Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Turn Off “Always On” DRM

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 16, 2013

COHgameboxLast night, I was cleaning up some some things around the office, and I stumbled across my box for City of Heroes. City of Heroes was an awesome MMORPG I played for a couple of years. While I hadn’t played it in a while, I was sad to see the game shut down completely not long ago. That meant my box – and my corresponding box for City of Villains – advertised a game that no longer exists anywhere. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the box away. At least not yet. It’s a reminder of some pretty good times.

But it’s dead. I couldn’t play it again if I wanted to.  And believe me, if it was possible, I would have been tempted. But the box is not much more than a grave marker today.

Pretty soon, almost every video game will be like that.  Dead, useless, gone from all but history.

It’s called, “Always On DRM.” Publishers freaking LOVE the idea.


A couple of weeks ago, something of a crapstorm took place over rumors that the next-gen XBox was going to have the dreaded “Always On” restriction: If you lose your Internet connection, the console shuts you down. Apparently (the rumors go) after a little bit of a grace period to allow a reconnection, you are unable to even play single-player games.

A Microsoft creative director who nobody had really heard of until that point made a series of inappropriate tweets, mocking those who were alarmed by this rumor. His said things like, “These people should definitely get with the times and get the Internet. It’s awesome.” and “I want every device to be ‘always on.’ ”  When people argued with him about several places in the United States where getting Internet connectivity was difficult, he flippantly commented, “Why on Earth would I live there?” For those who complained about Internet outages, he said, “Electricity goes out, too.” During the exchanges, he used the hashtag, “#DealWithIt.”

orthmemeShortly thereafter, he resigned from Microsoft, presumably under threat of termination. He was not a spokesperson for Microsoft and was simply speaking his own mind, not realizing his comments to what he thought was an audience of mainly peers, would end up turning into an angry meme. Sadly, many on the Internet took great glee in his loss of his job (presumably over this affair). The angry villagers and their pitchforks won. That, I find pretty disturbing.

I’m afraid Mr. Orth learned the hard way one of the perils of being “always on.”

While I am revolted by the behavior of some people on the Internet who were cheering Mr. Orth’s removal, I can’t say I’m completely unsympathetic to their views. And I do hope Microsoft gets the message. But, sadly, it sounds like they won’t. And I won’t be adding the new XBox (code-named “Durango”) to my inventory, if this is the case.

But I’m afraid too much of the gaming world (and the software world in general) is completely on board with the “always on” idea, simply because it is a convenience to the publishers, and it allows them to exert control over their products “in the wild” that they could not exert otherwise.

My take on it is much like my take on telemarketing: It’s my phone, and I pay the bills, and therefore my phone exists for MY convenience, not yours. Likewise, my Internet connection is for MY convenience, not yours.

Hey, kids! You know what you call software that goes out on your computer and does stuff without your knowledge, permission, or … let’s be honest … benefit?


Oh, of course, now it’s not “malware” because you gave it permission when you installed the software. Yeah, there are a whole bunch of horrible programs out there that will make your computer run like a 386 and inform every marketer in the world of your bathroom habits that use the same excuse.

The thing is… well, maybe young gamers really are that ignorant, but those who understand the world recognize that games frequently have an online component, even if it’s just updating a leaderboard. No problem. But we also recognize which components are critical to us playing a game. And that’s really limited to playing simultaneously with friends on the Internet, or playing in shared world. Oh, there are minor conveniences or nifty items, like having our saved game in the cloud so we can resume from a different computer (something relatively few gamers actually use, but I occasionally do), or leaderboards, or having the game directly announce news and updates for us. But we recognize that these are not critical to playing the game.

We also recognize that this is nothing more than a control grab by game manufacturers, an attempt to force us to their door so that we can pay for a game like it was a product, but use it only at their discretion as if it was a service. It’s the best of both worlds as a publisher, and the worst of both worlds as a consumer.


So what does “Always On” DRM get you as a consumer?

Nothing. Oh, Marketers will offer such empty spin-speak BS as, “To better serve you as a customer,” or will list online features that we know damn well do not need to be tied to an “Always On” requirement.  Or maybe they’ll even stoop to claiming that it will allow them to “keep costs down” with the implication that they’ll pass the savings on to the customers (they won’t, they’ll charge you what they know they can charge you, it just means that they can afford to keep up the nuclear arms race of massive development and marketing budgets with their competitors). I’m sure Microsoft is getting all kinds of support and exclusives for their new machine from publishers with visions of zero piracy dancing in their heads.

