Tag: DRM

Where Will the PC Go? -- Part 4: SaaS

So, per the last couple of posts, I find it entirely possible that, as vendors develop tablets that double as PC's, they may replace traditional desktop and laptop computers. For the common end user who just needs a web browser and (maybe) an office suite, I don't think that's going to be a tough sell.

But there are markets that rely heavily on more powerful computing hardware.

One is PC gamers. Others are the various types of media creators: people who create images, music, movies.

I've already mentioned dumb terminals and software as a service (SaaS) as a major current trend, with programs like Google Docs running in a browser and working as an effective substitute for traditional locally-run programs like Microsoft Word.

Of course, a word processor is one thing; an enterprise-quality photo editor is another, and a game requiring split-second timing is something else again.

But developers are working on it.


Last year Adobe released a limited beta of a streaming version of Photoshop for ChromeOS. Photoshop itself doesn't run in the browser; the app is a Remote Desktop shell that interacts with an instance of the Windows version of Photoshop running on a remote server.

So, by definition, this is no replacement for the Windows version of Photoshop -- because it is the Windows version of Photoshop. But it demonstrates a potentially compelling alternative to buying expensive, high-end hardware just to run Photoshop: what if you could buy cheap hardware, and pay a subscription fee to run Photoshop on someone else's expensive hardware?

Reactions to the ChromeOS version of Photoshop seemed generally positive; I would expect it to have some latency issues, but I also bet it runs faster on a remote server than it did on the Core 2 I had to use at GoDaddy. (Hey, when I said the Core 2 Duo was the last chip most users ever needed, I said I wasn't including Photoshop.)

Adobe has already moved Photoshop's licensing to a subscription model instead of a purchase model. (A lot of people are very angry about this, but I haven't heard anything to suggest it's led to a drop in "sales"; that's the thing about monopolies.) It's not hard to envision a transition to a subscription model where you run the program remotely instead of locally. Hell, they could even charge more money to give you access to faster servers.

A/V Club

Other media development suites could, potentially, move to streaming services, but there are caveats. Uploading raw, uncompressed digital audio and video files takes a lot more time than uncompressed images. And what about storing your source files? My grandmother puts together home movies on her iMac, and she's got terabytes of data going back some 15 years. That's the kind of storage requirement an amateur filmmaker can rack up; now think of how much somebody who does it for a living might wind up with. If you're renting storage space on an external server, on a month-to-month basis, that could get pretty costly.

But it's technically feasible, at least, that audio and video editing could be performed on a remote server.

Recording audio is another story. Anything more complex than a simple, single-track voice recording is still going to require specialized mixing hardware. And transferring your recording to a remote server in real-time, without lossy compression? You'd better be sitting on fiber.

So I think we can put "recording studios" -- even the home-office variety, like mine -- into the category of Stuff That's Not Going Anywhere for Awhile.


Moving games to a streaming system is a challenge -- but I'm not sure it's as big a challenge as recording studios. It's more or less the same requirement as Photoshop: take simple inputs from a human interface device, send them to a server, have the server run them and respond accordingly, stream the video output back to the client. The trick is managing to do that in real-time with minimal loss of audio and video quality. That's the challenge -- but engineers are working on it.

The OnLive streaming service was a failure, but Sony bought it out; it sees value there. nVidia's got its own streaming solution too, in GRID. One of these things is not like the other -- Sony sells consoles at a loss and would stand to benefit from selling cheaper hardware, while nVidia makes a ton of money selling expensive graphics cards to enthusiasts and surely doesn't want to cannibalize its own market -- but obviously there's more than one type of gamer, and the people who shell out over $300 for a graphics card are in the minority.

Now, as minorities go, high-end PC gamers are still a pretty sizable minority; it's still a multibillion-dollar industry. But it's a fraction of the console gaming business, and it's expected to be surpassed by mobile gaming by the end of this year. Like the PC industry as a whole, it's still big and it's still growing, but it's growing a lot slower than other sectors and could be facing a long-term threat from new platforms.

Switching to a streaming platform could have a lot of appeal to game publishers; it combines the simplicity of developing for consoles with the superior hardware capabilities of the PC. Think about the possibility of developing for the latest and greatest hardware, but only for a single specific hardware build.

It would also, at long last, produce a form of DRM that could actually work.

While the industry has tried many, many copy protection schemes over the years, all of them are, sooner or later (and usually sooner), crackable. And there's a simple, logical reason for this: no matter what you do to encrypt the data of your program, you have to give the computer the means to decrypt it, or it won't work. No matter where or how you hide the key, if you give it to your users sooner or later they're going to find it.

