This post isn't directly about writing. But it is about a technology used by many industries, and the book industry is one of those that embraces it. The topic is DRM, a technology designed to give the creator the power to prevent you from accessing books, films, games, software or music. The things you buy can disappear when the company folds, or they just stop supporting the item anymore, or the flaws in the DRM break other systems, or because you have used the thing you've paid for too many times, or for many other stupid reasons. As a consumer and producer it is a topic which I think about a lot. I hate the fact that you can buy something and have it taken away from you. Books you've bought disappear from your account; DRM turns purchases into a strange mixture of renting and gambling. And it's no wonder that DRM encourages piracy. Okay, let's get cracking on my most recent experience.

I love playing games. Board games with friends, and computer games on my own. Ever since I got an Atari 2600 as a child I was amazed at how computer games can tell stories in which you play a part through your actions and imagination. I moved on through the years: Atari 600XL, C64, various Amigas, then various PCs, my first being a 486DX. I worked during the summer to buy that PC, so that I could play Doom and UFO Enemy Unknown. I take my games seriously, thinking about the worlds and the characters, what their motivations are, what things are like just outside of the frame of the game, how I would improve things if I was able to modify the game. Basically the same mental processes that take place when I'm reading or writing.

I buy PC games in advance, as I do with books: when I see something that sparks my interest, or when something comes out where I want to support the creator, or if something good comes up in a sale. I own more games than I could play, but I see it as a personal selection which I can pick from as the mood takes me, as with any library. Dark nights, alone in the house? Check what creepy games are in the collection. Feel like stretching my brain? Check what strategy games I own.

But when DRM is involved your options are reduced.

In October I like to pick a few games I’ve not played before, as my big treat in the lead up to Halloween. I look forward to them, carefully selected titles and sequence. I had picked Penumbra (slow burn tense horror), STALKER Shadow of Chernobyl (action with frequent elements of horror), then Ghost Master (comedy strategy where you are the horror!), then Ghostbusters as my grand finish on 31st October, and the only game of the four that I hadn't played before.

I bought Ghostbusters (from GamersGate) when it was released. I loved the films as a kid, and the C64 game, and this sounded fun too. It had the real Ghostbusters actors in it! Sale.

Back when I bought it I was concerned that it had DRM with limited installs, but was reassured by the GamersGate promise that they will reset the number of installs whenever you need them to. It would still be an inconvenience if you went to install the game, found it was blocked, and had to email a company for permission to play it again, but at least it would eventually be possible.

Images from the GamersGate FAQs. The limits are "easily reset". 
The game, once bought, is "yours to download and install as many times as you like."

I had never downloaded Ghostbusters, or even revealed the serial number required to install it (which is the equivalent to what used to come on the back of the DVD case or manual, yours from the moment you buy the game).

Here's my game, with unused serial keys.

I decided to install the game in advance of playing it, but whenever I clicked to get the serial key, I got this weird message.

Note that it says they will get more keys. It doesn't say I can never play the game, just to try again. I was miffed that the code I’d bought had been given to someone else and I now had to wait, but I was still patient. I completed the other games. It was Ghostbusters time! I wanted to bust, and I wanted to feel good! I wasn't afraid of no ghost! However, GamersGate still weren't giving me the code I needed to play the game I'd bought from them. So I contacted GamersGate on 28th October 2013:
Hi, I have wanted to play my Ghostbusters game for some time now, but whenever I click on Show Serial Key it says you haven't got any. I don't understand how you sold the game if you didn't then keep a serial key for each customer who bought it? I wanted this to be my 'Halloween Game' and had been looking forward to it, but there still isn't any way to play the game you sold! When will this be resolved, and how did it happen? Many thanks, Karl 
Their answer:
Sent: 30 October 2013 13:49Subject: [#350172]: Serial Key
We are not selling this game anymore. Atari went bancrupt and stopped distribute the serials.I'm afraid I cant refund a 3 year old order though.
Customer Support Manager, GamersGate 
And that's it. No options. No explanation of why they didn't keep the key each time they sold a copy of the game. No explanation as to why they agree to sell games under these patently unfair terms.

