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Penny Arcade DRM Series

By Shamus
on Thursday Oct 9, 2008
Filed under:


I enjoyed the recent series of comics on DRM over at Penny Arcade. It reminded me a bit of the DRM Spore comic I did a couple of weeks ago. I was kind of surprised at how similar they are in concept. Both start off with a Biblical-style “In The Beginning” vibe and then go on to trace the history of copy protection. (Nobody is going to imagine that the highly successful Penny Arcade would recycle ideas from me, but the reverse is not true, and so I am very glad that mine came out first. Whew.)

I keep lamenting that this subject doesn’t get mainstream attention, and while Penny Arcade is iconoclastic and subversive, it’s also big enough that we can’t very well dismiss it at “not mainstream”. In any case, they have the ear of game publishers everywhere, and a great deal of effort is expended on the part of publishers to draw the attention of Holkins and Krahulik to whatever offerings they’re about to throw at store shelves. I don’t expect their DRM strips to act as a catalyst for sudden change, but the more voices, the better. And their voices are notoriously loud.

We’ve mused on this in the past, wondering if the people who implement these DRM schemes are really as clueless as they seem, or if this is all part of some convoluted conspiracy to salt the fields of PC gaming before the big publishers make good their retreat to the comforting fortifications of the consoles. Do they really believe the things they are saying, or are they just trying to maneuver customers into a more favorable venue? I still waver on the issue. They seem to be cunning on the micro scale and idiotic on the macro scale. They conceive long-term plans of ruination and short-sightedness, but they implement those plans with a predatory shrewdness.

Comments (23)

  1. Loneduck3 says:

    Many business people. especially in the video game industry, only measure success in the short term, for two reasons. One, yearly performance reviews, shareholder meetings, the people who fund this stuff are interested in the short term. Two, videogame companies are not known for having long lives. A long term strategy may not see fruition.
    Establishing that these business people aren’t planning long term at all, DRM makes perfect sense. If you screw up, adjust with what the market allows. You’ll notice that the stronger the company, the more careless they are with DRM. EA and 2K Games are much more careless than smaller companies like Valv and Stardock. Smaller companies have greater risks. EA can adjust with the market, and in a year, most everyone will forget about the Spore issue. A small indie company would go bankrupt in the same situation.
    First eh? How thoroughly nifty.

  2. Jeremiah says:

    Gah! Comics like that make me want to start Penny Arcade again. I stopped reading over a year ago because I found I wasn’t laughing as much at the material. Now I have this urge to catch up on everything I’ve missed. Must… resist…

  3. Mark says:

    It’s because the people who make the decisions know about marketing, whereas the people who carry them out know about engineering.

    No, but seriously. I think that when there’s multiple plausible explanations for something, there’s a fair chance several of them are all true in various places.

  4. Sesoron says:

    I was wondering when you’d write about this, Shamus. If I recall, I believe the second “guest blogger” in the series came of as somewhat sympathetic towards DRM, and I was almost expecting a specific rebuttal to that. Ah well.

  5. Mike Oldham says:

    Doesn’t their game require online activation?

  6. Fenix says:

    The day that publishers and developers abandon the PC will be the day that it suddenly becomes really easy to pirate on consoles. (It already is fairly simple.)

    Sorry if this is only semi related to the topic. Just felt I needed to say it for no particular reason.

  7. quadir says:

    I wrote to Gabe/Tycho about the DRM for their game, which requires online activation for a singleplayer experience with no added benefit (ie, automatic updates, via steam). While I know they did good with greenhouse, with the ports to Mac and Linux, and for having a simple DRM scheme, it still is what it is (We’ll write a patch if we go bust we promise!)

    I got a response from Gabe, so I thought I’d share:
    “We chose the most un-intrusive form of DRM we could. If you decide not to buy the game because of it that’s your choice.”

  8. henebry says:

    The third panel in the first cartoon might be read as a rebuttal of your claim that game developers can cut down on piracy by developing closer ties to players.

  9. Deoxy says:

    The first two were reasonably funny. The third one was just dumb.

    Those two groups are in an arms race like the US was in an arms race with Samoa during the Cold War, with the software companies being in the role of Samoa. “Curb-stomp” is woefully inadequate to describe the situation; heck, “complete and utter annihilation down to the atomic level” falls short.

    Oh, and your last paragraph is really very good, crescendoing into the last sentence, which is quotably memorable.

  10. Namfoodle says:

    I suspect that the big publishers understand that DRM is unlikely to turn pirates into paying customers. I suspect that their main goal is to destroy the re-sale value of the product. I think they figure they will get more profit out of preventing anyone from buying used games from Amazon or a game store. All of the statistics about how much piracy costs them is just a smokescreen.

    Software companies have always had a hard time coming to terms with the concept of re-sale. They want everyone who uses their IP to be a customer.

    The EULA may even say you’re not alowed to re-sell the software. I remember reading a case about a company in Seattle that tried to re-sell some expensive software that they didn’t need (and possibly never installed). The software maker sued them, citing the EULA. The court sided with the purchasing company and allowed them to sell the original disks, manuals etc.

