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Musings #42 Dissecting the Digital-Play FUD
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: October 25th 2005

The industry, all the time, is a function of differing desires.

Gamers desire to play games. We want to play them, because we want to enjoy them. Moreover, most of us want to play them with as little hassle as possible. Tycho over at Penny Arcade was arguably very pissed off yesterday, because he couldn't play a game purchased on DVD thanks to "copy protection" nonsense, and then tripped over another bit of "protection" in a demo he'd downloaded:

I haven't discussed it for a while because I find it so frustrating, and I honestly believe that nothing could change their approach to software protection. What made it come up again was the copy protection that came along with the King Kong demo. Oh, you heard right: the wave of the future is apparently copy protection on freely available software. I'd never have known, either, if it hadn't made me restart so it could load fuck knows whatever bullshit memory resident. Is it still there now? Watching?

Right on the heels of seeing Tycho get seriously upset (that is to say, cussing more than he usually does), I come in this morning to see a supposed "market research report" sitting in my inbox. Let me be frank: I see this all the time. Not a week goes by wherein those who edit various gaming publications don't see some report or other on "piracy" or other dangers to the industry, whether it's linked by another site, something you report on yourself, find sitting in your inbox delivered from some PR company or other, or in the worst cases, posted to Slashdot.

For some reason, though, I took the time to look at this one. And this one's actually dangerous. The RIAA's campaigns against music sharing were, and let's be brutally honest, stupid. They weren't good business sense for pissing off customers (you can't accuse 100% of your customer base of being crooks and expect them to like you). They weren't good business sense because they took the focus off of RIAA companies establishing a legitimate web presence. They weren't good business sense because they took the focus off of developing decent music acts. In short, they were entirely representative of the fact that RIAA companies have no good business sense.

MPAA actions have been silly as well, and I honestly expected better. These people weren't, I felt, nearly as stupid. Catching people who are camcording movies? I have no problem with it. Making DVDs difficult to copy/backup? Yeah, I suppose I don't like that nearly as much - I'd really like to see a program, for instance, that would distill a 2-hour movie into 600-MBish file to play on my PSP with no worries. I already paid for the movies when I bought the DVD. And I'd like to be able to take a few favorites and make pure copies, just in case I should somehow manage to damage one of my discs beyond repair.

And when the MPAA started putting "trailers" before the movies I went to see in the theater, trying to guilt trip everyone about how awful movie piracy was? Honestly, I tuned them out. About the time they start throwing around sob stories is about the same time I stop caring.

This so-called report, however, is a bit much. It's indicative of how companies like Macrovision, which sell the various copy protection methods that consumers absolutely hate and that pirates get around without a second thought, manage to sell their product to gullible and/or stupid executives at various companies. In other words, this is the marketing tactic that was used to put "copy protection" on the FEAR collector's edition DVD release that managed to piss off Tycho to such a large extent.

On their "Executive Summary" page is some of the most annoying stuff I've seen. It looks like the same sort of market research stuff you see out of the RIAA, which have always been roundly criticized by gamers and even industry execs on the hardware side for having bad methodology and for assuming their results and then massaging the data to fit, rather than strictly analyzing the data at hand. Even after downloading their "report" at the download page (it asks for an email but you CAN just put in garbage and be forwarded to the download link) and reading it, the report is just a wordier version of their "key findings" section. No real, concrete data, no information on WHO the "respondents" were who were polled or what the questions were.

In other words, nothing concrete, but a report that would probably give any PR/Marketroid that was handed it a good scare and send them running to try to get their company implementing Macrovision's products. "50% of CD/DVD are distributed and sold without any form of content protection as standard" - it's another way of saying "50% of the industry didn't pay the Macrovision tax." Likewise with the report salting in "recommendations" throughout that company executives implement "protection" all over the place - and of course, they're expecting to buy it from Macrovision, the same people who commissioned this "report."

Equally annoying are their constant assertions of "casual copying" and "Rip & Burn Culture" dropped in to the report; these are nothing more than scare tactics. Again, to the industry execs: most of your customers do not want to pirate. There is no joy in doing so, for them. Large-scale pirates will get through any form of protection you may throw at them in very little time. "Casual Copying" is equally a joke, because the same tools the pirates use are freely available 90% of the time, or an altered executable that bypasses the protection is, or something else. And we gamers don't like to use them - we don't like going to the seedier side of the 'net to get something working, that ought to have worked right out of the box.

CD-Keys for an online game, or for the online component of, say, Quake 4? No problem. We understand the need, and we buy the game expecting that. What we don't expect is draconian copy protection schemes that want to load up some spyware-style application into memory to run our game. We don't want to find out that our particular CD or DVD drive is from a brand you didn't support, or that the little scratch that got into the disc is messing up the copy protection, or catch the disc constantly spinning up in the middle of play for no reason because the game checks every 3-5 minutes to make sure it's still there. When we see this behavior happening, when it causes our game to crash, we will go and get the tools to fix it, because we don't want to put up with crashing games.

If I had to compare the experiences I've had with Macrovision's various "copy protection" schemes, or Tycho's experiences, I'd say we are getting back to the days when games were packaged with "copy protection" that said users needed to pull numbers off a secret decoder ring, or type in the 23rd word of the 3rd paragraph of page 27 of the manual, or some other silliness that caused gamers to tear their hair out after paying $40+ for a game only to have their dog eat the manual.

Copy protection isn't worth it. It's not worth it because the casual copiers aren't your threat, and the "solutions" are just going to piss off your customers.

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Musings #42: The Digital-Play FUD

Added:  Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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