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StarDock's Unified DRM Dream

StarDock's GOO could turn PC gaming on its head, but does DRM even make sense these days?

How high does your rogue need to be to open up GOO?
How high does your rogue need to be to open up GOO?
As a PC gamer worried about the death of his platform, one of the bigger announcements that came out of GDC last week for me was the unveiling of StarDock's Game Object Obfuscation (GOO) DRM solution for PC games. While I know DRMs aren't exactly the most popular additions to your games these days I think StarDock -- maker of Galactic Civilizations II as well as the Impulse digital distribution service -- seems to have their heart in the right place with GOO. The service, in a nutshell, takes the DRM away from the physical game and ties it to a simple email address. The goal is to allow an owner of the software to be able to use their game on any computer, as many times as possible, as long as they can authenticate against that email address and serial number. Since the serial number and email address are independent this would allow for a couple pretty cool ideas.
  1. Once purchased you could potentially download the game from the service of your choice, be it Direct2Drive, Steam or StarDock's own Impulse service. This would help remove the fear of any one of the services going out of business and you losing your game catalog.
  2. Since the email address and key are independent, owners could potentially resell their keys. This would open up a digital second hand market and even possibly a way to rent PC games.
  3. If adopted, this would mean you wouldn't need a half-dozen copy protection systems on your computer.
While the first point is significant, it requires a whole lot of co-operation from the industry as a whole. First, all of the major digital distributors would have to agree to this set standard. Then they'd have to allow others to download games purchased on one service from another. Do we really think it's possible that Valve will let its users re-download a game on Steam that was purchased on Direct2Drive? Don't get me wrong, I'd love it if they did, but with the price fluctuation of digital-only games, I don't see it as likely.

It's the second point, though, that I think is more interesting to PC gamers. Second hand digital-distribution is a BIG DEAL. Imagine if you could take your entire Steam catalog of games and sell it to your buddy for less than it cost on Steam at today's prices. Remember, there's no packaging or limited figurines here, this is just the buying and reselling of code. And really, why should you not be able to do something like that? It could potentially open up a whole new market in the game industry and allow games to see the kind of long-term lifespan that console games currently enjoy.

While the best answer to the DRM solution may continue to simply be to not include it, if I'm going to have to use one I think GOO looks like the best option at the moment. One thing I'm worried about, though, is if StarDock is a big enough company to pull it off. While popular with the hardcore audience, GalCiv II and Sins of a Solar Empire aren't exactly equivalent to the Half-Life 2 release that got Steam off the ground. Still, you can't fault a brother for trying.

For those looking to dig deeper, there's a great read from Spiderweb's Jeff Vogel on PC game piracy over on IGN. It's not tied to GOO, but gives you an idea of what it's like to be an independent developer trying to release your games digitally in today's market.
Dave Snider on Google+