Re-Thinking Starcraft 2 DRM

Posted by Daeity On Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hypothetical scenario. Learning from mistakes in SC2: WoL, what if Blizzard decided to make changes to their DRM for Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void?

In WoL, we're already aware that an initial activation check-in is required to play offline. Even on the retail box, it said "Internet Connection Required" which concerned a lot of people before Blizzard clarified what they intended.

If HOTS were to require a persistent online connection, groups could still crack the game because all content it still included with the game. A simple bypass or authentication emulator is all that would be needed. But, what if they were to design the game a little more like Diablo 3 though?

In HOTS, they will likely still include all level design, maps, scripting, missions, and audio/video assets locally. Excluding server side achievements, player communication, and game saves, let's say that they left out one very important aspect of the game that's difficult to emulate: Server Side AI.

Many games that require persistent online connections can still be cracked, since you already have the full game, and they don't need any streaming data from the server (other than for achievements or online chat). It's just used for authentication based copy protection.

But, what if the streaming data was critical and gameplay actually depended on it? (D3 servers do map designs, random chance, loot drops, proactive (made in advance) combat calculations, movement, NPC AI, etc. SC2 would just need server side AI and everything could still be stored locally.)

Of course, this would all depend on piracy issues, loss of revenue, and research using their own internal statistics. Blizzard would be well aware of how popular the "offline versus online" versions are. And Blizzard has really been pushing the online components of the game. They'll use methods like Achievements, Paid Map Marketplaces, DLC, and emphasis on Multiplayer PVP features and services to combat piracy. Offline play might not be a big problem, and not a market that they want to capture or restrict.

This "new DRM" version of Starcraft 2 could still be "cracked" if these piracy groups were to create a server emulator that could both authenticate and feed instructions to the client for offline NPC AI gameplay.

However, the pirated version of the game wouldn't be fun, and it would take the crackers several months (maybe even years) create an acceptable AI. And that's even if they had experts in the field of AI programming. At first, they would probably just whip up stationary dummy bots and eventually some rudimentary NPC behavior. There would be no real gameplay or challenge without the real AI.

Even if they could create some intelligent AI behavior, Blizzard could create checks within the game that monitor authentic Blizzard-designed AI behaviors. :) If those checks fail, there should be random effects within the game that don't make it obvious that they're copy protection methods. For example, random crashes. If they don't know there's copy protection, they can't hunt for it.

To make matters even worse for the cracking groups; just don't announce this feature ahead of time. :) Announce that a Persistent Online Connection is required for offline play, and wait for their shock and surprise when they realize the new type of DRM employed.

The biggest downsides to this, are of course, two main points:

It requires a persistent online connection. Something Blizzard is already doing with all of their games now anyways, and you already need to be online (and therefore already have an internet connection) to be authenticated anyways. The first game is a nice stepping stone, and the new DRM could just be marketed as an "Advanced Artificial Intelligence" that's too powerful for home computers. :)

Lag concerns over AI streaming instructions. The thing is, SC2 has a strong emphasis on online multiplayer action, and you're already doing this but with real players. Your offline gameplay would be experiencing the same negligible lag that you experience with other players.. except in this case, there would be much less data being transferred, and you would only be talking to your nearest localized server. So, imagine latency on your best days and that's what you would have for offline sessions.

Crazy idea, but consider it from Blizzard's perspective. Could it force enough pirates to actually buy the game? Are the numbers feasible? Who knows.