But that's only true if the software is running on their computer. If the binary data is never copied to their hard drive, never stored in their memory, if the program is actually stored and run on a remote server somewhere and all the client has access to is a program that takes inputs and streams audio and video? Well, then there's no way they can copy the game, unless they actually break into your servers.

(Which, given Sony's history with Internet security, might not actually be so hard.)

I am not saying this is a good thing; in fact, I consider it something of a nightmare scenario.

Consider every problem you've ever had with an online or digitally-distributed game. Now think of what it would look like if every game had those issues.

Not just latency, lag, server outages, and losing your progress every time your Internet connection goes out. Consider that if a game is no longer profitable, they'll pull the plug. If a developer loses a license, the game(s) associated with it will go away. (Was GoldenEye ever released on Virtual Console? I don't think it was.) If a game gets updated and you liked the old version better, too bad. And remember when Nintendo ended its partnership with GameSpy and killed all the online multiplayer features of every Wii and DS game ever made? Imagine an entire generation's worth of games not working at all anymore, online or otherwise. Even though you paid for them.

Now, there's recent evidence that a strategy like this would fail. The Xbox One is still reeling from customer backlash against early plans to restrict used-game sales and require an always-on Internet connection even for single-player games, even though those plans were never even implemented.

On the other hand, there's evidence that even a wildly unpopular strategy could still succeed. Have you ever heard anyone who doesn't work for EA praise the Origin distribution service (or whatever the fuck they're calling it now)? I know I haven't, but people still use it. Because if you want to play Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age: Inquisition, your only choices are consoles, Origin, and piracy.

And then there are examples that could go either way: Ubisoft continued to use DRM that required an always-on Internet connection for about two years, from 2010 to 2012, before finally giving in to market backlash.

It's hard to say how existing high-end PC gamers would react if the major publishers tried to force a transition toward streaming games -- or whether high-end PC gamers will continue to be a big enough market for the major publishers to care what they think. But for the foreseeable future, I think PC gaming will continue on much the same as it has for the past 15 years. There could be major changes on the horizon, but I sure don't see them happening in the next 10 years.

Then again, five years ago I was saying there was no way that streaming video would outpace Blu-Ray because there was just no way to stream 1080p video over a home Internet connection. So keep that in mind before trusting any predictions I make.

Stuff On Screens


This blog post is handwritten.  Instead of alt text, the complete text is transcribed in the Typed tab.

Yesterday I ran across two 2013 articles about books, literacy, and libraries in the Guardian, one by Neil Gaiman and the other by Susan Cooper. The Gaiman one is excellent, but I was disappointed by Cooper's, partly because it digresses substantially from its point, but mostly because of a couple of paragraphs I can't stop thinking about. She starts off quoting a talk she gave in 1990:

"We – teachers, librarians, parents, authors – have a responsibility for the imagination of the child. I don't mean we have to educate it – you can't do that, any more than you can teach a butterfly how to fly. But you can help the imagination to develop properly, and to survive things that may threaten it: like the over-use of computers and everything I classify as SOS, Stuff on Screens. I do realize that the Age of the Screen has now replaced the Age of the Page. But on all those screens there are words, and in order to linger in the mind, words still require pages. We are in grave danger of forgetting the importance of the book."

All that was 23 years ago and it's all still true. The screens have just grown smaller, and multiplied. In America, there are already a few digital schools, which have no books, not even in the library. And in schools across America, so many children now work on laptops or tablet computers that cursive handwriting is no longer being taught. Maybe that's also happening here. I suppose that's not the end of the world; lots of authors write their first drafts on a computer, though I'm certainly not one of them. But there's something emblematic about handwriting, with its direct organic link between the imagining brain and the writing fingers. Words aren't damaged by technology. But what about the imagination?

I am not a luddite. I've written screenplays for small and large screens. I love my computer. But as you can tell, this last author of the weekend is offering an unashamed plea for words on pages, for the small private world of a child curled up with a book, his or her imagination in direct communication with the imagination of the person who wrote the words on the page.

I have a great deal of respect for Ms. Cooper. The Dark is Rising Sequence meant a lot to me when I was a kid. And I absolutely agree with her premise that books and libraries are vital and that we must continue to treasure, support, and protect them, even in an increasingly digital world.

But her handwringing about Kids Today and their Screens just strikes me as a bunch of Old Person Nonsense.

At least she acknowledges that the decline of cursive is no big deal.

I heard my aunt bemoan the lack of cursive education in schools recently. My response was, "What the hell do kids need to know cursive for?" It's harder to read than print, it's (at least for me) harder and slower to write than print, and in the twenty-first century it's about as essential a communication skill as Latin. It may be an interesting subject to study, but it's hardly a necessary one.

