December 5, 2008 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[Yesterday, big sister site Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander 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."