8 PCs In A Bunker: Ownership, Respect, and Principles in the Steam Era

TL;DR: DRM is you paying to be mistrusted and quietly disrespected; Piracy is an implicit endorsement of someone whose behaviour you disagree with.

Every now and then, I’ve had someone look at me in surprise because I refuse to buy games that are only available on Steam. “But it’s so convenient,” they’ll say or, if they know me personally, “What’s wrong with taking advantage of the $1 deals like your brothers do?”

My answer to them is that Steam violates what I refer to as my “8 PCs in a Bunker” policy but, more fundamentally, it’s a matter of ownership, respect, and principles.

Until games started to use phone-home systems like Steam for their DRM, you effectively owned any game you bought. Yes, there was that nasty little stub of code which meant that, if you broke the disc and you hadn’t made a copy and grabbed a crack, you were screwed but, aside from attacking people reselling used copies on eBay like AutoDesk does with AutoCAD, your intuitive expectations for buying something were upheld and agreeing to the EULA was, for home users, effectively a meaningless formality.

Then, along comes Steam with its addictive sales, ultra-convenient game manager, and integrated social framework… pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. What they don’t want you to stop and think about is that, by buying games with phone-home DRM, you’re not actually buying them anymore. Steam and similar systems give the publisher the power to enforce that license agreement we’ve all grown so used to ignoring. You didn’t buy anything; you just paid a one-time subscription fee… and legal departments always make sure that subscriptions can be revoked at the service-provider’s discretion.

Suddenly, Valve is in a position where they have all the power and I just have to trust that they won’t abuse it. Suppose Steam loses out to a competitor someday and closes up shop, I have to have faith that Valve or the game’s developer will release an update to remove the game’s dependence on it. If they’re killing off the brand anyway and the games are a decade old, do you really think they’ll see a worthwhile investment in that?

Suppose Valve goes public (If a U.S. company grows big enough, staying privately owned becomes more hassle than it’s worth. That’s what happened to Google.), suddenly they’re beholden to shareholders who, I guarantee, won’t put principles above profit. Once again, mandatory auto-update + Steam required + subscription-style licensing = “We think you’re a pirate/cheater/pedophile/communist and we’re revoking your account.”

We’ve already seen how little the promise of a DRM-locked eStore is worth when certain online music stores closed up shop and, at best, left it up to you to jump through hoops to preserve your collection. They’ve already got your money. Why should they care about tarnishing a brand that’s being end-of-lifed anyway?

Paying to be distrusted and quietly disrespected just isn’t the kind of relationship I want to have and I don’t like the “guilty until proven innocent” culture it fosters. Besides, if you can suppress the instinctive “Ooh! Shiny!” reaction that Steam sales are so finely tuned to trigger, it becomes very easy to find ways to spend your time that don’t force you to choose between pleasure and principles.

My favorite ways to have fun without feeling dirty include:

Aside from the pleasure of not feeling like I’m whoring myself out to the corporations (to put it bluntly), there’s a certain degree of satisfaction in being able to save my money, spend most of my time entertaining myself for free, and often have something to show for it when I’m done.

Now, some people might argue that, if you “pirate” games, It will also satisfy many of those goals and prevent them from revoking your access to the game, but part of having principles is doing it right, so you can feel good about yourself for not giving into the temptation to weasel your way around them.

I’d much rather feel good about entertaining myself than validate a publisher’s sense of entitlement and give implicit approval (and possibly word-of-mouth advertising) to a game developer who is unwilling to have principles of their own. It also helps that, when I do refuse to buy a game, I can harmlessly indulge baser instinct (some might call it a guilty pleasure) by reveling in doing my part to consign them to obscurity.

So, with all this philosophical posturing, what exactly is an “8 PCs in a Bunker” policy? It’s something I cooked up in the mid-’90s when I was a poor kid with a lot of smarts and a risk-averse personality to match.

In short, suppose a nuclear war were to break out tomorrow and I was left with only 8 PCs in a bunker, blank hard drives, and a bunch of DVD+R backups. Could I still enjoy what I’d bought to a reasonable degree?

Think about that for a moment:

  • Blank hard drives, so you have to be able to install from scratch.
  • No Steam servers, so you have to be able to back up the installer to DVD and “phone home at least once to verify ownership” won’t work.
  • No phones and no call center, so “phone this number for a manual activation code” won’t work
  • No access to a central matchmaking service or an MMORPG server farm, so you’d better hope that, if they’re needed, the server software was available for download too.
  • Burned DVD+Rs, so if you’ve got old-style “lock it to the installation media” DRM, you’d better already have a crack too.

There are probably other things I took into account when I first designed the policy, but I think you get the idea. It’s an imaginative way to ask myself “Do I own this? Do they seem to trust me?” that covers pretty much any eventuality the publisher is likely to consider worthwhile.

I actually go further with non-games (insisting on open-source software so I don’t have to “take it to a manufacturer-owned service center” when it breaks) but that’s another story.

Update: Tor/Forge now also sells DRM-free eBooks and I should probably mention that, if you like to read to learn, O’Reilly and No Starch Press sell DRM-free eBooks too.

Update: Image Comics is apparently working to remove DRM from their offerings now.

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6 Responses to 8 PCs In A Bunker: Ownership, Respect, and Principles in the Steam Era

  1. SirPrimalform says:

    You make so many points here that I have tried to make, much more effectively than I have ever done. In particular I’m glad I’m not the only one who picked up on Steam games being subscriptions rather than licences.

