running franchise built by Maxis and distributed by EA Games. They released their latest iteration of it, Sim City 5, not so long ago, with an always-on internet connection requirement where the players’ games were saved on the EA servers. This was to encourage social gaming, trade between players, all that other silly networking stuff… or at least that was the official line. Everyone who was paying attention knew it was to stop online piracy of their game.

It’s DRM of the nastiest kind.

The Debacle of Sim City

Oh, the mistakes. So many mistakes.

To start with, the Sim City servers were hideously unreliable and completely overloaded on launch. The always-on requirement for end users also meant an (in theory) always-on server requirement for EA, and they stuffed it up pretty well. There were reports of some players unable to play the game they had paid for for up to a week.

The game had its own flaws. It’s entirely possible for a player base to get over the internet connection requirement if the game is actually good, but Sim City 5 fell short of the mark on its own.

EA argued that its always-online requirement was due to all the processing that their servers had to do – only to have their claims blown out of the water by a few intrepid technological wonders who proved that Sim City 5 would run offline. So, it wasn’t for the players that they made it online only.

Maxis have apologised with the usual stuff that boils down to this: lots of people like this extra level of annoyance; building a standalone game wasn’t consistent with our ‘vision’; we don’t care about the fans who have literally been screaming for a standalone mode of gameplay.

The Lessons for Authors

Folks, any time you hear a business professional say that building a product that people are clamouring for isn’t part of their ‘vision’, run away. Far, far away. This is pretty much an admission that they’re not interested in making money.

I want to talk about this because this is the end game of fighting piracy, my author friends. This is how far the rabbit hole goes if you concentrate on nothing but stomping on the filthy pirates and not actually listening to your customers. Consider if an author tried this in order to stop people from pirating their work – can you imagine a book that requires you to be online and connected to a server, if you want to read it? And that server constantly crashes or becomes overloaded, so the book will not even open?

How many books would you sell if word got around that no one could even read the first page?

Fighting against piracy is a fool’s game for just this reason. It’s a total waste of money, especially when your real business starts to suffer as a result. Even the mindset of ‘stop pirates at all costs!’ is plain poisonous, if this is what results from it. My advice, as always, to any indie authors remains the same: ignore piracy, and leave DRM off your books. Concentrate on writing more and connecting with your readers, your real fans, and keeping them happy.

If you take any lesson away from the ruin of Sim City 5, let it be this: DRM will never and can never work.