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GOG vs Steam: DRM Pros and Cons
October 2, 2021
With the continued shift from physical to digital media, most PC gamers buy and play their video games through digital storefronts and platforms. However, many of these services come with digital rights management (DRM), which can feel restrictive to those who want complete control over their digital purchases.
While console manufacturers like Sony and Nintendo use DRM in their digital downloads and purchases, PC gaming is different. Not all PC game storefronts use DRM, but how can you know? Plus, what exactly is DRM and how does it impact your game library?
In this article, we take a look at DRM, how it works on two major platforms (Steam and GOG), and what you need to know to make the right purchases for you.
What is DRM?
Digital rights management (DRM) is a way to protect copyrights for digital media. This includes the use of technology that limits copying and selling copyrighted works and software, like if you were to burn a game to a CD to share or sell.
Most gaming companies use DRM to authenticate your game purchase. This includes major gaming digital distribution services such as Steam, but also game publishers (Ubisoft and Activision-Blizzard) and console manufacturers (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft).
DRM isn’t limited to gaming, either. Copyright holders with concerns about privacy use it in software, photography, movies, and other media.
How does DRM work?
When you purchase DRM-protected content online, you aren’t purchasing the content itself. Instead, you’re buying a license to use the content in a way that the copyright holder deems appropriate.
DRM controls your access to games on the Steam platform. When you buy a game on Steam, you only own a license to play it. If you lose access to your Steam account, you also lose access to the games you bought.
DRM technology makes digitally downloaded games different from physical games. Unlike physical games, you cannot install your Steam games on a new device unless you’re logged into your Steam account. This prevents you from sharing or altering a game on Steam in any way outside of approved mods in the Steam Workshop.
When you load a game via Steam, the platform first authenticates your license. However, if a game is removed from Steam for some reason, you no longer have access to it, even if you purchased the license.
What is GOG.com?
GOG.com launched in 2008 and initially specialized in distributing older PC games. It’s also one of the few digital distribution services with a strict no DRM policy. It is owned by CD Projekt, the acclaimed publisher and developer of The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077.
AAA game publishers tend to support DRM, and limit their releases on platforms like GOG.com due to piracy concerns. While there is some game overlap on the two platforms, GOG.com does not restrict its games with DRM.
Does GOG.com have DRM?
GOG.com is DRM-free and allows for unlimited installations and copying of the games you buy. This is a big advantage compared to other platforms, and the company even held an anti-DRM initiative in 2018. It promoted its stance alongside other digital rights advocates such as Defective by Design, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bandcamp, Wikisource, and Project Gutenberg.
GOG.com doesn’t just sell games; it also sells DRM-free movies and documentaries. These include behind-the-scenes looks at games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance and The Witcher 3.
DRM pros and cons
DRM does not have many advantages for consumers. However, it is helpful with tracking your game progress, such as through Steam trading cards and achievements. These are associated with a user’s Steam account and authenticated via DRM.
Beyond that, DRM can be troubling or at least annoying for consumers, though it does help companies better curtail piracy. In the past, DRM was much more controversial because of its always-online component on many platforms. This restricted how and when you could play certain games that required an internet connection at all times.
However, after hearing the concerns and complaints of many gamers – see this SimCity petition from the early 2010s – publishers soon dropped this component of DRM technology.
Losing games due to DRM
One of the biggest issues with DRM is the delisting of games. If a platform like Steam delists a game, you can no longer play it, since you only owned the license and not the game itself. That license is voided once the game is delisted by either Steam or the game publisher.
The website Delisted Games has a running list of more than 1,400 titles you can’t currently download on PC. Many of these games include online titles that publishers discontinued, although there are many single-player titles as well.
GOG.com delists games on occasion, but it notifies gamers to download these titles directly before they’re delisted. This allows users to create backup copies of games they purchased but may no longer access via GOG.com.
GOG vs Steam – why not both?
When deciding between GOG and Steam, most gamers choose Steam because it’s convenient and hosts a larger selection of games. Steam also has much more in the way of brand recognition, so many gamers use the platform because it is the one they are most aware of.
However, because Steam does not have DRM-free games, you may want to use it in tandem with a service like GOG.com. GOG.com has many of the same indie titles as Steam, and there is no disadvantage to using both platforms at once. Each platform also has different sales and discounts, so you’re able to shop around and find the best deal.
GOG.com also doesn’t include regional restrictions, also known as geo-blocking, on games. This means you can play any game you purchase on GOG.com regardless of where you live. This issue was put under the spotlight in early 2021 when the European Commission fined Valve (the owners of Steam) and other gaming publishers €7.8 million for breaching European Union antitrust laws.
Should you accept DRM?
Most game publishers use DRM, which makes it impossible to avoid outside of select digital distribution platforms, like GOG.com, and certain games on the Epic Games Store.
Even if you can’t avoid it, it’s important to be aware of how DRM impacts your digital game library. Again, when you buy a game with DRM, you’re buying a license to play the game and not the actual game.
If you’re a PC gamer who prefers indie titles, you may want to make the effort to purchase your games DRM-free so you can download them directly to your PC. This provides you with access to your game in any way you choose.
DRM is an increasingly common component of modern gaming. While you can purchase most console games on disc or cartridge, it is very difficult for PC gamers to do the same.
Most current generation PC games aren’t available on CD. Plus, most modern PCs don’t have a disc drive. Instead, PC gamers must make digital purchases, which has its advantages and disadvantages, particularly when it comes to DRM.
It’s impossible to avoid DRM entirely if you buy your games on Steam, which is what makes the DRM-free options on GOG.com so appealing. This will give you more freedom and control over your purchases. It also allows you to actually own your games.
However, because GOG.com offers fewer games compared to Steam, you may want to create a blended library of games from both platforms. That way, you can get the games you want and find the best deals on your own terms.
About the Author: Daniel Horowitz is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes. Daniel is a New York-based author and has written for publications such as USA Today, Digital Trends, Unwinnable Magazine, and many other media outlets.
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