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Interview: The Return Of... StarForce?

Interview: The Return Of... StarForce? Exclusive

June 16, 2009 | By Todd Ciolek

June 16, 2009 | By Todd Ciolek
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Gamasutra caught up with oft-maligned Russian PC game copy protection firm StarForce as it attempts to make a comeback with Western firms -- but has it changed its approach? We find out.]

If you’ve heard of StarForce before, odds are it wasn’t in favorable circumstances. The Russian anti-piracy software company found itself in the spotlight early in 2006 when several websites and PC users criticized StarForce’s copy-protection measures, even stating that the software damaged computers.

StarForce’s response was a public-relations train wreck: the company threatened to sue one website, and a StarForce representative, hoping to show the importance of copy-protection, later posted links to pirate sites offering downloads of Galactic Civilizations 2. The backlash against StarForce was unflattering, to put it delicately.

StarForce laid relatively low in the Western market for years, but the company recently emerged with a new version of its anti-piracy software and perhaps a new approach to assuaging customer complaints. To see just how the company might re-establish itself, we threw some questions at Dmitry Guseff, Deputy Marketing Director at StarForce Technologies.

Many consumers in the game industry are distrustful of StarForce due to the anti-piracy software controversy that arose in 2006. Is the company doing things differently now?

After some PR problems that the company faced in 2006, we’ve considerably changed our mind towards copy protection aims. For us, the word “protection” has never been only the name of the company activity. We have always tried to offer high-quality solutions that really protect. Since StarForce was established in 1998, during several years we were constantly improving the protection reliability level to suit corporate clients’ needs as much as possible, but the end user was partly forgotten.

In 2006, company priorities were remapped. Our special End User department has been established and has the task of tracking game forums and blogs to create new technical requirements that have to be implemented into a completely new user-friendly solution. It is very important to say that overall reliability had to be kept on the highest possible level. Now, after 3 years of hard work, I may say with confidence that we managed to do it.

Why was the original StarForce anti-piracy program so invasive? How are your new programs different?

As I said above, StarForce engineers had aimed to perform at a maximum protection level. Initially protection had been developed for piracy-rampant countries such as China and Russia. No solutions available on the world market at that time could suit the needs of Russian and Chinese publishers. They simply couldn’t effectively protect. That’s why StarForce engineers were tasked to develop really tough protection for regions with very high piracy levels.

Two fundamental copy protection measurements, reliability and compatibility, are strictly connected to each other. Improvement of anti-hacking mechanisms always leads to a compatibility slide and vice-versa. Everybody remembers Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It held for 422 days without a piracy crack. This world record for AAA-class games is still unbeaten and no other solutions managed to make a game last longer.

To reach this goal we had to penetrate into the system pretty deep, as hackers and emulating tools do exactly the same to circumvent protection. It was fighting fire with fire. It is always weird for me to see users hate protection drivers when the Daemon Tools one also operates in Ring 0, but it is highly appreciated. The difference is that the StarForce driver is fully certified for Windows XP and Vista, passed through numerous tests inside Microsoft testlabs. Our company has gained Microsoft Certified Partner and Technological Partner levels. And I can’t say something similar about DT.

How do you balance the effectiveness of copy-protection software with the user's freedom?

Working on reliability, you should always turn towards usability and compatibility and keep the user’s comfort in mind. I may say that the core of StarForce protection hasn’t been considerably changed. That allows us to keep up the good work with reliability and cracking resistance.

We’ve removed some tricks that were most bug-capacious such as direct hardware access. Yes, StarForce still utilizes drivers but only for anti-emulating stuff. The driver has no direct access to a system’s optical drive and communicates through Windows standard drivers. As I said above, it is not possible to effectively counteract emulator programs without a protection driver installed.

Concerning user’s freedom, we’ve made a huge step towards comfortable protection usage. Every PC gamer hates an optical disc-checking process prior to game starts. The CD/DVD disc is a very delicate device, and constant checking results in scratches appearing on the disc surface that could lead to checking errors.

Moreover, the disc is the weakest link in the modern copy protection chain. It is very easy to emulate. To effectively struggle against emulators, copy protection should use drivers, but consumers hate drivers and used to claim it caused system instability, security holes and so on. Protection providers dealt with that by offering software activation methods. Such methods are absolutely impossible to emulate and very compatible. But consumers are not satisfied again. Just remember that Spore hysteria.

So we’ve got a situation where disc-based protection is intrusive due to driver presence and an activation-based one limits user rights for a limited number of activations. (For those who say that Steam is the best choice, I say that Steam is not a protection method; it is the distribution platform.) According to the modern technological level, there is no other binding method that could effectively control a license usage. It seems we are running around in circles.

But we know the solution. It’s called choice. Freedom of choice is the fundamental right of every consumer. The consumer likes to have alternatives and we offer this possibility.
In 2007, StarForce presented “Disc Free Technology” which allows you to choose between a disc-binding schema and activation one.

Once a game is launched you may choose the way the protection method checks the game’s authenticity: disc check or activation. In the first case, everything will work as usual, asking you to place the disc in the optical drive every time you want to play. In the case of activation, the user enters a serial number and forgets about boring disc validation procedures.

The most interesting thing is that the consumer may switch between launch methods whenever he or she likes. Internet connection problems? Activation server is down? Run out of activations? You are welcome to use the disc. Have disc checking problem? New operation system and protection driver incompatibility? Don’t like a protection driver presence at all? Activation solves all the problems in-house. Moreover, in case of the original disc being damaged or lost, the user may launch the game using a previously made backup.