In sixth grade, I had two teachers who wouldn't let us submit typed papers. Everything had to be written in ink, in cursive. One of them even had the gall to justify this restriction by saying "This is how adults communicate."

Well, it's twenty-one years later, and you know what? I can't think of a single time in my adult life that I've ever written anything in cursive. I don't even sign my name in cursive.

You know what I, as an adult, do use to communicate, each and every single day of my life? A goddamn computer.

I'm a Millennial. At least, I think I am; nobody seems to agree on just what the fuck a Millennial is, exactly. But consensus seems to be that I'm on the older end of the Millennial Generation, and I certainly seem to fit a lot of the generalizations people make about Millennials.

I've been online since I was six years old (though I didn't have a smartphone until I was almost 30); I grew up with Stuff on Screens.

And that means I read a lot.

As far as Stuff on Screens and literacy, I'm inclined to agree with Randall Munroe:

XKCD Writing Skills strip

I'd like to find a corpus of writing from children in a non-self-selected sample (e.g. handwritten letters to the president from everyone in the same teacher's 7th grade class every year)--and score the kids today versus the kids 20 years ago on various objective measures of writing quality. I've heard the idea that exposure to all this amateur peer practice is hurting us, but I'd bet on the generation that conducts the bulk of their social lives via the written word over the generation that occasionally wrote book reports and letters to grandma once a year, any day.

Millennials read all the time, and we write all the time. And that promotes the hell out of literacy, no matter how goddamn annoying it is to see somebody spell the word "you" with only one letter.

Per Cooper's contention that people experience a closer kind of bond with words on paper than words on screens, research indicates that this distinction is decreasing as more and more people become accustomed to screens. Via Scientific American:

Since at least the 1980s researchers in many different fields—including psychology, computer engineering, and library and information science—have investigated such questions in more than one hundred published studies. The matter is by no means settled. Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens. And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common. In the U.S., e-books currently make up between 15 and 20 percent of all trade book sales.

Now, there are ways in which physical books are superior to digital ones. One is DRM. DRM is a blight; it is a threat to libraries, to academia, to preservation, and to the very concept of ownership.

But it's also optional. Its not an inherent part of ebooks; it's bullshit added to them by assholes. And I suspect that, within a generation, it will be gone, just as music DRM has been gone for about a decade now.

There's one more case where paper books are superior to digital ones: pictures. I've already spoken at length about comic books shrunk to fit a 10" screen, as well as the color problems that can arise when they're not printed on the same paper stock they were designed for. The same goes for picture books, art books, photo books; for magazines whose layouts are designed for the printed page. When you put these things on a small screen, you do lose something tangible (and if you put them on a large screen, you lose portability).

On the other hand, I've currently got some 173 books and 362 comics on a 10" rectangle that fits in my backpack, and that is amazing.

People carry libraries in their pockets now. That's not a threat to literacy, it's a boon -- so long as voters and politicians understand that these portable libraries are not meant to replace the traditional kind, but to supplement them.

But for people who love books -- at least, people of my generation who love books -- it's not an either-or question. It's not "Should I read paper books, or digital ones?" It's "Holy shit, look at all the books I have access to, and all the different ways I can read them!"

The first iPhone was released in 2007. It's too early to gauge what long-term effects, nationally or internationally, the smartphone revolution will have on literacy and reading habits.

But I'm more inclined to agree with Munroe than Cooper: a generation that's reading and writing all the time is going to be better at reading and writing than one that isn't. Even if you think they're doing it wrong.

An angry hat tip to Scott Sharkey, who used to handwrite blog posts, which gave me the utterly terrible idea for this time-consuming pain-in-the-ass of a post. (Granted, I'm pretty sure he had the good sense never to do it with a six-page essay with working links.)

Also, the part where I printed an image and then re-scanned it is kind of like something this one angry lady on a My Little Pony fan site did once.

(And yes, I'm aware that I forgot to use blue pencil for the Scientific American link. I am not going back and redoing it. That's the thing about writing stuff out on paper: it's kinda tough to add formatting to something after you've already written it.)

Image Goes DRM-Free

Yesterday Image Comics announced that it's going to start selling digital comics from its own site, independent of third-party distributors, in standard formats and DRM-free.

There are a lot of reasons for Image to pursue a DRM-free option. Chief is that DRM doesn't fucking work and anyone who wants to get the latest issue of The Walking Dead illegally can get it whether Comixology's version has DRM or not. Second is that this rampant piracy of The Walking Dead has somehow failed to prevent it from being a sprawling multimedia bestseller.

But I think what really precipitated this decision isn't The Walking Dead at all -- it's Saga.

More specifically, Saga #12 and its asinine, albeit temporary, ban from the iOS version of Comixology.

