Steam, Linux, and DRM: How Much is Too Much?

Richard Stallman recently wrote a piece on seeking to determine whether implementing DRM on Linux games is good or bad. Ever since the announcement of Steam’s move to the OS, the gaming community has applauded Valve’s decision to support yet another segment of the audience. Stallman sure doesn’t seem to know whether or not the move is a good or not for the Linux community as a whole, but I think the ultimate way to give users freedom is to give them choice.

Choices however, carry consequences. Read on for why I think Steam on Linux (really Ubuntu) is good, how DRM is a necessary evil, and how DRM can cross the line from being necessary to obtrusive in everyday use.

Choice = freedom

Stallman believes that “nonfree game programs are unethical because they deny freedom to their users”… but this point makes no sense.

Let’s compare playing Battlefield 3 on your computer to playing Ice Hockey. Both games can be played by anyone that 1) meets the requirements to play & 2) follows the rules of the game. In the case of Battlefield, an Origin account and an active internet connection are required to play. In addition, by playing you agree not to tamper with the game’s code. Likewise with hockey – you are required to wear a helmet (and other protective gear) and you abide by the rules of the game while playing.

Either way, if you break the rules (or Terms of Service) you are subject to penalties (or bans). You have the freedom to either play or not, but should you play, you must follow the rules.

Steam on Linux enables freedom

Who’s going to complain about a major software developer – and platform – from reaching out to a third operating system? Developers of major titles are not going to commit their titles to another platform unless they are certain they will turn a profit and ensure their works are not hacked, pirated, or exploited. Going back to my “rules” argument, if a user wants to play Left 4 Dead 2 on their Linux box, they will have to install Valve’s DRM in order to play.  Of course, you can play the countless Linux-compatible zombie shoot-em-ups available, but Steam provides yet another way to get games on your computer – some not available through other means.

Free-to-play games have taken the traditional game model and turned it upside down. Instead of paying for a game up-front, you pay for game enhancements a-la-carte. The game utilizes DRM to prevent players from using features they do not have access to, and ensures players are competing on a level playing field. In our constantly connected world where countless statistics are being tracked and players becoming very competitive, it becomes increasingly important for developers to secure their games from cheaters. In traditional games (not free to play) DRM serves the purpose of admitting access to authorized licensees of the game.

Going too far

While I know DRM is a necessary evil gamers have to put up with for the sake of fair online gameplay and achievements, sometimes gamers want the ability to play the game their way. Games that require a constant online connection are in my opinion the big games that really limit player freedom.

Ubisoft enforces a DRM scheme that severely limits a player, by requiring a player to play a single player game while connected to the internet. While many of us game on our desktops hooked up to ridiculously high speed internet, what about laptop gamers? I used to travel a lot for athletics when I was younger, and often I would bring my laptop with me to “do schoolwork”. While I admittedly didn’t write many papers, I would clear my mind by playing the small collection of games I downloaded through Steam (mainly Half Life 2 and Counter-Strike Source). Not once did any of my games ask to re-authenticate, connect, verify, or anything. They just played normally.

Going too far is requiring multiple stages of DRM (game serial + user account + constant internet connection) for no reason other than to ensure a player didn’t steal, or modify a single player game. The first two are acceptable means of protection–requiring users to register their copy to an online account, but the constant internet connection bit is quite intrusive.

The awkward case of Diablo III

Diablo III released to much criticism – server issues, constant connection requirement, to name a couple – but there is a reason why the constant server connection was needed. Blizzard wanted to ensure the Real Money Auction House was free of any funny business. But players who wanted to play the game without wanting to participate in the auction houses nonetheless had to rely on Blizzard’s servers. Unfortunately, the DRM scheme in place for Diablo III is a necessary evil to prevent players from using hacked versions of the game to make unfair weapons and items.

Will Linux gaming become a regular occurrence?

If you ask Valve, things are looking pretty good, but until both Nvidia and AMD get on board either releasing information or functional drivers for Linux, it will be a rough journey for both gamers and developers looking to expand on the platform that gives it’s users “freedom”. If you ask Stallman, it’s “unethical”. If you ask me, I’ll tell you to hang on to your Windows installation for at least the next few years.