Editor at Techmeme

DRM doesn’t have to be a minefield

I become intensely aware of Digital Rights Management when I’m consuming a wide range of media types in a fictional universe. After completing The Last of Us, I read all the great criticism I could find on the web, bought the DRM-free soundtrack on iTunes, then hesitated with my options for buying the digital comics: directly from the publisher or through Kindle. Both legal options raise several DRM-related questions. How long will I have access to the purchase? Will either app deliver a nice reading experience on iPad (high quality, scrollable images)? Will I be able to read the comics on devices I own in the future? I can consider all these factors and try to make the best purchase, or I can put get a pdf from the Pirate Bay, put it in my Dropbox, and read it anywhere for the rest of my life.

My current “solution” is to do both things. I bought the comics in the Dark Horse iPad app (turns out it’s actually perfectly capable and supports offline reading) and download a backup pdf. Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us I streamed on Amazon, and got an mp4 from the Pirate Bay.

Informed consumers who aren’t willing to hedge their purchases like this will buy from established companies that are likely to exist forever, even if their DRM implementations are insidious. Why risk buying from the little company who will inevitably go under or get absorbed?

Non-tech-savvy people may not be aware of these issues, but in 10 years when my dad asks why he can’t read the book he bought in iBooks he’s not going to like the explanation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are three business models for digital media purchases that don’t make the process of buying legally feel like navigating a minefield:

1. Easy DRM-free downloads.

iTunes music, Amazon mp3, Gog, Humble, Image Comics, and Gumroad.

I can play media downloaded from these services on any device.

2. DRM-laden downloads outweighed with huge ecosystem benefits offered by a massive established company.

Steam and Kindle are the two obvious successes.

Valve and Amazon built ecosystems with huge social and usability advantages. By playing games on Steam, I get automatic updates, cross-platform cloud saves, a built-in friends list, simple multiplayer infrastructure, achievements, groups, guides, forums, mods, easy screenshot sharing, trading, and more. All those benefits slightly outweigh the concern that my valuable Steam library is dependent on Valve surviving as a company. Similarly, Kindle has an app on every platform under the sun, a massive library of books, cloud syncing, x-ray, Goodreads integration, highlights, and the best e-ink reader on the market.

It’s super hard for a DRMed ecosystem to reach the critical mass required to outweigh the disadvantages of their DRM. Steam and Kindle both had the first-mover advantage. Steam began as an incapable, hated service required for Half-Life 2. It’s become an accepted, often loved service only after a decade of slow improvement. Amazon launched Kindle with an expensive, heavy, gross-looking device and just 90,000 books. Now there are millions.

3. DRM that stays completely invisible by aligning perfectly with users’ expectations.

Most modern software ecosystems nail this. iOS App Store, Mac App Store, Google Play apps, Windows Store, Xbox Games Store, PSN.

I expect to download and use software purchased digitally on any device I own that belongs to the same ecosystem. Tweetbot should work on my iPhone and iPad but not my Nexus tablet, Xbox, or Windows computer. Minecraft pocked edition for Android should work on any Android device. The Last of Us should run on any PS3.


Services that fail to successfully implement any of these models:

  • All the big movie and TV download services. iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant, UltraViolet, etc. Media only works on a limited number of supported platforms.
  • The Ebook platforms that aren’t Kindle. iBooks, Nook, Google Play books, Kobo. Remember Sony’s Reader Store?
  • Every Nintendo platform. A digital copy of A Link Between Worlds is locked to one 3DS. Same for Wii U games.
  • Uplay and Origin, the Steam clones from Ubisoft and EA.
  • Most digital comics apps. Marvel Unlimited is adding cool features like “adaptive audio" that could eventually lead to a good example of model #2.

Messing with Steam’s in-home streaming beta

I’m streaming games from my Windows PC (connected to my router via Ethernet) to my MacBook Air on Wi-Fi. Here’s how it went:

Spelunky

Streaming latency: 40-45ms most of the time. It spiked once above 100ms, which was made the game unplayable for a couple seconds. Latency sources in this Spelunky frame are 0.78ms input + 9.45ms game + 33.97ms display for a total of 44.66ms.

The image displayed on my MacBook looks great at nearly 60 frames and >10000kbit/s (9% of the estimated bandwidth between my two computers).

I find the game completely playable but I’m sure Spelunky pros would not tolerate the extra latency.

Left 4 Dead 2

Streaming latency: 50-60ms as I played the first campaign in single player mode.