    When you go to sell your old car, car companies don’t moan and gnash their teeth, demanding that anyone who wants a particular model of car can only buy it new from the manufacturer. In fact, car dealers will offer to buy your old heap for credit on a new car, taking over the re-sale for you. For the car dealer, it could be a loss leader for moving the new car, or they just credit you less than market value on the old car and make a profit there.

    Obviously, there’s often a big difference between a car and a computer program, but you see my point. Car companies are willing to take your money in trade for the rolling hunk of metal and walk away. They’d love it if you paid them to maintain the car, but they won’t sue you if you go somewhere else or dump the car on the open market.

    Ford can rest easy knowing that someone paid them something for 99.9% of the Fords they see driving on the road. Maybe they didn’t make a huge profit on each car, and not everyone driving a Ford bought it at a Ford dealer. But there aren’t a lot of cars getting stolen from Ford’s factories.

    Software companies just can’t let go as easily, because they’re mostly selling ideas and not physical objects. They know that there’s a huge potential for people using their ideas without paying them, and it burns them up inside.

  11. Factoid says:

    @quadir: That sounds like pretty typical Gabe.

    The process of making a game has obviously given them some different perspectives on the industry and piracy. Or maybe they were simply not opposed to online activation before either.

    I give them props for it being lightweight and non-invasive…but that wasn’t the “most unobtrusive” form of DRM…which of course would be “no DRM at all”.

    They run a business, they understand what it means to protect assets. If you listen to their podcast their actually both pretty astute observers of business and the games industry in general. I respect their decision, but I don’t agree with it.

  12. Namfoodle says:


    Once they chose Greenhouse as a publisher, they may have had a limited menu of DRM options to choose from. Since Greenhouse is not GOG, “no DRM at all” was probably not on the table. It’s likely they were aware of this and accepted the DRM as a part of doing business.

    Be that as it may, I’m currently enjoying my first playthrough of Fallout 1, which I got from GOG. Not sure if I’ll ever buy OTRSPOD.

  13. Rick C says:

    “When you go to sell your old car, car companies don't moan and gnash their teeth, demanding that anyone who wants a particular model of car can only buy it new from the manufacturer.”

    Contrast that with some musicians, Garth Brooks in particular, who feels, like game publishers, that he should get a cut of resold CDs.

  14. Neil Polenske says:

    “I respect their decision, but I don't agree with it.”

    Tru dat. But it still feels more than a little…well, I like them and the work they do, so I’ll say it feels a bit ‘squenchy’ to see them have this big hadoo about DRM and never acknowledge their own game’s setup. It isn’t the only time they’ve talked about it either and it felt just as uncomfortable then. I don’t mind if they’re biased, but I DO mind if they’re hypocritical. Like I said, I like them and what they do, but I don’t see how not talking about this can be seen as anything else.

    And they can’t have been unaware of this discrepency. You’ll certainly never convince me they’re that stupid, so not making any attempt AT ALL to deal with it did leave a poor taste in the mouth.

    And politics aside, it would have been nice if they’d ended the whole spiel with their own personal comments on the issue, or possibly as bookends to the thing. Keeping it as impersonal as they did didn’t do much to disuade the ‘squench’.

  15. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Am I the only person who has never read Penny Arcade?

  16. Chargone says:

    probably, though i only read it when someone links a particular strip on a specific subject or something. it really doesn’t appeal.

    disclaimer: this statement excludes any and all persons who has never had the opportunity to do so, as well as anyone else who might otherwise render the preceding paragraph incorrect.

  17. Takkelmaggot says:

    Sesoron: I was wondering the same thing. Part of his limited defense of DRM is that crackz of legacy games are freely available, years after the fact- so using pirate tools should be enough for everyone. Never mind expecting to be able to play the game years after the publisher goes under because you paid for it, you should be perfectly happy with downloading a noCD patch of questionable origin off a server in Estonia. I mean, who can imagine anything going wrong in that scenario?
    In any event, Shamus has already taken the mickey out of the “we’ll release a no-DRM patch some day!” argument.

  18. Kevin says:

    On the other subject…

    My webcomic (Heroes of Lesser Earth) has borrowed directly from Order of the Stick a more than a few times, but always with attribution (and apologies!) included on the page. By contrast I’ve been mined for ideas at least four times BY Order of the Stick, and once by Looking for Group. While I was similarly happy mine came out first, by and large I was simply flattered. I didn’t even know those guys would bother reading HOLE, much less think it was cool enough to steal from. How cool is that!? I mean, you got ripped by Penny Arcade? Yay you!

  19. Taellosse says:

    Have folks read the Ars Technica article on losses to piracy that was posted a few days ago? I just found it today, and thought it was worth a read by others of a similar mindset:

  20. Jeff says:

    “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.” Robert A. Heinlein

    Part of his limited defense of DRM is that crackz of legacy games are freely available, years after the fact- so using pirate tools should be enough for everyone.
    Which is utterly stupid, given that bypassing DRM is a violation of the DMCA, even if you own it.
    Hell, you could be the coder for the DRM, sell it to EA, install the game using it, and if you bypass it you’re still breaking the law.

    That article makes for good reading and bookmarking, I think.

  21. Pekka says:

    Xkcd did one on DRM-locked media too.


  22. Paul Spooner says:

    Zero padding problem broke the PA link. Should be updated to this (note added zero before the nine):

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