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Inside Game Piracy, Part 2: The Countermeasures
Inside Game Piracy, Part 2: The Countermeasures Exclusive
December 4, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander

December 4, 2008 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Yesterday, Gamasutra spoke to the ESA and the PC Gaming Alliance about just how complex video game piracy really is, and how a combination of enforcement and education can form a solid foundation to fight it.

Completing our two-part special on piracy, we look at countermeasures against PC piracy, from Mass Effect to Titan Quest and beyond, with the PC Gaming Alliance's Christian Svensson explaining: "We don't make money by making your lives difficult."]

Developing standards to measure piracy's impact and then educating consumers seems like solid footing on which both the PC Gaming Alliance and the ESA can begin to address their respective constituencies. But then what?

Christian Svensson, senior director of strategic planning and research at Capcom and a PCGA member, says it best: "You can't talk about piracy without talking about countermeasures."

One such countermeasure is, of course, digital rights management utilities that work in various ways to copy-protect software, and some of these have been controversial -- in particular, SecuROM, which most recently drew fire for EA with Spore.

The ESA steers clear of opining on which DRM methods work best, or on judging various solutions, preferring instead to leave it at the publisher's jurisdiction.

"Generally, publishers undertake their own measures based on their own judgment about the effectiveness and the cost of various applications that can be used, and measures that can be used to prevent the piracy of their game products," says the ESA's Ric Hirsch, senior vice president of intellectual property enforcement.

But as for the PCGA, Svensson says that internal discussions have focused on some possible best practices for DRM -- although he stresses that there is "absolutely no policy" in place for such standards just yet. "I think that Stardock's Bill of Rights, for example, touches on DRM slightly," he says.

But even standardizing best practices is a complicated goal. "[Stardock CEO] Brad [Wardell]'s approach is very hands-off," says Svensson. "I think that if the PCGA as an organization is going to be all-embracing, if Stardock were to become a member and EA were to become a member, I think there are very obvious differences in their strategy as pertains to DRM. As a PC gaming organization, we probably need to be able to embrace both approaches, and still be able to make recommendations."

"I think it's fair to say that, along the continuum of what is the best experience for the consumer and what provides the highest level of protection for developers and publishers, there's a whole realm of grays in there. I don't think that anyone has the right answer today."

The New Solutions

Svensson says new, emerging technologies that make rights management increasingly transparent to end users -- and also increasingly secure - can help. "Everything, no matter how you slice it, it tends to be net-authenticated," he says. "I do believe that session-based online protection... like [Valve's] Steam, is probably the most secure and least onerous, in most cases."

Indeed, Valve has placed a particular emphasis on unintrusiveness with its Steam service; widespread media reports recently focused on an email Newell purportedly wrote to a fan, who published it on his LiveJournal, in which Newell said that most DRM offerings are "broken" and "just dumb."

"The goal should be to create greater value for customers through service value (make it easy for me to play my games whenever and wherever I want to), not by decreasing the value of a product (maybe I'll be able to play my game and maybe I won't)," Newell wrote, as he addressed a fan who wanted to "give as little money as possible to EA" -- a distribution partner to Valve -- in protest of its use of SecuROM DRM.

As for Svensson, he spoke to Gamasutra strictly on behalf of the PCGA, and not as a representative of Capcom's individual stance as a company -- "We have an exclusive agreement with SecuROM at Capcom, and we're very pleased with that level of protection," he says.

"But I think you're going to see a number of technologies emerging from various vendors that do allow for session-based access, that free up the issue of, 'am I renting this thing, or do I own this thing?'."

Speaking of newer technology, "Mass Effect probably had the best DRM implementation that I've ever seen," says Svensson.

"They had tripwires all through that thing that basically would do an authorization check at certain activities... if any failed, it would trigger weapons overheating, or you'd level at a slower rate... it was really well thought-out, and really well-engineered."

However, there was an unintended side effect of that sort of efficacy. "I think a lot of pirates got frustrated by that - but I also think there's a messaging component there," Svensson explains.

"You have those pirates saying, 'what kind of buggy POS is this?' and then legit copies didn't have that experience at all, but potential buyers say, 'I don't want to buy that buggy game,' because they didn't really message, or give people any awareness."

Svensson says Titan Quest might have suffered from the same issue - it would crash when tripwires failed to authenticate, and so gained a reputation for being an unstable title, creating a negative perception of the product.

