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Normally, I am staunchly anti-pirate. Being of a ninja-like persuasion (one might say ninjesque), pirates have no place in my heart. They are sea rats and brigands, barely fit for those floating masses of jetsam they call “ships”. However, even pirates are afforded a port of safe harbor with me, sometimes.

Piracy for video games is a problem. I think we can all respect the idea that people want to be paid for services they provide and products they create, and the people who create video games are no different. They make something we enjoy, and there are a lot of people behind the project: artists, writers, musicians, voice actors, producers, directors… Modern gaming is a lot like a movie in that way. But movies and other “intellectual properties” are viciously guarded by certain entities, who take really drastic measures to protect them, and the video game industry is following suit.

Let’s take a look at Ubisoft’s latest attempt to get into the debate. Recently, Ubisoft introduced some of the most stringent anti-piracy policies ever implemented. In essence, Ubisoft requires your game to keep a constant connection to the internet so that the game can log on to their servers and authenticate your copy of Silent Hunter 5 and Assassin’s Creed 2. This policy turns what are nominally single-player games into something else, since you can’t play them alone under all circumstances. If your internet connection goes out either because your hardware at home is crappy or your ISP is having a bad hair day, or Ubisoft’s own servers go down or are DDoS’d into oblivion, you’re out of luck.

The reaction to this policy has not been pretty. (The link on “pretty” is my favorite, by the way. If you only click on one link this entire article, that should be it.)

Though this only applies to the PC version of these games, it’s definitely a slap in the face to legitimate consumers who wanted to play AC2 on their home computer. X-Box and PS3 aficionados can still enjoy wacky medieval Italy just fine, but there are still gamers who prefer PCs to consoles. A friend of mine told me that she and her father eschewed home systems entirely: “What good is an X-Box that doesn’t run the games I want to play? My computer is more customizable and does things I need it to do, other than playing games.” Her stance is completely rational, and Ubisoft’s policy is not only infuriating to those people who feel like they are being punished for their preference of system, but it doesn’t even do what Ubisoft is trying to do.

Ultimately, Ubisoft’s aim is to stop pirates. They don’t want their product stolen. They want to have it paid for, which is reasonable. Their response is unreasonable, given the fact that pirates have in fact, cracked the game.

This is normal for pirates.

Everyone in the industry saw this coming. Really, everyone. Ubisoft especially must’ve seen this coming, because I don’t believe they can be this blind, this naive. Any gaming company that has been around this long cannot possibly be this stupid, and I chose to believe that what Ubisoft really is, at their core, is this desperate. They have thrown everything else at the wall, and none of that shit has stuck.

So while Ubisoft is becoming more like the RIAA, let’s consider people who are trying new things in combating piracy.

This is Jonathan Coulton. He’s a musician, and as such, people are interested in his goods: songs. Many people in fact are interested in his songs, particularly people who are good at computers, as he tends to sing about geeky things. As a result, he’s well aware that people are going to try and take his stuff without paying him. What does he say to that? Well, he’s kind of okay with it.

I don’t wish to misconstrue his position here. He would like to get paid for his work, since he has a child and a wife and wants to be able to contribute things like taxes to his community and so forth. What he does differently than big labels though is realize the truth: “The truth is, artists are already competing with free — your music can be obtained for free, I guarantee it. So it’s important to realize every music purchase represents a choice to spend money. I’ve always been clear that while I’m happy to let you download for free, I’d rather you actually gave me money. And a lot of people make that choice.”

He’s experimenting with something called a Creative Commons license to distribute his music, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Really, the trick to combating piracy seems to be aware of them, and to accept them as a reality. Dealing with the existence of pirates is working out better for people who are trying it, as opposed to doing everything possible to counteract their efforts.

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  1. ShyGuy
    March 20th, 2010 at 18:08 | #1

    This sums up my understanding of the situation pretty well. My view is that eventually, over the next 20 or so years, it’s going to become obvious that digital goods can’t be sold and controlled in the same way as tangible items. Those who refuse to adapt and come up with new methods of creating revenue will lose.

    It’s not their fault, of course. Most pirates will agree that what they’re doing is at least a “little” wrong, regardless of their justifications. But that’s the reality of the situation; accept it and adapt, or face the music.

    (or game, in this case!)

  2. March 20th, 2010 at 19:19 | #2

    I think what you’ve hit on here, at least with the JoCo vs the RIAA example, is that not all pirates are fullblown, DRM-cracking maniacs who pirate for the sake of piracy. Your average pirate is like, “I don’t have enough money to buy everything I want. I would feel bad about ripping off a nice guy like Jonathan Coulton… but I certainly don’t care about those assholes at the RIAA.” So we pay for JoCo, because he’s not an asshole, and we don’t pay for, say, Kid Rock (because: asshole), and to “protect” themselves, the RIAA becomes more and more assholeish… giving us more and more reason to not feel bad about piracy. It’s a self-perpetuating system, and kudos to JoCo for trying to break it – I’ll give him my hard-earned dollars any day.

  3. Bret
    March 21st, 2010 at 09:52 | #3

    Didn’t mention EA despite my communication with you about it prior to posting this? Hmph. I think the only way for these big game companies to sit up and take notice about piracy is not to crack down harder on it by employing rather draconian measures for their paying customers, but for the customers to sit up and say, “Hey, this is BS and we’re not going to take it.” Why should you have to have an on-line connection and remain thusly connected for playing a single-player game? If a game has multi-player in an on-line feature, why can’t it be played in off-line mode for single-player? (Or even installed? I’m looking at you Command and Conquer 4)
    As a clerk in the retail side of things, trying to drum up excitement about the next new game is difficult if I also have to mention to the would be buyer that it requires a dedicated internet connection to the game company’s servers.
    Pirates exist, thieves exist, people exist who want to take your shit. The harder the lockdown the more the ‘challenge’ to those who crack the code and the more justified the criminal feels in taking that item that everyone else pays for the privledge of having. Additionally, there’s no where near the loss of revenue these game companies seem to feel that there is due to piracy. I am curious about the loss of sales due to piracy and the amount spent into developing DRM and other anti-piracy measures, if they equal out or if they spend more on the development of anti-piracy techniques.
    Frankly it’s pretty disgusting, a big finger to the computer gamer, and even the console gamer has to endure some of this idiotcy (EA games on consoles require a dedicated connection for DLC [though I surmise also for some Big Brotherism] )

  4. Snagger
    March 21st, 2010 at 13:06 | #4

    You, sir, are beginning to slip into a rather dangerous habit of writing blog entries with which I totally agree. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

    I think it is worth repeating that there is only one group of people who are affected or even mildly inconvenienced by these obsessively stringent anti-piracy measures. The paying consumer.

    The paying consumer is the one who has to sit through 5 minute unskippable FBI warnings before movies. The paying consumer is the one who has to pay exorbitant amounts for CDs in order to fund the record company’s war on piracy. The paying consumer, as you pointed out above, is the one who doesn’t get to run around Italy killing people if their internet goes out.

    The pirates don’t even skip a beat. After all, most of the work is done by someone else, someone who enjoys cracking programs. The pirate doesn’t have to deal with any of the things listed above, and this gives them a feeling of justification. It makes them feel that they are triumphing over The Evil Corporation.

    I don’t know what the solution is, or even if there is one, but this ain’t it.

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