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The End of Piracy

sad-pirate_smI’m not an engineer.

Oh, I’m a tech head as much as the next guy, but I do not have strong electronics skills, nor do I possess the time to build a special coupling that allows me to hook up a Wii to my PC for the purposes of backing the files on the built in memory board.

What I have is an understanding of technology and imagination, and it is armed with these very lethal weapons that I write this article.

I had been chatting with Bert, a long time listener with whom I’ve developed a personal relationship. We had started talking about when the next generation of consoles would come out and threw around ideas of what type of system they would be. We both realized that without some major changes in the hardware, piracy would still be a major concern for console makers and software developers.

The average gamer bemoans any DRM. They beg, plead, and cry to publishers how it’s not fair to consumers to have to deal with bloat in order to play a game. Some developers have introduced the finger to these cry-babies, others have listened and complied.

Perhaps they should have used the finger.

EA’s The Sims 3 is in the wild and it’s never going back in the bottle. The actual release date was June 2 for North America, but it’s already out and being downloaded across the globe.

How’s that for a “thanks EA for not putting DRM on it!”

Now, if I were a game developer or publisher, I’d be loading up a shotgun and tracing every IP I find hosting or sharing the files. Because, right now, threat of physical violence appears to be the only thing that will quell this rising tide of stupidity that’s going to implode an industry I love.

Alas, violence — while fun — is not really the answer here. What is the answer is something no gamer is going to like: The end of physical media.

Physical media is the weak link in the gaming chain. With it anyone with half a brain can figure out a way to copy and then distribute it. Encryption doesn’t work; hackers are too smart to have that hold them back for long. If I were a console maker this would be the first area I would tackle.

In fact, if I were a console maker, this is what I would do:

The console, out of the box, would include both a wireless and wired internet connection. It would include a 300GB hard drive that is detachable similar in style to how the Xbox 360’s hard drive detaches.

The hard drive would be formatted using a file system not used on any PC currently — custom built from the ground up specifically for a console. This would render the hard drive incompatible with any of the current operating systems out there and make attaching it to a PC nearly useless.

The I/O operations for this hard drive are controlled by the console’s main CPU, not by a separate chip. The operations code would be embedded and encrypted within the CPU making it much harder to pull out the source code. In short, the hard drive does what the CPU tells it to do, and without the CPU the hard drive will not function outside of the console.

Finally, the I/O connection itself would be customized to the console with no PC counterpart. The hard drive would, for all intents and purposes, be like a regular SATA hard drive but it would lack the normal connectors and power inputs that you see on laptops and PCs.

Games would be tied to your user account, Gamertag, Friend Code, PSN Name — whatever you want to call it for the console in question. The account tracks all purchases you make and will allow you to re-download at any time. Since the hard drive is removable, you could easily replace it should you want to have any game readily available. The only major problem in this imagined console would be cost to purchase additional hard drives, these prices would need to be very competitive or the idea will not work.

Like Steam, games that you “pre-order” will automatically “pre-download” up to a week before release, then “turn on” at 12:01 a.m. on the day of release. Games must compress to a single file that will have a maximum size set to it. This size will be determined by the minimum amount of space available on a memory unit (for this example, we’ll go with 30GB of space). Unzipped it could be as big or little as a developer wants, and there will be an option to “archive” a game on your hard drive to save space.

Each console comes with a 30GB memory unit that contains your user account information. This allows you to bring your account to a friend’s house and, more importantly, to purchase games.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say Left 4 Dead 2 is coming out next week. You’re listening to a new episode of GameHounds, and GamerEdie is raving about the demo she saw. Commander Tim bemoans the lack of a mouse and keyboard on consoles, and Hawkes is whining that he couldn’t be there. You like what you hear and decide you want to buy the game, but you live in a “broadbandless” area and have no means of “pre-downloading.”

No problem. Hop over to Best Buy or WalMart, walk right into the gaming section, plug your MU into the kiosk there, and purchase Left 4 Dead 2. The game will download to your MU, calculate the time between now and 12:01 a.m. on release day, and encrypt the information on the drive. WalMart thanks you for the purchase (they get a cut) and gives you a copy of the instruction manual for the game.

You go back home, put the MU into your console, and it automatically “pre-loads” the game. Don’t get any smart ideas about changing the time either. Hooking the MU into the WalMart kiosk tells the MU what time it is, and the MU is now keeping said time. When it installs, it will update the console’s clock to match the time, and it will compensate if you add or subtract hours to your consoles internal clock. Oh you can change the time on your console, it just won’t release the game earlier for you.

And that’s it, that’s your next generation console coming soon.

Now I’m sure you’re thinking, “It’ll never work,” or, “No one will buy without physical media,” or, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of those I only agree with the last part; I really am just making this up; no inside information, no more than the next gaming podcaster.

Let’s take your objections point by point:

It’ll never work: It technically already does and will be more so soon. If the PSP Go is what it is rumored to be, you’re looking at the pilot program for the next generation of consoles. Xbox Live Arcade, Wii Ware, and PSN all have games that are doing very well without physical media, and did you hear about the billions in sales of non-physical media iPhone/iPod Touch applications?

No one will buy without physical media: See above; people already are. XBLA, iTunes, PSN, WiiWare — it’s all over the place now. All I’m talking about is the next step.

Do I like this? Nope, I absolutely hate it, but I’ve resigned myself to this type of gaming future because for gaming companies to evolve they need to stop spending time worrying about piracy and DRM and just focus on making games.

