DRM may suck, but avoiding it is no panacea to piracy

Paul Raven @ 09-08-2010

As a fellow-traveller of the copyleftists, this is the sort of story I’d rather not be reading. But it’s an important one, because it underlines the problem that all the optimistic rhetoric in the world can’t sweep under the carpet: the point-and-click adventure game Machinarium was released without DRM, and despite (or perhaps because of) great reviews, suffered from an estimated 90% piracy rate. The developers are now having a “pirate amnesty” where they invite people with pirated copies to cough up $5 – a quarter of the original asking price – to legitimise their installation.

So much for the myth (albeit rarely stated directly) that DRM-free games are less likely to be pirated because they give the players their oft-demanded flexibilities of installation and migration; disappointing, perhaps, but hardly surprising.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the piracy rate would probably have been similar even if DRM had been baked in to Machinarium. So what’s the way out of this bind? My guess (and it is a guess) would be a lower price point – maybe if the asking price had been $5 from the outset, more people would have coughed up in the first place. The counterargument to that usually goes along the lines of “but that won’t cover the overheads of making the game!”; the counter-counter-response is “well, charging $20 obviously hasn’t achieved that either”. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Then there’s the MMO/metaverse model: charge very little or nothing for software and access, and make your rake-off through in-game items. We know this one works, because if it didn’t there’d be no goldfarming outfits in developing nations… but how to adapt it to single-player gaming experiences? Or maybe you have to look at sponsorships, in-game advertising and product placements… none of which sound particularly appealing, but would probably become accepted by players pretty quickly once there were no other options…

… and given the way things are going, that might not be too distant a day. What this story makes clear is that DRM is a blind alleyway: whether you include it or not, you’ll still have your work pirated. The web burgeons with suggested alternative business models for computer games, but to my knowledge no one has yet made one of them really stick.

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4 Responses to “DRM may suck, but avoiding it is no panacea to piracy”

  1. Babylon says:

    Another MMO model is the WoW one, low cost for the game itself with most of the money coming from access fees.

  2. lysander says:

    “the piracy rate would probably have been similar even if DRM had been baked in to Machinarium.”

    There’s no evidence provided for this contention. Any stats that suggest this is actually the truth?

  3. Paul Raven says:

    No formal stats, I’ll grant you, but official figures on piracy are hard to get hold of. If anyone knows a good source, please pipe up. 🙂

  4. Idlethought says:

    There are no formal stats suggesting that 90% is higher or lower than with DRM either. The makers of World of Goo tried this as well I believe and attained a similar 80-90% rate Their method of determining the number of pirated copies was questionable, but I seem to recall they weren’t making a strong claim for the accuracy. The also mentioned that the rate was similar for their DRM’d games.

    Of course, not all DRM schemes are the same, so in principle one might reduce the piracy rate to 1% – of course without knowing it’s effects on the number of sales that doesn’t really tell us much.

    If I can double my actual sales but increase my piracy rate to 99% I’m still ahead.