I haven’t really played PC games for years. Sometime in college I bought my first console, an Xbox, and ever since, I’ve preferred the gamepad to the mouse. However, there are just some games that you can’t get on a console - strategy games. I loved StarCraft, Homeworld, Command & Conquer, and Myth. But as my poor old machine became more and more obsolete, I stopped being able to play even budget titles. Beyond that, the quality and selection of PC games was dropping fast - I think I finally swore off PC games when I bought Unreal Tournament 2003, new, and it came as 4 CD-ROMs in paper sleeves in an otherwise empty cardboard box, required 3 patches and 2 driver updates to work, and wasn’t even a very good game!
However, as the time to build a new machine approached, I got excited about being able to catch up on some of the titles I had missed, like Darwinia, DEFCON, Galactic Civilizations II, Supreme Commander, and Civilization 4.
When I finally built my new machine, the graphics card I ordered actually came with a copy of Civilization 4. I figured it would be a great way to get my strategy fix, so I popped it in and installed it, which took quite a while. I started up the game and got about 10 seconds through the terrifying virtual-Sid-Meier-led tutorial before it crashed. I found out later that this was due to heat issues on my graphics card, but at the time I just chalked it up to flaky 64-bit Vista drivers, ejected the CD, and worked on something else.
A couple weeks later I had a new version of the ATI Catalyst drivers and I figured I’d give Civ4 another shot. I popped the disc in, and it spun up… and spun down. And spun up. And whined a bit. And spun down again. This continued for a few minuted before the drive gave up. Windows never got ahold of the disc. After about 10 minutes of polishing the disc, trying it in other machines (they could read it), and blowing air into my DVD drive, my wife suggested uninstalling Civ4. I was frustrated enough at that point that I actually tried it, at the same time thinking that there was no way the game’s presence on my hard drive could have anything to do with the CD not spinning correctly in the drive.
It worked. Once the game was gone, the disc was recognized right away and cheerfully asked me to install Civ4. A bit more warily this time, I reinstalled the game. It started up just fine after the install finished, but when I ejected and reinserted the DVD I got nothing but airplane noises again. After some research online, I learned that the disc wasn’t being recognized, most likely, because Civ4 employs tricky techniques to stop people from stealing the game. However, I was pretty sure I had a legitimate, purchased game. How could I get my game, which I own, to work? I cracked it. One Google search and 3 or 4 clicks later, I had downloaded and installed a patched executable that bypassed the CD check, and my copy of Civ4 was up and running, sans DVD. It turns out that there is no reason at all for the DVD to be in the drive, other than to “prove” that you own it.
So to summarize, if you own a legitimate copy of a game, it might not work because of the content protection devices in place to protect it from piracy. However, if you are stealing the game, you don’t need to put in the CD, and it’ll work right away. Add in the fact that you get spiffy digital content distribution. It gets better - some companies use “protection” like Starforce that’s so invasive that it installs hidden device drivers and mucks around with your machine at the kernel level. Who would put up with this? It’s no wonder that console games, which offer drop-it-in-the-tray ease of use, are beating the pants off of PC games.
That’s not to say that nobody’s doing it right. My retail copy of Darwinia installs right off the CD then never asks me for it again. And it’s available over Steam or directly off Introversion’s online store if I don’t want physical media. I just hope more publishers realize, like Introversion and Stardock have, that this sort of copy protection only hurts paying customers, and sours everybody on the PC as a gaming platform.