Sep 20, 2011

Starcraft II and DRM

Now that I'm back home and I've got blazing fast internet, got a chance to play the "starter version" of Starcraft II, basically a tarted-up demo, and I have to say it is an amazing game to play.  Like everything Blizzard does, it's not particularly groundbreaking—in fact, there's little gameplay innovation from the original game—but man, it is polished.  Everything is beautiful, streamlined, and intuitive.  There are little gems and finishing touches everywhere that reveal stupendous dedication and perfectionism on the designers' part.  Great strategic depth.  I was immensely pleased to hear they brought back Robert Clotworthy to voice Jim Raynor, probably my favorite video game character of all time.  (Him or Gordon Freeman.)  The map editor, by all accounts, is absurdly powerful.

The game is nearly crippled, however, by borderline-insane DRM (digital rights management) restrictions that interfere with even the simplest session.  To even get to the single-player missions (after shelling out at least $50 for a year-old game—Blizzard is still charging $60), you've got to create an account at Battle.net and register the game, and continue to contact Battle.net every 30 days.  No internet connection?  Tough shit.  Plus, you can't create additional characters to wipe your record if you want to start over, or just have a competitive ladder account.  Each game is region locked, meaning if you want to play your European friends, you've got to have a European version.

The biggest mistake, though, is the lack of LAN support.  (Local area network, like a home network disconnected from the internet.)  This was one of the big draws of the original game—in fact, if you had a copy of the original Starcraft, you could "spawn" copies on up to eight computers at once and be playing your friends in minutes with only one CD key.  This was a big reason the original became so popular.  What's more, the original remains (I believe) the largest "e-sport" in the world, largely in South Korea.  Almost all those matches are played over LAN because they are more secure, less vulnerable to hacks and cheating, and most importantly, much faster.  The professionals play at lightning speed, where a few dozen milliseconds in latency can be the difference between a win and a loss.  Indeed, Starcraft II competitions have been seriously disrupted by internet problems.

I think Blizzard is ultimately shooting itself in the foot.  If the game weren't the sequel to one of the most popular in history, if the gameplay itself weren't so great, if Blizzard's reputation for quality weren't quite so good...it's easy to imagine a scenario where Starcraft II was a total flop.  It remains very easy to pirate the original game, but something tells me Blizzard still did quite well.  A more pleasant experience for the customer, which necessarily entails a bit of "piracy" here and there, can ultimately make the game much more popular and therefore lucrative.

If we take a step back, it's worth noting that this kind of Big Brother control over a product would be considered completely preposterous if we tried to apply it to more traditional forms of media.  Yglesias pointed out a similar issue with respect to DVDs:
By modern standards, DVD rentals ought to be illegal. After all, the prevailing wisdom in the United States is that copying a file you don’t have permission to copy is a form of stealing. It deserves to be called “stealing,” according to the prevailing wisdom, because even though nobody has lost a physical object a rights-holder has been deprived of potential licensing fees. When you rent a DVD — or, heaven forbid, borrow one from a friend — you are depriving the rights-holder of potential licensing fees every bit as much as if you copied a digital file. Fortunately for Redbox, though, we have a longstanding legal doctrine in this country called the “First Sale Doctrine,” which says that once you buy a physical object, you’re entitled to do what you want with it. Thus, back in the heyday of the VCR, movie studios faced a stark choice. Either don’t make a videotape of your movie, or else accept that video rental stores can buy your tapes and rent them out to customers. There was no prolonged wrangling over licensing fees. And ultimately, there’s was no incentive to hold things back from the market. All movies were released on video tape, and thus all movies were available for rent somewhere or other (albeit not necessarily at your local Blockbuster). This doctrine doesn’t apply to streaming video, and that’s why availability of streaming video is so spotty.
Actually, though Matt is correct about DVDs, software developers claim that even though they're selling a physical object (when you're not downloading a copy, at least), the first sale doctrine doesn't apply because you (the purchaser) are merely licensing the right to use their product, not buying it to own.  That's what that EULA (end-user license agreement) thing is that everyone always clicks past without reading.  (Check it out sometime, all kinds of things are buried in there.)  The courts have disagreed at times, but so far as I can tell there's no solid agreement in law yet, and developers are in the meantime claiming vast and increasing rights, and tiny and diminishing responsibilities.

In any case, this sort of highly restrictive DRM ought to be against the law.  Right now the software purchaser has essentially no rights to the thing for which he's forked over hard-earned cash.  The developer can create all kinds of ridiculous impositions, like requiring an internet connection for each and every use of the customer's own product.  Imagine if you bought a toaster, and you couldn't use it without connecting to the internet and signing up for an online account, to make sure you had bought it from a legally authorized vendor.  You couldn't give or sell it to your friends or family without also giving them your online account, which is associated with your email address.  Oh, and Bed Bath & Beyond reserved the right to remotely and permanently disable your toaster for any reason.

No one would stand for it.

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