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Interview: Combating R4 Piracy On The DS
Interview: Combating R4 Piracy On The DS
May 13, 2009 | By Kris Graft

May 13, 2009 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

The games industry has billed the R4 card as the scourge of the Nintendo DS market, allowing users to download free, illegal copies of DS games with relative ease, and play them via a flash memory card -- no trench coat-sporting bootlegging middlemen necessary here.

Andrew Mclennan, CEO of U.K.-based Metaforic has been looking to snuff out this purported R4 scourge. A former game developer who released games on home consoles, PC and DS, Mclennan said some of his games would be pirated before they even appeared at retail.

"I've been a game developer for 17 years," Mclennan said. "Every single game that I ever made was pirated. ... That gets to be distressing. It made it impossible to make games as a professional game developer."

The market for R4 cards and R4-style cards has been thriving for the past few years across the globe, and is central to the DS piracy scene. Derived from China, the security circumvention device can be found on the Internet for as little as $10, granting users access to thousands of illegal ROMs.

Mclennan isn't the only one that has been "distressed" over piracy. In 2008, Nintendo itself launched a lawsuit in Tokyo District Court, seeking an injunction against the sale of R4, claiming the use of R4 cards causes "severe damage" to the company, as well as its third-party partners who make games for DS. A laundry list of game publishers and developers both large and small stood in solidarity with Nintendo in the lawsuit.

In March this year, the Tokyo court granted that injunction against the official R4 card, essentially making illegal the sale of the device. Nintendo reportedly has said it would be going after companies that make R4 knock-offs.

But R4 devices continue to reside in legal gray areas in other parts of the world. While the device itself is technically legal (by the estimation of some), downloading the ROMs is not (again, by the estimation of some). Legal fuzzy areas aside, it's a fact that Nintendo wants to stop the circulation of R4 and the piracy that comes with it. According to Mclennan, Nintendo has hopes that Metaforic's tech, MetaFortress, will help combat the DS piracy that will assuredly continue on a global basis, even in the wake of legislation.

"[Nintendo has] approved our technology at the highest level for Nintendo games," he said. "The engineering team has approved the technique."

Aside from Nintendo, Around six leading third-party DS game publishers will be implementing Metaforic’s solution, with games using the technology hitting shelves by the holidays this year, he added.

Annoying The Hackers

Metaforic's technology at its most basic level detects the form of patching that the R4 cards use to play ROMS, and then proceeds to "kill" the ROM. Understandably, Mclennan didn't want to get too specific about the methods behind Metaforic's technology. But he outlined a more general explanation: "We take any DS game and inject a security scheme into the game itself. It turns each game into its own security system. Every time we apply it to a different game, it's a different security system."

Mclennan didn't claim that Metaforic's anti-piracy tech is 100 percent hack-proof, and acknowledged that eventually, hackers with enough brains, time and motivation eventually hack many forms of software security. But he hopes to make the hacking process as long and annoying as possible.

“What we’re really trying to do is make hackers take on a long, slow, manual job,” he said. By denying the hacker a way to automate the hacking process, this extends the amount of time that software products can sell legitimately, free of piracy.

"We add so much security to it that it will take a very long time to hack," he claimed.

But it also took quite a long time for Mclennan and Metaforic to come up with tech that would combat DS piracy. The R4 has been available for the past few years, and now enormous libraries of illegal ROMs are already circulating and readily available for the four-and-a-half year old DS, which has sold over 100 million hardware units worldwide. A late 2007 report in U.K.'s The Times said around 35 million R4 units are circulating, a number that has assuredly grown sharply since then.

"Really, the only reason that this [tech] is only just now coming out is that the problem is quite difficult," he said. "R4 cards are quite poorly understood -- how they work and how they cause piracy. They're also able to be updated. So if you're an [R4] manufacturer, you would do firmware patches to combat technological security schemes."

He claimed that Metaforic's solution is firmware patch resistant. "There is no firmware patch that they can apply that will stop our protection -- I can't tell you why that is, though."

