Gamers: Like rats in a trap

This is the second guest post on this blog, this time by my friend Marcus Kästner.

Naive me. I thought that DRM was dead – but then, I’m a music consumer mostly. They’ve tried their best, these major labels, and people like me showed them the finger. In the process of this battle, music distribution widened and independent platforms, in some cases the artists themselves, started offering their music. This battle for liberation is far from over, considering the titans like iTunes are still around. But in one thing, we’ve won: the music that we buy is to a satisfactory level “ours”, meaning, we can listen to it where we want, on the platform that we choose and we can sell cds, dvds, and lps to others. Considering this background, I’m asking myself: Why did DRM prevail in other media? Why is it even dominating the gaming industry in particular?

Give me steam!

The key factor to the answer is Valve’s Steam. Valve came out in the middle of the 90s and produced one of the major titles of video game history: Half-Life, still surviving to this day through the Counterstrike mod. With Half-Life came a unique key, that players had to enter before they could play, but even though the keys had to be correct to play on the internet, offline players could just copy the game and use a key generator to play it. Also, keys were not personalized, you could trade them, sell them or use as many as you like.

Even though I do think that Valve made quite a fortune with Half-Life, it obviously wasn’t enough for them: “Damn you, second hand market!”, they thought and with the release of Half-Life 2 came Steam, quoting Wikipedia: “a digital distribution, digital rights management, multiplayer and communications platform”, basically securing that the customer-game relation became 1:1, meaning by online registration the customer gains the “right” to play a game, but once activated not the right to resell it. Again quoting from Wikipedia, Steam has become awfully succesful in that:

As of January 2012, there are 1504 games available through Steam, and 40 million active user accounts. The concurrent users peak was 5 million on January 2, 2012. Although Valve never releases sales figures, Stardock, former owner of competing platform Impulse, estimated in 2009 that Steam had a 70% share of the digital distribution market for video games.

First encounter

I don’t play a lot of games anymore. I was, back then, when the market was a bit more liberal, but first the lack of contemporary technology and then disinterest led me away from the hype of the new games and the race for ever more polygons. I’m fine with that. I sometimes have a quick read of game magazines when I’m at my friends’ homes and I see the same games I played 10 or 12 years ago, just mildly looking better (or so their designers think). I only stumbled upon Steam when I got a promotional copy of Mount & Blade: Fire and Sword and had to activate it on Steam.

I was seriously appalled. Here I had a game, fully functional and now I had to install another program, make an online account on this dubious platform? I had to discuss this, but my friends who had used it since Half-Life 2 and were by now (by all means) familiar with the system, couldn’t see my point. Was I fighting windmills? Or were they just indifferent to the real threat of DRM?

The broad response

There is a lot of criticism on Valve’s platform. Yet, this criticism, as far as I see it,  stays completely inherent. Along my stroll around the internet, I found complaints about features, prices and the difficulty of age restrictions, but no strong criticism of the system itself. A lot of current discussions revolve around whether EA’s Origin or Steam should be used and so on, but the question they should ask is: What can we do so that we don’t have to use any of these?

The DRM platforms are taking more and more control over games and gamers and everyone is just opening their purses, allowing companies to control their personal data and sell, or rather: lease a product to them that they can’t handle the way they want. I kept questioning, wanting to understand how and why this happened. How come these people stood for the “freedom of information” on the internet and at the same time were avid users of Steam?

Lured into the cage

Needless to say, these platforms work very efficiently – and this is what most users would say if confronted by the question: Why do you use them? I cannot deny it and won’t! And I don’t need to. If effenciency was the key factor in determining the quality of a system, I wonder why we prefer democracy over dictatorship, the latter being much more efficient in ways of decision-making and control. But where are the ethics, the justice, the freedom?

The users of Steam gave it away for “one click” that buys the product, for automatic updates and savegames in a cloud; generally: for the bits of cheese that lay in the cage; and while eating it, the trap spun. Now mother Steam is there to feed them. And coming back to the lack of appropriate criticism: I think many Steam users wished every game was available there, that they could stay in the cage for as long as they liked. Does that sound horrifying? Wake up! Time to leave the cage!

Why using Steam? Oh, because you think you have to!

There still are some games you can get via conservative (meaning: good ol’) ways of distribution or via direct distribution – take Minecraft for example (I hope it’ll stay like that). Or go out and find some classics in a store. I often wonder about the cheap prices for used games. A few weeks ago I bought Civilization II for 1€ (about $1) – hours and hours of entertainment for the price of a Snickers bar! You even get a load of great games for free these days. Ever tried Or buy games on I love their motto: “Forget activations or malicious DRM – every game on is 100% DRM-free. You buy it. You own it” – hell, yes!

