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It’s Gamers vs. Game Companies

Companies struggle to balance copyright technologies with players’ interests.
August 20, 2010

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.

Ultimately, Schober says, companies are moving toward a model where hackers wouldn’t just have to break through protections on a game, they’d also have to crack company servers. The unfortunate consequence, he says, is that it’s getting more difficult for legitimate gamers to use and keep the products they buy.

But there are alternatives to DRM in the works as well. The IEEE Standards Association, which develops industry standards for a variety of technologies, is working to define “digital personal property.” The goal, says Paul Sweazey, who heads the organization’s working group, is to restore some of the qualities of physical property–making it possible to lend or resell digital property.

Sweazey stresses that the group just started meeting, but he explains that the idea is to sell games and other pieces of software in two parts–an encrypted file and a “play key” that allows it to be used. The play key could be stored in an online bank run by any organization, and could be accessed through a URL. To share the product, the player would simply share the URL. Anyone with access to the URL could claim the play key for himself, Sweazey says, meaning that users would be unlikely to share the URL on the open Internet.

Game makers are exploring other ways to encourage players to buy legitimate copies of a game, or to make money without relying on selling legitimate copies. These include adding special features that can only be accessed through official versions, and providing downloadable content for legitimate copies that expands a game’s story or adds additional side quests and characters. Some games, such as those that run through Facebook, like Zynga’s Farmville, are free to play but earn revenue by selling virtual items within the game.

Some game companies use copy protection that experts agree protect content effectively without restricting players. Schober and Esguerra both point to the DRM used by Valve’s Steam, a site that sells downloadable games and allows online play. Schober notes that Steam is designed to be simple to use–gamers can download files ahead of release, and when the game becomes available, they get the codes needed to unlock them. This avoids situations such as the pounding that Ubisoft’s servers received at the release of Assassin’s Creed.

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