I wrote about the story back in April. Gist is this: Saga #12 was an arguably-slightly-dirtier comic in an inarguably-already-pretty-dirty series; Comixology decided not to sell it in the iOS version of their app out of a reasonable but, it turns out, false presumption that it would run afoul of Apple's vague, capricious, and arbitrary content guidelines.

In a nutshell, it was an object lesson in the one thing DRM actually is good for: locking publishers into a single distributor who may not always have their best interests at heart.

You know, for those who needed an object lesson because they were too busy scratching their balls to notice how this exact thing caused a problem for the music industry and then later for the book industry.

But hey, it may have taken Image awhile, but this still puts them way the fuck ahead of all the other major publishers, and they absolutely deserve praise and encouragement for doing the right thing. And they deserve your business for it.

Only problem is, it's still early days and the Digital Comics section is looking a little sparse. I'll plan on coming back with links when my favorite Image books are available -- those'd be the aforementioned Walking Dead and Saga, plus Chew and Prophet, off the top of my head.

This is good news, and I hope and expect it will be just the first step in the comics industry realizing what the music industry already has and the book industry is starting to: that standards-compliant, DRM-free formats aren't just better for consumers, they're better for publishers, too.

Peter Moore Gives a Master Class in Bullshit Internet "Debate"

Yesterday, in a discussion about bullshit argument tactics employed by corporate mouthpieces defending bad policies, I quoted a bit of EA COO Peter Moore's asinine response to his company's commanding lead in the Consumerist's annual Worst Company in America survey.

I picked one particular bullet point, but really the entire thing is an amazing example of what I'm talking about. Logical fallacies piled on top of terrible metaphors wrapped in insults to the reader's intelligence. I think the whole piece really deserves a going-over, piecemeal.

The tallest trees catch the most wind.

That's an expression I frequently use when asked to defend EA's place in the gaming industry.

You know, I used to live in a house that had a tall tree out back.

It's true that it caught a lot of wind.

It's also true that that wind made it pretty fucking hazardous. One time during a storm, one of its branches broke off and smashed through a block in our fence.

We were lucky it just hit the fence by the alley, and not power lines or our roof or our neighbors'.

You know how it got so tall?

By digging around in shit.

Its roots grew down through our sewage pipes. The place had serious plumbing problems for years and years.

Finally, before we moved out, my roommate (the owner of the house) had the tree taken out. Then he dug a trench in the backyard, and had the pipes replaced. The long day of digging coupled with the exposure to sewage made him seriously ill.

So, you know, "The tallest trees catch the most wind" is one way of putting it.

Another way is, the tallest trees are dangerous, expensive, and may leave you covered in shit and physically ill.

And it comes to mind again this week as we get deeper into the brackets of an annual Web poll to name the "Worst Company in America."

This is the same poll that last year judged us as worse than companies responsible for the biggest oil spill in history,

I'ma stop you right there, Pete.

I mean, nice weaseling on the plural there, but you're talking about BP.

I wonder why British Petroleum didn't win the Worst Company in America poll.

the mortgage crisis, and bank bailouts that cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

Now, here Moore makes what may be the only reasonable point in this entire piece.

And that's, yes, it is fucking ridiculous to suggest that EA's the worst company in America.

It's not even in the running.

EA may be terrible, but anyone who tells you it's the worst company in America is stupid, lying, or both.

The complaints against us last year were our support of SOPA (not true),

Moore is technically correct here, but it's a bit misleading. According to techdirt, Sony, Nintendo, and EA never actually endorsed SOPA -- but they did sign on to a letter from the Global IP Center that suggested something a whole lot like SOPA.

and that they didn't like the ending to Mass Effect 3.

Yeah. That's why people are calling EA the worst company in America.

That and they hate gay people. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This year's contest started in March with EA outpolling a company which organizers contend is conspiring to corner the world market on mid-priced beer, and (gulp) allegedly waters down its product. That debate takes place in bars -- our audience lives on the Internet. So no surprise that we drew more votes there.

Let me cut to the chase: it appears EA is going to "win." Like the Yankees, Lakers and Manchester United, EA is one of those organizations that is defined by both a legacy of success, and a legion of critics (especially me regarding all three of those teams).

Again, Moore makes a fair point that there's an echo chamber here. The kind of person who hates EA is exactly the same kind of person who likes to game stupid online popularity contests. EA keeps getting voted the worst company in America for the same reason that Time's list of the most influential people in the world spells out "KJU GAS CHAMBERS".

But once again Moore brings up an analogy that maybe works on a level besides the one he intended.

Because hey, Pete -- when people say they don't like Kobe Bryant, maybe it's not just because he's so goddamn good at basketball.

