#9633769, By frunk Sony’s Approach to DRM - A "DF: In Theory" type post

  • frunk 9 Jun 2013 12:46:08 46 posts
    Seen 20 hours ago
    Registered 10 years ago
    Hehe - I had fun predicting what MS would do with the XBox One in my last mega-post here :) Thankfully it was largely vindicated by the reveal: http://www.eurogamer.net/forum/thread/247284

    Only major issue was the last of a proper Win 8 install.. but the groundwork is there.

    So only the next major discussion... Sony’s Approach to DRM - as it much debated in the comments threads and probably better discussed on the forum.

    I have written this post like a DF: "In Theory" article to make it a bit easier to read. Warning... it is long as there are lots of options... so just ignore it if you don't like the length! I don't write often enough to justify a blog... so I will guddle around in forum's till I get asked politely to not do posts like this any more!


    It would be somewhat naïve for any gamer to believe that Sony has not come under the same pressure to kowtow to publishers that Microsoft has done. In so doing Microsoft has developed a series of technologies and policies that have rightly been perceived as anti-consumer, anti-high street and pro-publisher. They have taken every negative aspect of DRM and amplified it, whilst removing all the benefits of a totally digital system from their audience.

    The secret development of these consoles over the last half-decade has lead to too many “good decisions” being made in the rarefied atmosphere of swish Microsoft boardrooms. In short they have “lost touch” with the consumer and will have to pay the ultimate price of that arrogance on the global stage, much to the delight of the baying hordes of gaming forums.

    So what will Sony do? By necessity from publisher pressure they will have developed a system capable of the same anti-consumer practices, but how they implement it will be vastly different and, if correctly handled, dodge the bullet of Internet rage.

    Sony have clearly stated their intent, technology and capability within this patent published earlier this year. Lets cover off what this does and how it differs from Microsoft’s strategy.

    The key to Sony’s technology is the introduction of a passive RFID tag to the game disc. This is a simple & cheap technology to implement if you own the disc fabrication plants, which Sony does. For a few tens of cents it offers a few hundred bytes of writable data on every disc onto which you place the digital rights information. This small change offers an array of possibilities.

    Sony have at their disposal the following secure authentication factors:
    - The console: each individual console has a unique fixed identity
    - The game: each game has a unique fixed identity, whether it came from a disc or from an online store
    - The physical disc: every pressed game disc has a unique flexible identity provided by the RFID tag
    - The user’s online account: a unique flexible identity tied to a user, their credit card, etc. This is only available if the user is online and is only flexible if the user stays online.

    Without going online the Xbox One only has the console and game at it’s disposal; like the good old days. With this simplistic setup it is only possible to carry out basic copy protection measures and it is impossible to enforce any DRM at all.

    Last generation it was seen that this model could be extended using the users online account to offer a level of DRM. But this could only be enforced for online users, which is why we entered a world of on-line passes and DLC.

    Now publishers are demanding DRM to control how a gamer consumes their content. To provide this level of flexibility to the system, Microsoft has had to enforce use of the user’s online account and therefore the “always connected” nature of their DRM.

    Further to this, Microsoft themselves want their console to be able to run “disc free” which means they have backed themselves further into a corner with a very basic licensing model. Each disc will come with an archaic licence key a user will have to type in manually to tie the game to the online user account.

    This hellish DRM model dreamed up by Microsoft is a result of publisher pressure and their own on-line ambitions. Microsoft cannot shift all the blame onto the publishers as their own business interests are also represented in their final solution. This solution unfortunately is one that has no single tangible benefit to gamers, but instead provides all the disadvantages of monopolised DRM.

    Adding the RFID tag to the disc is the only way for Sony to adopt DRM policies to satisfy publisher demands and their own differing ambitions of never forcing users online – which they have clearly stated.

    Immediately Sony has a more flexible system, which can be as draconian as Microsoft’s model, but has far more options in how it can be implemented over the lifetime of the console. Indeed it is even possible to add consumer and high-street friendly options to the mix.

    Having the RFID tag on the disc allows the disc to maintain an individual identity with the system without resorting to online validation. Having the RFID updating itself means the disc can track it’s own progress through physical hardware and optionally any users on those consoles.

    To emulate the Microsoft’s DRM model without an online requirement would mean the game “writes” the console ID and user account to the RFID tag on the disc. It is then possible in console OS to ensure the disc could only be played on that single console and no others. Alternatively it could validate to a user account and if that user account exists on the new hardware still allow the game to play.

    However Sony would be unlikely to adopt this simplistic model as it takes no real advantage of their better technology.