But it’s not just about piracy. This is what people are misinterpreting. It’s about CONTROL. Pure and simple. The publishers control our access to the game at all times. We buy it as if it’s a product, they give us the lack of customer support as if it’s a product, but we are allowed to play the game as if it was a service they were providing for us.

What kind of control? Here are the kind of DOWNSIDES that “Always On” DRM inflicts upon real customers – the people who spend their hard-earned cash on these crippled pieces of software that were once called games:

#1 – As game publishers have frequently proven, they will cancel our “accounts” – basically taking the game away from us – for any reason. This can range from true violations of our terms of service, to speaking badly of the game on their forums. This is bad enough in a shared-world MMO where our behavior effects other people. But in a fundamentally single-player game? WTF?

#2 – Also, as has been demonstrated many times in the past, we may get our “accounts” – our access to the game – taken away for no reason whatsoever. A mistake. A false positive on a piracy test. While these can be appealed and are usually cleared up within a few hours or a few days…. WTF?!?!? I am denied access to play this game I just shelled out $60 for because YOU screwed up? Why? The game is right there on my hard drive; let me play!

d3fail#3 – Apparently, publishers have recognized that gamers have short memories, and rather than purchase adequate server hardware to service a big AAA game at launch, they’ll economize and let the players go through hell for the first couple of weeks, unable to play, until things settle down. Then we happy little gamers will forget all about how much the game SUCKED the first two weeks and happily fall for the same B.S. with the next big release.

#4 – Mandatory obsolescence. Like City of Heroes – games can now just “go away.” With the usual apologies from the publisher about how it was no longer cost-effective, hardly anybody was playing anymore, time to move on, etc. Of course, now publishers like EA can throw on a new coat of paint on an older game that is no longer supported, call it a new product, and sell the whole f***ing game AGAIN this year! Just like they do with their sports franchises! It can now be done with EVERY GAME! Quit your whining and give them another $60 + $120 for DLC, you’ve got almost three whole years to enjoy it before we take it away from you!

#5 – Those with less-than-stellar broadband may have to make their kids quit playing games in order to stream a movie.

#6 – It’s gonna be a whole ‘nother pain in the butt for those with spotty Internet connections. Or for people like me who have P.O.S. “refurbished” hardware sent by my broadband provider and and has to be rebooted multiple times a day. I’m fairly convinced that they just have a pool of crap they cycle around from customer to customer, hoping they’ll eventually land at a home where they complain less.

#7 – Oh, yeah, and your play habits can always be monitored. 99.99% of the world won’t give a crap, and some may actually prefer this (there are some benefits, after all), but hey – some people may actually value privacy, and don’t feel that just because they paid for and installed a game that the game-maker is ENTITLED to that information.

#8 – Gaming on the road. My job sends me on the road a lot, and while most hotels have Internet nowadays, it’s either crappy or EXPENSIVE (or both, or either – you can choose gratis connectivity that resembles a 300 baud modem, or pay through the nose for something that sucks less). So I game. Or, often enough, write games, but I play games too. “Always On” could make that very problematic. Particularly since most developers / publishers / DRM providers aren’t particularly respectful of your bandwidth if they don’t feel they have to be. Oh, and while I enjoy “getting away from it all” on camping trips, I still sometimes game on handheld devices when I do. But not if they have “always on” DRM.


Look, I’m a game developer. I’m anti-piracy. I’m not really anti-DRM, just – well, against the kinds of DRM that have come to represent the philosophy. But I’m not anti-DRM as much as I am pro-consumer.

This is why I against “Always On” DRM. It is “anti-consumer.” Look, online gaming is one thing. This is something totally different. This crap has the potential to wreck gaming as I know and love it.

As bad as I feel about Mr. Orth being turned into an industry scapegoat, the industry seems hell-bent on taking this course that screws over their customers for their benefit (gee, I wonder why) and is pulling the same kind of PR blitz and saying the same kinds of things Mr. Orth was saying in an effort to convince us all that it’s not a bad thing, that it’s the way of the future, and really, we should feel happy about companies treating us as nothing more than credit cards with an Internet connection.  And we gamers really do need to fight back and send a message that this is unacceptable.

While “voting with your wallet” is a good thing, when an industry is only treating us as nothing more than a wallet, it may need a little help figuring out why the little wallets aren’t standing in line like they are supposed to.

Filed Under: Biz, Geek Life - Comments: 14 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    Orth deserved to lose his job if he misunderstands his potential customers that much. Mob rule isn’t good, but he wasn’t fit for that job. The troubling thing to me is that it took a mob to point that out.