Nintendo launched the new feature-laden DSi in Japan last year, with plans to launch the device in the West later this year. It's incompatible with many R4-style cards, but hackers are already hard at work to release updated, compatible solutions. Mclennan said there are already R4 cards that claim to be able to play illegal DS ROMs on the DSi.

Indeed, a quick Internet search turns up at least two DSi R4-style cards that purport to work with the new handheld.

Legislation Or Technology

A former game developer himself, Mclennan said that laws are not necessarily the answer to piracy. Asked if R4 cards should be banned in other countries other than Japan, he answered, “Yes and no. I can sympathize in one respect with people that like to do homebrew games, although that’s a very small minority of people who use these cards. Our stuff will not stop anyone from using homebrew games.”

He continued, “I think that there should be a piece of legislation against these types of things. The problem is that it’s very difficult to prove that it is indeed an illegal activity. In strict interpretations, you could argue that they aren’t really infringing.”

While circumvention devices such as R4 walk the thin line between legal and illegal, there is precedence for a provider of such devices to run into legal trouble. For example, in 2006 under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a federal court in California ordered a European company and related defendants to pay over $9 million for the distribution of mod chips and a device called HDLoader, which allows users to rip copies of games to a game console's hard drive -- very similar to the R4.

But Mclennan also noted that prosecuting individual video game pirates RIAA-style could be perceived as quite distasteful. “Clearly, you should be going after the hackers themselves,” he said. “But at the end of the day, there’s always going to someone new. That’s why you need more of a technological solution instead of a legislative one.”

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E Zachary Knight
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Yes piracy is bad and people who download games with no intention of ever purchasing them are thieves.

That said, Mod chips, R4, jailbreaking, etc. are all legal grey areas. Sure they allow piracy and are used for such, but they also allow for legal use outside the scope of the hardware manufacturer.

1. They allow for people who own a lot of games to consolidate and protect the original. Depending on the size of the Micro SD card one gets for the R4, they can store 100s of legally purchased games. (how many people own 100s of DS games is not really the question.) I own a DS and while I only currently own 4 DS games, those combined with all the games I plan to buy in the future, it will be a pain to drag them around everywhere I go. It would be nice to store them at home, but still have all my games with me because they are on the R4. Same goes for creating backup copies of Console game and modding your console to allow them to be played.

2. Mod Chips protect from loss of original media. I have young children and they destroy DVDs. It would have been nice to have had those stored away and only need to use a digital copy on my Media Center before something like that happened. The same thing happens to games. They get damaged and become unplayable through no fault of your own. By modding a console or using the R4, you can use the back ups to play the games while storing the originals somewhere safe to protect them from damage. Someone from the MPAA (I believe) said that people don't need to make back up of the movies because they can just go to the store and buy another one if yours gets damaged. That is pretty arrogant.

3. The R4 chip also allows applications that allow people to use the DS as more than just a game device. It allows people to use music playing software developed for R4'd DS. The size of the storage allows the user to store a lot of music as well. People have also developed eBook software for use on the DS. There are video players, web browsers and all sorts of other software that the DS cannot do out of the box.

Personally, I am in support of dropping the DMCA and enacting something that actually attempts to define rights for the consumers of IP. I see no problem with copying Movies, music and games for personal private use within your household (specifically immediate family) Meaning that a family should only have to buy one DVD and be able to put that on every computer and media player in the house for use buy that family. As long as they keep the original and don't share those copies outside the household, they should be fine.

I also support the act of modding electronics for non infringing uses.

Douglas Kinloch
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@Ephraim- Just to clarify; the MetaFortress solution was specifically designed not to affect any homebrew activities on the DS or DSi.

@Martin- Thanks for the good wishes! We'll do our best to stay ahead of the curve, watch this space.

Jamie Mann
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I have to admit, I'm skeptical as to how well - or how long - this will work. I wish Metaforic all the best, but I can't help but remember all the schemes which have tried and failed.

That said, the fact that some technical savvy will be needed may reduce piracy levels for a while. Most people don't have the know-how on how to apply ROM-patches or upgrade their R4 firmware. In the end however, the internet is the great leveller. It only takes one person to work out how to do something for thousands to take advantage of it.