Are we really the "Worst Company in America?" I'll be the first to admit that we've made plenty of mistakes. These include server shut downs too early, games that didn't meet expectations, missteps on new pricing models and most recently, severely fumbling the launch of SimCity. We owe gamers better performance than this.

Moore may be willing to admit EA's made mistakes, but sure doesn't seem to keen on acknowledging what those mistakes actually are. Watch him trotting out the company line that the problem with the SimCity launch was that they didn't implement its always-on requirement correctly, not that the always-on requirement was the mistake.

Some of these complaints are 100 percent legitimate -- like all large companies we are not perfect. But others just don't hold water:

  • Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It's not. People still want to argue about it. We can't be any clearer -- it's not. Period.

Oh boy, now we're getting into the real nutmeat of the bullshit here.

I covered this one yesterday, but to review:

  1. Yeah, it is a DRM scheme. It's the same kind of crap EA pulled with Spore's periodic authentication and the stories about players being denied access to legally-purchased copies of Dragon Age 2 for criticizng EA on messageboards, cranked up to 11. The always-on connection is not required to play the game, so why the fuck is it there if not as a DRM scheme? Which brings us to:
  2. Even if it weren't DRM, it would still be a terrible fucking idea that prevented people from playing a game they paid for. In fact, if it's not intended as DRM, then EA is even stupider, because they stuck an always-online requirement into a game that didn't need it for no reason instead of for a stupid reason.
  3. And finally: If you follow up the phrase "We can't be any clearer" with an argument that is literally just a slight paraphrase of "Nuh-uh!", maybe you should hire some people who can be clearer.
  • Some claim there's no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam. 45 million registered users are proving that wrong.

Okay, first of all, who is claiming that?

The problem isn't that Steam couldn't use a little competition. The problem is that Origin is a system whereby people's ability to play their legally-purchased games is contingent on whether or not a forum mod somewhere gets pissed off at something they say. Or possibly just gets pissed off when they ask Amazon for tech support.

Anyway, I'll get on the "45 million people can't be wrong!" fallacy in a minute. You had a little more mileage you wanted to wring out of it first?

  • Some people think that free-to-play games and micro-transactions are a pox on gaming. Tens of millions more are playing and loving those games.

Well, Mr. Moore, since you're the one who brought up banks and oil companies, let's talk about that for a minute.

A shitload of people still buy gas from BP and keep their money in Chase banks. Enough to make your "45 million" brag look like loose change in the ashtray of the car they're filling up with BP gas using their Chase credit card. And hell, speaking of ashtrays? Hundreds of millions of people are smoking and loving cigarettes, too. Does that mean everyone who thinks lung cancer is bad must be wrong?

  • We've seen mailing lists that direct people to vote for EA because they disagree with the choice of the cover athlete on Madden NFL. Yes, really...

I don't doubt it. The Internet is a big place. You can find someone who will say absolutely any kind of dumbass thing.

This particular rhetorical tactic is a close cousin of the strawman, with the added benefit that it allows people to act indignant when accused of invoking a strawman. "It's not a strawman! A guy totally said it!" All you have to do is point to the craziest person you can possibly find and pretend he's a representative example of everyone who disagrees with you, and presto!, you can just ignore all the people making well-reasoned and -informed arguments!

  • In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games. This week, we're seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America.

That last one is particularly telling. If that's what makes us the worst company, bring it on. Because we're not caving on that.

I love that one.

Seriously, it is a really tough call whether my favorite part of that bulleted list is the "It's not. Period." part, or the part where Moore straight-up implies that if you don't like EA, it's because you hate gay people.

On a related note: can anyone name an EA game that allows you to play as a gay character that isn't made by a subsidiary that was letting you play as gay characters before EA bought it?

We are committed to fixing our mistakes. Over the last three weeks, 900,000 SimCity players took us up on a free game offer for their troubles. We owed them that.

Ah yes, that would be one of the small, arbitrary selection of free games you made available, of which Ars Technica said:

It's a curious mix of titles, not least because only one of the games is likely to have any particular appeal to SimCity players: SimCity 4. And even that is an odd choice. Many SimCity players already own--and love--the old game, and many regard it as the benchmark against which all city-building games (including the new one) are judged. The problem is that those comparisons aren't necessarily favorable to the new game.

Seeing Warfighter on the list, one wonders if EA wants to be hated even more than it currently is. The game is a stinker.

But back to Moore:

We're constantly listening to feedback from our players, through our Customer Experience group, Twitter, this blog, or other sites. The feedback is vital, and impacts the decisions we make.