Titan Quest's creator, Iron Lore, recently shuttered its studio -- notably, Michael Fitch, creative director of Titan Quest publisher THQ, blamed rampant piracy in part for Iron Lore's failure to thrive.

Moreover, this sort of technology requires detailed implementation and testing, and Svensson notes how time consuming and expensive such an investment can be. "So there's a cost/investment/loss equation," he says -- which again comes back to the issue of how hard it is to quantify the benefit when the impact of piracy is so hard to map out.

As the PCGA convenes a new subcommittee to investigate just this very quantification issue, Svensson ultimately hopes they'll come up with information that will make those calculations easier. But in the meantime, he recalls when, on the heels of EA's own DRM controversy, CEO John Riccitiello told Gamasutra that he hated DRM.

"I don't like locks on my door, and I don't like to use keys in my car... I'd like to live in a world where there are no passports. Unfortunately, we don't," Riccitiello said at the time.

"I think that was spot on," says Svensson. "People rail against DRM and feel that it treats them like criminals - unfortunately, we live in a world where some people are criminals, and sometimes we have to take steps to mitigate as best we can. We live with some slight inconveniences, and obviously, we try to keep inconveniences to a minimum."

"I think people who put it out there that publishers are just trying to be evil -- I assure you. We don't make money by making your lives difficult. If we didn't feel it was absolutely, positively imperative that we have this for our business, we wouldn't do it."

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Christopher McLaren
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With the Mass Effect method surely it wouldn't be hard to have text displayed on the HUD for 5 seconds to say why those effects are happening, or an anti piracy logo appear.

Peter Olsted
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"We don't make money by making your lives difficult." Then act like it!

There are cracks available the day any SecuRom game is released. That is really effective, no?

About the more "clever" anti piracy things in Mass Effect and TQ. How about legit customers who just hate to have a DVD in your drive every time you play a game? I crack every game I play and I don't download copied games. So, it's also a "fuck you" to me? Thanks...

Tyler Millican
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The biggest problem I have with DRM measures is that, as far as I can tell, they don't work, or at least don't work for very long. Yes, they'll keep you from copying a CD and giving that to a friend, but as far as I can tell the big piracy takes place via the internet, and it isn't hard to find ways around our countermeasures there -- sometimes before the game is even released.

I recall a game with StarForce protection being difficult to pirate for a long time after release (a Splinter Cell game I believe -- my memory is a bit fuzzy), but generally speaking it's fairly easy to find no-CD "patches" for games; not just old games, but new ones as well. Frequently, these are even downloaded by people who *do* own the game, just to avoid the frustration of having the CD laying around as a glorified dongle. Hell, I'll personally admit to almost downloading one for a game that crashed frequently and spent a fair amount of time on loading making sure the CD was in the drive.

Something to keep in mind is the animosity these measures can generate. Granted, in the short term the chances of someone not purchasing a game because your publisher once used some harsh DRM are low, but anything that strains the relationship between developers and players is going to come back to haunt us in the long run. I think the music industry saw it when Napster was big and hasn't fully recovered since -- that "stick it to the man" justification that comes from having to pay $25.00 to get a CD for the one song you want.

Our primary job as game developers is to make a game, true, but we also owe it to the players to have the entire experience be as painless as possible. Granted, it will never be perfect -- software is hard -- but, especially given the nature of our product, it's in our best interests to maintain the goodwill of our customers. Every detail that slips in and reminds them that they bought this from "the man" and not a bunch of guys who happen to write software -- the publisher's logo that they can't skip, the requirement that the CD be in the drive, the indirect/non-existant contact with developers in forums -- makes them that much more likely to want to stick it to said man.

And no, I'm not saying that we can stop piracy through goodwill alone, but that without it we won't be able to. The focus shouldn't be on DRM, but on making the pirates criminals -- remove sympathy from their side and place it on ours. When I see a site that distributes workarounds for DRM methods, given my own personal woes and horror stories I've heard, I'm forced to sympathize. When I see a torrent for a brand new game, I think of when I was a poor college student and didn't have the money for the latest and greatest thing out there, but would still be willing to get it if it was just a *little* cheaper. Fine, maybe 99% of the people who get anti-DRM patches are stealing money out of developer's pockets and the ones who download the games have the means and are just being greedy, but you view things like this from a "best case" scenario -- a "Why would *I* do this?" perspective.

Maybe the sales model of the past is unsustainable: $50+ at release makes it easy to feel sympathy for the "I'd buy it if it was cheaper" crowd. Maybe episodic games are the future, with a "bundled" version as the full game and every episode released at the same time. (Hell, the OOP guy in me likes reusing the engine like that anyways.)

