With SimCity set to return this year, bringing with it yet another game that uses what I view is the nuclear option in the war between the video games industry and software pirates, I feel it is an auspicious time to discuss software piracy and the DRM (digital rights management) developers have created to deal with it.

The game joins the ranks of the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Diablo 3 in requiring the player to be online all of the time that he is playing, even if he intends to play alone and not to use the social networking features of the game.

The Future of DRM

The always online DRM is becoming frighteningly popular in spite of the negative response of customers. The fact is: if the game is good enough, people will buy it in spite of draconian DRM. Defenders of it often argue that in this age where broadband is available everywhere, as far as remote areas in third world countries, that it’s alright to have always online DRM. I disagree with this assessment. In my opinion even initial activation DRM is undesirable. I remember having issues unlocking certain popular games preloaded on Steam due to server issues caused by the sheer numbers of other customers trying t do the same thing. Servers just can’t handle that much load properly. This pales in comparison to the “Error 37″ fiasco, which clouded the launch of Diablo 3 last year. For several days most people could not play Diablo 3. It was such a widespread problem that it was the number one trend on Twitter for several days. Furthermore, it is not completely impossible for people to lose their Internet connection for days at a time. Weather, vandalism all sorts of things can interfere with a person’s internet connection. These are days when they can’t play their legitimately purchased single player game. There is often downtime for server maintenance/upgrades and then there’s the ever-present threat of DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks. With all of these drawbacks it is amazing to me that any company, especially one with the PR problems that EA has suffered from lately would even consider having an always online system in their single player game. Yet, here we are with a SimCity reboot, that does just this. The worst part of it is that being online only offers no benefit to the consumer. The usual thing that you get back is free cloud saves. However, games on Steam give this to your for free without preventing you from enjoying your game if you have any kind of connection problems.

Understanding The Need For DRM

DRM is the most hated enemy of many of the people who legitimately acquire their software. The reason being that it necessitates processes such as entering long product keys, always having a disk in the drive, needing to connect to the internet to install a game you bought a physical copy of and now always being online even if you intend to play on your own. The worst part of all of this is that most of the time the actual pirates that DRM has been created to interfere with don’t have to deal with it. They just install a version of the game stripped of all annoying security measures and get on with playing the games.

I am not unsympathetic to publishers who think this necessary. I fully understand why it’s done. If it wasn’t in place, home users would simply make copies of every disc they bought and share them with their friends. I remember that the first time I ran foul of it was in the mid 90s when the CD-ROM was relatively new. I thought that I could just do a full install (there used to be options to choose how much content you installed) and then lend my discs out and then play the game without a care. You see, my naïve mind didn’t understand that if I could just do that then, in a group of five friends, only one need ever have bought any games and thus nobody would be making any money.

A History of DRM

The CD check is one of the most basic forms of DRM. It was simple and it got the job done. In order to play the given game, you needed to have the disc in the drive. It was simple and effective on the people who would innocently be cutting into publisher’s profits. Till today it is probably the most common form of DRM available. In its early days when CD burners were entering the consumer market, it could be circumvented by using a copied disc. To combat this came security methods such as safe disc and SecuROM, which put in extra bits of code to detect illegal copies of discs. Making it impossible for a home user with no knowledge of coding to simply circumvent the efforts to protect games and copying it illegally.

Along with the above measures came the product key. Product keys have been used for years to increase the difficulty of software piracy. The keys usually consist of at least 10 alphanumeric characters which must be entered when the player attempts to install the game. The key is then saved in the registry and verified at key times, such as when attempting to play the game online or over LAN. In response to this, pirates created the keygen. A small piece of software that uses an algorithm to attempt to generate a legitimate product key allowing players with illegal copies to install the game and to even play it via LAN with a number of different product keys available to them. In response to this, game companies started to force players to connect to servers run by the game’s publishers during their initial installation, or the first time that the game is run. One of the first games to do this was Half-Life 2. Valve’s first person shooter required a steam installation and an online verification of the product key to play it.

