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Cyanic

Analysis: Why Steam isn't DRM

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After writing about Steam DRM, I came to a realization about Steam. I noted on the wiki article reasons that developers use Steam DRM. Two in particular stands out for the purpose of this discussion: piracy curbing, and ensuring Steamwork API is initialized. Neither of those two reasons are forced by Steam itself. This is evidenced by the presence of many games on Steam that have no DRM whatsoever, and not even integration with Steamworks. If DRM was forced by Steam, those games wouldn't exist in their DRM-free form. Steam itself is a content delivery system, storefront, and community. The only reasons it can feel DRM-like is because of the choices made by developers and publishers.

 

With regards to curbing piracy, this choice is made by the developers and publishers. DRM is more effective than nothing, and for this purpose games can have Valve's DRM schemes (Steam DRM or CEG) or third party DRM applied. Steamworks can also be a form of DRM, ensuring that Steam is running with an account that actually owns a game. This is developers and publishers explicitly adding DRM. This can be done to games where their executables are originally DRM-free, and can be found DRM-free on other platforms in addition to Steam. In fact, developers can choose to wrap Steam DRM protected executables with another DRM scheme. It's completely up to them.

 

Steamworks integration is a somewhat more interesting approach to DRM. Steamworks in itself is not DRM. It is the developers' insistence that the APIs be available and their reluctance of adding error handling code or code to allow games to run without Steamworks being available that leads Steamworks in becoming a kind of DRM. It is perfectly within the realm of reality to create games that takes advantage of Steamworks features while still working properly when Steam is not found. Examples of such games include Psychonauts, Scribblenauts Unlimited (less custom objects), and various UDK games. In the cases where no additional DRM is present but the game has Steamworks integration, the only reason those games are not DRM-free is because the developer didn't put in any effort to make it DRM-free. Perhaps they wanted a little bit of piracy protection too.

 

In conclusion, you can't call Steam, the platform, a type of DRM. It is not like conventional DRM schemes where the executables have been modified so they can only run being intact and with the DRM system active. Steam poses no such requirements, and it is only through developers and publishers' choices where games become dependent to Steam.

 

Edit: After further discussion, I would like to add that Steam being the sole distributor of some games does not make it DRM either. Again, it is the developer/publisher's choice to distribute solely through Steam, and that Valve does not demand exclusivity. Similarly, lack of refunds and resale is not sufficient to prove that Valve is using technological measures to prevent said refunds and resale. It could simply be that no mechanisms for refunds and resale have been implemented, or that policy dictates so.

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"If DRM was forced by Steam, those games wouldn't exist in their DRM-free form." - Crucial oversight here: You're ignoring games that, even when purchased elsewhere, have to be registered with Steam. I.E., you have no choice but to use the client to access what you just bought, even if just for downloading the data. So there is dependency at play in many cases. The instances of leniency don't excuse the necessity of activations and subsequent account-locking.

 

"The only reasons it can feel DRM-like is because of the choices made by developers and publishers." - Then, frankly, Steamworks and Steam both deserved to be called DRM, because abuse and dependency exists with both of them. Let's also not forget that Fallout 1, 2 and Tactics were DRM-free on GOG before Bethesda got their hands on the IP, and they're still not being sold on that service despite being restored on Steam. So, don't excuse the service as a whole when there are examples of companies forcing it to be used as DRM. That makes it sound as if Valve never made the tools these devs are using the way they are. Steamworks had to come from somewhere after all.

 

"In conclusion, you can't call Steam, the platform, a type of DRM." - Actually, yes you can, and you should, because every game that requires Steam must be attached to an account to be accessed. Even if said game is DRM-free once you attach it to your account, you had to use Steam to get it versus use a DRM-free download from the site/client you bought it through. Amazon, GamersGate, GreenManGaming, etc. And let's not forget that no one can sell the games they attach to their Steam accounts, even though what is often sold on other sites are access keys, not data. So, for a multitude of reasons beyond executable wrappers and Steamworks, Steam as a platform is DRM. 

 

Never forget the "Rights" portion of the DRM acronym.

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<snip>

Good points. I wasn't thinking of digital distribution when I wrote this, only from a technical standpoint. For distribution, the way things are done like that is probably to reduce the work publishers have to do. Single distribution point with easy automatic updates means less hassle trying to tell everyone there has been a patch. I don't see that changing anytime soon. And I don't see how needing a client to download versus a direct download would change much. It is an extra step, and there is potential for problems, but the chances of those problems actually occurring seems small. The end results are the same. As for games being attached to accounts, GOG is such an example, yet it's still championed as one of the best sites for DRM-free gaming. Neither can you sell your games on GOG. If you ignore Steamworks and third party DRM, Steam has no more DRM than GOG, and some may say its community features and ease of use make up for whatever loss there is in flexibility. (Arguably, Humble Bundle may be the least encumbered in any sort of DRM, as you don't even need an account to download, and you can probably sell download page links if you wanted to.)

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So TL;DR to me seems that Steam offers DRM as part of Steamworks which is up to developer/publisher to use or not. 

