How to get DRM-free PC games: Just wait

PC game digital rights management is getting more stringent, but one of the ways to play without it is to be patient. Or at least history tells us so.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
6 min read
Ubisoft's Assassins Creed 2. Gamespot/CNET

Gamers have long known that patience is rewarded with cheaper, less-buggy games. But does that adage hold true for the inclusion of digital rights management as well? Not always, but history does show us that time makes even the strictest of DRM less sucky.

This could become especially important given the latest round of DRM implemented by both Ubisoft and EA, a system that requires players to have a constant connection to the Internet in order to play. Otherwise, they're simply kicked out to the main menu until a connection can be had again.

Needless to say, this new requirement has caused the ire of the PC gaming community, especially those who play games on a computer that may not always have an Internet connection, such as a laptop.

So far, Ubisoft's solution, dubbed the "Online Services Platform" can be found in two of Ubisoft's titles, Silent Hunter 5 and Assassin's Creed 2. The system has already seen its first setback, a pair of opening weekend denial of service (DDoS) attacks on Ubisoft's servers that left European players of Assassins Creed 2 unable to use either piece of software for approximately six and a half hours.

As a response to the outages, Ubisoft released a patch last week that would allow players to start playing at the precise time where the connection failure had occurred. Previously, it would hop them back to a checkpoint, which was certainly better than nothing but could become frustrating on missions that went several minutes between checkpoints.

As for EA, the first title to take advantage of a similar service is Command and Conquer 4: Tiberium Twilight, which is being released Tuesday. EA insists C&C4 has no real DRM, though it does use a serial key that can only be used for one online account. The player then needs to be online at all times they want to actually play the game.

The PC DRM connection

New, physical format PC titles almost always come with DRM. Despite the price, which is usually $10 cheaper than it is on consoles, the PC versions of any cross-platform game are the most pirated. The simple reason for this is that PCs offer a playground for potential pirates. Executable files can be fiddled with, as can incoming and outgoing traffic.

Publishers on the PC can fight back with third-party DRM solutions, as well as a first-party one from Microsoft that's both hardware and software based. The company's Games for Windows Live platform employs several types of copy protection, many of which exist on Microsoft's servers and therefore cannot be hacked or modified as easily.

Like Ubisoft, Microsoft also offers a constant-connection type of DRM on any title, though it can also do "check-ins" on a more sporadic basis. These checks goes hand-in-hand with a user's Windows Live ID, which means that anyone who wishes to play that game must share their information with Microsoft.

These efforts originate from the general success of gaming consoles. Console makers like Sony and Microsoft have been able to create closed boxes with complicated system checks and operating systems that run a security layer to keep unsigned code from running. Sure there's a percentage of consoles that have been modified to run unsigned or otherwise modified game code--OK, actually it's in the millions, but it's nowhere near that of the PC.

The DRM waiting game

Spore, by Electronic Arts was heavily pirated. It had its DRM both cracked, and scaled back after two class action lawsuits. Gamespot/CNET

Increasingly so, the joke seems to be on the customers who end up buying this software when it first comes out. A simple look back at some controversial titles has shown us that after the initial sales come, the publisher later removes the vast majority of the DRM, leaving gamers to enjoy the software with fewer restrictions.

Spore by EA may be one of the most high profile examples of this practice. It shipped in late-2008 with SecuROM, a copy-protection technology that keeps people from installing the game on too many machines. At the time of launch, that number was limited to three, meaning a user who had purchased the software would have to keep track of where that software was installed and deactivate any old copies before installing it on new hardware. The move to include this, along with a check that would verify whether a copy was legitimate each time a user went online, resulted in plenty of negative press, bad user reviews, and piracy on an absolutely massive scale after hackers were able to bypass the security measures.

After two class action lawsuits, which took aim at the company for failing to tell customers that the game installer would also install SecuROM, Spore publisher EA relented, cranking the number of installs up to five machines. Just two months after its launch, EA also released a version that did not have SecuROM at all, though it was sold through Valve's Steam software, which has copy protection checks of its own (though they do not require a separate program, or limit installations--two of SecuRom's follies).

SecuROM efforts on other games were met with similar results, including EA's Mass Effect for PC, which used a five-machine limit. It too went DRM-free when it was offered on Steam in March 2009, a whole 10 months after its initial PC release.

The Witcher for PC supplied users with a patch after its release that let gamers run it without any digital rights protection. CD Projekt Red Studio/CNET

BioShock from 2K Games also used SecuROM, though unlike Spore and Mass Effect, it limited players to just two installs. This was later pushed to five after 2K got into trouble for printing only a U.S. activation hotline number in its manual, which meant that people outside the U.S. had to make an international call to activate their copy. There was also a problem with the uninstaller not deactivating that particular user's software activation slot, which led to the company putting out a deactivate tool. Eventually, when Bioshock had dropped into the bargain bin, 2K released an update that ditched the activation limit entirely.

Other publishers have been far more lenient with DRM pullbacks, though this tends to happen more with legacy software, or nonfranchise titles. Take for example The Witcher by CD Projekt Red Studio. Like many PC games, it required users to have the game disc in the drive at all times, though a year and a half after it's release, the developer put out a patch that removed the need for that, as well as adding new game features.

Even Ubisoft, the purveyors of the aforementioned Online Services Platform, have scaled back DRM on legacy titles. This happened with 2009 title Dawn of Discovery, which used Tages, a DRM solution that keeps users from making a copy of the game disc. Ubisoft released a patch for the game that removed that protection, along with the need to activate the game online. It did the same thing last year for its World in Conflict title, developed by Massive Entertainment.

Similar efforts have been made by developer and publisher Activision, which back in January announced that it would be offering DRM-free versions of its "classic" titles on gaming site Good Old Games.

Is it worth the wait?

PC gamers, and gamers in general, are a restless bunch. Getting them to wait for anything is a hard sell, especially when it's access to a new game. Pre-release copies of games showing up on file-sharing networks is now a common occurrence and one of the top reasons these more stringent DRM solutions are being put into place. So can you really blame a publisher for putting one of these systems in place in return for higher potential sales?

The one solution, as it is with most businesses, is to vote with your wallet and make it a point to the publisher or developer of a game that such systems are keeping your from purchasing a title, or greatly reducing your enjoyment of the game experience. That much is happening with Assassin's Creed 2 on Ubisoft's forums. Your other option, as mentioned before, is to be patient and wait for a version of the game that's been stripped of some of its most biting DRM traits.

Still, this isn't a good long-term solution. Early sales are often one of the big quantifiers in whether a studio will start working on a sequel, and if everyone were to wait to buy games once they hit the bargain price, publishers would simply stop making PC versions. There's also no promise that the really heavy bits of DRM will be stripped out at a later date, except for the fact that most publishers are unlikely to want to maintain the cost of running the activation, and/or online verification servers for older software.

So will Assassins Creed 2, Silent Hunter 5 and Command and Conquer 4 go down in history as the first games to get away with always-online DRM? Or will they just be another, in a growing list of titles that have had to scale back on the protection after enough time and/or user outcry? We'll find out soon.