If you were listening to feedback, you would have cut this shit out after the Spore backlash. Or the Dragon Age 2 backlash. Or the Battlefield 3 backlash. Or the every single fucking game on Origin backlash. Or the other Battlefield 3 backlash. Or or or windy trees! Windy treeeeeeeeeeeeeeees!

But Mr. Moore, you've made yourself abundantly clear: EA does not give a fuck how many of its customers are dissatisfied, all it cares about is how many of its customers are still happily paying money for its games. As long as games like Spore and SimCity are bestsellers, EA has no incentive whatsoever to back off its terrible, anti-consumer policies.

...and after that there are two more paragraphs of Moore pretty much saying exactly that, another vague "we can do better" that doesn't actually acknowledge what they've done wrong, and a restatement of the thesis because Peter Moore learned in high school English that you're supposed to close an essay by restating the thesis. Fuck it, you get the idea, I don't need to go on.


Continuing from Friday's post about a Microsoft employee's total disdain for Microsoft customers' concern about the next Xbox's rumored always-on requirement:

I want my game console to only be playable online, said no one ever.
Image via Quickmeme.
My Internet connection went down while I was trying to find it. I'm not kidding.

That's the crux of it, isn't it?

From a consumer standpoint, there is no benefit to an always-on requirement.

Now, people may try to obfuscate this point. They may list off all the benefits of an always-on option. And there are some! Cloud saves are pretty cool! So's online multiplayer! Having those things as options is great!

Making them mandatory, for all games, is not. And therein lies the disingenuousness of the argument.

EA COO Peter Moore recently shared this gem:

Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It's not. People still want to argue about it. We can't be any clearer -- it's not. Period.

As difficult as it is to argue with the unassailable logic that is "It's not. Period.", there are two problems here:

  1. It's clearly DRM.
  2. Even if it weren't DRM, it would still be legitimately terrible game design.

This is one more case where a company representative is deliberately obfuscating the difference between a nice option and a good requirement.

The idea of an entire world of SimCities interacting with one another? That does sound pretty great! It's really a neat idea!

Is it integral to the gameplay?

Well, Peter Moore will tell you it is. Because Peter Moore is paid to tell you it is.

But it's turned out to be trivial to modify the game for offline play, and quite a lot of people have noted that the game plays just fine that way. The interaction with other players and cities is a nice option -- but it's not required to enjoy the game.

Indeed, it proved a pretty fucking considerable detriment to customers enjoying the game.

So beware this argument tactic -- "[X] is a good requirement to have, because of [features that could be implemented without making it a requirement]."

And its close cousin, "DRM is a benefit to the end user, because of [features that could be implemented without using DRM]."

DRM is never a benefit to the end user. No end user has ever said, "You know, this game is great, but it would be better if it had DRM."

Similarly, as the image above so succinctly notes, nobody has ever said "You know, offline games are great, but I sure wish they were as unreliable as online games."

Microsoft Doesn't Want My Business. That Can Be Arranged.

So in case you haven't been keeping score, apparently the next version of the Xbox will require an always-on Internet connection, even for single-player games.

As you might expect, some people are unhappy about this.

Microsoft's Adam Orth knows just how to treat concerned customers: by insulting and mocking them with disingenuous analogies.

Image: Adam Orth's Twitter feed, insulting his customers' intelligence and his own

Now, one of three things is true:

  1. Adam Orth is stupid.
  2. Adam Orth thinks you're stupid.
  3. Both.

I shouldn't even have to fucking explain this, but here goes anyway:

A video game console that doesn't work without an Internet connection is not analogous to a vacuum cleaner that doesn't work without electricity or a cellular telephone that doesn't work without cellular service.

Because, you see, a vacuum cleaner, by its nature, requires electricity to function. (Technically some vacuum cleaners get that electricity from batteries, but keep in mind, Orth's analogy is very very stupid.)

A cellular telephone requires cellular service to function.

You see where I'm going with this?

A video game console does not require an Internet connection to function.

Now, some games might. Complaining that, say, World of Warcraft requires an Internet connection would indeed be comparable to complaining that a vacuum requires a current and a cellular telephone requires cellular telephone service.

But -- fun fact! -- many video games are single-player.

Refusing to buy a video game console that requires an always-on Internet connection is not analogous to refusing to buy a vacuum cleaner that requires an electrical current.

Refusing to buy a video game console that requires an always-on Internet connection is analogous to refusing to buy a vacuum cleaner that requires an always-on Internet connection.

More Stupid Ideas in Digital Distribution

Stop me if you've heard this one: a media company does a promotion, is totally unprepared for the traffic it generates, the servers are obliterated so that legitimate customers can't access their stuff, and all the while pirates are still able to trivially obtain the media in question.