For too long, the gaming community has stayed silent. The gamers let themselves be trapped like rats in a corporate cage. The protests against the music industry have shown what strength lies in the defiance of the individual against the mighty industry. So, hands up! Who’s with me?

Update, 13th of June 2013

We‘re one year into the future and – alas – nothing much seems to have changed. Quite the contrary, with the release of the next generation consoles and especially the new Xbox (called “One”, since in their opinion you’ll only be needing that one console for any form of entertainment, which is creepy enough), we’re on our way to the next step of company control over customers. I hate to see that, it leaves me bitter and cynical. How desperate and needy are we to receive our share of redundant entertainment that we give up on our basic rights, our freedom?

Just a few days ago, a certain Edward Snowden blew the whistle to reveal a broad espionage program the NSA runs to read through our online communication. The shocking revelation rightfully outraged internet users all around the globe and yet, I wonder how many of these people will buy the new Xbox and simply won’t care about their personal data and information being collected, analyzed, and used for commercial purposes or worse. German Wikipedia states that the new Xbox must be connected to the internet at least once in intervals of 24 hours and if you don’t manage to achieve that, you lose all your games library. That’s the stuff you guys have been waiting for, I know. A console that bullies you – and you’re even paying for it.

Just use the alternatives, goddammit!

“Stop playing games, then”, I hear people say, but I’ve played a lot of games during the past year and it was thanks through comments like Enes’ below that I felt motivated to use the platform “Good Old Games” a lot for buying games online. Their service is great: You get installers that function perfectly and even with old DOS games, plus bonus material such as original handbooks, sheets, and maps as PDFs, and the occasional soundtrack. It’s so comfortable and yet without any restrictions and certainly no DRM. I’ve downloaded and played jewels such as Fallout 2, Master of Orion 2, and the phenomenal Gabriel Knight series which I somehow missed back in the days. And all of these for a price of 5 to 10 Dollars per game – excellent!

I hope GOG will continue to thrive and attract more and more companies to their platform. Just the fact that it’s growing shows, that companies can trust their customers. I could install my games on any other machine, even share them with friends, but whenever we talk about games on GOG, everyone just buys them themselves. Already, you can buy some new games there, though most of them are indie productions, which is great too, but I’d like to see some of the big ones there (I’d sure like to play Bethesda’s Skyrim at some point, to be honest, but I can live without it).

I don’t want to advertize for them and I’m surely not bought: As of yet, I haven’t seen a similarly appealing approach on the internet, so I’ll continue recommending GOG to others. Please use the comments below if you know of any alternatives. After all, the lack of competition seems to have been one of the main reasons for DRM to spread out in the first place.


I encountered a lot of incomprehension after writing the first part of this text and those people will probably be estranged by this following rant, as well. I’m not an expert in technology and this was a purely emotional approach. I know I made some people who read this uncomfortable, but to make a difference, you sometimes have to be uncomfortable. If you’re using Steam, you may as well do so and I won’t judge you. I was provoking you, because I thought you deserved better.

Meanwhile, the cage grows bigger, and it doesn’t matter what metal it’s bars are made of – it might even be a gilded cage, comfy and snug – it still is a cage. You might be sitting in there, thinking, “Ah, heck, I could still leave if I wanted to. Look, it’s just a cage with an open door”, but one day, the door might be shut, locked, and the key thrown away. And all of that for some polygons. Seriously, you might want to read a book instead. And don’t you get me started on ebook readers…

The author is a German historian and web developer, blogging on (German language),, and (both English language).

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-Marcus Kästner

No more comments.
  1. Alistair
    20. April 2012 |08:38

    Sorry but I’m not with you. Regardless of the DRM part, Steam is fantastic and I don’t think you can achieve this level of functionality without DRM. I only consider DRM bad when it is used for evil and I don’t see this occurring with Steam.

  2. ralf
    24. April 2012 |13:39

    Just you w8 when steam is no more, and all your bought games will never ever work again – maybe then you’ll get his point 😉

  3. enesf
    30. April 2012 |06:46

    Erstmal danke dir Marcus für deinen, wie immer, sehr schön zu lesenden Beitrag.

    Während ich dir zustimmen kann das DRM nur die ehrlichen Kunden schadet und ein Model aufzwingt welches mit der Realität wie wir Unterhaltungsmedien konsumieren nicht viel gemein hat, stimme ich dir nicht zu das mit Steam ein Sündenbock gefunden ist. Zumindest nicht so richtig.