That means with over 90% of cases Steam is DRM as it's then required to run the client to prove you can access the game. 

 

And as for GOG it gives you installer which you can download with browser and move however you like, Steam requires you to install client to download the game and always installs it into steams own installation folder so even if game is DRM-Free most will simply use it trough steam anyway and won't ever notice it's DRM-Free build. 

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So TL;DR to me seems that Steam offers DRM as part of Steamworks which is up to developer/publisher to use or not. 

That means with over 90% of cases Steam is DRM as it's then required to run the client to prove you can access the game.

 

Well, I can tell you that the percentage of developers who use Steam DRM is not as high as 90%, and Steamworks wasn't designed as DRM. I don't think the original intention of Steamworks was to be DRM-like. And proof of purchase isn't mandatory either. A lot of games that use Steamworks run perfectly fine even if you don't own them if you have Steam open and use a steam_appid.txt file.

 

And as for GOG it gives you installer which you can download with browser and move however you like, Steam requires you to install client to download the game and always installs it into steams own installation folder so even if game is DRM-Free most will simply use it trough steam anyway and won't ever notice it's DRM-Free build.

 

You can install into a different folder if you like. And for DRM-free games it's up to the user to decide whether they want to launch the game with Steam or not. Not noticing the game is DRM-free doesn't make it DRM encumbered. (BTW, a way to tell if a game doesn't use Steamworks is by its lack of any Steamworks feature except for trading cards and Steam Cloud. Steam DRM is easy enough to deal with if you come upon it.)

 

The point is at the end, when you're running the game, Steam is not intrinsically DRM. For DRM-free titles, I think the distribution process isn't as important when in the end you have the freedom to do whatever you want with the game once you have it downloaded.

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So TL;DR to me seems that Steam offers DRM as part of Steamworks which is up to developer/publisher to use or not. 

That means with over 90% of cases Steam is DRM as it's then required to run the client to prove you can access the game. 

 

And as for GOG it gives you installer which you can download with browser and move however you like, Steam requires you to install client to download the game and always installs it into steams own installation folder so even if game is DRM-Free most will simply use it trough steam anyway and won't ever notice it's DRM-Free build. 

I believe it's already more than two years since Steam initial support for custom game folders.

And indeed I have no games installed on the OS hard disk (where the client app itself is installed though)

 

Besides, it could even be that 90% of cases DRM and steam are enforced.... but then you have the other 10%... which void the universality of the hypothesis.

 

And I guess the problem is this:

  • common point of view (I mean.. I would see normal people even enjoying a noob-proof client that don't even need you to select game path)
  • and philosophical POV (richard stallman style concept of freedom, where already games being closed source is seen as a bad thing for example)

Technically yes, I would say that whenever you can't sell single games one by one your digital rights are restricted...

But then even GOG would be DRMed. Steam forces you to use their own client to download games, true, so we could say that's more DRMed..yet neither of them could be called really DRM-free

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Good points. I wasn't thinking of digital distribution when I wrote this, only from a technical standpoint. For distribution, the way things are done like that is probably to reduce the work publishers have to do. Single distribution point with easy automatic updates means less hassle trying to tell everyone there has been a patch. I don't see that changing anytime soon. And I don't see how needing a client to download versus a direct download would change much. It is an extra step, and there is potential for problems, but the chances of those problems actually occurring seems small. The end results are the same. As for games being attached to accounts, GOG is such an example, yet it's still championed as one of the best sites for DRM-free gaming. Neither can you sell your games on GOG. If you ignore Steamworks and third party DRM, Steam has no more DRM than GOG, and some may say its community features and ease of use make up for whatever loss there is in flexibility. (Arguably, Humble Bundle may be the least encumbered in any sort of DRM, as you don't even need an account to download, and you can probably sell download page links if you wanted to.)

 

Three things here.

 

#1 - When you double-click on a game executable from GOG and one from Steam, which one opens a client?

 

#2 - If your respective GOG/Steam account log-ins are not active, which one blocks you from playing the games installed on your personal hard drive until it is entered?

 

#3 - Which service allows you to store installers and data offline?

 

GOG is only needed when you need data or the community features. Steam requires it nearly all the time, even after you've installed a game on your hard drive. Hence, GOGs offerings are DRM-free versus Steam's client, or Origin's, or uPlay.

 

I believe it's already more than two years since Steam initial support for custom game folders.

And indeed I have no games installed on the OS hard disk (where the client app itself is installed though)

 

Besides, it could even be that 90% of cases DRM and steam are enforced.... but then you have the other 10%... which void the universality of the hypothesis.

 

And I guess the problem is this:

  • common point of view (I mean.. I would see normal people even enjoying a noob-proof client that don't even need you to select game path)
  • and philosophical POV (richard stallman style concept of freedom, where already games being closed source is seen as a bad thing for example)

Technically yes, I would say that whenever you can't sell single games one by one your digital rights are restricted...