  • Califer said,

    I was excited about getting Diablo III. But since they demand you be online, I will never buy it.

  • TheBuzzSaw said,

    Publishers know what they are up to. Obviously, they have to be careful with their PR, but they know what’s going on. First, they must convince as many non-technical people as possible that an online requirement is both beneficial and necessary. I don’t know anyone really who argues against the benefits, but even non-technical people suspect the whole “necessary” aspect. The publishers then try to cloud the argument: “What’s the big deal? Netflix requires the Internet. Roku requires the Internet. Your phone requires the Internet.” Except… when you carefully analyze each one, they each contain subtle lies. In every case, the Internet is providing a tangible benefit that generally is not possible otherwise. However, if I am reading an email on my phone, my phone does not hide the email if my Internet connection vanishes (which happens often).

  • Corwin said,

    Orwell would be thrilled. Like you, I’m often away from home and use my laptop to play. There’s no way I would even attempt to play an always on DRM game under those circumstances. Simply put, there are some publishers I will NEVER buy from again (EA, I’m looking at you), and I will certainly ignore any game with always on DRM for SP. Fortunately, I do not own and do not plan to own a 360 of any vintage. MS has my money for my OS and Office, but that’s it. Long live the Indies!! 🙂

  • TheOldFarmer said,

    Sucks to be Mr. Orth but he did not say any thing that his coworkers at MS or EA or Activision or UbiSoft were’t vocalizing internally daily. He seemed to be astonished that someone would object to always on.
    You do not get that mindset all alone, you get that solid belief if you are at one with the group. Orth’s crime was saying what he did without proper PR spin doctoring so the sheeple could eat it up.
    Problem was the sheep got to see abit of the sheering factory when Orth let the door open and he got his ass caned because of it. BUT the door is closed and the same crap is still going on and will continue to go on as long as people have to have the latest new thing. When Activision sells 9M copies of D3 it makes a pretty outstanding argument that this is the way to go.
    Maybe this is the start of consumer rage/backlash due to this insidious practice, but I doubt it, there is a reason I call them sheeple.

  • McTeddy said,

    What actually bothers me about this story is that he wasn’t “Insulting random customers” when he said those things… he was sarcastically chatting with his friend. I’m all for him taking responsibility for his actions… but the media should at least knowledge that he “Insulted” a friend who spoke out on his behalf the very next day. Sheesh… media tell the whole story!!!!

    As for the always on DRM, I stop gaming the day it happens. My internet sucks and I like my privacy. Unless a game actually REQUIRES internet for the game-play to work (Like an MMO) I will not buy it. Even Steam stays offline the majority of the time.

    I don’t like this face-book world where everyone expects to know everything about me. I’ll do everything I can to keep my privacy even if it means only playing old games.

  • BarryB said,

    If what I’ve read elsewhere is true:

    Even after Microsoft released an apologetic statement, Orth kept antagonizing gamers with his views on the subject. Ultimately, Adam was asked to step down from his position to the collective cheer or video game fans everywhere.

    …then the matter is a bit more complex than you make it. Orth may have been fired, not for airing his views, but for airing views in direct opposition to the viewpoint expressed by his employer. We might also speculate that he was told to STFU, given the apologies from a company not normally noted for its apologies.

    So perhaps we shouldn’t feel sorry for Orth, or condemn him. We don’t know what went on, there. All we know is that he showed an almost troll-like disregard for the views and problems of others, in pursuit of an annoying attitude–all the while maintaining a privileged position, as Creative Director of Microsoft.

    He really should have known better.

    For the rest, excellent points about DRMs. Some people just don’t get it. Others, may others, do understand the problems. SimCity, anyone?

  • alanm said,

    Always-on DRM in games is here to stay. You and I won’t buy them. Enough other people always will, and that’s the demographic that they’re selling to.

    The publishers are working to change the general public’s mental models of what an AAA game is. No longer is it a perfect multifaceted jewel that you buy, take home and marvel at alone in private. Instead they’re selling an experience, a platform for content delivery, and a service to be subscribed to.

    My predictions: server outages will decline (but not vanish) as the big publishers get their act together. The always-on link will be used for all the things that you fear (account terrorism, obsolescence, monitoring, etc) and most people won’t care. The always-on channel will start being used to add value of a sort. Weekly episodes of your single-player game campaign will become available as the studio creates content, much like TV shows today, complete with advertising and product placements. Bug fixes and balance updates will be deployed much quicker. Social networking integration, obviously. Cross-selling other services offered by the publisher – other games in the same world, real world merch, etc.

