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Beat The Pirates At Your Own Game

GI.biz Editorial: Move beyond crippling anti-piracy measures.

Coming Storm

To describe this as a mounting crisis would be an understatement. In the hope of protecting its business from pirates, the industry has angered, frustrated and annoyed its legitimate consumers - just like Sony Music did when it installed a spyware "rootkit" on its audio CDs, or like countless movie companies have done by subjecting customers to awful, unskippable preaching about piracy at the beginning of every DVD or cinema screening they watch (despite the fact that they've paid to see the movie, and if they had pirated it, that offensive prattle wouldn't be there).

There will always be a core of people who can't or won't pay for things, and who will go to incredible lengths and inconvenience themselves awfully just in order to get stuff for free. However, it's a stupid and useless dogma to claim that all piracy happens because of that impulse. The reality is that when pirates are offering a better user experience than you are, your business model is broken - and rather than punishing your loyal customers, or whinging to national governments in the hope that they'll cover your backside with unpopular, civil liberties-infringing legislation, you need to fix your business model. Or find a new job.

The music business has learned this. We've come in a short space of years from the Sony rootkit debacle to a situation where restrictive, consumer-punishing DRM is being lifted from music downloads. Finally, the music business is offering a better user experience than the pirates - iTunes and its ilk are a more user-friendly, pleasant way to browse and search for music online than any pirate site, with faster downloads, and (in some cases - iTunes still lags behind here) good cross-compatibility between any devices you happen to own. Lo and behold, consumers aren't actually against paying reasonable prices for music - they're just against having to go out and buy CDs with spyware on them, or having to download tracks that are crippled, locked up and liable to be unplayable as soon as the company you bought them from goes bust.

How long will it take videogames to learn the same lesson? Chris Taylor's suggestion, at least, suggests that there's an understanding in some quarters about how the business models of the industry need to change. One part of his proposal is correct - games which depend on server-side interactions are a great solution to piracy. World of Warcraft and its ilk are the models for this; you're essentially turning your game from a product into a service, charging users for access to your servers on an ongoing basis rather than worrying about an up-front fee for the product. More and more games which follow this model will actually encourage "piracy" of their client - they'll give it away for free, and if it ends up on BitTorrent, then that's less bandwidth costs for the publisher.

However, companies need to be incredibly careful about implementing this. If your game has a major server-side component (like World of Warcraft), then turning it into a server-reliant game makes sense and will be accepted by consumers. If, on the other hand, you take what is essentially a single-player game and try to turn it into a service, or to tie it into an online server model, then that's nothing more than an extension of the old, broken and stupid copy-protection ideas the industry already uses.

Are you going to tell someone who brings a laptop on a flight that he can't play his new RTS game's single-player campaign because he can't connect to your server from the plane? I should certainly hope not, because it's fairly easy to tell what will happen as soon as his plane lands - he'll go online and find a pirate version of the game that won't treat him like a criminal, or a wayward child who needs to be kept on a short leash. Let's not pretend, either, that requiring server authentication or even keeping chunks of code on the server will prevent piracy - there will always be ways around such protection, and the pirates will always find them. Technological solutions to piracy have never worked in the long or even the medium term.

It's a bitter pill for some executives to swallow, but the only way forward in the fight against piracy is going to be to treat customers like adults, and to assume that they are honourable and honest. The music business, to its surprise, is discovering that when you stop treating users like criminals, they stop acting like criminals. Let's hope videogames can learn that lesson without having to go through the revenue-crippling ordeal music has experienced in the past decade.

For more views on the industry and to keep up to date with news relevant to the games business, read GamesIndustry.biz. You can sign up to the newsletter and receive the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial directly each Thursday afternoon.

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About the Author

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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