As you can see, the arms race between software pirates and software publishers has been going on for over 20 years. Frankly, I feel like it has gone on for too long. In the first sweep, by introducing basic copy protection, the publishers had won their battle. The basic home user has been stopped from creating illegal copies and that’s the only person you can truly stop. Everything else can be circumvented, and in some cases is even circumvented before the official release of the game. When that’s the case there’s just no real point in trying any more; unless of course you have a clever new system that stomps out pirates for good. The most successful at this in recent times has been Ubisoft. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory is a remarkable success story as far as keeping cracked versions of a game unavailable. While it has been cracked now, it took over a year to do so. This is because it used Starforce 3.0. A now infamous form of DRM that works by installing hidden drivers and other sneaky tools which detect the potential for copying and actual copying (which it doesn’t remove when the game is uninstalled). Starforce was apparently resource intensive, though, and did things such as instantly restarting your computer if it felt that you were doing anything suspicious. This kind of draconian DRM is my problem with the industry’s war on piracy. In fairness, it worked for several years. However, the cost was far too high. It damaged Ubisoft’s reputation and just made playing games on PC undesirable.

Another aspect of this war, which I don’t like is that it singles out the PC as the sole offending platform. While I agree that the average PC gamer is more savvy than the average console gamer, that does not mean that it is the only culprit. Piracy has affected home consoles for years. With pirate cartridges appearing as far back as the SNES. It was ridiculously easy to pirate games on the original Playstation, with the most common method was to “chip” the console (solder on a device that stopped the console from performing checks on discs). However, players could also circumvent it by using “disc swapping” this involved using a legitimate disc for your region, learning how the speed changes and then grabbing the disc out of the tray and replacing it with the illegal copy (or foreign copy as this circumvented region coding too). Console piracy still goes on today with hard mods, as in the Xbox 360 or custom firmware as in the PS3.

These words are burned into the minds of many a playstation owner

These words are burned into the minds of many a playstation owner

The other tool used by the media industry in its war on piracy is education. They often take steps to educate consumers on the threat that piracy poses to their income. They have been making music videos, such as this one for years. However, just like on the DRM front, they didn’t know when to stop. They didn’t appreciate when they’d reached their audience and could take a breather. On the original Playstation literally the start of every game you had look at anti-piracy literature for 30 seconds. It got to the point where most Playstation owners could recite, on request, the whole message. It’s gotten to the point where sitcoms take notice and parody it. The worst part of the invasive anti-piracy messages is that the people who actually do pirate don’t have to watch the unskippable commercials when they’re watching things.

Alternative Forms of DRM

You might be noticing a trend. Most of the measures taken to combat piracy on PC hits legitimate consumers where users of pirate copies continue largely unaffected. This really doesn’t have to be the case. My favourite anti-piracy measure is the one that seems to be the least used. Actually making the software detect pirate copies and change as a result. A recent example of this is the red scorpion in Serious Sam 3: BFE. The scorpion only appears in pirated copies of the game and acts as an agent of the developer’s vengeance. It chases down the pirate and murders him. It cannot be killed, it cannot be stopped, it cannot be escaped. Naturally, the pirates patched it out once they noticed it. However, it served a number of purposes: it was not detected by pirates, they would have assumed that the game was cracked and put it out as it was. The presence of this made people talk about the game, providing free advertising. It also had absolutely no effect on people playing on legitimately acquired copies of the game. Nothing but good in my opinion. Serious Sam 3: BFE was not the first game to use this kind of method either. For more on similar efforts see this post on cracked.com. These things take creativity, but they get their message across to the target audience and do so without harming customers. They may take additional development time, but I feel that they are what developers should strive for.

Sent by Croteam to protect their IP. Pirate it if you dare

Sent by Croteam to protect their IP. Pirate it if you dare

In other industries similar tricks have been developed. Tricks that most consumers won’t even know are present. For example, many professional photographs have a watermark that the naked eye won’t see but any copies made from the print will have “COPY” in big letters. Another example is Cinavia; it is a digital water mark that survives copying processes. It is relatively new, but will soon be standard in commercial Blu-ray players.  Most consumers won’t even know that it’s there. But when someone is playing an illegal copy the player will detect this and then switch off the sound and display a message informing the viewer that he is using an illegal copy. Naturally pirates will find a way around this as the trade in pirated DVDs is a huge market. However, there is no consequence for the legitimate customer and so I have absolutely no problem with it.

I feel that while piracy is a serious concern, attempts to make it impossible should necessarily be secondary to providing a good service to the consumer. It  seems as though publishers are out of touch with the the consumer. They seem to forget that the only people that have to deal with the majority of their anti-piracy tools is the consumer. As a matter of fact there was a time before steam when consumers would regularly download no-CD EXEs for software they had legitimately acquired just to avoid the inconvenience of having to hunt down CDs.