    “But there’s no difference between purchasing a licence and taking out a one payment life time subscription!” people say.

    Of course there is, Valve has no obligation to provide the service because it’s a subscription; they could end it without a moment’s notice. No matter how unlikely it is that they’ll do that, the fact that they force you to be dependant on an ongoing service and reserve the right to terminate that is just too much.

    I have a Steam account full of games, but 99% of them are from bundles which also provided DRM-free copies. I register the keys simply to resist the temptation to give those keys away (and because I have strong hoarding tendencies and like to have my eggs in as many baskets as possible :P).

  2. I’m glad you liked it. I actually wrote it after asking the Terraria developers whether I could buy a DRM-free copy.

    They told me that it is DRM-free, but it’s only available through Steam. That’s when I realized I needed a clear explanation for why Steam inherently counts as DRM and why I consider DRM unacceptable.

    (I’m a Linux user and only run the occasional old game in VirtualBox when it won’t run in Wine or DOSBox, so my only contact with the Steam client has been on my brothers’ computers. As I mentioned, they consider it acceptable to buy $1 sale games off Steam.)

    • SirPrimalform says:

      o.0

      I didn’t think there was any debate as to whether Steam was DRM or not…

      Even the small number of games (of which Terraria isn’t one) that don’t require the Steam client running still arguably aren’t DRM-free. Sure it’s possible to make a backup by .rar-ing the folder or something but in that case you’re just bypassing relatively weak DRM (since the only official way to install a game bought from Steam is through the client).

      I had some communications with the Terraria devs as well, but they never tried to claim Steam wasn’t DRM thankfully.
      I did make a topic in the suggestions section of the forum asking if there was any possibility of a Desura release but there were no replies (from forum users or otherwise).

      At least I wasn’t met with the attitude that I’ve encountered before where people react like I’m demanding they to remove the game from Steam by asking for an alternative place to buy it. *sigh*

  3. Pingback: How I Buy Games (as a Flowchart) | Stephan Sokolow's Blog

  4. Lugaid says:

    Hey Stephan,

    While I agree with most of what you said here, I have a bit of a problem with one very specific part. Cracking a game is as legal/illegal as ignoring and violating the EULA for a game. So why is one acceptable and not the other?

    DRM is just a way to ensure people stay within the bounds of the EULA, if you are going to ignore the EULA anyway, why not ignore the DRM as well?

    Cheers.

    PS: This in no way is an attempt to be confrontational or adversarial, I’m genuinely interested in your answer.

    • Generally, I don’t violate EULAs either… though I will admit that’s more of a circumstance thing than the DRM one is.

      Lately, I just haven’t been that into gaming so, 99%+ of the time, I get my entertainment from things that don’t have EULAs. (These days, typically programming, reading and writing blog posts, and reading fanfiction… though, ironically, games for consoles like the Playstation also don’t make you agree to EULAs and, if it’s not a CD, even Nintendo, who wish they could outlaw ROMs, admits they can’t forbid you from ROMs you personally ripped from your own cartridges.)

      When I do use things with EULAs, there are a few main points I find relevant:

      First, everyone implicitly understands that only a vanishingly small number of end users even read EULAs. Some people I’ve talked to who have distributed software with EULAs don’t even understand them. They just know that, to cover their asses, they had to pay some lawyer to write this blob of text to put in their installer. Maybe I’m just an old man in a 20-something body, but I still see cracking DRM as fundamentally different from “Nobody reads that. Just click the button that doesn’t quit the installer.”

      Second, I try to stay within the general spirit most EULAs embody. I’m not going to inconvenience myself enough to make absolutely sure the game’s only installed on one PC at once, but I won’t flaunt my ability to have more than one person playing the same copy at a time. (And, for games like FTL where both my brothers get into it enough to play simultaneously for more than a trial game or two, I buy an extra copy to thank the devs for a game well-made.)

      On that front, I really respect the company Blizzard used to be for the “One CD will do up to three players in multiplayer mode, no special install mode required” design of the pre-Battle.NET edition of Warcraft 2.

      Finally, the games I play the most (by far) are Humble Bundle games and the humble bundle people have explicitly advertised “install them on every PC in your house” as one of the benefits of buying DRM-free games. Since I like them too much to want to take them to small claims court for false advertising, I’ll assume that, since the developers didn’t complain about that advertising copy, it trumps whatever the EULA might say.

      I suppose the simplest way to put it is that, when I’m dealing with EULAs, I do what everyone else who respects the developers does. When the EULA disagrees with common sense about what it means to own something, the EULA loses. (As you said, DRM is an attempt to actually enforce that counter-intuitive “You never bought it. You just paid for a revokable license.” view that’s been embodied in EULAs for decades but ignored by every sane end user.)

      I refuse to pirate DRMed things because DRM means, beyond reasonable doubt, that the people selling it really are actively trying to “slippery slope” private ownership out of existence, rather than just people who trusted their lawyers too much.

      (This is especially important since the “give them an inch, they’ll take a mile” principle applies to EULAs. A EULA can’t actually revoke any permissions. It can only state terms under which they’ll un-revoke rights stolen away from you by copyright’s automatic “All Rights Reserved”… and there are limits to what they can ask from you. Every now and then, I run across an article about how a European court has ruled that certain parts of certain EULAs ­—usually written by U.S. law firms— are invalid because the law firm writing them thought they could get away with revoking fair use rights like the right to resell your used copy. )

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