Thursday, October 2, 2008

OPINION: Hindsight is 20/20

The topic du jour seems to be DRM, both on my own blog and around industry news.  With the recent development of Spore/EA’s stance on Securom and other DRM practices, it seems that we are headed towards the same road as what consumers are currently seeing in the music industry.

With Napster and MP3 gaining huge momentum in the mid 90’s, music industry noticed that their sales of physical media were declining.  There were two possibilities for this:

a)       People are now pirating songs and downloading them illegally because of MP3’s

b)      People are realizing that songs in MP3 format produced a far better listening experience logistically and prefer a medium change

And we all know which option the music industry, mostly RIAA, choose to see as the reason for declining sales.  So what we have then is the evolution from heavy DRM which really started with audio CD’s that could not be played in every CD Player as they were formatted in CD-Rom format.  These were not readily introduced until 2002 while MP3 momentum continued.  What we can see is that in the beginning, the majority of consumers (read: over 50% of consumers – exact numbers are irrelevant in this discussion) were still buying their music.  There were a growing number of people that were interested in MP3 technology but that was relegated to mainly the tech savvy crowd and those that were able to afford $300 MP3 players that held 512MB of music.  In fact, more often than not, music was being “dubbed” onto other CD’s but not for the reason of not paying for your music, but for a way to create your own “mixed-tape” CD. 

I remember when there was talk of “burning stations” that would allow you to buy individual songs from a multitude of artists and labels and the machine would burn you a custom CD of those songs.  I personally was very excited by that possibility and believed it could have been commercially successful.  What the industry decided instead was to lock down CD copying (which was readily cracked anyway) which drove more legitimate users to seek alternative means.   If you told Suzie Soccer Mom that her new Tom Jones CD may not be able to play in her car’s CD-player (the most common player unable to handle DRM CD’s in the early 2000’s), she would have a fit.  She would ask the salesman at her local big boxed retailer what her alternatives were and there would be separate CD players with car adapters or this newer product called an MP3 player, which would allow her to fit hundreds of her favourite songs on one small device that won’t even skip!  When she gets this home and realizes that there isn’t a place where she can buy these songs in a MP3 format, she inevitability asks her teenage song what to do and he in turn sets her up with limewire.  This is only one scenario but most outcomes are the same.  This would also coincide with the success of iTunes and the iPod as the only player capable of accessing these songs. 

Now Apple does have their own DRM in the form of fairplay but it’s less intrusive and much more behind the scenes than Microsoft’s WMA’s or Sony’s DRM rootkits.

Fast forward to 2008 and what we have now is a music industry that is facing extinction in physical media sales and a giant elephant in the iTunes store.  iTunes and Apple are making money on music hand over fist and they want a piece of it.  And the only way to attack this problem is to offer the consumer a better alternative – that would be DRM free MP3 music.  E-tailers such as Amazon have already been selling DRM free music at a fraction of the price Apple is selling them.  This should have been the action in the very beginning but who’s to say that without iTunes, we would be without iPods today.  Although I believe that there will always be someone to step up and fill the void if it wasn’t Apple, it would have been someone else. 

We can take this same argument and apply it to the video games industry as it also sits on a precipice of similar elevation as the music industry did 10 years ago.  The tech savvy will always find a way to hack your DRM.  The major difference here is that there are a higher concentration of tech savvy users in the PC gaming sector than in the music scenario.  But if the industry offers a unified way to organize, distribute, and produce clean, consistent, and stable software, I believe sales will increase and piracy will decline (not by much but at least sales will increase).  If someone like me who can pirate my games quite easily would rather buy a game from Steam than pirate it, then I’m sure there are many others out there that would follow suit. 

Which is why I’m very excited by websites such as .  They are owned by Stardock, the Godfather of DRM free gaming, and are releasing working, supported, DRM free “Good Ol’ Games”.  Games such as Fallout 1 and 2, Decent, MDK, etc.  These are games that I’m very fond of and can remember clearly spending many hours playing.  Most of these games I have either lost or damaged the CD’s to or are simply incompatible with the latest operating systems and video cards.  But a site like GOG sells digital copies of these with working patches for XP and Vista while promising DRM free use and support. 

As I have said before, I’m not qualified to dissect the ins and outs of the industry or their business models.  I can only speak as a tech enthusiast and end user.  But to that end, EA and Activision/Blizzard seriously needs to take notice of models such as these because one day, an iTunes for PC games will happen and they will be left in the dust because they were too busy writing new Securom code (in the case of EA).  If I had my vote, I would like to see Activision/Blizzard merge with Valve and redesign Steam to follow a relaxed iTunes model.   

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