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Friday, 8 March 2013

The Wiser Consumer

I own two Dragonforce CDs - Inhuman Rampage and Ultra Beatdown.

The day I bought Ultra Beatdown I popped it in my CD player, hit play, and sat down to get on with some writing, as I am prone to do at times. So when all I hear for the next two minutes is silence, I am - as you might understand - a little confused.

Try as I might I simply could not make the CD play on my player. It played on my old Sony Discman just fine - a machine older than any of the cells in my body at the time and this was five years ago - but my CD player wouldn't play it at all. Neither would the big stereo system my parents owned.

So I pop it into my PC, and my music player refuses to play it, too. It doesn't recognise it as a music CD. And I start having suspicions as to why. So I attempt to copy it, and sure enough, the disc has copy protection. The only way I could listen to it without resorting to out-of-date hardware was to rip each track to MP3, then burn those MP3s onto a blank CD in order, thus effectively copying the CD - which promptly worked just fine in every CD player I put it in.

Let us review what just happened. In order for me to reasonably use something I had paid for in the manner it was intended, I was forced to make a copy of it. The reason I couldn't use it was because it was designed to prevent me making a copy of it, which it failed to do. All it did was ensure the product wasn't fit for purpose.

I object to DRM on several different grounds. One of them is that once I own something, it is mine to do with as I see fit. The laws of this country can punish me for certain actions - for example, if I use the bread knife I just purchased to slice people instead of the bread it was intended for - but that is what the law is for. If I purchase a bread knife and it attempts to detect whether or not I am slicing bread - and then dulls the blade automatically if its sensors do not detect aforementioned bread - I find that objectionable. Because this is mine, now. It is mine. I paid for it. So what if I want to slice tomatos with it? It's my choice, and it's my knife, and it's my tomato.

Building on this, however, is a far larger objection - and that is when the DRM in question actually prevents legitimate usage of something. Even if I have agreed to buy this bread-sensing breadknife, if it doesn't detect wholemeal bread as being bread at all and thus prevents me from slicing it, then it isn't a mere quibble or a personal issue; the product is faulty.

"But people might use breadknives to cut things other than bread," you cry. "So it only makes sense that Knife Corp would prevent them from being used that way, and surely some problems here and there are a small price to pay!"

No. I bought a breadknife. The moment I can't use it to cut bread, it becomes not fit for purpose, and consumer law is very clear on where I stand when I have been sold a product that is not fit for purpose. Go ahead and google it. And it is through casual acceptance of questionable practice that questionable practice becomes a standard.

So if I have bought a new AAA game from a very well-to-do company that produces best-selling titles regularly, and that game is not fit for purpose - i.e. I can't play it - then that isn't okay.

And I don't mean not being able to play it on a tiny little machine that clearly can't handle it, or can't play it because it doesn't cater to me being blind and deaf, or can't play it because I have no mouse and only half a keyboard. I mean possessing the reasonable means with which I can play the game and being prevented from playing it for no good reason.

To return to the example of the knife? If Knife Corp's Slicor 900x won't slice my bread, then I am within my rights to return it and demand a full refund as long as I still have a receipt of purchase. And that refund will be used on - get this - a knife without bloody stupid DRM. And if enough people did this, then Knife Corp might start realising that they are losing money because of this system. And either they can bite the bullet and keep the product in circulation despite it being something of a turd on a flowerbed, or they can remove the unreasonable DRM. And being that Knife Corp is a corporation, and that corporations exist to make a profit, that decision should be an easy one.

If we are to be forced to play by the rules of corporate practice - if we are to live in the world as it stands, and businesses can't be expected to be bound to provide the best service or product for their customers, only to look after their bottom line - then there is only one way to make our voices heard in the board rooms and at shareholders meetings, folks; and that is to vote with our wallets.

They want your money - the people behind the desks, the people that look at the numbers and rub their hands together. That is what they are here for. And if we accept that as being all well and good - if we take as a given that this is acceptable - then the best way for them to be shown that what they are doing wrong is via those numbers.

Which is why - until the DRM issues are fixed, until I am free to play a game I just paid for in any reasonable way I see fit - I will not be purchasing SimCity. Even if I really would quite like to play it, which I must admit I would. I just can't reward their choice of DRM with my money.

In the hands of one man and in this one particular circumstance it is a tiny amount of power. The loss of one sale will not change EA's mind on their DRM policies, or how crap Origin is, or how they keep beating the same franchises year after year until money falls out.

But the power is upon us as consumers, folks. The power is in how we consume. A lot of people do this aready. And we have a responsibility to ourselves and our community to reward that which we need or want to see more of, and punish or discourage that which we wish to see less of.

Which is why, rather than purchase the latest SimCity, I bought Prison Architect instead - a game with precious little copy protection or DRM, which is still in Alpha, but which is unique, individual, well-made, and fun. Don't we all want games that are well-made and fun? Don't we all want to see a bit of originality, some new ideas, rather than a reskin and a new number stuck after the franchise number? Let alone an actual retardation of the quality of the game, or heaven forbid - features built in that prevent it being played at all.

If even one in twenty of us got smart about our game purchasing, and we started rewarding the favourable and punishing the unfavourable, I daresay the games industry might start to undergo the change that a great many of us have been saying is sure to come. It may be a forced evolution - but an evolution it is, all the same.

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