No matter what lengths publishers and platform holders go to when protecting their titles from illegal duplication, the proponents of piracy almost always find a workaround.
From cracked and downloadable PC titles to the DS R4 cards, it's an issue that has dogged the industry for decades and is unlikely to disappear in the near future.
And yet publishers continue to find new ways to hinder pirates with an admirable determination.
Within the last two weeks alone, publishing giants EA and Ubisoft both announced new initiatives that try to lessen the impact piracy has on the revenue made by their latest big hits.
THE FRENCH CONNECTION
Ubisoft's is the most heavy-handed method of the two. The firm announced last week that future PC titles will require players to have a constant connection to the internet. Under this new system, the French publisher's games will regularly verify themselves with the firm's servers to confirm that a legitimately purchased version is being played.
It's a clear statement of how seriously Ubisoft takes piracy – and its black and white view on it – vetting every single copy to effectively shut out any pirates. Interestingly, the company is also using this initiative to reaffirm its commitment to consumers as well as its shareholders.
Ubi's piracy prevention system also requires users to upload game settings and save files to the server and this can be accessed from multiple PCs. It's just one of the incentives Ubisoft has announced that asks players to seek their games through official channels – be it the High Street, online retailers or digital distribution.
The publisher is also avoiding often-controversial Digital Rights Management, which limits the number of times gamers may install a title on their machine. In the past – most famously with 2008's Spore – strict DRM limits have arguably led to a surge in piracy as angry consumers look to circumvent this inadversely limiting copy-protection method.
Despite this, Ubisoft's announcement has still been met with criticism among the core PC gaming audience, with concerns arising that gamers could be locked out from their purchases should their web connection fail.
The publisher has responded with a statement defending its decision to employ the ‘always connected' policy, but since no further details have been given, it's currently unclear whether consumers' grievances will be answered.
We know this choice is controversial but we feel is justified by the gameplay advantages offered by the system and because most PCs are already connected to the internet. This platform offers protection against piracy – an important business element for Ubisoft and for the PC market in general as piracy has an important impact on this sector,” said a statement from the firm.
Any initiative that allows us to lower the impact of piracy on our PC games will also allow us to concentrate further effort on the creation and expansion of our intellectual properties for the PC.”
GUIDING THE MASSES
Meanwhile, Electronic Arts has taken a different approach. Days before the release of Mass Effect 2, the publisher announced that all DLC for the game will only be available through The Cerberus Network, a downloadable hub for both free and paid-for content.
Only those who buy new copies of Mass Effect 2 – either via digital distribution or as a boxed product – are able to use The Cerberus Network, and the hub is activated by a unique activation code, with one code per legitimate copy of the game. In this way, EA is able to channel all DLC purchases through a single, controlled interface.
While this method does not provide as concrete a defence against pirated copies as Ubisoft's constant server verification, it boasts a double-barrelled effect by dissuading consumers from playing illegal or pre-owned copies – the latter another ongoing quandary for games retailers and publishers.
More importantly, EA's system does hold merit as a form of deterrent.
DLC is, as we know, more and more prominent in today's blockbuster releases, with exclusive content deals – such as that of GTA IV's Episodes – proving to be a major selling point. By preventing those with illegal copies from accessing this content, it encourages would-be pirates to purchase their games legitimately, in order to guarantee access to the full experience.
But that's not all, EA is allowing consumers to buy codes for The Cerberus Network, accommodating for those that haven't bought new editions of Mass Effect 2. Should those with pirated copies purchase these codes, the publisher will – to an extent – minimise its losses, effectively finding a way to monetise pirates.
The publisher has already taken the same position on previous titles, with key DLC only available to those who bought new copies of Dragon Age: Origins. It is in no way an ideal solution, but one that at least prevents pirates from enjoying the fruits of developers' labours for free.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
The new policies of both Ubiosft and EA are in stark contrast.
Ubisoft will establish a concrete defence against piracy, a barrier that declares zero tolerance, and one that presumably will apply to all titles.
By comparison, EA is seeking to protect key content for its biggest titles in a way that enables them to coax pirate gamers into purchasing the very experiences they hoped to steal. Only time will tell if it is effective, or if DLC proves to be a strong enough incentive to deter gamers away from illegal copies and towards retail.
It is interesting that for all their differences, the two systems hold one thing in common. The main focus of anti-piracy initiatives is usually to punish the perpetrators – most notably, France's ‘three strikes and you're out' law that disconnects those who illegally download content.
Conversely, the effect of both Ubisoft's ‘always connected' policy and EA's code-restricted DLC channel are two-fold. Not only do they both punish pirates, and introduce different ways to ‘convert' those pirates, they also try to reward those who legitimately purchase their games. It could prove to be a crucial mindset-change in the ongoing battle against piracy.