Anyone who likes to keep up to date with gaming blogs or forums won’t have failed to notice a distinct rise in anger towards anti-piracy measures in PC games. Of course, it’s nothing new – similar waves of disgust welcomed the music industry’s attempt to regulate where and when its content was consumed, as anyone who remembers Sony’s rootkit-installing CDs will attest.
Things have moved on slightly since then – modern security technology isn’t quite so brute force as making discs unreadable on computer drives or refusing to install on machines with disc-burning software – but the sentiment amongst consumers has been less quick to change. BioShock, Mass Effect, Spore – all games that have launched to much fan-fare which quickly turned sour when gamers realised that new online licensing methods meant that they could only install their games a handful of times; all games where the publishers had to quickly issue apologies, patches or less restrictive usage terms.
So, getting it right is important. But how do you go about that when the only security gamers really want is none whatsoever?
“We have never been surprised by the various problems or concerns that many publishers have mentioned to us from their experiences of digital rights management over the years,” says Richard Wienburg, senior vice president of operations at Softwrap. “Many solutions have attempted to lock themselves deep within the operating system and, particularly now that Vista gives software less access to the OS, it has caused headaches for many.”
The lack of surprise is shared by StarForce, itself one of the companies that’s had the most vitriol directed against it. “I must say that personally I don’t see anything strange in it,” says Dmitry Guseff, multimedia PR manager for the Russian firm.
“The best protection for gamers is its absence. Some gamers simply don’t understand the purpose of protection and its goals for overall game industry. Many gamers used to say that, regardless of the protection, it will still be cracked anyway – not realising that the main goal is to prevent appearance of illegal ISOs or cracked files during first few weeks of a game’s release. There is no need to hold forever.”
It’s this point that shows another slight change in the game DRM field – a shift towards protecting games before they even get to retail rather than locking down the discs themselves. The damage done by your game leaking three weeks before retail release – as in Halo 2, or more recently Bethesda’s Fallout 3 – is, some say, far more troublesome.
Marx Security is a company new to the games scene, but sees a gap in the market for protecting pre-release code sent to beta testers, journalists and disc replication plants – outlets often fingered as being the source of premature leaks. Its Crypto-Box solution brings the USB dongle method often used on more expensive applications to games, as CEO Philipp Marx explains.
“The pre-release phase is a very important part of the development and production process for any new IP and is a part that we consider ‘high risk’. We suggest applying the Crypto-Box solution for beta releases, press pre-releases and other situations where the code has to be physically sent ‘off-site’ before the game is actually released in order to drastically cut the chances of any illegal pre-release code turning up on file sharing sites.”
So how has the furore affected the development and current form of DRM technology? Given its position at the nexus of the anti-DRM storm, StarForce is keen to mention the proactive steps that it has taken to address those concerns raised by gamers.
“We’ve made various changes: more information about what is being installed in users’ systems, the ability to remove protection at any time, built-in help, an informative and easy-to-understand GUI, activate-and-forget methods, the possibility to quickly move e-licences from one computer to another, freedom to choose the way and protected programs launch, and finally fast and friendly technical support.
But, as Guseff explains, their efforts are not just a reaction to the previous controversies, but also reacting to current concerns and popular opinion. To that extent, StarForce created a special division, which it calls the End User Department.
“Its main task to track what is going on throughout the Internet concerning game protection, users’ reactions and opinions. All information is accumulated and sorted by marketing, and then based on that we plan how to improve our solutions and make them more comfortable for users without reducing reliability for rights holders.”
But, some say, changing their practices can only be one part of the approach – gamers must also be educated about why DRM is necessary, and how piracy impacts future development efforts. And, as everybody who’s been forced to sit through a patronising warning or pre-emptive telling off before watching a DVD can attest, that’s easier said than done.
“On our side, trying to change the perception of DRM through the offering of more seamless and flexible licensing is probably the key to changing general attitudes towards protected games,” says Softwrap’s Wienburg.
“Publishers need to communicate to consumers that they need to expect to pay for their games. Many publishers are beginning to offer their games for ‘free’ in return for an incentives sign-up offer – like, say, open a Blockbuster account and get your game for free. This concept may sound great to help convert visitors into licensed customers, but they are sending out the message that their games are worthless and you shouldn’t have to pay for them. This is something we need to watch out for as it could be quietly destroying the value of the games industry and eventually lead us to fight the same battles that the music industry is currently facing.”
The need to educate consumers is something that StarForce agrees with – although, it says, that should extend to telling people exactly what security tools are being installed, what they do and, perhaps most importantly, how to get rid of it.
“First of all, developers and publishers need to communicate with users to explain why protection is needed. Also, it’s vital to allow users to learn more about what kind of protection is implemented in the game and how it operates, and to provide users with common protection problem FAQs and methods of protection removal. The more info you disclose, the less questions you receive after.”
Marx is perhaps more realistic: “Home entertainment, whether it’s games, movies or music, has an intrinsic value and there are always going to be people that want to sidestep the normal channels and avoid paying. I would suggest that gamers need to be made more aware of the problems of games piracy, and the effect it has on their passion.
“Pirated software has a detrimental affect on future games production, but most players don’t fully realise this, and have no concept of how they are affecting the future of gaming by downloading illegal versions of the latest games.”