There was a time when you bought a physical copy of a game, typed in the 25-digit CD Key, ran the installation, and you were all set. It was straightforward, simple, and you weren’t disconnected from your single-player session every time the internet went out. Today, we have a depressing state of affairs where it’s simple and straightforward to install illegal, pirated copies, while the paying gamer gets bogged down by crashes, poor performance, and invasive DRM that does nearly as much damage as malware. Ironically, Ubisoft once actually released a crack by warez group RELOADED as a patch for Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 to circumvent its own Securom DRM, which was causing issues for legitimate customers.
With digital distribution platforms like Steam having long overtaken brick-and-mortar retail as the preferred way of buying games, it’s understandable that publishers would want some kind of DRM solution in place, at the very least to make it a little more difficult to pirate their games. But the trend towards “heavy” DRM solutions like Denuvo, which actually perform functions similar to malware, is scary. And while “always online” DRM might be viable in Western countries (let’s forget completely about how this violates the freedom of choice to stay offline), it’s not even a remotely workable solution in countries like India, where even if you have a fast broadband connection, you’ll be experiencing plenty of downtime.
DRM benefits no one: it scares off potential customers who may end up pirating games simply for the ease of access. This, in turn, translates into a loss of sales, which hits the publisher’s bottom line. This discourages publishers from supporting PC as a platform, leading to lazy ports, delayed launches, and an overall poor experience. As per Ubisoft’s Yves Guillimot, only five percent of gamers actually pay to play Ubisoft titles! This minority, this five percent, is quite literally the people keeping PC afloat as a gaming platform. When DRM directly impacts the experience of this paying minority, it is an affront, not just to PC gamers, but to honest, responsible people on the whole. But if DRM’s not the solution, then what is?
Heard of CD Projekt RED? The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has been on the radar for months, with its imminent 19th May launch. The Polish developer’s success story, from literally having been Marcin Iwaniuk’s high school “CD Project,” to the universally acclaimed PC-centric studio it is today is the stuff of legend. But what really sets CD Projekt RED apart is its DRM policy. While the industry bigs are trying to make DRM even more of a pain than it already is, CD Projekt RED has taken the simple expedient of ditching DRM entirely. CD Projekt RED has been quoted as calling DRM “the worst thing to happen to gaming.” And these aren’t just words—The Witcher 3 on PC is to ship with no DRM protection whatsoever. In fact, the entire GOG.com distribution platform that CD Projekt runs is entirely DRM free—not a single game up for sale on GOG.com features DRM of any kind.
While on the surface, going DRM-free might seem mad, there’s logic behind CD Projekt’s decision; logic that has paid off handsomely. In the end, it’s all about the value proposition: People pirate games for a variety of reasons—not being able to afford the game is just part of the picture. With pirated “repacks” of games often having download sizes that are half, or even one-third the size of the Steam download, and of course the absence of invasive DRM, piracy not only offers a cheaper way of obtaining games, but a more convenient one. If DRM is taken out of the picture, a large part of the “inconvenience” of making a legitimate purchase disappears.
CD Projekt RED goes the extra mile by actually adding value to legitimate purchases. All GOG.com titles feature extra goodies in addition to the game. These include lossless, high quality soundtracks for each game, as well as posters and wallpapers. The retail box for The Witcher 3 takes this even further by adding in a detailed, hard copy map, a separate disc with the soundtrack, and The Witcher Universe: Compendium, a comprehensive introduction to the Witcher series’ background, in case you haven’t play the previous two games. The “feel-good” experience doesn’t stop at the time of purchase—legitimate customers of The Witcher 3 will have access to free DLC content. With The Witcher 2, CD Projekt had even gone so far as to offer an entire Enhanced Edition, featuring revamped combat and a variety of tweaks, for free.
Their DRM-free strategy has certainly paid off. While approximately 80 percent of The Witcher 2 copies were pirated, the Witcher series on a whole has sold over 6 million legit copies to date; not chump change for a PC-centric, Eastern European developer without the backing of major publishers.
Without mincing words, DRM as it stands now, is a menace to PC gaming. The success of GOG.com and The Witcher series is proof that you don’t need DRM to make a game sell. It boils down to simple economics: As long as you have an interesting product to sell, and as long as people believe that it’s worth taking that purchasing decision, you will have customers.
Tailpiece: A little bit of economics know-how can go a long way—with an 80 percent piracy rate, CD Projekt RED still manages to make a hefty profit off the Witchergames. If 80 percent of your product is given away for free, then the profit margins must be tremendous in order to maintain profitability. What does this mean? If a smart approach is taken towards DRM, and if the rate of piracy is brought down, the cost of PC games could drop big time, and not just during sales. A triple-A title for $10-20 on launch day seem like a fetching price to you? If piracy’s brought down, that price point could well remain profitable for publishers.