Maybe we need to reassess how we deal with pirates: instead of spending effort on DRM, we should deal with the legal side of things. As much as I don't like the idea of bogeymen watching what I download, I admit that at least a *small* element of fear of consequences is needed. When found, we need to avoid the bravado and self-righteousness though -- just a quiet, "It's unfortunate, but we do what we need to do," is enough. "We'll find you" reeks of dystopian authoritarianism, and it's not very hard to rally against it.

John Paris
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"I don't like locks on my door, and I don't like to use keys in my car... I'd like to live in a world where there are no passports. Unfortunately, we don't," Riccitiello said at the time."


The car keys argument is an assumption.

Look at it this way, it's all about who's convenience it's for.

I like to have a key for my car so that someone can't take it from me. However I bought that car, it's mine, so the key is for My safety, not Ford's, or whomever made it.

With games the "keys" are more for the developers safety. I bought the game, but the measures in place aren't in any way aiding me as the end user, in fact they may be making things worse!

I think honestly steam is really the best solution so far. I hadn't even heard of games with these "trip wires" before now but it seems like a odd way of combating piracy.

And notice the "convenience factor" of steam. It makes my experience as the end user both better, and more enjoyable.

Not only that it it acts as a social network, a high score chart, and a online retailer. While at the same time meeting the needs of the developer.

No it's not 100% perfect, but I certainly think it makes DRM a heck of a lot less painful experience, and at the same time, it puts the control where it should be, with the user.

I say Bravo Valve!

Anton Maslennikov
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DRM is a sore subject for lots of designers because while we hate it we also need it to turn a profit. Most of the current DRM does suck, but improvements are being made every year and in time we will probably have something that works well without hurting the consumer.

Internet piracy is an issue, but from my experience not as bad as resellers of pirated material. I have personally seen pirated copies of thousands of games sold on markets in Russia- China and others are even worse. A pirated copy of most any game, new or old, can be obtained for something like 10 dollars. Back in the day the pirated versions had really bad bugs or missing files (or did not work outright). But as they pirates have gotten better, so have their copies.

It used to be that legitimate games cost too much in some of these countries to purchase legally- $5 vs. $50 when somebody makes $60 a week is huge. However, legal localized games in Russia now cost just as much as their pirated copies, yet there are tons more who sell pirated instead of localized games.

The irony is that many of these pirates that have made enough money to start their own game studios. They now find themselves fighting the same thing that they were doing only a few years prior.

Maurício Gomes
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I think that the industry issue with piracy is missing in some points:

First, they do not analize the reasons of piracy, when someone talk about them that person gets back a: "You fucking pirate, stop defending the other pirated"

But anyway, I was a fucking pirate, and I know why people pirate games, and now that I am becoming a dev I know how to avoid they pirating my game and that I should not care about some piracy.

First: Great part of the piracy is coming from people that would not ever buy the original anyway (at least not when they got the pirated game).

Reasons: Many are students, students do not has any money, and many parents refuse to give money to their sons because of the moral panic that is still around the games (in fact in my country there are still a moral panic with comic magazines, I own only two, that I bought when I was doing a paid internship, my parents never allowed me to buy them, but since the money was mine I bought that two Batman comics anyway)

Also many places do not has a store, neither good internet access, some pirates end showing up there or for accident and making their own "store" usually illegal because sometimes opening a legal store is really hard (here in Brazil the laws to open a small company suck so much that it is calculated that 30% of our market is illegal, and needed, without that market a lot of people would lack all sorts of suplies, ranging from food to games), sometimes publisher wars trigger piracy, example:

Here a company made a game called "Incidente em Varginha", it was a shooter made in 1997 I think (or even before), a company that was publishing Quake here, named MPO, started to wage war agains the "Incidente" publisher, the two refused to sell their games (Quake and Incidente) to a store that bought the other. In the state of São Paulo both lost, neither games got widely sold, and the piracy of those games here was rampant (because they could not be found legally)

First conclusion: Piracy will always exist, and that piracy will not decrease your sales (because it is from people that do not has money or resources to get a legal copy anyway), also piracy is greater on places without legal access to the games.

Second main reason for piracy: Price.

Here 60 USD is what a large part of our population has to survive a entire month, with 60 USD I can buy a excellent pair of snickers (and those are a rarity here...), in fact anything that costs 60 USD here (anything, whatever it is), is considered that its price is "rip off".

