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There are few things more likely to inflame the online ire of consumers – whether music buyers or gamers – as the perceived heavy-handed use of digital rights managements. Just think back to the StarForce crusades of 2005-2006 or, more recently, the SecuROM controversies concerning BioShock or the Mass Effect reactivation debacle. Frankly it’s not going too far to say this sort of thing is now considered an inalienable, if capitalist, human right.
It’s a brave company to enter such waters with a new anti-piracy product then but Glasgow start-up Metaforic seems to display little fear. Set up by Andrew McLennan and Neil Stewart, once of developer Steel Monkeys, it’s been quietly working on its patent-pending smarts for a number of years under the auspices of Scottish technology institute ITI Techmedia. Now it’s ready to launch its product, called Metafortress, into the commercial world.
“We know from bitter experience how soul-destroying piracy can be,” says CEO McLennan. “You spend the last three weeks of a project in total crunch mode and before the game’s in the shops, most of Russia’s already playing it for free.”
“Our first thought was the protection has to be in the application,” explains McLennan, of the basic approach which has been referred to a network of interleaved checks. “The second thing we decided was we’re never going to make something uncrackable. What we’re trying to do is make the hacking process long enough that the publisher sees the benefit in terms of additional revenue. The third thing was we didn’t want to get into an arms races, which is where most anti-piracy software ends up. So we assume a hacker will have total control over
any hardware the game or application is running on, as well as the application itself.”
“None of the technologies in Metafortress are significantly weakened when the hacker knows how they work,” adds CTO Stewart. “Even if the hacker has the source code with all the protection in it, it would take as long to remove it from the source code as it would to remove it from the executable.”
It sounds powerful stuff, but McLennan says that what’s as important as the ability to slow down Vladimir and his hacker neo-comrades is making the entire process easy for the developer to use. A major source of badly protected games are quick favours run off for marketing or PR. To take piracy seriously, every version of a game that leaves a studio needs to be secure as the final gold master.
“The best way to use Metafortress is to make it part of your build system using your IDE,” McLennan says. “You can set it up in such a way that every build is a protected build so you can never release something that’s vulnerable. What we do is we build the protection into the software itself so you need to run an initial process, which takes about an hour end-to-end, and after that it’s just an additional five minutes process per build.”
As for the consumer, they shouldn’t even know Metafortress is being used. “We’re totally transparent to the end-user,” McLennan ends. “They won’t even know we’re there and we can even protect the system a publisher currently uses, whether license key or online authentication, it doesn’t really matter so we’re complimentary from that point of view too.”