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:
- Playing games released as open-source, freeware, or via offerings like GOG.com and the Humble Indie Bundles which are willing to stake their reputation on accurate DRM-free labelling.
- Reading novels and short stories (New, used, at the library, on Baen’s Free Library, and on Project Gutenberg)
- Enjoying media produced for the fun of it, rather than the profit (fanfiction, online amateur sci-fi, hobby music, etc.)
- Writing programs and learning new programing languages
- Writing non-fiction and learning how to write fiction (No public URL yet)
- Taking a walk or sitting under a tree while I listen to a podcast (Not so much lately, but that’s mainly because I’ve been doing a lot of programming)
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: Another source for free eBooks is The Open Library.