53.82ms = .60ms input + 8.15ms game + 42.59ms display

I assume L4D2’s “display latency” and bitrate are higher than in Spelunky because the image is changing constantly. What does “game latency” mean then?

Like Spelunky, L4D2 was totally playable while streaming.

Team Fortress 2

Streaming latency: 50-60ms playing payload online.

53.76ms = 0.56ms input + 25.22ms game + 26.32ms display

Almost exactly the same total streaming latency as L4D2, but the game and display values are very different. Strange.

This extra latency makes for a bad online experience. 45ms ping to server + 55ms streaming latency = 100ms total latency. It’s hard to play well.

So

Assuming latency isn’t drastically reduced over the course of the beta, nobody is going to play competitive games over in-home streaming, but it’ll be great for laid-back single player games.

Notes

  • Audio streaming to Mac doesn’t work. It’s a known issue.
  • Steam just streams what’s on the monitor of the source computer. This means…
  • If you alt-tab out of a game Steam continues streaming the desktop and whatever else is on the PC. This is a feature so you can get back into the game.
  • Streamed games by default run at the native resolution of the source PC, but you can change resolution in-game. The stream is fullscreen even if you switch the game to run in a window.
  • Streaming doesn’t work for a lot of games. I tried Assassin’s Creed 4, The Witcher 2, Xcom. All say “installation of this game requires user intervention. Install manually on the remote computer.”

Writers brilliantly betray inexperience with video games with one sentence

This is a problem in every subject but I’m most equipped to catch it when tech pubs write about video games. Two fun examples from this weekend:

WSJ’s tech blog

The latest action seems to have affected Electronic Arts and Valve. The companies, respectively best known for their “Battlefield” war shooting franchise and “Defense of the Ancients” strategy fighting games

What audience is this written for? “War shooting” accurately (and hilariously) describes Battlefield, but “strategy fighting game” is an incomprehensible mash of two genres with no crossover. Did the author assume Valve made multiple Dota games because they make Dota 2?

book excerpt in Wired

[Kinect] revolutionized home gaming — capturing the imagination of diehard players and casual gamers alike

A few Kinect games were fun (Kinect Party), but Kinect did none of the three things in that sentence. There’s a reason Microsoft’s pitching new Kinect as more assistant than controller on Xbox One.


Meaningful discussion of racism in BioShock Infinite

Brendan Keogh explains how the second half of the game justifies Columbia’s racist construction.

Nick Martens, Kevin Nguyen and Elizabeth Simins discuss Daisy Fitzroy’s insane change of heart, the combat design, conclusion, and more.

Courtney Stanton backs Brendan Keogh and floats the idea that Elizabeth dreamt up Fitzroy’s alter ego because she’s racist.

Soha El-Sabaawi laments the missed opportunity continue the storyline where the player freed slaves and fought xenophobes. Separately, she puts her disappointment with the game’s handling of racism and oppression in context of her personal history as a stateless refugee.

Daniel Golding asks whether it’s possible to “merge any kind of intelligent thematic exploration while taking unrestrained pleasure in shooting people in the face”.

Michael Thomsen points to titles like Papers, Please as evidence that meaningful mechanics are incompatible with roller coaster shooters like Infinite.

John Teti criticizes the game for casting both sides as equally evil and punting on the real issues. Is Ken Levine bound to the BioShock formula like his villains are bound to their ideologies?

Chris Franklin regrets that important topics like racism, economic inequity, and religious fanaticism are displayed but not explored.


Jonathan Blown away by mysterious virtual reality demo

Last night during his "first ever livestream" on his Twitch channel Jonathan Blow said he “didn’t believe in VR” even after playing with the Oculus Rift. But a new demo, which he quickly stopped himself form explaining in any detail, “blew me away”.

I haven’t used Oculus yet, but if whatever he saw is better than the much-praised rift, I’m super excited to see it.


"As the player it’s a lot easier to be logical and objective than an actual human being. People make actually bad decisions in reality all the time. Anybody looking at it from an actual pulled out perspective would be like “well that’s obviously not what that person should do” but that’s never how we make decisions. We make decisions clouded by all the shit in our own brain and all these weird biological and psychological factors that don’t necessarily correspond to the strictly best solution. But when you’re playing a game, you’re not actually that person, so it’s really easy to just do the thing that’s rationally, from a gameplay perspective, best for you at any time."

- Chris Remo in Idle Thumbs 118