Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Let Me Tell You Something About Borneo

Robinson: Let me tell you something about Borneo. We have here a kind of an earwig.

Macy: A what?

Robinson: An earwig--a kind of caterpillar. A thing almost as fine as a spider's web. It lives on wax, feeds on the innards of flowers, and it has a decided liking for the human ear. The natives hereabout have a distinct terror of it, they do. You see, it moves and it rests so lightly on a human being that he's practically unconscious of it. Now, if you were to place one of these earwigs in a man's ear...well, once it's in the ear, it's a thousand-to-one chance of it every coming out again. You see, Mr. Macy, it can't turn 'round. Backing out is impossible. So it continues to feed as it goes, and it crawls right inside of the head, and the result--think of it, Mr. Macy, think of it! Ultimately, it reaches the brain, with the result that--(snaps stick)--it's the end of it. The complete end of it.

Macy: But while it's happening?

Robinson: Oh, while it's happening, why sir, it's a living torment, is what it is. Torture. But the net result, Mr. Macy. There's the beauty of it. The net result is what it is we're looking for.

When EA announced the copy protection scheme that would be used for Mass Effect and Spore, we heard Robinson. We were outraged to be told that in addition to an initial online activation, there would be this (from Bioware's Derek French):

Mass Effect uses SecuROM and requires an online activation for the first time that you play it. Each copy of Mass Effect comes with a CD Key which is used for this activation and for registration here at the BioWare Community. Mass Effect does not require the DVD to be in the drive in order to play, it is only for installation.

After the first activation, SecuROM requires that it re-check with the server within ten days (in case the CD Key has become public/warez’d and gets banned). Just so that the 10 day thing doesn’t become abrupt, SecuROM tries its first re-check with 5 days remaining in the 10 day window. If it can’t contact the server before the 10 days are up, nothing bad happens and the game still runs. After 10 days a re-check is required before the game can run.

For us, recurring copy-protection schemes aren't about the protection of intellectual property.

They're earwigs.

EA "backed off" later in the week to a one-time online activation for Mass Effect, and said this about Spore:
A few things we wanted you to know:
— We authenticate your game online when you install and launch it the first time.
— We'll re-authenticate when a player uses online features, downloads new content or a patch for their game.

Translation: we proposed a shitload of online "authentication." When you got mad, we proposed a different shitload of online "authentication."

That was my first reaction, anyway, and it reminded me that when it comes to copy protection, we're angry.

Then I wondered why.

When it comes right down to it, we're almost all in agreement that games shouldn't be stolen. We like (mostly) the people who develop games. We want them to make money.

Here's a question, though: how many time should I have to prove that I'm not a thief?

I think that's the question that publishers just don't want to answer.

To me, there are two fundamental, major problems with what publishers are doing right now, and I'd like to discuss both of them with you. If you want the outline first, the two problems would be uncertain benefits and security vs. content.

First, off, let's talk about uncertain benefits. Look, I don't want games to be stolen, but how exactly is checking my CD key every five days helping? Or every time I go online? I thought the vast majority of illegal copies of a game were distributed via torrents? What does this have to do with that? What's the actual benefit of using this approach? How much are illegal copies reduced?

Simple questions, I know, but publishers have done a really, really poor job of answering them.

Really, really poor.

I think there's also a simple reason for why they haven't answered: they don't know. They have only the fuzziest idea of how much their activation schemes reduce piracy. It's more of a faith-based approach than anything else.

That's why we don't get specific explanations: they don't have any. I give EA full credit for at least letting us know the details of the copy protection, but we need more. We need to know why this matters, why it's not just a "well, it can't hurt" idea.

I've written about this before, but when less than 1% of your customer base is stealing the candy, does it make sense to force everyone to line up and empty their pockets on a regular basis? There has to be a more selective, focused approach that would be more effective.

Let's move on to to the second problem: security versus content. Publishers have done an awful job when it comes to influencing our perception of security checks

Why? Because there's nothing in it for us.


Here's an idea. Why not make these security checks beneficial to us in at least some small way? Why not create a thirty second mini-game for us to play while you're shoving a probe up our computer's ass? And if we play the mini-game well, we get a reward--a temporary bonus that could be used in the game we're playing.

In a role-playing game, for example, we might win a special weapon, or a rare item. The vast majority of the time, what we'd win would be a trinket, but there would at least be a small chance of acquiring some kind of rare item. That item might degrade over time, or have limited use, but it would be a reward in the short term.

We could even see several possible rewards, and choosing which one was most valuable would add another layer of strategy to the game.

This could be implemented in a hundred different ways, really--the possibilities are unlimited. I just like the idea of the copy protection check adding more game to the game.

It could also become a new content category: the mini mini-game. Fun to play, and a little reward at the end.

Create compelling mini-games and an interesting reward system, and security becomes content.

Would it change my mind about recurring security checks? On an intellectual level, absolutely not. The issues are too thorny, and this wouldn't fundamentally resolve any of them.

On an emotional level, though, it would (to some degree) change how I feel. I'd be seeing content that I couldn't access otherwise. It would be making the game I'm playing more interesting. I'd be getting something special in exchange for an intrusion.

It would also be a little carrot for people buying the PC version of a game, because this wouldn't be needed with the console versions.

Look, games are supposed to be fun. Why not make the copy protection fun as well?

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