I bought the game, but tough. I can never play it. I should have played it straight away, not dared to savour the idea of it and look forward to playing it at some point in the future. How dare I! Don't I know that digital games only have a shelf life of a year or two? I am obviously an aberration, in that I still play old games today (using emulators for C64 and Amiga, and DOSbox for old PC games).

The main irritation is that GamersGate sold me a game but didn’t keep the code I needed to play it, they obviously gave it someone else. So they sold me a thing under false pretences, since they claimed it was a game I could play, even though it actually turns out it is impossible to play it. They kept back the part that makes it work; a bit like selling an iPhone, but when you eventually take it out of the box you find you’ve been sold an empty case. It turns out the vendor sold the interior bits to someone else.

I mentioned this in a comment on one of the Rock Paper Shotgun posts (RPS is the leading PC games blog), and one person responded with:
"Oh wow. That’s quite the scam. Not on the consumer, but on the developer. They’re only paying the dev for keys when someone activates it, not when someone buys it. So any copies bought dirt cheap in sales that never get played, they never have to pay for, and have that money as pure profit. And the devs never even know the sale was made. It’s dodgy on the consumer end, but it’s surely actual fraud on the business end?"
GamersGate's lack of response to me asking about their business practices on this front suggests the suggestion above may well be true.

There are some lesser irritations on how this has panned out as well.
  • The pop-up message implied I should try again, but it is now clear that they knew I could never play it. Why tell the user to come back and try again another day?
  • It's frustrating that GamersGate allow games to go on sale on their site with these conditions (NB it's probably not just them, since Valve allow games on Steam with multiple levels of DRM).
  • They won’t refund a game they sold, and which I can't play because they gave my key to someone else! Note I don’t want a refund, I wanted to play the game they sold me.
  • Their general attitude, "tough". My favourite place to buy games was GOG, followed by GamersGate, then Steam or Desura. GamersGate has gone down a bit in my estimation now.
What should GamersGate do? Well, refuse to sell games with the stupid ‘unlocks’ system. Or if they do sell them, only do it on the understanding that the unlocks can be removed completely if more keys aren't made available. Or at least keep a serial key tied to each game sold!

It's too late to apply that to Ghostbusters, but since they sold the game, in an ideal world they would do something radical: replace the files with a virus-free cracked version so those who bought it (i.e. legally paid Atari and GamersGate) can access the thing they were promised. We bought the right to play the game! They have a responsibility to fulfil their part of the agreement, not just wash their hands of it.

The message is that games, music, films or books with DRM are inherently broken and are bad value for the customer. I'm not saying don’t buy them, but bear in mind that anything with DRM is only worth a fraction of the cost the companies try to charge, so should only be picked up from the bargain bin. This isn't what the companies want, and wouldn't be best for the industry, but they can't have it both ways i.e. sell you something broken but for full price. It also implies that you should not buy games in advance, to play in the future. Again, that would actually be bad for the industry: they want to sell as many games as possible, and gamer behaviour is often to buy things in advance. You can probably tell: I'm disgruntled! I've asked GamersGate for the contact details of the manager in charge of their business practices.

Updates: 6th November 2013
This post has been picked up and shared by the excellent Defective By Design / Free Software Foundation. Both sites are full of really useful information, and the FSF is well worth supporting.

I also got a response from GamersGate:
Sent: 06 November 2013 09:44Subject: [#350172]: Serial Key
Yes, I 'm sorry about this situation. We have tried several times to get a DRM Free version of this game. That is the normal procedure for the publishers to do when games get too old or are no longer supported. We will try again today.
Maybe we are doing it wrong and I will happily listen to any suggestions you may have, but if the publishers stop supporting a game, there is not much we can do. They still own the rights for the game which means we cant do anything without their approval.
GamersGate, or distributors in general, got VERY little saying regarding the products. Prices, region locks, sales, DRM's, system req's, game info, etc. All that is in the hands of the publishers.We are always trying to do our best in all situations to make all parts happy, but it is not always easy, and in this case it looks like we failed.
Some comments about your blog:""Oh wow. That’s quite the scam. Not on the consumer, but on the developer. They’re only paying the dev for keys when someone activates it, not when someone buys it. So any copies bought dirt cheap in sales that never get played, they never have to pay for, and have that money as pure profit. And the devs never even know the sale was made. It’s dodgy on the consumer end, but it’s surely actual fraud on the business end?"
That is not how it works. None of it actually.* Each sale is a direct split between GG and the publishers. There is only ONE publisher, as far as I know, that we pay per serials, and it's not Atari.* ALL sales, offers, etc is approved by the publishers before we can launch them. * Serials are not connected to a certain purchase. We have not sold "your" serial to someone else.
Please note that we are not selling this game anymore and the order IS three years old.
Customer Support ManagerGamersGate 
Don't get me wrong, I like GamersGate. But they're still promising something pre-sale, but not enforcing the ability to deliver it with publishers. GamersGate can refuse any game if they feel it goes against their policies or the best interests of their customers, and then this situation wouldn't come about.