    There are several ways gamers get their games:
    - buy them new: online or physical disc
    - have a friend visit and bring a disc round to play
    - borrow discs from their friends longer term
    - buy them privately from other gamers, on eBay, etc
    - buy a used disc from a high street shop
    - rent them from local shop or from online lender

    Generally publishers and platform holders don’t tend to mind friends sharing discs amongst themselves; it is the nature of physical goods. We have all become used to this type of behaviour and the publisher-pricing model takes this into account. It is only when these systems are abused by the high street or by rental services that the model breaks and we enter the world where publishers start demanding DRM in a hope of getting a better cut of an unbalanced pie.

    Microsoft have tried to provide some of this capability with a complex array of policies policed by their always online architecture.

    Sony can address each of these options individually and enforce it quietly in the background without he user being aware. For instance;

    - Allow a disc to run on any account across on one, two or five other consoles indefinitely. This allows people to lend their disc to their friends but kills the ability for the disc to be used in a rental service. It also means the disc can be bought and resold a limited number of times reducing the churn on used game sales. Of course a retailer or user can subsequently go online and “top-up” the licence for the disc.

    More elaborate mechanisms could be employed;

    - Reset the licence count if the disc comes back to the person who first used the disc. This implies it was just lent and was not sold.
    - Limit how long a disc can be lent before it stops working, stops getting trophies, stops online play, stops saving, etc

    There are a thousand scenarios and a thousand sliders that can be managed by Sony and the publisher to provide a DRM solution that could be perceived as less anti-consumer.

    Indeed this will probably be an individual publisher choice with Sony adopting the currently accepted DRM models (i.e. online passes) for the near term to avoid upsetting the community. But over time this could evolve for the better or worse according to the need for change and acceptance by their community.

    It is not perfect of course; a DRM policy, which is publisher dependent, would be fundamentally complex and difficult for the consumer to comprehend. The licensing status of an individual disc is not visually apparent; it would have to be scanned to have its status verified. And of course the buyer needs to be educated enough to understand the implication of any status.

    Microsoft has done the worst thing you can do can do in any IT project and that is not to correctly judge the willingness and speed for users to change their attitudes in line with their own objectives. They have instead just enforced “their solution” on an unwilling public and thrown up walls of defence that are close to impossible to break down again. In IT terms; “a management of change disaster” brought about by vendor arrogance.

    But Sony still has the same DRM right? Well, not quite. They have not stated their policies and the nature of their hardware solution means they could come in more softly and evolve over time. At this stage Sony can still move down the path towards more DRM before launch and still be seen as “the good guys” merely by being less bad than the competition, but it is a dangerous road.

    Sony could instead add value by offering better capabilities for many of us. There are other friendlier ways of dealing with the high street and professional lenders.

    In the VHS days a tape would be released to the rental market at a high price a few months before it was available for sale at a more reasonable price in the local store. Simple tape-to-tape piracy effectively killed this model but it could be re-instated here. Lovefilm or Redbox could just pay to reset the licence on the disc whenever it is returned or pay extra for a disc with an RFID tag that can be used in 100 machines.

    Stocking games for a shop is a huge risk to the owner, which is why high street shops so often have poor stock, especially of surprise break out hits. In the newspaper selling business, the shop deliberately takes in too many titles and copies knowing they will be refunded when the excess papers are picked up and pulped that evening. Videogame platform holders could support this model as well. Shops could deliberately over-stock excess and would be able to “pulp” their own copies by zeroing the RFID tag the following week on a vendor portal able to refund most of the cost to the retailer. Of course Microsoft could invalidate discs too my having the retailer type unneeded keys into a central site, a less elegant but valid solution.

    Great for retailers, what about us gamers? Well Sony has the gamut of DRM to explore from the current status quo all the way through to an Xbox One model.

    One example could be for discs installed on the hard drive do not need to be inserted into the machine to be played as RFID generally has a range of a few inches and the reader could determine the disc is near the machine and allow the game to run without actually inserting it. Useful but hardly a game changer (boom, boom!)

    As consumers we willingly submit to DRM if it offers more convenience or perceived value. Steam, PSN+, Netflix, iTunes ride this success. Sony has the technology in place and the opportunity to learn from Microsoft’s recent mistakes and to grow a pair in order to push back on publishers. Not doing this will present gamers with an overly-draconian or overly-complex system which may attract a similar response to the Xbox One.

    Sony needs to demonstrate they are on the consumer’s side as they have done in the latter half of this generation. PSN+ shows that Sony understands how to deliver a DRM riddled service to consumers that is highly valued.

    With the introduction of the PS3, Sony started out arrogant and dismissive of their customers. But as the platform matured they began to open their ears and evolve the platform accordingly. All Sony really needs to do is keep on listening and remember that ultimately it is gamers who put money in their pockets and not publishers.
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