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Copy Protection and the Console Platform

Let me preface this entry by acknowledging Tycho Brahe from Penny Arcade as the instigator of the following. His newspost paralleling this editorial's date will read with similar ideas firmly cemented in its framework.

As a primarily console-based gamer, I find myself in a blessed haze of perpetual enjoyment. Restrictions on my ability to play and enjoy my games are few and far between, limiting themselves to issues of sometime installations and seconds worth of disc-swapping.

The PC world is another matter entirely, where copy protection has become synonymous with gamer grievance. These abhorrent devices, born out of a perceived necessity, are regarded far and wide across the gamer populace as a kind of plague, being passed from computer to computer until the whole consumer base is thoroughly sick from the matter.

For those of you who are PC gamers, this is doubtlessly a problem close to home, and even console-bound adherents may soon need to consider the ramifications of such software hindrances. We are, after all, entering the era of largely digital distribution, given the size of hard drives, bountifulness of low-latency Internet services, and speed of roaring processors filling the console market. Even the benignly low-power Nintendo DS has its fair share of piracy, given the readily available R4 cartridges flowing like a rank vapour through the marketplace.

How then, should developers address this problem? It's natural that many of them are terrified by what piracy has inflicted on the market–or at least what it appears to have. Making a profit is always the foremost goal of game development, and you can't give something away for free, can you? One would think so, but recent business leaders in other fields have proven the opposite, however.

Open source efforts like Linux, Wikipedia, and even day-to-day software developers like Google and Mozilla give it all away for free, and one has to ask exactly how these companies continue to thrive. That's easy: it doesn't matter that their products are free, it's that everyone enjoys using them and they are largely devoid of hassle. Even if these companies did charge for some of their services, it's likely the average consumer would open their wallets for the quality involved. Even Apple's iTunes Music Store–based on direct monetary exchange for goods and services–sells songs by the boatload despite the widespread piracy of music. The less hassle something is, the more likely people are willing to pay for it, especially if it falls within a buyer's means.

The industry must continue to evolve. Clinging to traditional means of purchase and delivery is becoming more and more a hindrance towards actual profits. We're seeing efforts now to place advertising inside online games. Some may decry this as somehow exploitative, but let's remember that games are made to garner returns. With that in mind, it is irresponsible for gamers to argue in favour of an immaculate integrity throughout the industry, an integrity where advertising has no place. These people need to get paid as much as the next person, and for games to go down in price on the rack, money has to be supplemented elsewhere. This much is forward thinking on the industry's part.

That is not, however, a call to arms without responsibility. The industry has to be careful as to how it implements its measures. Within the Internet model, there is nothing quite so intrusive as pop-up windows or in-text Flash ads. People go out of their way to rid themselves of this advertising, and so it has become an ineffective means of promotion.

The industry must, therefore, proceed with restraint. You can't plaster the entire game full of advertising. Use it in the same way the movie industry tends to: careful product placement. I can live with Coca Cola and Tommy Hilfiger ads in games like Grand Theft Auto, but I would be less accepting of these same brands appearing in Oblivion. That's not to say all advertising would be unwelcome in Oblivion, it would just require far more creativity. A special, high-level item such as "Air Shoes of Weightlessness, crafted by the Nike cobbler's guild, once owned by the hero Jordan" would be an example. It's not particularly difficult as long as you take a tongue-in-cheek approach.

How does this affect copy-protection? Companies need to steer away from trying to ensure anti-piracy laws are enforced. It's utterly pointless to put an honest user through these hoops, when a hell-bent pirate will just break through the measures taken anyway. The fact remains that you can give a game away for free and still make a profit. MMORPGs are a good example, where many clients come free, but then require that you pay microtransactions for certain items. I would venture to say that most MMORPGs could even live off their subscription fees alone, given brand power.

There are some people try to instill ethics in the consumerbase and, rather than restrict piracy, attempt to educate people on why it is harmful, and why we should give returns to the people who make what we enjoy. I applaud this, because no amount of copy protection is ever going to bar a thief. We have struggled for hundreds of thousands of years of civilization in the control of thievery, to little effect. The more burdened society is to enjoy something, the more likely they will go down a criminal route to obtain it. Realizing this, companies need to do away with copy protection. It won't do anything; it just delays the inevitable. If someone is bent on stealing, they will. It is unnecessary to create thieves and pirates out of the ordinary gamer, who is trying to share his or her culture.

There are always ways to make a profit and still afford the consumer their conscience and their freedom.

- Mark P. Tjan


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