    Denn ich nehme an, das Valve Steam nicht entwickelt hat um den Gebrauchtspiele Markt zu unterbinden. Dies war nicht die primäre Intention dahinter (aber sicher auch eine Intention).

    Wer benutzt Steam? Der Kunde alleine? Nein, die Publisher verwenden es auch, als Plattform um ihre Spiele zu verkaufen. Und genau das ist der Punkt der bedacht werden sollte, wenn die Publisher die Plattform nicht annehmen dann kann die Plattform nicht erfolgreich sein. Steam ist nur solange gut, solange man darauf auch die Spiele findet die man haben möchte.

    Schauen wir uns die alternativen an die du vorgestellt hast. ist zumindest rechtlich in einer Grauzone. Denn diese Seite operiert unter der Prämisse, wo kein Kläger da kein Angeklagter, heißt die haben nicht das “recht” diese Spiele zu veröffentlichen machen es aber trotzdem weil entweder die Publisher/Studios die diese entwickelt haben nicht mehr existieren oder die Spiele so alt sind das man annehmen kann das sich keiner mehr dafür interessiert. kannte ich, genauso wie bereits vorher. Ich finde die Idee die dahinter steckt super. gog steht meines Wissens nach für good old games und mit der Prämisse sehe ich es als eindeutig legale Variante zu abandonia. Und wenn es das Spiel welches man haben möchte auf gibt, dann sollte man es sich auch dort holen. Denn der Erfolg einer DRM freien Plattform wäre ein sehr starkes Argument gegen DRM. Die Herausforderung aber ist, das Spiel welches man haben möchte auch zu bekommen. Ich habe einfach mal die ersten 20 Titel aus meiner Steam Library in gog gesucht von den 20 Titel waren nur zwei dort zu finden. Das ist nicht viel. Dabei sind da nicht nur AAA Title dabei gewesen, Indie Games (Limbo, Cave Story+) sowie alte Titel (Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis). Bessere Auswahl hilft der Akzeptanz einer Plattform. Das ist einfach so. In einer besseren Welt würden die Leute nach idealen handeln, das machen sie aber selten (zynisch ich weiß).

    Eine weitere Alternative die du nicht genannt hast, sind Konsolen. Zumindest derzeit noch. Denn die Spiele die man dort kauft sind nicht Personenbezogen und dort hast du kein DRM sondern nur einen Kopierschutz (nicht das selbe). Spiele kannst du noch dafür leihen und auch wieder verkaufen.

    Was können wir also machen damit die Situation besser wird. Du Marcus hast etwas gemacht aufklären. Und auch wenn ich deine Meinung völlig akzeptiere, verstehe ich nicht konkret worum es dir geht. Findest du DRM schlecht oder die Download Plattform Steam? Steam zu unterstellen das DRM das ist, was dieses System ausmacht, bringt die Menschen die es verwenden nicht zum zuhören. Denn das Problem ist ein anderes, die Kunden müssen aufgerüttelt werden und erkennen das sie Rechte haben (fair use) und die Publisher sollten lernen das sie nicht alles machen können was sie wollen.

    Zumindest hast du mich inspiriert ein Experiment zu starten. Ich sehe mich als einen Hardcore Gamer, nicht in dem Sinne das ich die meiste Zeit meines Lebens damit verbringe, sondern das ich schon seit mehr als 20 Jahren spiele und dies immer noch mache. (Alleine meine Steam Library umfasst 85 Titel, dazu noch diverse Titel die nicht in Steam sind und auf anderen Plattformen.) Ich werde von jetzt an nur noch DRM freie Spiele kaufen. Dieses Experiment werde ich ein Jahr lang durchführen und auch meine Erfahrung damit dokumentieren. Nächstes Jahr poste ich dann wie es mir ergangen ist damit.


  4. herp
    1. May 2012 |15:19

    Yeah, Steam is DRM. No, I don’t particularly care for it. Why do I keep playing TF2 then? Well, simply put, it’s an amazing game. I don’t really care at all if it has DRM attached because they’re not installing crap on my system that I don’t want. Sure, it’s kind of annoying to have to start Steam always, but I avoid that by having a game launch link on my desktop. Ultimately, I don’t care that much about the DRM. I wish it was another way, but for now I’m not supporting Steam since I haven’t bought a game on it in years.

  5. enesf
    2. May 2012 |19:00

    Passend zu diesem Thema lese ich gerade eine News in Kotaku.

