April 4, 2005

League of Anti-Copy-Protection Geeks?

Right now, I'm getting a metric shit-ton of links from these pissed-off Splinter Cell fans because I've had some issues with Starforce copy protection.

I agree with damn near everything being said on the thread, but I also understand the necessity for copy protection. Partly due to piracy, PC game sales have been plummeting. The only games that haven't had their sales cannibalized are the ones that either have a) effective copy protection or b) online authentication.

PC games aren't the profit center that they once were. They used to be an attractive alternative to consoles because you didn't have the $8-10/unit platform fee and the $10k development kit costs, but now that per unit costs seems mild given how low the piracy rate is on consoles in comparison.

Now several PC games end up being ports of their console brethren, usually handled by a 1-2 man team, in an effort to mildly expand the play base. Less than a man-year is invested on the port, and the port usually sells about 60,000 units at $40 a pop. Sure, that's $2.4 million coming in at retail, but the developer doesn't get that. Game gets sold to the wholesalers at about half of that, so the publisher's are getting $1.2 million. The developer gets maybe 8% of that, so the developer is only getting $96,000. Take away the average developer's salary, and you might actually break into 5-figure land on the ROI.

So believe me, I do understand the frustration that leads to the copy protection being installed. However, I draw the line where the copy protection stops me from doing legal things with my machines. I deal with a lot of ISO images. I use Microsoft's Virtual CD-ROM Control Panel to mount the ISO images. I don't like being told that I have to unload that driver before I can play a game. I write a lot of code. I don't like being told that my minimized copy of Visual Studio that's compiling in the background has to be closed for me to play a frickin' card game.

We're getting to the point where the copy protection side effects are so severe that the copy protection itself is the primary cause of customer dissatisfaction. Steam, while an effective copy protection system due to the authentication system, has been the subject of international lawsuits and concern about what would happen if Valve went under. Starforce, well, the less said, the better.

So we're to the point where some copy protection is needed, but drivers are considered too much. Let's assume that this is a negotiation table. The publisher's are willing to give up driver-based copy protection, but they want something from you in return. What would you be willing to give up for that?

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