Computer game companies use increasingly complicated software to protect against piracy. But these efforts can frustrate gamers, who protest that the protections restrict legitimate game play. Last week, Ubisoft, a company accused of using a draconian and convoluted protection scheme, backed down by announcing that its new game RUSE would use a less restrictive scheme.
The change highlights the tension between gamers and game companies regarding copy protection schemes. And it shows how companies struggle to balance fears over copyright infringement and the demands of their customers.
Legitimate copies of games, like other pieces of software, usually come with a unique code that unlocks it. But game companies are concerned about rampant sharing of pirated games online and the speed with which hackers can break ordinary “digital rights management” (DRM) schemes.
Earlier this year, Ubisoft launched a game called Assassin’s Creed 2 with a controversial new “always-on” DRM scheme. The game required a player to be online so that it could check in with the company’s servers to verify that the gamer had a genuine copy. Some players grumbled about the scheme before it even launched, and worried that the game would be unplayable if the company’s servers went down, or if players didn’t have a network connection. There was more trouble once the game went live–Ubisoft’s servers couldn’t handle the load of players, which meant that many people who had bought the game couldn’t play it.
Richard Esguerra, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), says tensions tend to erupt when a DRM scheme violates customers’ sense of ownership. “Gamers have an idea that if you bought it, you own it, and that’s what’s being violated here,” he says.
Esguerra says an “always-on” DRM scheme can unfairly affect those who live in rural areas and lack consistent connectivity. He adds that such DRM schemes can render a game worthless if the company behind it goes bust or decides to stop supporting that title. Some games, such as World of Warcraft, need a connection to provide integral features. But Esguerra thinks players are offended when the connection isn’t essential to the game play.
Russ Crupnick, vice president and senior industry analyst for NPD Group, says the intricacies of DRM technologies don’t matter to most consumers unless the system gets in the way. The key for companies, he says, is to find a system that’s unobtrusive.
Ferdinand Schober, a graduate student in computer science at Georgia Tech who previously worked at Microsoft on the popular games Gears of War and Halo, says some companies are pursuing ever more restrictive DRM. One possibility is “executable content”–forcing players to download new pieces of a game as they progress through it. He says that hints on forums and in game code have led him to believe that companies are experimenting with this technology.