The War on Game Pirates

The War On Videogame Piracy

It was estimated that more people downloaded Doom III the weekend before it was released than bought it in the first few days it was available in stores. This is the extent to which Internet piracy has affected the gaming industry. Surprisingly, piracy is a bigger deal in gaming than music, because gaming rests on much more rickety financial structures than the music industry. And as fast as you can say "DRM," we’re spiraling downwards in an arms race between pirates and developers seeking to protect their code.

The crackers behind videogame piracy are far more sophisticated than those behind music or even film piracy. Successfully "cracking" a game requires a vast and sophisticated network of pirates who must break the code securing the game from piracy, and then distribute it to the Internet. For some this is a sport, with various cracking groups racing one another to release the fastest and highest quality copies of videogames. For others it is a business -the majority of videogames sold in countries like Russia and China are estimated to be pirated copies bought in market stalls.

Of course this "War on Piracy" also a game of verbal happy-slap. Pirates make various paper-thin excuses for what they do, and the videogaming industry absurdly overestimates the impact of piracy by assuming that every download of a videogame is a lost retail sale. So one must take all that is said with a pinch of salt, while at the same time realizing that piracy is indeed a major problem, especially for our industry.

Videogames may be earning upwards of $8 billion a year, but the margins involved in videogaming are such that the industry could not afford to take the massive hits that the music industry has from internet piracy. The only thing keeping the game industry from suffering as the music industry has is the fact that videogames are so large in size and unwieldy to steal. That’s also why many of those who have libraries of pirated music do not have nearly as many pirated games on their hard drives.

It is still a major problem, however, and one to which the videogame industry has been rather proactive in responding. In the good old DOS days, game developers relied on rather primitive copy protection methods, such as requiring the gamer to look up codes on user manual pages. As the CD-ROM came to the fore, we found ourselves having to leave the disc in the drive in order to play, and later entering a CD key when installing the game. To date every single one of these methods has failed ; they are more lip-service to security than real and effective copy protection measures.

Game developers and publishers, in a perfectly understandable attempt to protect what is theirs, are trying newer, far more invasive methods of protecting their code ; some could even be described as rather shady. One of these is known as StarForce, a self labeled "advanced encryption and activation technology for CD/CD-R/DVD and electronic software distribution."

The way StarForce and a couple of its cousins does this is one of the more disturbing developments in the videogame war on piracy. StarForce installs a hidden driver onto your machine along with the game itself, without any explicit warnings. This driver is required to play the game and is not uninstalled with the game. It also has a rather disturbing tendency to re-install itself after either manual removal or cleanup using a provided tool that has to be hunted for across the Internet.

These new protection systems do not simply protect software from direct attempts to pirate it - they also proactively search out potential piracy threats on one’s system and then prevent them from working. Programs such as Nero and Alcohol 120% are obvious targets here, though I have seen far more erratic and often times seemingly random tantrums taken by these systems. These range from disabling the recording device in Windows Media Player, to preventing access to the CD drive both on the software and hardware side. I usually find myself pressing the button to open the CD drive and then having to log out of Windows for it to do what it’s supposed to !

The specifics of how many of these systems work is kept a secret - for obvious reasons - but the results of their usage are no secret, and can be extremely disruptive. I have even heard first hand accounts of people having to totally rebuild their computers after a nasty run in with them.

In an interview with Firing Squad, the makers of StarForce strenuously denied the fact that their driver causes problems to all but a slim minority of user systems. They then went on to state that the EULA covers them and the publishers from all liability of damage done by their copy protection. In other words, "we state that it doesn’t cause problems, but if it does, we’re covered by the EULA and you’re not."

Being a games journalist myself, I deal with copy protection products such as StarForce and Macrovision on a regular basis, as do my peers. In addition to causing a number of close misses and problems with various reviews and previews in the past, I have had many "odd" problems related to the driver. When the makers of these copy protection systems say they cause little or no problems I nod, call them a bunch of wankers, and get down to rebuilding system after system in order to be able to do my job. At least I’m paid to do it... Joe Consumer is supposed to be doing this for fun.

While these copy protection methods are finding their way onto an increasing amount of videogames, the ironic thing is that despite all the hassle they create for honest users, they don’t work all that well. I’ve seen as many cracked copies of "protected" videogames on the Internet as unprotected games. The real joke is the fact that the cracked versions of the games do not come with the disruptive copy protection - meaning that the pirates do not suffer the ill effects of the driver that are inflicted upon legitimate paying customers.

I await the day when copy protection affects someone who won’t be prepared to sit down and take it. Then we’ll see if some of the more infamous clauses in the EULA will stand up in a court of law. Until then, if your computer starts acting erratically after installing a videogame, take a peek for a hidden driver or two that you don’t recognize...

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