With high-speed internet connections and BitTorrent now common, it’s easier than ever to download the most popular PC games … illegally. Publishers are fighting back against the pirates with increasingly strict copy protection. Caught in the crossfire are legitimate paying customers: the PC gamers. They are people who, generally speaking, are technically sophisticated enough to download illegally, but who choose to buy instead. And they have started to revolt.The Boston Tea Party of this particular revolution took place with the September 2008 launch of Will Wright’s highly anticipated Spore. Wright is the legendary game designer behind the popular Sims series of games, and Spore was supposed to be his masterpiece. The problem was that the game had to be activated online before it could be played. The title could only be activated a limited number of times before the game shut down, which rankled customers with multiple computers. (Imagine buying a CD that you could only play on a few stereos, and one starts to understand the anger.) Even worse, the game installed a program called SecuRom that had the potential to change the behavior of other programs on the gamer’s system, and there was no disclosure of what the program was, what it did, or how to remove it.
Because of the unusually strong copy-protection, gamers fought back. Amazon.com was filled with one-star reviews for the game, and many of the would-be buyers seemed to find the moral high ground in pirating the game instead of purchasing it legally. After all, the pirated version was SecuRom-free, and could be used on any number of systems. Downloading a cracked version of the game from a pirate stopped being something that felt a lot like stealing, and started to seem like plain common sense. It was a way for gamers to keep their hard-drives free of a program that looked suspiciously like malware.
Electronic Arts, Spore’s publisher, had pulled out the big guns in an attempt to protect its massive, estimated $35 million investment from pirates, and ended up alienating the people who support the company: its customers. Other gaming executives have gotten the message, too. “What really miffs gamers is when they purchase games legitimately and are then made to feel like pirates through excessive or invasive DRM measures,” says Ron Pessner, general manager in Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business. Even the Federal government has taken notice. The Federal Trade Commission recently held a summit in March of this year to explore the issue of digital rights management, and how it may be hurting consumers.
“We’re at an important crossroads; one which will define ownership, use and even fair use going forward,” says Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association. “That software publishers and developers are aware of the rising tide of discontent regarding intrusive DRM isn’t a good thing, it’s a great thing.” Halpin, lobbying for the gamer at the FTC summit, argued that publishers should be required to disclose the level of DRM on the game’s packaging. That way, everyone is aware of how invasive or benign the copy protection added to the game will be upon installation. Even if the FTC doesn’t take up the proposal, the issue has gained a lot of traction in the video game press. Since Spore, the inclusion of a program like SecuROM in a new video game is so controversial that it’s nearly a story unto itself.
Nearly lost in all the hoopla over SecuRom and install limits is the larger issue: how much damage is piracy really doing to the gaming industry? We will never know if without SecuRom and the subsequent buyer revolt Spore would have been a larger success, but it’s worth looking at numbers for the industry as a whole. According to the PC Gaming Alliance the size of the PC Gaming industry in 2008 was $11 billion dollars in sales worldwide. That’s roughly equal to the console market, where piracy is extremely rare. (Typically pirating a console game requires physically modifying game hardware, or buying third-party add-ons for consoles or portables.) While it impossible to know how big the industry would be without piracy, numbers like these suggest that piracy may be a non-issue. One thing is for sure, the PC gaming industry is remarkbly healthy… unless they manage to alienate those who keep the business alive: the customers.
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