But then even GOG would be DRMed. Steam forces you to use their own client to download games, true, so we could say that's more DRMed..yet neither of them could be called really DRM-free

 

The account-locking alone is not enough to call something DRM in my view. Every GOG game you buy can be freely offered to one or more friends, but not your Steam games, unless your friends have your log-in info and you've allowed their IP addresses and computers to download your games. Of course, if they're logged in, you can't also be.

 

GOG also has a refund policy in place for malfunctioning games, something Valve is unwilling to impliment officially, despite how much money they pull in from everything their service charges you for. They are a retailer, like Gamestop, Amazon and etc., so if you bought something unfit for purpose from them, they should honor a refund for it.

 

The only area where GOG lags against Steam is multiplayer, which is why I'm interested to see Galaxy come more into use. If it does allow cross-client play, as they claim, I'll be very pleased.

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Three things here.

 

#1 - When you double-click on a game executable from GOG and one from Steam, which one opens a client?

 

#2 - If your respective GOG/Steam account log-ins are not active, which one blocks you from playing the games installed on your personal hard drive until it is entered?

 

#3 - Which service allows you to store installers and data offline?

 

The whole discussion started because Cynic rightfully highlighted that there's no inherent reason to have steam games not requiring steam open when opened.

 

And it's not like I'd want to play devils's advocate.. though the notion of "freely offering your games to one or more friends" (while still maintaining the ownership after all) could be both legally and morally interpreted as piracy

Could you also elaborate better what "unfit for purpose" means?

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One thing I would like for us to properly implement in our Availability table is the idea of the 'Install method' which I think is information people are looking for. 

 

ALL Steam games require the Steam client to install.

SOME Steam games require account to connect online in order to play (DRM).

 

ALL GOG games have standalone installers.

 

Humble Store - some game have DRM-free standalone installers, some require Steam/Uplay, etc. to install and may/may not require Steam/Uplay to be active in order to play, some are DRM-free standalone but must have Steam/Uplay for multiplayer.

 

 

I feel like our Availability table should try to capture more of this information - perhaps we can introduce a 'Install method' column to help clarify.

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Three things here.

 

#1 - When you double-click on a game executable from GOG and one from Steam, which one opens a client?

 

#2 - If your respective GOG/Steam account log-ins are not active, which one blocks you from playing the games installed on your personal hard drive until it is entered?

 

#3 - Which service allows you to store installers and data offline?

 

1. It's not a technical requirement for games on Steam to require Steam to be open. It's the developer's choice whether the client is required or not. You're trying to compare DRM-free games with games that may be encumbered with DRM or lazy developers using Steamworks. I'm talking about platforms, where Steam does not intrinsically serve as DRM.

2. Same as point 1. If you've downloaded a DRM-free game off of Steam, then it doesn't require logging in.

3. Let's consider Steam games to not have installers. In fact, most games don't even need installers. As for storing data offline, well, when you've downloaded your data, you're storing it. Steam does not pose any restrictions on what you can do with the data, so you're free to archive and restore it whenever you want. If you want to make an installer with the data, you're free to do so.

 

One thing I would like for us to properly implement in our Availability table is the idea of the 'Install method' which I think is information people are looking for.

I agree with adding a field for distribution method. At least with the current table, those games that have Steam in the DRM column imply that the game requires Steam to play, even though the executables may not be DRM encumbered. Maybe add a few icons, for Steam DRM, CEG, and Steamworks in the case where one of those technologies forces you to have the Steam client open. It would also make tabulating DRM-free games on Steam and games with 3rd party DRM on Steam easier.

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Splitting Steam into the specific implementations is certainly a viable option but there would need to be an easy for editors to work out which DRM method is being used.

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CEG can be identified using SteamDB, most Steam DRM games can be identified with ProtectionID (or just searching for ".bind" within the first 4KB of the EXE files), third party DRM is shown on the game's Steam Store page, and Steamworks games that have to be launched from Steam will start Steam (or error out) when run independently.

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One thing I would like for us to properly implement in our Availability table is the idea of the 'Install method' which I think is information people are looking for. 

 

ALL Steam games require the Steam client to install.

SOME Steam games require account to connect online in order to play (DRM).

 

ALL GOG games have standalone installers.

Well, all Steam games do come with their installation script. For Execution-DRM-Free games on Steam only the literal download is required - you then can make your own installer (I've seen some real die-hards go so far as to argue that this is better than typical DRM-Free solutions).

 

As for refunds and fit for purpose etc. on Steam it is designed to be done at the publisher level through whatever Steam rep they have. Of course in practice this doesn't work out well since it isn't in the publisher's interests to do so.

 

CEG can be identified using SteamDB, most Steam DRM games can be identified with ProtectionID (or just searching for ".bind" within the first 4KB of the EXE files), third party DRM is shown on the game's Steam Store page, and Steamworks games that have to be launched from Steam will start Steam (or error out) when run independently.

 

Indeed. Though outside of CEG you do have those edge cases that actually scan your drive for steam or use the broken hard link to steam.dll method et al.. Would be interesting to note here anyway.

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