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Opinion: Steam and DRM

By Andrew Powell, published 20/12/2013 in Editorials

DRM (Digital Rights Management) is often thought of as, well, a naughty concept. Especially amongst GNU/Linux users, as many often think about their freedoms and openness.

With this in mind, Valve's Steam has been around on Linux for a bit over a year now and I've often noticed, on various Linux-related sites (especially those to do with gaming), the different ways that Linux users react to Valve's digital distribution service.

Often, I see at least these few different types of reaction:

  • Happy with Steam and the (increasing) myriad of games being available. Don't like DRM in general but find Steam's "DRM" to be one of the more acceptable forms of it.

  • Okay with Steam or don't use it much in general, but happy that Valve's interest and investment brings improvements to all users (ie. graphics driver improvements and the like).

  • Absolutely refuse to use Steam on the grounds of DRM.

The Steam client itself is of course completely proprietary and often that is a factor as well, but from what I have seen, DRM overrides even that. I've yet to witness anyone actually like DRM. At least amongst end-users.

I have seen quite a number of vocal Linux users say they refuse to use Steam or purchase/play games through the service because of the DRM.

But is it as bad as it's made out to be?

Well first it must be said that Steam's DRM is more of an inherent product of the service rather than a fully fledged "OMG stop all the piratez!!111" knee-jerk creation. If you add Steamworks integration (matchmaking, achievements etc) to your game, as a developer, then it's natural to assume that game or at least that version of the game, has a dependancy on Steam.

Also, a developer doesn't actually have to implement all that at all. There are in fact a fairly impressive number of DRM-free games on Steam (see the list here), simply because either the developers chose not to tie the game into Steam strictly or because the version of the game distributed on Steam is essentially the same as the DRM-free tarball of the game that is found elsewhere (think Humble Bundle for example).

That, I think, is a credit to Valve that they allow you to do it your way, in regards to game distribution. It's up to the developers entirely if they wish to impose restrictions on the game, either through their own third-party DRM or using the Steamworks API. Or maybe even both.

But it also has to be said, that if Valve offered no type of DRM whatsoever or insisted on every game to be DRM-free, their game library would be far, far smaller.

So are those protesting against Steam for DRM reasons wrong?

Simply, no. They are entitled to their views and often the arguments raised against Steam and it's DRM is the potential that one day, however unlikely it may seem right now, that if Steam was to ever fall and end up on the scrap heap many users would suddenly "lose" their games. Forever.
Then there's simply the principal of the matter, that Steam itself insists on running the whole time even when it's not desired, for many of the games in it's library.

To be honest I do think those and other various arguments that have been raised have some merit. Indeed, this writer too deeply despises most of the DRM out there. And it's not limited to gaming. Recently I had huge frustrations when shopping for ebooks and was shocked at just how much DRM was employed by the various outlets and then the vendor lock-in (looking at you, Amazon).

So dear writer, are you a hypocrite?

I probably could come across that way. Most likely I fall into the "Don't like DRM in general but find Steam's "DRM" to be one of the more acceptable forms of it" camp.

I find Steam's DRM to be far less invasive than most of the other examples out there, plus really it's a part of a service that provides many, many perks such as the community integration, achievements, trading, automatic patching etc rather than solely existing as a means to enforce DRM.

Of course it's very subjective, as there are plenty of people who either don't like Steam itself or just don't want to use it. Those who have no time for online friend-making and just want to fire up their favourite game after a hard day's work, for example. That sort of thing.

For those people, it's easy to see how needing Steam would be very annoying.

So it comes down to convenience and what you're willing to tolerate. Plus what you get out of the service as a whole. There is, admittedly, no way I could ever replace the experiences I have had (plus the people I've "met") in the Steam Community whether it be in-game or just chilling in the chats or Steam Community Groups. To be honest I wouldn't replace those experiences for anything.

But that doesn't mean I necessarily like or totally accept the idea of DRM. I think it borders on useless as an anti-piracy mechanism, something that ultimately often just ends up as an inconvenience to paying (law-abiding) users.

So, what to do?

I believe (and this is just my personal stance), that there can be a middle ground. I think rather than blame Steam itself, we should make our best efforts to make the developers know we want DRM-free versions. It doesn't matter how dependant on Steam that the Steam-distributed version of the game is, as long as a DRM-free version can be had elsewhere (like the Humble Bundles as I mentioned earlier. Or perhaps the many DRM-free versions which are clearly listed on the Humble Store).

That way, those of us who enjoy the features of Steam can enjoy them, but still have access to a DRM-free version of a particular game somewhere. Even better would be for the developers to put a "switch" in the game code, of (--insert Steam-distributed game--) so that if Steam is running, great, you can have the extended Steamworks bits and pieces. Otherwise, if Steam isn't detected as running, those bits aren't sought after in the execution and the game runs as normal, as if it were a non-Steam game.

Whether this is technically possible with the Steamworks API I have no idea. It may have even already been done this way in some cases, I'm not too sure. But feel free to leave information on this in the comments!

So, in summary, for now I'll continue to reap the rewards of my gaming life with Steam, on Linux. But at the same time I'll want to advocate for as much DRM-free games as possible. But Steam doesn't have to be synonymous with DRM!

Of course there also the arguments of Steam being a proprietary behemoth vs FOSS etc, but that would be topics for another day ;)

So, what do you think? How do you feel about Steam and DRM? Do you see it as being almost the same thing? Let me know in the comments, as always!

About the author

Andrew Powell is the editor and owner of The Linux Rain who loves all things Linux, gaming and everything in between.

Tags: drm steam drm-free
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