''DRM can really force people to use pirated games'': StarForce speaks to games.on.net about piracy
''DRM can really force people to use pirated games'': StarForce speaks to games.on.net about piracy, customer anger, and more
In my time here at games.on.net, I’ve found that our community are a passionate and rambunctious bunch of gamers. While the things we love divide us, nothing unites everyone more than the contentious topic of digital rights management. Even the slightest mention of DRM in a review or news post invites some of the most intense arguments, unearthing frustrations that range from mere inconvenience, to inability to play software at all.
I reached out to StarForce, one of the most contentious DRM figures of the past decade, developers of the contentious StarForce Pro and StarForce Frontline products, and asked them about the controversies that have embroiled their company - namely how effective DRM really is, and where they thought the future was heading for copy protection.
Dmitry Guseff is the Deputy Marketing Director for StarForce Technologies. English is not his first language, so please excuse some of the grammar (some editing has been done).
StarForce has been known to have one of the most contentious DRM systems of the last 5 years, with complaints about intrusive drivers, system instability and software corruption. Evidence to back up these claims has also been a matter of dispute. What are your thoughts in regards to these controversies?
Dmitry: One of the major goals for StarForce in 2000 (when company has been established) was the development of really reliable protection for games. We saw a lot of DRM solutions on the market at the time. But not a single one of them really protected game publishers intellectual property. Moreover, we started in Russia where 99% of retail games was pirated and domestic game companies were suffering from rampant piracy.
Held off piracy for 422 days
(The) Russian market demanded tough protection and we offered it. Later in 2003 we had looked deeper into international markets and believed that overseas right holders enjoyed the fact that games could held for months or even years without being compromised. We got ready to compete on the technological field but faced marketing and PR wars. I can agree that we paid more attention to reliability of protection than compatibility. That was one of our young firm’s mistakes.
Reliability and compatibility are strictly connected. Add more to the first one - get stuffed on the second one and visa versa. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theoryheld out for 422 days. This is the world record for a AAA class game. But the inconvenience which gamers faced initiated really great hysteria via game forums and blogs.
We asked Ubisoft for statistics on end-user appeals and received data that indicated that not more than 1% of all gamers had problems with protection. But the penny had already dropped. I’m sure that the scale of that hysteria was artificially supported. We didn’t have a strong PR or legal team at the time and lost the war. Now things are different, we got smarter and learnt a lot from that lesson.
So you admit that in the beginning your product was too much of an inconvenience to customers? Do you feel that better communication with end users would have improved reaction to DRM?
Dmitry: Not exactly. In the very beginning our product was similar to other products on the market from the end-user point of view. You needed to insert a disc and type a key to launch the game. The difference was that we paid more attention to protection performance and went slightly beyond the mark. Some users faced issues launching protected games due to a high reliability level which affected compatibility. As I said, around 1% of all users had problems, which is a recorded standard for the copy protection industry. I can say that every copy protection brought some sort of inconvenience to gamers, but today the situation has changed, especially for StarForce.
Better communication between the vendor and consumer is always the best way to improve product and service. That’s why in 2005 StarForce established an Internet Monitoring Department with the primary task of tracking end-user complaints and suggestions to make various changes to protection system. We listen to gamers as the gamer pays for it all. We do believe that this is the only way to make our product better and reach a new level of user experience.
Do you think your software makes a difference in combating piracy, even when hackers have been successful in breaking down your protection?
Dmitry: The main goal of all DRMs is to give the publisher enough time to return investments. That’s why we don’t have time to make totally invulnerable protection. Moreover, we suggest publishers to level protection down after the sales peak is ended. You say it’s impossible to implement a hacker’s nightmare into a game. I answer – take a look at ProCycling Manager 2011 – when a publisher strictly follows DRM company advice and really wants to protect its assets.
This was finally cracked on the 10th of February 2012, giving the publisher more than 8 months for original sales. Try to find enough consumer complaints about the game and you understand that being rightly implemented protection is capable of being reliable and comfortable at the same time. Some publishers don’t even want to protect, thus the game appears to be cracked on a first day or even before the release. But others listen to what the DRM company says and enjoy the money flow.
That's a very interesting perspective. So the general aim is simply to give the publisher a head start on sales before the inevitable piracy?
Dmitry: Exactly. Except the fact that I know of some games which have no pirated copies at all. Some of them due to strong protection, some – because of low game quality.
How do you create copy protection that limits the impact on the paying customer but at the same time discourages a would be pirate?
