Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Copy Protection of Games 1

Copy protection of games is a tough call.

On the one hand, as someone who's been paid for his writing, I'm a strong supporter of copyright. And not just the letter of the laws and international conventions, but the spirit of the rule that says you don't appropriate someone else's property. In the first place, that's rude. In the second place, those who create works for publication depend on the revenues of publication as incentives to create. A culture that starts thinking it's OK to steal (to duplicate copyrighted material without authorization) is a culture that's going to become less creative, and that's bad for everyone.

On the other hand, I have to agree that some of the actual measures taken to protect works that are published in binary format are excessive.

Take Steam, for example. (Please.) I suffered through Steam's nearly FOUR HOUR installation/update process in order to play Half-Life 2. (Steam also forced another online update -- again, this is to a game that's played completely offline -- two weeks later.) It was barely worth it. HL2 was a superb game, in every way a great sequel to the wonderful original, but Steam is such an abomination that it nearly outweighed the value of HL2. I consider Steam to be invasive and intrusive; my impression is it treats consumers like criminals. If Steam is a requirement to run some game then I will not buy that game, period. (Pirates of the Burning Sea was crossed off my "try-it" list until they dumped Steam and went with SOE as a distributor/updater.)

I'm sorry some jerk stole the source code to Half-Life 2 partway through the development process, but punishing the many innocent gamers by imposing Steam's heavy-handed copy protection monitoring on everyone is abusive. Bad developer! Bad!

And Steam is just a recent example. I'm old enough to remember the "burn a hole in the floppy disk" copy protection scheme that frustrated valid purchasers of software more than it defeated crackers. It was rude, too.

So I'm stuck in the middle. I can see the motive behind creating a DVD technology that formats and reads disks differently based on zones in order to reduce piracy, but I can also see how this adds cost without being very effective.

Similarly, I can appreciate that game developers who've had to raise millions of dollars in financing want to be reasonably confident that they'll earn back that money through sales of their product, rather than losing income they deserve because some people shared unauthorized copies of software. But I also resent very intrusive copy protection technologies that treat everyone as guilty.

Eventually the most common content distribution model changed from floppies to CDs. After we got through the first wave of publisher attempts to copy-protect CDs, most game developers went to the model where you could install the code on a CD on multiple machines, but required you to register the unique code for your CD if you wanted support.

That worked acceptably well for single-player games (although there was still some digital shrinkage). Then came online, persistent-world games that offered frequent content updates. Sending a CD every week or three would be too expensive, so a digital download (since you're already online) made sense... and there's the opportunity to do copy-protection again.

This sort of makes sense for online games. You might as well do online authentication for online games when you already require digital downloading of new content. I'm not happy about the sick download requirements for modem users, but I recognize the inevitability of piggybacking authentication onto digital downloading.

My question is, why try to retrofit this technology to single-player games (like Half-Life2)? [Edit 2008/04/11: Take-Two's "two installs and you're done" DRM controls on BioShock are yet another sorry example.] "Because we can" is not good enough. Steam and others of its ilk are not appropriate for single-player games; they impose requirements without offering value. They are abusive.

So here's my suggestion for a constructive alternative: unlockable content.

The game as shipped would need to be completely playable, and you could put it on as many machines as you like (although you shouldn't). But if you're willing to pay a little extra, you can go online and register your unique copy of the game, and in return you'll get special downloadable content. New levels, new monsters, new gear, new skins, enhanced textures -- any or all of these could be made available to people who authenticate their copy of the game as unique.

There's a question of how you'd reregister if you buy a new computer and reinstall the game on it. There would also be complaints of the "You didn't sell me the whole game!" variety. But IMO these complaints would not prevent this model from general acceptance by publishers and gamers.

After all, it works in the online game world when it's called an "expansion," isn't it?

Getting the behavior you want by rewarding the law-abiding makes a lot more sense than treating everyone like a criminal.

[Edit 2008/04/11: For the record, I'm a PC gamer; I own no consoles... but I see that my idea for unlockable content has been adopted even by PC game developers as "achievements" such as those implemented in some console games. I still despise the thuggish customer-control tactics of DRM implementations, but praise where praise is merited to the game distributors who are finally starting to provide some additional content to the gamers who are forced to endure online validation of offline games.]

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