August 25, 2007

Perspective on Games and Protection

I'm a gamer.

I play games on my PC. I play games on my Xbox 360. I play games on my PlayStation 2. I play games on my GameCube. I play games on my BlackBerry. I play board games, card games, word games...I play games.

I've been playing games now for thirty years.

I remember going to arcades as a kid...and even managing one as an adult. I remember writing games on my old Timex Sinclair 1000, then moving on to the Atari 800XL after my membrane keyboard bit it. I remember getting so pissed off when the hard sector copy protection on a game caused head knocking on my ancient floppy drive.

I remember when games started shipping with license agreements. They confused me. "I bought the damn game...who are they to tell me what I can or can't do with it?"

I see the same comments all over the place nowadays. I've been there.

I still get pissed at protection that affects how your system functions (like StarForce). Hell, StarForce pushed me past the edge in the past. I'd like to point out a quote from that post back in 2005...
I would rather lose a sale due to piracy then lose all future sales due to an experience like this. A sale lost to piracy can lead to future sales if the game is good enough. A customer lost due to poor experience will never come back.
Yes, that's right. I said that. The poster child against piracy. Of course, sixteen months later the pirates were eating my lunch, but that's another story.

I guess I'm just seeing another death spiral. I remember the backlash against hard sector protection at the user group that I used to go to back in the 80's. I saw the piracy going on all around me and back then, I kept quiet...even when I shouldn't have.

PC gamers are calling bullshit on the copy protection. Game developers are calling bullshit on the piracy. With all of this bullshit going back and forth, the consoles are walking through relatively unscathed. On a console, you don't need to worry about the number of simultaneous have one and it's on the disk. You don't need to worry about CD keys, protection damaging your drive, driver issues, etc.

Developers are moving to consoles because of the lack of piracy and the relative ease of development (lack of config problems due to locked hardware, static performance profiles, etc.). Gamers are moving to consoles because there are no just play the game.

But PC games are just beginning to see the beginning of the depths of protection, and you need look no further than business software to see where it's going. After all, a PC is at its very nature a business machine. Admittedly, games have driven the development of PC's, driven the performance needs, driven the overall focus of the industry, but in the end your PC was still designed for Excel and Word.

Look at PC gaming today. We have master servers authenticating our games, license authentication to install and launch, media-based protection is acting as a dongle in a CD tray, hardware fingerprinting, CD keys...the business side has been there and when it comes to license enforcement, they're leading the way.

To be honest, they really have to. All software, games included, are sold as licenses. You do not own the software you buy. Even free software like Linux is made available to you under a license. Licenses have varying levels of freedom attached to them, but the fact that we are only acquiring licenses to the software cannot be discounted. (If it could, would sites like this exist?)

If we were truly buying the software, we could copy it all that we wanted and pass it out to our friends. We could disassemble it, distribute modified versions of it, and so on. Some software encourages redistribution, but most do not. Games fall in that bucket.

Most license terms aren't enforced. Game rentals are specifically forbidden by the license agreements of pretty much every console game released over the last decade, but game rentals thrive. "Hot Coffee" was discovered because modification was pretty much encouraged on the side as it kept interest in the product. But license enforcement is starting to ramp up and you're starting to see the first effects of it.

"SiN Episodes" and "BioShock" caught a lot of flack for trying to enforce license constraints on an offline game, and while they may have been among the first, they'll be far from the last...and it's going to become more and more harsh as time goes on.

The only thing that could really correct this would be a radical redesign of PC's, essentially integrating license enforcement into the platform in a seamless manner like on the consoles or the iPod...essentially making the enforcement a seamless part of the experience as opposed to the hacked-up, piecemeal approach that we currently have.

But until that day, I'll go where these is less hassle or where the hassle makes it worth my while. I bought "BioShock" on the 360 because I can kick back on my couch and enter Rapture in a relaxed manner. I'm going to buy "The Orange Box" over Steam because even though having to connect to Steam may be a little bit of a hassle, the ability to reinstall my entire Steam library after a system format with a couple of mouse clicks and an overnight download makes me very happy.

Now I'm not defending the license terms that we get hit with. I still believe in the first sale doctrine. You should be able to lend, rent, etc., any licensed software that you have. But I do support the right of the company that issued the license to ensure that if you do lend or rent your software that you aren't using it while it is out of your possession.

If those rights can't coexist at some level, then there is no marketplace...and that is what will kill PC gaming.


Francesco Poli said...

I also bought BioShock on 360. Actually, on both platforms - both Collector's Editions - just to support the makers of such an awesome game.

Haven't looked back, or had a regret since. Got all 1000 gamerpoints, too.

And the only reason I don't completely ditch the PC at this point is because free save is still a precious commodity in today's gaming, and further praise must go to Irrational for not letting us down on this.

(Did you notice there is no limit to the amount of saves except what your hard drive holds? Now THAT is nice!)

Until the average game features save-anywhere instead of the dreadful checkpoints consisting of 8 minutes of easy gameplay and unskippable cutscenes plus 2 minutes of pure, unplayable hell, the only way to play most games, to me, is to use some kind of cheat, or, more and more often, a trainer.

And that means using the PC.

Casey P. said...

You make a few comments regarding commercial software and the use of limited number of installs, but don't make any concrete references. I think it is important to point out that as Bioshock is getting flogged for limiting the number of machines you can install on to 5, no-one makes any reference to Microsoft, Adobe or any of the other top software makers who use much stricter controls then Bioshock.

Also, when you look at Sony SecuRom and Bioshock, and consider the alternative of "Media Present" anti-piracy, I personnally believe being able to install on 5 machines is much more friendly then having to carry around the CD.