Dmitry: As I wrote above, a big part of inevitable success is the publisher’s will to have something really strong and convenient. Following our recommendations they can implement various tricks to circumvent hackers and at the same time leave compatibility at a very high rate. StarForce offers a lot of cool end-user features to increase comfort while launching a protected game. One of such feature is AAA Technology, that is decoded as “Add Activation Automatically”. Using this technology a publisher allows a consumer to have at least one activation always left on the serial number.
Secondly, a deactivation feature that allows user to revoke license before installing a game or when changing computer hardware. We advise publishers to grant not less than 3 activations for a serial number. Keeping in mind that the normal practice is 10 deactivation attempts, a gamer has 13 activations that is pretty enough for whole game life cycle. Also, we stopped using low level drivers and transferred everything into user-mode. This last thing was made possible when many publishers had rejected disc-binding technology and recognized internet activation. Concerning the good old disc we have a feature that allows the licensed user to make a backup copy of the original disc. We don’t plan to implement things like constant online presence or so to increase protection performance. Without convenience for gamer overall DRM policy is useless and comes to a dead end. That’s why we placed user’s comfort and protection performance on the 1st place together.
So you would agree with most PC gamers that constant online activation is a very poor method of copy protection?
Dmitry: It depends on who is answering – gamer or rights holder. From a gamer point of view it’s more likely the right statement. But as I said I used to play games too and while playing Assassin's Creed with UbiSoft DRM I had no inconvenience of constantly checking online. But if we asked some right holders, especially in developing markets like China, Russia, Brazil, they probably will enjoy the fact that rightly implemented online features are able to provide absolute protection.
To follow up on that question, what would you say to claims that DRM actively pushes people towards piracy, due to unreasonable demands on things like activation and questionable software?
Dmitry: Some DRM can really force people to use pirated games. I also used to play a lot of games and the most inconveniences to me are laid in disc-binded DRMs. But any form of online activation is OK and doesn’t bring any ache to me. Also, may I say that DRM forces gamers to pay for original product and we can’t forget about that.
According our research, no more than 5% of gamers claim DRM presence as the only fact that they don’t tend to buy a game. These are the most active forums and blogs participants who used to constantly state their position online. The number of such messages makes others believe that DRM is a bad, useless thing. I do believe that the media based their opinions mostly on such messages and don’t have overall picture of the situation.
So you think the majority of complaints that gamers have towards DRM are relatively baseless?
Dmitry: In Russia we used to say: “There is no smoke without fire”. Some of (the DRM) complaints are based on real facts. But every industry has the same behaviour. Look at (prescription) drugs. Man can die due to improper use of a drug, but everybody agrees that drugs help to save health and avoid ache. Also car industry – you may kill several people if you drunk or excess speed limit, but everybody agrees that cars are very comfortable way of travelling. There are always some people who are not good with something, but most people are OK. I’m sure that DRM question itself is played up more than it really is.
Where do you see your products shaping in the future, over the next five years? How will you stay ahead of pirates and create a product that is appealing to your clients?
Dmitry: Nowadays, it’s pretty hard to predict the future. The only thing that can be say is that technology landscape is rapidly changing. But a particular direction is unclear now. I guess everything will be based around mobile devices and technology. It’s also possible that due to development of modern virtualization technologies and wireless connection server-based DRMs will come to fore.
Concluding, I want to add that the popular cloud trend will seriously raise licensing engines and lower code obfuscation methods as a primary anti-hacker technology. StarForce made a lot of steps towards MMO games protection against bots, cheats and so on. These threats will be always on top.
Do you mean cloud activation - more online-reliant forms of protection?
Dmitry: When I mention about cloud licensing (not activation!), I mean the way a cloud service distributes its content. If you paid for 2 hours of play how the cloud service manage these rights for your account? Its a licensing system that knows how much did you pay and what right do you have according to your payment. You need to pass through such a licensing procedure to get access to the service.
But when we speak about any kind of cloud activation, what is the cloud in terms of computer technology? It’s a service that needs you to be constantly online to use. If you are going to play a game from a cloud it's necessary to be online and use a broadband connection. You won’t be able to play in the cloud while you don’t have internet access. I think in a cloud future there will be no issues with any online DRM features.
Thank you for your time, Dmitry.
Dmitry: Thank you, James for this chance to raise my opinion.
Source: Games On Net
Last edited by Badhon; May 8th, 2012 at 22:30.
A strong man doesn't need to read the future, he makes his own
One flaw in their reasoning is that they assume that those who pirate games will buy them if strong DRM is enforced. If the pirates can not pirate games they will simply find other ways to entertain themselves. Pirates are not necessarily lost consumers.
Selective reading is a very bad ability journalists possess...
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