Interview: Combating R4 Piracy On The DS
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.”