The best parallel is probably the 16-bit floppy-disk era, when games ran from an easily-copiable medium and all manner of protection mechanisms were designed to try and prevent casual copying - up to and including cutting bits out of the magnetic platter (as was tried for Xenon II on the Atari ST). They all failed in the end: if something can be read into memory, it can be edited and manipulated - or even improved: cracks occasionally included bugfixes or cheat codes and one notable crack on the Amiga reduced the number of disks for Operation Wolf from 3 to 1.

Still, I'm more than happy to be surprised :)

E Zachary Knight
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Thanks for commenting. I always enjoy it when the subject or authors of articles jump into the discussion.

Thanks for clarifying about homebrew apps and how MetaFortress interacts with them. But that still leaves the question of points 1 and 2 in my response. the MetaFortress solution would prevent me and any others like me from doing those two things that we feel we should be able to.

With this proposed solution, I will not be able to consolidate my collection and will therefore have to carry around all my game cartridges with me everywhere I go. This increases the risk of all my games being stolen or damaged. Having just the R4 with all my legally owned games stored on it, I only risk losing the R4 and the DS. Thus minimizing the risk of loss.

I know as a representative of your company, you most likely are not allowed to comment on that as that directly relates to the legal issues of R4 and your services. You services are provided to stop pirates. Unfortunately, the very tools that pirates use are often the same tools that legitimate users of back up devices for legally purchased games use. Collateral damage sucks. Especially if you are part of it.

Jon Boon
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I can't wait until they change the copyright laws to work with society rather than spending all of this time and energy to work against it.

The copyright laws as they stand are archaic, and there will be a time when society will overrule the businesses that have all the money. I just hope that it's sooner rather than later, so people can stop fighting an unstoppable action and concentrate on actually making good games that encourage people to buy them.

Roberto Alfonso
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Since a month or so ago I own a R4, which I use to "test" games before buying. I do this because a) there is no official Nintendo distributor here bringing the latest games, so I must buy them from Amazon or Play-Asia, each game costing between USD 55 and USD 70; and b) I don't want to be scammed again with low quality games like Pokemon Dash.

The Nintendo Channel is helpful, but they don't release demos for many games. I don't download ROMs for games that are in the Nintendo Channel, though.

However, I keep certain parameters to know when I am abusing this system. For example, I order the game within a few days of trying the ROM if I like it, or delete it if I don't like it. And I don't go on "ROM testing" if I have games to finish at home. So far, I have bought 6 games after testing them (and over 40 in total), and feel ok. Sure, it is not legal (I don't buy the 24 hours and delete the ROM thing), but I think I am actually helping developers who had put some effort into creating a good gaming experience in this way.

I am not against adding protection to prevent piracy, though. I would welcome that, too, since it will prevent me from doing this "testing" (which is like eating chocolate knowing you are allergic to it). Earthbound had a few security measures, including increasing the difficulty to very high levels if it discovered it is being emulated and not run from the cartridge itself (like getting a random encounter for every step you do after a few hours of playing).

Ephriam Knight, let's remember that homebrew applications that allow you to play videos or audios encoded in some proprietary codecs are illegal, by the way. So, MP3 players for DS are likely illegal since the developers likely didn't pay for the codec to use it, nor you when you bought the R4 and downloaded the application.

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Piracy is a non problem, stop talking about it and wasting your time trying to combat it.

Bryson Whiteman
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I remember reading a Game Developer article on the copy protection scheme in a Spyro game for PS1. It involved some checksum technique that could tell if the game was burned onto a CD-R. What was interesting was that it let you play the game for a while up until a point where a game character tells you that you're playing a pirated copy and to go buy the game. So it threw the pirate off guard, thinking that it was a legit copy. Apparently it took 2 weeks for a working bootleg to make it to the net, enough time for it to get its initial sales surge in.

This tech may get cracked eventually, but it will be worthwhile if it keeps people from pirating a game even if it is for a few weeks.

Maurício Gomes
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Mirror Edge did that too, the pirated copy in several points of the game (but only on the third level onward) start to annoy the player by making his character REALLY, REALLY, REALLY slow...

