There’s nothing wrong with protecting your intellectual property if you’re a business. On the other hand, leaving consumers high and dry when licences fail to work as they’re meant to really sucks, even if the property in question is just a relatively minor game title. Thankfully, Apple does this a lot better than its biggest competitor.
The future of software delivery, as we’ve been promised for some time now, is in digital delivery. Certainly, it’s a model that’s proven wildly successful for a number of shareware-style operators with applications that are easy to download and install, but what about larger applications? Well, that market’s being tested out right now in the games world, and Apple is right in the thick of it, thanks to the digital delivery of games via the iTunes Store. It’s not the first to market here, but in the games world, it’s at least jumping one hurdle that should keep customers very happy — and it’s a hurdle that I’ve recently seen a very big competitor stumble on rather badly. That competitor being Microsoft, with the Xbox Live Arcade service that it offers via the Xbox 360.
My DRM woes started when my Xbox 360 died; a common enough occurrence that there’s even an acronym to cover it: the RROD (Red Ring Of Death). Now, in this instance I (personally) got lucky, in that I vented my spleen at the thing on my Facebook profile, and a Microsoft PR person spotted that and arranged a swift replacement — something (given that I review games for a number of publications) that I was quite grateful for.
Having done that, the licenses for my downloaded games needed to be refreshed, a not entirely quick process. That being done, I set down to play some games, and all was well in the world.
Or so I thought.
There was one title — the venerable ’80s arcade classic “Double Dragon”, that I’d bought some twelve months earlier — that refused to run. Specifically, it would load into trial mode (Microsoft mandates that all the Xbox Live Arcade titles must offer a demo), but then urge me to buy the full game — which I’d already done!
If I did click to buy again, the system regained a small amount of sanity and recognised that I’d paid for it; I could then download it again. Thinking that something buggy had happened, I did this. It made no difference; I could load Double Dragon until my eyes bled, but it wouldn’t actually let me play it, because the DRM system (at some level) was convinced I hadn’t paid for it. And yet, in a feat of simultaneous contradictory illogic that I hadn’t hit since playing Infocom’s “HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, a game that required you to have both “Tea” and “No Tea” simultaneously, the system knew that I’d bought it, so refused to let me buy it again, because I already had.
I was stuck, so I called Microsoft’s Xbox Live help desk. I’m not sure why the word “help” is there, to be frank, and being over the phone, I’m not even sure they own a desk. In any case, help wasn’t much forthcoming. They couldn’t spot records of me having purchased the game on their system, but agreed that the system was letting me download the full game, so I must have actually done so at some point. They took me through the same dull delete, download, reinstall, and finally refresh licence malarkey that I’d been through previously, at which point the call ended, which was fair enough — the refresh process has typically taken me about an hour, and there wasn’t much point in keeping the support person busy all that time doing nothing.
An hour passed, my licences refreshed, and yet I was still bereft of the refreshment that can only come from whacking pixellated sprites with baseball bats in a haze of nostalgia. The same error persisted, so I called back, only to be told that they couldn’t offer me a refund (because I couldn’t re-buy the game), but they’d escalate the issue to their level 2 support. Still, I was told, “there probably wasn’t much they could do about it”, but they would phone me back in five working days.
That was three weeks ago. I haven’t heard a thing from the so-called “help desk” yet, and I’m not holding my breath.
Now, at one level, whether or not I can play a game that only cost me $6.60 isn’t that critical; there are plenty of other pressing needs at any given time, and I’m genuinely not lacking in games to play. The bigger problem, though, is one of DRM trust. A single game isn’t worth tearing what’s left of my hair out about, but if businesses want consumers to embrace digital downloads, they’ve got to make them transparent, easy to use, and above all, they’ve got to make sure that they work, full stop.
You’re probably sick of hearing me complain about Microsoft (although possibly buyers of Australian Microsoft World might not be, if that title actually existed), but that brings me nicely back to Apple. As a company, Apple’s got something of a reputation of being a control freak, from the hardware to the software to the walled garden of the iTunes store.
But in the case of the iTunes store, and how it relates to games and DRM, I reckon it’s got it spot on. When the App store first launched, I had access to an iPhone 3G review unit, and my own iPod touch. I knew the rules for music on the store, but wasn’t too sure about applications — an area I felt might just be a bit trickier. And given the iPhone 3G I was using wasn’t mine, I wasn’t too keen on buying an application that I might not be able to even place on my iPod Touch at all.
So I checked with Apple, to find out that the terms for the App Store are really quite generous. Apple (and by proxy, any developer placing Apps on the App Store) doesn’t care how many iPod touches or iPhone/iPhone 3G units you synchronise an App to, which gives the consumer a tonne of choice. As long as the unit’s mine (or I don’t mind it synchronising with my iTunes library), I can throw Critter Crunch, Zen Rollercoaster, Labyrinth, Wooo Button and any other App I like onto as many machines as I like, and I need never get stuck in a logical loop asking if I’ve both bought and not bought the App ever again. From what I’ve seen, even if I do, say, drop all my iPods into a furnace, I can re-download the Apps to my heart’s content, and they’ll work on that spangly new iPod touch 320GB that’s just around the corner.
Cough. Allegedly, of course.