A pirated game (or original game bought from magazines) are around 5 USD, and more widely avaible, obviously people would prefer a pirated game (or a magazine game, here Ubisoft is winning, they love to sell their games on magazine)

Conclusion from part 2: Current games are TOO expensive, I have several friends that has several original games, but all those games are 30 USD or less (in fact I am willing to buy 20 6 USD games than to buy 1 60 USD game...)

Reason 3: People dislike publishers and retailers.


Yes, I know several people that will get Mirror Edge pirated (even with piracy dealers wanting 20 USD for it) just because they dislike EA.

In fact I have some EA games pirated for that reason, I know that it is wrong and I do not plan to do it again, but some years ago to me it was right to do it, and I see that many people see it that way too, to them stealing from a "enemy" is right, and EA is easy to think as "enemy" because their poor policies (like outrageous DRM... Btw: I have a pirated Mass Effect, altough I had money to buy original and was willing to do so, I got pirated because of its DRM that do not work on my computer, and I know that because I installed a original copy from a friend that screwed my system, to avoid having more pirated games I will not get any of the other games of the franchise)

Also piracy dealers give better support.


Yeah, just to show this, I will talk about the most pirated game here, the Winning Eleven franchise games (btw: console game! yeah, here console piracy is higher than PC piracy, in fact 90% of piracy here is console piracy)

To get a original Winning Eleven, disregarding price: You need to go to one of the few stores that has it, if you dislike the game, there are no return, also the game is not localized.

A pirated Winning Eleven: The game is properly localized (everything from boxes to in-game content), the game is modded to be more balanced and have national teams, and the most important: the dealer accept returns.

Yeah, here you can buy a pirated game, and if you dislike it you can return it! Also pirated games usually come pre-patched, sometimes with patches that the pirated made themselves fixing something, also pirated games come with DRM removed.

Another good example, a game from EA again... Ultima IX.

Ultima IX suck in its original form, it has severe continuity problems and severe bugs.

Pirated Ultima IX comes with all fan paths installed, and some dealers sell it localized, also the dealers accept returns and offer substitution to damaged disks (something important for RPGs)

Also any game with DRM is widely pirated here, (like... Spore), because pirated games has no DRM, also idiotic games are also widely pirated (like Crysis: those that have it has pirated, and I know many people that regret having it pirated because they wasted their time and disk space with a stupid game, the few that keep the game installed is just to showcase his computer power for his friends)

Conclusion 3: Until publishers do not do what stardock suggested, they will get pirated.

Btw: I once asked dealers about several games the level of sales (oh yeah, another note: here the majority of game ADs are from pirates), and they told me that Stardock games was a loss (because they spent money with ADs and whatever, and still people do not bought the games), Crysis sell well only when new hardware is launched, EA games are the most pirated ones, and Assassins Creed has a high number of returns from people complaining that the game suck, Rainbow Six Vegas PC suck too, and DMC4 PC got pirated only after Capcom complained of piracy, because before that not even themselves (the pirate dealers) knew that it existed.

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John Petersen
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Who's pirating who?

Aaron Murray
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Well, I used to pirate some games in college, although it was limited to PC games, and I purchased my console games. I suppose this was do to the effort involved. Once I started earning a decent living and grew out of the "screw the man" phase, I stopped the piracy altogether. It seems that many people may just pirate due to the ease of doing which I would challenge my fellow game developers to make games that either are challenging to pirate (online only) or that provide the player with a compelling reason to have a legitimate copy (Battle.NET / Diablo 2).

It sucks that single player PC games may die out because of piracy, but it really does break your heart and infuriate you to see something you've toiled over being stolen and distributed freely when that wasn't the intention...which is why I've just decided to embrace the behavior and figure out how to monetize around it.

Raymond Grier
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The lesson that should be obvious from the feedback thios article received is that most anti-pirating measures effect non-professional pirates more than professional pirates. If either group has "clients" that may have been willing to pay if they couldn't get bootlegged copies, it would ne clients of the professional pirates. In western countries these pirates usally operate through websites (where as in asia, where I am now, illegal hard copies are openly sold everywhere including Wal-mart). If companies want to shut down the pirates they need to work harder to find out who runs the sites and get those individuals fined or imprisoned. There is no other truely effective method to deal with pro-pirates so either deal with those guys and stop doing "things" to the software or continue to anger a percentage of legitimate clients without actually achieving anything.

