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A Steamy DRM Discussion

DRM has always been a hot-button topic when it comes to gamers. Steam on the other hand, has managed to win a lot of people over, both gamers and publishers. The secret to its success in my opinion is counteracting the bad, with the good.

This past weekend I started playing The Settlers 7, which I have a feeling a lot of gamers know it more about its DRM (Digitial Rights Management) and less about the game. The DRM is in the form of Ubisoft's launcher that loads with the game and requires a constant Internet connection to play it. The rage around the Internet was strong with this, from customer reviews to the Steam forums; people did not like the restriction. This also serves as a problem of getting accurate reviews, due to people focusing on the DRM much in the same way they did with Spore. With all the flaming going on it's easy to miss the fact that The Settlers 7 is a decent game which leads me to the point of this entry: Talking about DRM.

I know that the next statement has been said to death, but it needs to be reiterated for this entry: Steam is a form of DRM. It has the same restrictions that Ubisoft's DRM carries, both need to be on for a game to function. Yet one for the most part is praised and the other scorn.

Simply put, Steam rewards the player for using it unlike most DRM services. With Steam I have a unified friend's list, a store where I can buy games on sale and I don't have to worry about game patches among other things. This is the same practice that designers have been talking about for years to combat piracy, providing services that reward the player for buying their game instead of punishing them.

Another point of contention involves Internet access and this is where I do see the point against Ubi's system. While both services require Internet access, Ubi's requires a constant connection (I have heard that it has been changed for some titles to an "on start up" check), whereas Steam can be launched in offline mode to play the single-player games on your list. Some of us are not blessed with 100% stable Internet access and having your entire game library tied to a secondary service puts a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths.

Arguably Steam at this point in time is the lesser and most popular of the DRM evils and it has generated another side effect. Publishers have been turning to Steam (or specifically Steam-works) to use it as their form of DRM instead of other services. Once again this goes back to its popularity, more gamers have accepted Steam then those that don't. Why should a publisher risk angering their fan base with an unpopular form of DRM like Securom or Star-Force, when they can use one that is on the majority of their user base's computers?

One area that a lot of publishers still need to understand is that Steam is a form of DRM. I know I said that a few paragraphs up, however there are still games being put on Steam with another DRM included and this can really piss off gamers. For instance Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2 required both Steam and Games For Windows Live running at the same time for the game to work. This annoyed a lot of people including yours truly, as it feels like a completely arbitrary move that doesn't reward the player for buying the game. With recent expansions, Relic has gotten the clue and has removed the GFWL requirement for their latest titles. Another example is how Borderlands' base game has no protection on it, but two of the DLC packs have Securom attached to them

I know that there are many gamers out there who fight against Steam. When Civilization 5 was announced that it would carry Steamworks, many fans of the series blew their top. Lurking on forums and review boards, a lot of fans have never even heard of Steam before the announcement. I thought that it was funny that so many gamers did not know what Steam is, but then asking around my job at that time, many people didn't know about it either.

With more digital retailers using their own created platform to sell , such as Impulse there is one area that I'm amazed that none of these places have ventured to: Advertising. I see advertisements and commercials for brick and mortar stores all the time, yet I have not seen one yet showing off specifically Steam. I know we've all seen the advertisements for Portal 2, Left 4 Dead and The Orange Box. However, I'm surprised that we haven't seen anything showing off Steam itself to consumers.

The beauty of Steam is that it does the same thing doctors and parents for years have done to get kids to take their medicine: Mix in something sweet to hide the bitter taste.


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