    You and I will keep playing all the other non-AAA games on our laptops and desktops.

  • poopypoo said,

    I agree, alanm. These companies not only want a TV-style audience, they want to be TV (only more relevant and yknow, profitable). This plague is unavoidable, primarily because most children are foolish (I certainly was, ask the collection of Star Wars action figures my Mom eventually gave to Goodwill), and most of their parents will do little to dissuade them of foolish behavior (my Mom tried, only slightly successfully, but her lessons helped me reconsider my priorities when I became independent). Those chumps will be sucking down Official Xbox Magazine (can you believe people actually used to PAY for these things?) and well, the shared experience of everyone in your classroom competing in CoD is probably an eviable experience. All we can do is not be angry old grandpas, state our peace and then try to maintain whatever platforms we have, not to whine, but to show them things.. things they missed… like the path of the avatar.

  • Xian said,

    I refused to get Diablo III, but my son could not be swayed and purchased it. I played a character on his account. During the campaign, I was disconnected 3 times, and I have a pretty stable Internet connection. On at least one of those occasions I had a ssh session opened to another computer and that never dropped, so it wasn’t that my connection dropped, but the connection to Battlenet. The one saving grace was that at least you didn’t have to backtrack quite so far as you would have in many of the Diablo 2 areas if you died.

    I think it is all about control as Jay said, and being able to datamine your connection. They get a wealth of information – how long you played, did you complete it, how many times you died, and other innocuous stats, but I have to wonder how long it will be before they start mining deeper. The 360 dashboard is already filled with advertising, and I suspect they are already monitoring every click.

    As far as the Nextbox is concerned, all I have seen so far is rumors, and with all the negative publicity regarding always online, I would find it hard to believe that Microsoft would require it. If they were considering it, I suspect they are having second thoughts now, so it might not be in the final product. What they might do is like a Heroes 6 approach – *if* you play this online you get these extras, if offline you don’t.

  • Xenovore said,

    @Jay: Amen and preach on!
    @Everyone else: Great comments! Agreed 100%.

    Any publisher that implements always-on-DRM in an otherwise single-player game can go straight to hell. They will never get my support or money.

    (Blizzard/Activision, you’re riding a fine line after the shenanigans you pulled with Diablo 3; one more screw-up and you’re dead to me. EA, good luck getting me to ever buy your shit; the Sim City debacle was rather the final nail in your coffin.)

  • Suragai said,

    Two things I have noticed about this recently.
    I purchased Mass Effect 3, which required me to use Origin, EA’s online game platform. Except it wouldn’t run.
    I could play other games on Origin, but not ME3. After a month of posts on forums, downloading patches, reinstalling etc I gave up, and downloaded a pirated copy. I never encountered any problems playing this, and never had it crash. I don’t usually download pirated software, and I don’t recommend it, but I am even more opposed to being sold a game that I then can’t play because of a system the publisher has included that benefits only them, and offers nothing of value to me.

    I have also been supporting a bunch of games (and other stuff) via Kickstarter, and I’ve noticed that most of these games are going to be DRM free. I’m not certain if that is just something with the types of games I like (RPG and strategy mainly) or common across a lot of Kickstarter projects. Add this to the popularity of the stands taken by GOG and Larian, and it makes me think the backlash is already starting.
    Is crowdsourcing going to be one of the tools we use to punish the big publishers when they try doing this to us?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Suragai, I had a similar experience back in the bad ol’ days of document look-up. One day I had reinstalled Wing Commander and couldn’t remember the answers (I’d had them all memorized at one point), and couldn’t find my documentation. After installing the crack, I realized how much nicer it was to not have to worry about it. Then I realized: The pirates had a superior product!

    As the the crowdfunding thing – I don’t really see it as punishment so much as competition. The publishers aren’t providing us with what we want, so we go elsewhere. And really, at this point, crowdfunding isn’t approaching the higher levels that the major publishers are usually looking at. Those guys have budgets often over 10 million, whereas the extremes of crowdfunding at this point are about one third of that. I think Chris Roberts went over that with some external investment commitments, but generally speaking – a big name / property / promise can get you barely into the seven digits, and anything else will get you far less.

    I’m sure the publishers are looking at crowdfunding hungrily (“What? Free money with no concrete commitments? How do we get in on THAT action?”) even as we speak. Maybe they’ll figure out a way to sneak in and take advantage of it themselves. Like – making developers get crowdfunding money themselves so the publishers can advance a “matching” amount, but then still swoop in and take the IP rights & everything when it’s done.

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