I'm talking about Comixology and Marvel, but I could just as easily be talking about EA ('cept that last part I guess; to my knowledge there's no crack to run SimCity without a network connection as yet).

Marvel started a big promotion the other day: 700 free issue #1's through Comixology.

The demand took down the Comixology site for two days. And it's still running slowly.

To blame for all this? Two things:

  1. a client-server distribution model with only a single website available to download from, and
  2. DRM on the files to make sure nobody else can set up a mirror.

Well, I should say "to make sure nobody else can set up a legal mirror", because, well, if you've been on the Internet for five minutes and are not a complete dumbshit, you're probably aware that anyone who wants those comics can trivially find pirated copies.

Go the legal route, with Comixology? You get a proprietary file that you can only read in their program. Provided you can access their fucking website at all.

Go the illegal route, through some dodgy website? You get a CBR, or a CBZ, or a PDF, which you can read in any program that supports that format. And you don't have to worry about whether a single specific website is actually working in order to acquire that file.

It doesn't take a fucking genius to see which is the superior, more customer-friendly option.

Let's talk about what customers want. Hey, I like comics. Let's start with me. Here, maybe this will help you get a feel for just how much money you could potentially squeeze out of me:

27 shortboxes, a long box, and a stack of bags a couple of feet high of books I haven't boxed yet

Not pictured: 14 more shortboxes, plus about 2/3 of a bookcase taken up by hardcovers and trades.

My point is, I have spent a fuck of a lot of money on comics over the course of my life.

You know how much I've spent on Comixology? Zero. The Dark Horse digital store? Zero.

And make no mistake: that's not just because I prefer physical comics. I do, but I've downloaded any number of free comics from both those stores. I've read them and I've enjoyed them. I'd be adding those 700 Marvel #1's to my collection right the fuck now if the website were functional.

But free is the amount I am willing to pay for a DRM-infected book, comic or otherwise. If you won't let me read the file on whatever computer I want, in whatever program I want, then you're not getting a damn dime from me.

I realize I'm not the guy Comixology's trying to appeal to here -- they're trying to draw in new readers, not people who know what happens on Wednesdays. I get that. I'm not the target audience here.

But the target audience is getting timeouts too. Not just new readers coming for the Marvel promo, but existing customers who can't access their accounts.

So, here are a couple of points to start with that I think should be blisteringly obvious:

The very idea of restricting access to a free digital giveaway is completely fucking insane.

Why put DRM on something you're giving away for free? What conceivable reason is there for this? Why would you want to restrict copying of a free promotion that you are doing?

And why only make it available from a single distributor?

I mean, I get the reasoning behind that one, at least: they want to turn people into Comixology customers. They don't want people to just grab the free comics and never bother coming the the Comixology site. I get the theory.

But in practice, well, how's that working out for you guys? You getting any customers out of this thing?

Here's the right way to do it: just post all 700 files in a big torrent file. Make them CBR/CBZ format. And stick an ad for Comixology in every file.

Ever see a popular torrent collapse under the weight of high demand? Of course you haven't. Because that is the opposite of how BitTorrent works. BitTorrent is at its absolute best on files that are in high demand.

Now, I know why media companies don't take advantage of BitTorrent: because that would legitimize BitTorrent. As far as the publishers are concerned, BitTorrent is synonymous with piracy. They want the protocol banned entirely -- so of course they're not willing to acknowledge that it can be used as a tool for legal distribution, and a very very good one at that.

So instead, they opt for DRM-encumbered files distributed through a traditional client-server model -- and create this gigantic fucking debacle. And you know what their takeaway from this is going to be? "Well, obviously we need to make sure we've got more bandwidth next time." They're going to think that the problem is that their stupid distribution model wasn't implemented correctly, not that their stupid distribution model is stupid.

"Let's just make sure we've got more bandwidth next time" was EA's solution to the authentication problems that Spore users faced in 2008. 5 years later, did it work?

As long as you're thinking that the fix is a better delivery mechanism for DRM-infected content, you're doing it wrong. The problem will persist.

But you know, there are lots of great digital comics out there that aren't from Comixology and aren't DRM-infected. I've gushed about Mark Waid's Thrillbent before; those are all DRM-free and free to download. I also enjoyed the first issue of Dracula the Unconquered by Chris Sims, Steve Downer and Josh Krach; it's DRM-free and only costs a buck.

The point here isn't merely to castigate companies who do it wrong -- please reward the ones who do it right.


Yesterday I went to a Cory Doctorow book signing at Changing Hands.