Oh, just to give an idea of how much I have supported GamersGate in the past (and for the nosy), here's a list of the games I own on their store! Any gamers out there, which ones do you think are are good, and which are bad? (Tip: the last game in the list isn't the best).

Updates: 10th November 2013
I went to the SecuROM site, since that is the crappy DRM system applied. They have an entry for the game, acknowledging that their DRM is a problem and it isn't possible to activate the game any longer, but their only answer is to link to an online forum which is long dead and gone. It is rather disingenuous of SecuROM to say: "This issue is not SecuROM related" when actually it is completely SecuROM related - if there was no SecuROM DRM in the game, it would install and work with no problems. It is the SecuROM that is stopping it from working. I should also add that I've had huge problems with SecuROM in the past - games I bought then wouldn't activate even though I had the SecuROM code on the back of the manual or with the download. In some cases I had to try and resort to cracks just to play games I'd bought, which was ridiculous.

And if big companies like Atari can bow out leaving you with unplayable games then it can happen to others as well.

I made contact with GamersGate in the comments, and have been in touch with the manager. I emphasised that the only issue which really bothers me is the one of how to guarantee that a game which is sold is playable forever (obviously disbarring hardware requirements etc!) The publisher either needs to avoid DRM where they can't guarantee that to GamersGate customers, or give GamersGate a workaround/backdoor for these cases. It is in GamersGate's interests too, since they want to generate sales, and to do that they want to guarantee that people will be able to keep what they buy. Hopefully there's a good way forward GamersGate can come up with for making sure what they sell is "fit for purpose", whether that requires contract changes or whatever. I'd like GamersGate to grow, Steam needs more competition. It is DRM that is the villain, and apart from GOG, no online game vendor is currently pro-active enough on the issue (Steam et al are no better - I don't know if it is still the case but at one point Steam was selling games that required Steam, Games For Windows Live AND another account! A triple DRM sandwich which I definitely couldn't eat.)

As I said in a comment below: I suppose the danger in this post is that by focussing on an example it can draw attention to the retailer, but I have also had issues with Steam in the past and lack of any kind of response at all from them - so far GamersGate does generally reply to messages and makes it fairly easy for you to contact them. My main worry is the whole DRM issue and how it penalises gamers/consumers and creates these no win scenarios. As a librarian/archivist I'm concerned about future access to media such as this. For example maybe the game isn't great, but it included writers and actors from the classic film, almost counting as a modern sequel, yet it won't be available for future study or analysis due to the item being impossible to run. I think all aspects of culture should be preserved for future generations. It would be horrible if these forms of DRM had existed back in the 8 bit era, many games would have just disappeared, losing our cultural heritage, instead of being available to future generations to play, iterate on, draw inspiration from and improve on, to create sequels to and so on.

Updates: 12th November 2013
While I'm fired up about DRM I think my next blog post will also be on this topic, so I can include other experiences I've had in the past with it, from it causing problems with my projector, to preventing me from running games on disc.

Updates: 16th November 2013
No news really. I'd had an interesting chat with Alexander Poysky. He's the head of content management at Gamersgate. I like supporting small companies, and he told me that they are a small group of eight friends running the company. He took my points to the CEO and team, they told me that there were many good points and they will be investigating the matter with publishers and will see how best to resolve these scenarios. As to what that leads to, if anything, well, we'll see.

New DRM blog post now finished.