Ultimately, Schober says, companies are moving toward a model where hackers wouldn’t just have to break through protections on a game, they’d also have to crack company servers. The unfortunate consequence, he says, is that it’s getting more difficult for legitimate gamers to use and keep the products they buy.
But there are alternatives to DRM in the works as well. The IEEE Standards Association, which develops industry standards for a variety of technologies, is working to define “digital personal property.” The goal, says Paul Sweazey, who heads the organization’s working group, is to restore some of the qualities of physical property–making it possible to lend or resell digital property.
Sweazey stresses that the group just started meeting, but he explains that the idea is to sell games and other pieces of software in two parts–an encrypted file and a “play key” that allows it to be used. The play key could be stored in an online bank run by any organization, and could be accessed through a URL. To share the product, the player would simply share the URL. Anyone with access to the URL could claim the play key for himself, Sweazey says, meaning that users would be unlikely to share the URL on the open Internet.
Game makers are exploring other ways to encourage players to buy legitimate copies of a game, or to make money without relying on selling legitimate copies. These include adding special features that can only be accessed through official versions, and providing downloadable content for legitimate copies that expands a game’s story or adds additional side quests and characters. Some games, such as those that run through Facebook, like Zynga’s Farmville, are free to play but earn revenue by selling virtual items within the game.
Some game companies use copy protection that experts agree protect content effectively without restricting players. Schober and Esguerra both point to the DRM used by Valve’s Steam, a site that sells downloadable games and allows online play. Schober notes that Steam is designed to be simple to use–gamers can download files ahead of release, and when the game becomes available, they get the codes needed to unlock them. This avoids situations such as the pounding that Ubisoft’s servers received at the release of Assassin’s Creed.