He was promoting his new book, Homeland, but the talk he gave was more general. It dealt with his usual pet issues: overbearing copyright law and its impact on ordinary citizens, and spyware that attempts to control our computers and how it makes them and us less safe. A lot of it was about Aaron Swartz, the talented programmer who developed RSS, helped build Reddit up, spent the last several years of his life fighting charges from the US Attorney threatening a decades-long prison sentence for copyright infringement (when the copyright holders themselves chose not to press charges), and took his own life last month. It's a sobering story -- obviously depression is a complicated thing and it's foolish to blame a person's suicide on one single cause, but I think any reasonable person can conclude that (1) the charges against him contributed to his decision and (2) they were wildly disproportionate to his alleged crime.

Sobering stuff, but a good talk and mostly light despite ending on a heavy note. Nobody in the audience recorded it, but Doctorow said the talk's been recorded elsewhere and that he'd provide a link once it was uploaded to YouTube. (Edit 2013-02-13: Per Doctorow's blog, the version of the speech he gave the next day at ASU has been posted on ustream: part 1, part 2.)

Before all that, I was sitting in the audience waiting for him to come out onstage. I was reading a copy of Circle of Enemies; the lady sitting next to me asked if it was an urban fantasy novel and when I said that it was, she handed me her business card and said that she was an urban fantasy author as well. Her name is Kater Cheek, she's a former student of Doctorow's, and the urban fantasy novel advertised on her card is Seeing Things. I bought a copy when I got home; haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

I mentioned that I'd recently put out a few audiobooks; she hadn't heard of ACX so I suggested she give it a look if she's interested in producing any of her own.

I talked to Doctorow a bit about audiobooks, too, when it came time for the actual booksigning. The guy in front of me asked if Homeland would be released as an audiobook; Cory said there were no plans at present, because he won't distribute through Audible until they offer a DRM-free option, and Audible is 90% of the market. He said he's looking at options with the Humble Bundle; when I got up there I wished him luck on that, and added that a Humble Audiobook Bundle could be a great help to narrators like myself who don't really have an alternative to Amazon but don't like DRM very damn much either. (I mentioned that, while I sell books on Audible, I can't be their customer, because they don't support my operating system. Crazy.)

Anyway, I asked him to sign my Nexus 7 case, because that's where I keep most of his books.

For Thad -- If you can't open it, you don't own it!  Cory

Which is really a twofer, because now my case has not only a drawing of a skull and crossbones by Cory Doctorow...

Speck's logo looks like an asshole

...it's also got a drawing of an asshole by Kurt Vonnegut.

(For the record, I haven't opened it but I'm pretty confident that I can. It looks easier than my Mac Mini, Wii, or old 60GB iPod, and I've opened them.)

Your Average Ordinary Alien: My Second Audiobook

My latest audiobook: Your Average Ordinary Alien, written by Adam Graham. Available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

The description, in the author's words:

Kirk Picard Skywalker is an unemployed sci-fi fanatic who dreams of being abducted by aliens from outer space. One day his dreams come through and he's horrified to learn that the aliens are all too ordinary.

It's the story of an unemployed computer scientist and his long-suffering girlfriend -- can't imagine what drew me to it -- and gave me the opportunity to flex some comedy muscles and play three characters plus narrator. It's a fun read, a bit of good-natured but ultimately sympathetic skewering of fanboys, and it made me smile. It's also got a Christian message -- a bit outside my usual, more cynical milieu, I suppose, but "Work hard and be kind to people" is, I think, a sentiment most everybody can get behind.

Be sure and read my previous audiobook post for some notes on Audible DRM. And you can discuss my audiobooks at Brontoforumus.

Dinosaurs in the Home Depot: My First Audiobook

As you may have guessed from the various not-so-subtle hints I've been dropping over the past month, I've started recording audiobooks.

The first one, Dinosaurs in the Home Depot, written by Bret Wellman, has been released, and is available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes.

The audiobook is 18 minutes long and delivers what it promises. There is a Home Depot. There are dinosaurs in it. The story does not waste time on details like why there are dinosaurs, why somebody decided to leave them in a Home Depot, or actually bothering to give any of the characters names (unless you count "the ugly giant" as a name). It's mostly people fighting dinosaurs with power tools.

If you want to give it a read before you buy, it's available for Kindle, or you can read it for free on the author's website.

It's also bundled with Audible's DRM. Staunch anti-DRM advocate that I am, I regret this, but there's nothing I can do about it except let people know before they buy. You shouldn't have trouble playing it under Windows or OSX, and there are clients for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry as well. I haven't tried it under desktop Linux yet; I've read that the Windows player works under WINE, though users have reported playback issues with recent versions. You can read more about Audible's DRM format at Wikipedia.

I've got two more audiobooks coming sometime in the next few weeks; I'll write about them when they're available.

Discuss my audiobooks at Brontoforumus.