Fight for Your Right (To Pirate?)

DRM has become the all the rage for publishers and consoles. But gamers aren’t buying.

by Jonathan Tung

With the dramatic events of this year’s E3 all wrapped up, it’s quite clear that Sony has already won this round in console wars before they even hit shelves. No, I’m not talking about the price (which still makes me want to get a PS4 anyway), but by clearing up their current stance in regards to used games. You see, when the Xbox One was announced late last month, Wired Magazine published an exclusive article that detailed some of the many unique features that the console will utilize come arrival time. One of the more controversial aspects that caught many eyes was the suggestion that the game console would utilize a rather expensive form of DRM: specifically, customers who have lent out their games to friends would have to see said friends forced to pay a fee in order to use the game disc. Such a policy could have deeply hurt GameStop, a major player in the used games market, where pre-owned games make up just under 40% of total revenue. Even worse, it was soon later discovered that the Xbox One was required to be online at least once every 24 hours, something which could pose a problem for folks who happen to have little to no internet access at all. Naturally, all hell broke loose.

Over on NeoGAF, a group of forum users started up a new campaign to encourage Sony to not follow the ways of Microsoft. Titled #PS4noDRM, this viral social media campaign was designed to not only send out a message to Sony, but to also get the attention of various media sites all across the internet about Microsoft’s perceived wrongdoing. And it seemed to have paid off in the end: at its E3 press event, Sony announced that the PlayStation 4 will not only support used games, but will not require any form of online authentication or DRM at all whatsoever, resulting with huge cheers from the crowd. The collective internet seems to agree: in a recent amazon poll asking which console consumers want to purchase for the holiday season, the PlayStation 4 overwhelmingly dominated with over 30,000 votes compared to the One’s measly 1,677.

At the same time, Microsoft is having trouble trying to explain the reasoning behind their DRM tactics. In order to clear this up, one anonymous Microsoft engineer went onto 4chan’s infamous /b/ board in order to clear up some of the most objectionable policies. In a series of posts, he explains the reasoning behind the new cloud-based system the company was enforcing, claiming it was done as a mean to “kill disc swapping, scratched discs, bringing discs to friends house, trade-ins for shit value with nothing going back to developers,” etc etc. In other words, Microsoft’s intention was to try and port Steam’s model to the console.

Now this protest was only the latest in the controversy surrounding used game sales and video game piracy, which has now become a major problem for most game publishers, some of whom are coming up with various ways to claw back lost revenue, whether with online passes, season passes, or microtransactions. But what is even more grave is the fear of having your hard earned product pirated and distributed through illegal means, something that has been happening since the golden age of video games.


So a really long time ago (the early 1980s to be exact), video games used to be sold either on three-inch floppies or, if you lived in the UK, cassette tapes (yes, cassette tapes). During that time, games were widely available and were extremely easy to copy, that is, provided that you had a twin deck tape recorder and several blank tapes. Usually, if you were caught, you would often be slapped down with a massive fine and have your goods confiscated.

Over time, game publishers began to come up with various ways to prevent their games from being illegally ripped and distributed. Among some of the things they have tried included a somewhat primitive (and time-wasting) form of COPY PROTECTION, which often required typing in a specific word from a page within the game's instruction manual. This was eventually succeeded with the introduction of feelies, made famous by Infocom when they released their third text-based adventure game, Deadline, to critical acclaim in 1982. These were done not only to provide the player with additional material to supplement and help them beat the game, but they also served as a form of physical copy-protection, especially since it was near impossible to reproduce everything that came in the box (that and the fact that the developers were running out of programming space).

This would eventually become a standard for all future titles by the publisher before they folded and merged with Activision later on. Even more amusing is the fact that feelies would eventually be used in other acclaimed titles into the future. One game, The Secret of Monkey Island, utilized a system called Dial-a-Pirate, which was basically nothing more than a primitive variant of of those old-fashioned decoder wheels you found in your cereal, while the very first Metal Gear Solid game required the player to consult a screenshot on the back cover of the game package in order to find a specific codec frequency. Those who pirated the game (or were unlucky enough to rent it) would be left confused and stuck without a playable game.

Eventually, however, the issue of multimedia piracy was just running getting out of hand. So on October 28, 1998, then-president Bill Clinton enacted the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, or DMCA for short. Simply put, the DMCA not only worsened the penalties for digital copyright infringement, but it also made it illegal to circumvent any form of DRM on any type of digital product. Needless to say, not many people took it that seriously.

Today, DRM is widespread, often found in various video games as means to curb piracy and to prevent lost sales. In order to sweeten the deal and encourage pirates to purchase their titles, developers and publishers have done all kinds of things in order to... dissuade users from pirating their goods. Ubisoft programmed a vuvuzela into bootlegged copies of the DS version of Michael Jackson: The Experience. Remedy added pirate eye patches to the main characters in Alan Wake (complete with skull and crossbones, too, for added effectiveness). Even the folks at Warner Bros and Rocksteady joined in on the fun by making it impossible to glide in pirated copies of Batman: Arkham Asylum. But what could perhaps be the very best example of piracy done right came when a small time indie game developer known as Greenheart Games actually did something that caught my attention a while back: they released a special version of their title Game Dev Empire onto the Pirate Bay as an experiment in order to see how many people illegally downloaded the game. Within days, it was downloaded over 3000 times.

What made this version special was the fact that it contained a special feature: It forced the player to watch as all of his games failed due to software piracy. As a result, the player will not earn any revenue in-game, and will automatically lose. And just like that, the owners of the pirated version came out of the woodwork and started to complain about how it's next to impossible to sell their titles, especially with piracy rampant. On the bright side, they were pretty much expressing the same feelings the real developers were feeling when their game got pirated.


And now we come to the present day: after what could be considered one of the most shocking and momentous E3s in recent history. With gamers flocking in droves towards the PlayStation 4 in the wake of Microsoft’s disastrous Xbox One positioning and operating model, only time will tell if Sony will reap the strategic benefits by fighting some of the publishers’ demands. Let's hope they are rewarded for it.

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