Frank Smith
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Honestly, the piracy issue should be view as a technological problem. We should go the way the movie industry did and put a face on the companies people steal from, DRM and net activations are just going to justify pirates. I know I'm not going to buy a game that I'm not sure if I'll be able to activate a few years from now.

And I'm not going to buy games digitally over the net, I'm a collector, I like having a physical product for the money I paid. And I'm in my early twenties, not some old time who doesn't like using my credit card over the net.

Again, we should solve this as the movie industry did. Because if the PC gaming market goes away we'll all be worse for it, PC is the birth place of game play innovation, graphical improvement, and the pirates will just move to consoles if they can't play on PC.

Frank Smith
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"shouldn't" be view as a technological problem


Maurício Gomes
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I want to know why so much people say that piracy is a PC problem, here I see MUCH more console piracy (like, 80% of the piracy is console...)

Meredith Katz
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That would probably be because quite a huge proportion of the industry (and thus the commentors) is based in the United States and Canada, and you don't see hardcopy console games being pirated here. You pretty much just... don't. The possible exception is if you live in a really big city and go to a mall in Chinatown, because some booths there will sell bootleg console games.

For digital copies, it's a little different. Although of course console games can be ripped and uploaded in formats like .iso, which are downloadable here (as they are anywhere in the world), the person who downloads it has to be knowledgable about how to burn/mount this file correctly in order to get it to play or be knowledgeable enough to have an emulator etc.

However, PC games are designed to be played on the PC! So in many cases they're much more accessible to the average pirate, who may be knowledgeable about torrenting and installing files but may not know that extra difference about getting their console games to *play*.

How much of the console piracy that you see, Helder, is in physical hardcopy (ie, go out and purchase a physical copy of the game)? Because we really don't see that in Canada, at least, and not in the places I've been to in the US.

Maurício Gomes
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In fact the majority of the piracy here (and seemly from what I researched on other "third world" countries) is hard copy, mainly beacuse the infrastructure on these countries suck to the point that few people has good internet access, this make pirated games a retail, not a "free" thing, Rainbow Six Vegas is 20 USD for example pirated, not free, neither cheap.

Also I think that the majority of the piracy come from the third world countries, not only because the formal market there is much smaller (mainly because of publishers ignoring them) but also the sheer population number is much bigger.

Meredith Katz
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It's quite possible you're right about that. I imagine it's much harder to track hardcopy piracy in general -- people can watch stats on torrents and things like that, but it's quite possible that the actual proportion of PC:Console piracy and digital:hardcopy piracy is much different than the visible proportion of that.

Brad McGraw
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I think Frank has hit on a very good point, and the one where I am most against DRM. In 5 years will I be able to activate the game to play it? Will the activation servers still be around in 5-10-15 years? I still have DOS games that I bought and work just fine. If I spend $50 on a game I should be able to play it 5 or 10 or 15 years from now with no problems. That is my right as a consumer, to be able to use what I buy when I want. DRM threatens my right as a consumer.

An ebook site Fictionwise recently was told by its DRM provider Overdrive that it was closing its doors, with no explanation. Anybody who legally bought books using the Overdrive DRM will no longer be able to access these books. About 300,000 ebooks were effected. Fictionwise is tryng to help those effected, and it looks like most will be, but thiere is no guarentee that in the future more of this will not happen with no help at all to get your paid for material back.

What guarentee are any pubishers giving that games with DRM will be available forever? What happens when the expense of the server becomes too troublesome and they decide to just dump activations and support for old games? This is the problem with DRM.

I view DRM as less an attack on piracy than an attack on secondary sales, which both Epic and EA have spoken out against. Having limited activations means more problems if I decide to trade or sell my legally bought copy of the game to someone else. Which is my legal right. I do not know of any other industry that is attempting to stop secondary sales. The excuse that if someone buys a used copy its a lost sale is idiotic at best. How many times has someone gone to ebay or a trade site and found a really cool older game, and then you've gone and looked for new games by that developer/publisher? I know I have numerous times. With DRM this will be severly curtailed. To use EA's 'car' idea, auto manufacturers do not view someone buying a used car a lost sale at all. Its part of the business model, and EA and Epic want to change the whole economic model for games. Its just not going to work. Work within the model and maybe do what car dealers do, and even some computer hardware manufacturers do. Offer a loyalty program. Maybe have offers to trade in games for credit towards a new game. More credit for games from the same publisher as you're buying the game from. Its an easy solution and one that would be recieved very well by gamers I think.