Unfortunally I saw people complaining that sometimes the DRM went nuts and did that to legal players too...

And unfortunally to EA, the scheme got cracked like two days after someone reported it...

Mickey Mullasan
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Let's face it, there are people out there that are really smart and enjoy "freeing" software. As long as we provide games that do not require online in some form, they will crack them. What I'd like to see for single player games is the return of the real Arcade. Once you put a hardware case requirement in the equation, it would make it much harder to emulate, especially if the hardware is more advanced or customized than current PCs.

Leonard Johnson
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I am against piracy of video games period. Either it be a SNES emulator or a ripped PC title. I feel it steels money from the original designer for personal use. It can't be taken seriously by today's generation. I tried complaining about Crono Trigger roms at my last school, but noone seemed to care. I do admit I had copies (which were given with a hack by a design teacher) of 3DS Max. Which I used for my animation classes, but I deleted them after use. Even if those programs cost thousands of dollars, it is still stealing from someone at the end of the day.

David Brady
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You know, I wouldn't have gotten my start in this industry if not for my R4. I bought an R4 for its lesser publicized purpose. Creation of homebrew content. And it eventually landed me a job with a real DS developer. Banning the sale of R4s would make this a lot harder than it needs to be. (There will always be a back door into any hardware, but the R4 was reasonably easy to work with for homebrew development).

Peter Sal
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Here is my only question, what happens when you illegally download a game? I mean when you do the companies, studios and individuals do not see any money from that. But, if that is bad, why is buying a games used good, I mean that sale sees no payment going to those who actually created the game. So in actuality, someone can buy the game, download the game to an R4, and then trade the original in so a company can resell it, due to the original sale is finalized and no more money would go to the developer. Sounds bad but how is piracy (downloading a game with no money changing hands) any diffrent then buying a used game (giving money to a company, but none goes to people responsible for creating game)

Tom Newman
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Until we switch to an entirely digital distro model, there will be no way to stop this. There were pirated games floating around since the Commedore64 and probably before that. DRM is like handing a Rubik's cube to hackers. Many of these pirates are not cracking DRM to play for free, they are cracking DRM for the pure challenge.

E Zachary Knight
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@ Peter

It all comes down to mathematics. Let's say 500 people buy your game. You now have the money earned for 500 customers. Now let's say one of those people sells the game. You have 499 users, but you still havethe money from 500 customers. Someone then buys that used copy, you now have 500 customers again and you still have the money from those original 500 customers. You have not lost anything. Just one copy for which you have already been payed has changed hands.

Now let's consider piracy. 500 people buy you game. You have the money from 500 customers. Now 200 people illegally download your game. You now have 700 people playing your game, but only the money from 500 of them. Those 200 who downloaded the game have stolen potential profits from you.

Now to the example you stated. 500 people buy the game. You have the money from 500 customers. One of those people rips the game and then sells off the original copy. You still have 500 customers and the money from them. Then someone buys the used copy. You now have 501 players but only money from 500 of them. The person who ripped the game and is still playing it even though he sold the original is stealing potential profits from teh company.

I hope that clears things up for you. Buying used games is not bad because it does not add players beyond those who originally purchased it. Pirating is bad because more people are playing the game than those who purchased it.

Jon Boon
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@ Ephriam

If 500 customers buy the game, and 200 sell it, with 200 more picking it up used, you have "lost" just as many potential customers as the piracy arguement. You still have 500 players, but you lost out on an additional 200 sales you would have had from the 700 total people. Whether it be used or pirated makes no difference in this case, except for online play with people playing over servers.

However, of the 200 people who pirated, how many would have purchased it anyway, if piracy would not have been an option? That is the true question, and I bet it's a lot lower than the people touting the "piracy is causing huge losses in money" would like to make it out to be.

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Mark today on your calendar. We tested several games known to have AP measures. Each, as expected, failed to run using R4, M3, and DSLinker cards.


We then ran each using DeSmuME and IdeaS emulators and they all worked. That means its only a matter of weeks now until a generic crack renders the Metaforic protection useless. Oh, well!