    Kurzum, es geht darum das ein Spiel was im App Store gekauft wurde, abgeschaltet werden soll, also nicht mehr spielbar sein wird. Sollte ich den Artikel richtig verstanden haben und es wirklich so ist, steht es weit Schlimmer um die Rechte der Kunden als ich bisher gedacht habe.


  6. 3. May 2012 |11:14


    Lieber Enes, vielen Dank für diesen differenzierten Kommentar! Wie Du bereits erkannt hast, ging es mir gar nicht so sehr darum, eine ausgewogene Argumentation zu liefern, sondern vielmehr einen emotionalen Rundumschlag an die User jener Plattformen (und da ist Steam nunmal der Marktführer) zu verteilen. Ich weiß ja, dass die vielen Spieler in meinem Freundeskreis in der Hauptsache Steam nutzen und habe mir auch schon oft Lobeshymnen darauf anhören müssen.

    Die Frage: “Ist es jetzt gegen DRM oder gegen Steam gerichtet?”, kann ich daher mit einem wegwischenden “Gegen beide!” beantworten. Ich halte DRM für einen Anachronismus, einen totalitären Überwachungsapparat, der in eine Welt von 1984 gehört, aber ganz bestimmt nicht in die aufgeklärte Mediengesellschaft des 21. Jhds. – und Steam, das dieses Prinzip so erfolgreich verwendet und dabei noch einen auf “gut” macht (s. erster Kommentar) finde ich einfach abstoßend.

    Umso besser, dass Du mein Pamphlet differenziert betrachtet hast und Deine wesentlich höhere Sachkenntnis mit einbringst. Wie ich ja bereits deutlich gemacht habe: Ich kenne Steam nur oberflächlich, benutze es nicht und habe mich im Zuge dieses Artikels über einige Seiten im Internet darüber informiert – wohl in einem ausreichenden Maße.

    Ich bin sehr gespannt, welche Erfahrungen Du “DRM-frei” machen wirst. Vielleicht hilft’s ja auch, ein wenig vom Spielen wegzukommen. Nachdem ich nicht mehr den Hypes gefolgt bin – und ich war ja auch lange Zeit ein sehr aktiver Spieler – habe ich doch schnell gemerkt, wie unwichtig die eigentlich sind. Ich habe ein paar Spiele, die ich immer noch ganz gern zocke, aber der größte Teil macht mich nicht an, schon gar nicht die immer neuen Versatzstücke altbekannter Spielemuster. Da lese ich lieber, schaue mir einen Film an oder werde eben selbst kreativ tätig!


  7. 4. May 2012 |13:52

    Look, a Day Against DRM:

    O’Reilly is taking part in that, offering a 50% discount on DRM-free ebooks:

    Too bad they don’t include software, especially games, in quotes like this: ‘Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group said, “DRM is a disaster for legitimate uses of music, film and books. They are designed to lock people into specific software and devices, destroying your rights to free speech uses like criticism, education and review. DRM means you lose control, and are at the mercy of vendors.”‘

    That’s got to change.

  8. Leo
    4. May 2012 |18:57

    I understand what you say about DRM, but I still find Steam very usefull. I live in Latin America and here it is sometimes difficult to get “first world” products, in this case video games.

    First of all, you have to consider the exchange rate. That makes every foreign product quite expensive. And apart from that, you have to add the custom duty which is really high.

    So if I want to buy a videogame in a box, I have to pay an extra “charge” of almost 50%, which I consider unfair.

    Before Steam, if I wanted to play a PC game, I would had to resort to piracy, which I dont support. So now, thanks to Steam I can buy games at its real price.

    Marcus Kästner Reply:

    Hi Leo,

    I always love reading comments of people from different places, they widen the topic and bring new aspects to it – so, thank you for commenting!

    Digital distribution has helped you playing games while paying a reasonable amount of money for it – that’s a great achievement! But I still think that online platforms could sell games on a digital basis that would not include DRM – for the same fair price.

    I know that I can’t talk gamers into a total boycott. But even raising the issue, talking about it, and demanding a change can lead to more freedom for gamers.



  9. Ben
    29. May 2012 |06:10

    DRM on mp3 and games is different… it was annoying for mp3 since when you buy them you want to be able to use on your portable player, computer and media player and you certainly don’t want to buy 3 copies of the music for this.

    However with games the modern DRM like Steam simply you requires to authenticate on their platform before you can play your game. You can login from any computer with steam and play/install game.

    To me this is heaps better than back in the days of cd keys but then, I’m not a software pirate so meh