We did this, we all did this. I doubt there’s a single listener or reader of this site who hasn’t at one point or another downloaded a game for free. It’s the internet, it’s easy to find, easy to do. The temptation is too great, the chances of getting caught too small, the reward too high. I understand giving into the temptation, so you might just as well enjoy it while you can because, trust me, it’s the beginning of the end for gaming piracy.

I no longer will listen to people complaining about DRM. I hate it too, but it’s our own damn fault. We either have allowed the pirates to continue their practice or turned a blind eye to it, and therefore we are as much responsible as if we ripped the disc ourselves.

So this is our console future and it sucks, but we’ll get use to it. And besides, it’s not so bad. Once the next next generation of consoles hits, we’ll be so used to it we’ll wonder what were complaining about.

Only the pirates will be complaining then.

Hawkes

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  • Chris

    I’ll start with, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    First, how long do you want to wait for the next generation of consoles and how much do you want to pay for them? If you want to wait another 5-7 years, fine, I don’t. The first reason this idea won’t work at all is because it would require console developers to entirely re-engineer, or invent, an operating system for the console. EVERY console uses an operating system, that’s why on when you buy an XBox 360 hard drive it’s not completely empty. If that hard drive did not use a file system compatible with Windows, OS X or Linux, you’re going to have to re-engineer the OS to be able to use it, or completely build one from the ground up. It takes Microsoft, conservatively, 3-5 years to develop a new version of Windows, and that’s using some previously developed technology and source code. Make that, in my opinion, 5-7 years if you want to completely re-invent FAT32, VFAT and exFAT, all of which can be currently read using PCs.

    Secondly, a non-physical media future is BAD for video gamers. Without physical media video gamers are completely bound to purchase games new. There is no secondary market. All video games will be $60 or whatever a publisher chooses to price them at. I am absolutely fine with combating piracy, because I believe a developer deserves to get paid for what they made. But the Doctrine of First Sale means that on a used game the developer already got paid. They cannot assume that they would have gotten paid for a second purchase if somebody buys the game used. I can’t count the number of games I would NEVER have played if the only choice was to pay $60 and not $20, or even play them as a rental. Without physical media gamers are entirely at the whim of publishers. If all games were priced at $60, the next step is a E.T. style video game crash because half of those games aren’t worth $60 and would NEVER get played. Further, without a secondary market the video gamer is left at the complete mercy of publishers in pricing. We’ve already seen DLC that’s not DLC but merely an unlock code to unlock something already on the game disc. That’s merely a cheap way for publishers to get $65 for a $60 game already. They desperately want to raise prices on games. Non physical media gives them a great way to do it and force every cent into their pocket because there’s no secondary market.

    Before you respond that prices would be lower, that is absolutely not necessarily the case. For example, the *only* reason e-books are priced lower on Amazon.com (usually $9.99) is because Amazon subsidizes the purchases. As shown in an article in the New York Times book review section this week, Amazon pays the publisher $26 per title and then they sell it for $9.99. I highly doubt Best Buy or Walmart would subsidize the publisher’s price for long for gamers to purchase games for less than $60 (or whatever the publisher price is). There is significant debate on how long Amazon can even afford to do this.

    The iTunes apps store is not a good analogy in this case because there is no marketing or other costs associated with those apps, like there would be for video games (which is also why book publishers say they can’t afford to sell first run books at $9.99.) The developers of most of those apps don’t pay hundreds of people to do development, advertising, marketing, etc. Game publishers and developers have to do this.

    Then we come to the download challenges. At least 1/3 of the US does not have access to sufficient broadband to take advantage of this. Your Best Buy or Walmart idea sounds fine, until BB or Walmart add a “service fee” onto the price of those games or start charging Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo or the publishers for providing space for their download kiosks. Unless those entities feel especially generous (not likely) that probably raises the price of a game downloaded from BB or Walmart at least a dollar or two.

    Then what about the fact that some cable companies have already implemented download caps, or have at least threatened it? This would be a great excuse for the ones in the US who haven’t done it to go ahead and push through with plans to implement them. Further, what about Canadian and European gamers who already have restrictive download caps?

    Non-physical media sounds like a nice idea. But in practice it just won’t work for video games, not yet, and potentially not ever.

  • Max

    First, I couldn’t agree with Chris comments more. He pretty much hit the nail on the head.

    I would like to add some things, first no matter how elaborate the copy protection, if someone wants to break it badly enough, they probably will. You can invent a filesystem of your own, but they WILL find a way to read it. For some it is not the act of piracy that is interesting but the act of cracking someone elses protection, for others it is the money. Whatever the motivation, every copy protection scheme I have heard of has been circumvented or broken. And those schemes were created by people with a lot of experience…

    Second, creating special processors is not cheap and not something anyone can do. As a console manufacturer you want a steady supply at a reasonable price. That is why all current gen consoles have general processors (in various versions) from well known manufacturers. It is tough enough to piece a modern console together from parts, you don’t need the complexity to create the parts from scratch on top of that. If the console manufacturers would take your proposed route, it WOULD be costly. And who would pay? We of course… I’m not interested in even more expensive consoles.

    I don’t like the pirate industry, but try to be realistic. Pirates seldom are affected by draconian security measures, often they seem get the game long before DRM or copy-protection is added by the publisher or they are tech-savvy enough to circumvent it. It is we, the paying end-users that suffer from games that have these measures added, much like it is I as a paying DVD-customer that have to endure those “It is illegal to pirate this film”-infomercials that you cannot skip through at the beginning of every film I buy. They are punishing the wrong party while patting us on the head and saying “Stupid paying user, this is for your own good”. Companies that dare to break this habit gains my respect and future buys.