The technology has been already tested in several Russian and Czech titles. And you know what? I’ve never read so much positive feedback about any copy protection on any consumers’ boards.

About the periodic disc check feature, I need to say that it could be switched on during the protection implementation process. For those regions where broadband connection is not widely spread, using the disc-validation procedure once every three days or once a week, for instance, seems to be a very comfortable feature.

Why do you think StarForce's new anti-piracy measures will rebuild the company's reputation?

I think that new products, excellent customer service, and the right combination between publisher and customer needs will help. We have seriously worked on our errors and offered new solutions. Now we need to receive more feedback to be able to say something specific and continue with improvements. But based on our Russian and Eastern European experiences, both publishers and customers are very delighted with our new steps.

What do you have to say to the people who complained about the older StarForce copy protection?

I understand all gamers who have ever had problems launching StarForce-protected games or even experienced system instability issues. The customer always has the right to a high-quality product and it is not their headache if it doesn’t work properly. As I said, our main goal was a hackers’-nightmare protection level. We’ve managed to do it and received a lot of enthusiastic reviews from our Russian and Chinese clients.

That gave us big confidence that the product would be quite successful in Western markets. But we didn’t fully take into consideration all of the differences between Western and Eastern consumers. After we received the first signals about system problems and hardware failures we launched massive testing work together with our partners all over the world. Not a single test confirmed that problems occurred due to StarForce protection.

As I described above, usually there is a lot of varied software installed in PCs. Most of it has its own drivers, all the hardware utilizes drivers and it’s a very complicated task to find out a bug’s source. Customers started to demand a refund, but it was necessary to be sure that the problem was due to StarForce. That is why we ran a special promotion called “Prove it!” And you know what? There was not a single call, not even from Russia!

Based on the testing research, we built up PR work more aggressive than was needed. Displeasure has risen like a storm. Being a team of high-quality technical professionals, we had been preparing to compete on technological level, but we were in a PR and marketing fight.

For those who probably aren’t satisfied with my words, I may add that StarForce has lost several big game publishers, which seriously reduced our market share in the PC games sector. Keeping in mind that copy protection and DRM are pretty important things for the game industry overall, the only thing we can do is to offer better products and services based on our past years’ experience. We do not intend to repeat our past mistakes.

What do you think is the single most important step in fighting video-game piracy?

There are many factors that could reduce game piracy. The fact that I’m still working for StarForce definitely means that one of the most important things is the technological method. Many industry specialists are sure that downloadable content could help. I may agree, but once additional content is downloaded and installed, who can be sure that the renovated game version won’t be uploaded to the torrent sites as a single download?

The most important part of any copy protection is to have a specific object for protected software binding. Without that, the copyright owner can’t be sure that the intellectual property won't be distributed through unauthorized channels. That’s why it is very important to be sure that one license equals one customer. Without appropriate technological means, developers and publishers will constantly incur a loss.

Today, most publishers implement protection during the final stages of game development. This means that the resulting protection solution is pretty weak and uncomfortable to the user. For instance, one possible way is to plan protection methods in the early stages of game development. I’d say it is better to start during the program architecture’s development stage. Only then will the final solution be highly compatible and extremely complicated to circumvent.

One of the main parts of StarForce’s scope of activity is consulting on how to organize software architecture in order to get a reliable and comfortable protection solution. Also, I think that game pricing may considerably reduce piracy, especially for developing countries.

Why is Russia such a fertile ground for game piracy?

I think that the main factor is the huge corruption among the authorities. When you walk along the street and see a booth with pirated discs and next to it a police officer who just stands there and smokes, you might be surprised. But that salesperson pays the police officer, the police officer in turn pays the chief, and so on up to the highest authority level. In such a situation, it’s almost impossible to effectively counteract piracy because the overall system is currently based on such behavior.

In Russia, there are several non-commercial organizations that fight against piracy and get funded by publishers. They do pretty well in big cities, but the provinces are still almost uncovered.

What is your response to the companies who prefer to emphasize customer service instead of adopting copy-protection programs for their games?

You probably have Stardock CEO Brad Wardell in mind. Personally, I respect him. Not only because I’m a great fan of the Galactic Civilizations series, but also because I share his thoughts presented in The Gamer's Bill of Rights. I must say that today the StarForce solution is very close to what Mr. Wardell stands for. Three out of the ten points in the bill touch upon the copy protection and DRM issues

6.Gamers shall have the right to expect that games won't install hidden drivers or other potentially harmful software without their express consent.
9.Gamers shall have the right to demand that a single-player game not force them to be connected to the Internet every time they wish to play.
10.Gamers shall have the right that games which are installed to the hard drive shall not require a CD/DVD to remain in the drive to play.

StarForce protection has already implemented these.

Therefore, choosing the right schema for specific games and proper copy protection implementation does nothing to breach gamers’ rights and could be an additional and very effective tool against piracy.

According to various sources, Galactic Civilizations 2 sold very well even without protection. Personally, I think that it was due to consumers missing good space strategic games (there had been no such ones since Master of Orion 2 and Star Control 3). But in spite of the fact that it made good revenue for Stardock, it was, I think, a weird move not to try to get twice more.

What recent and upcoming games are using Starforce?

In Russia, most released games come with StarForce protection. The last title was Wheelman. As for international releases, we’ve protected the game Digital Combat Simulator: Black Shark. I can’t speak about upcoming games as we are under NDAs with publishers. It will be quite easy to find out once those games are released.

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