Hot Topic: DEBILLitating UK Politicians Attempt to Tackle Piracy
Written Friday, April 16, 2010 By Martin Gaston
Last week the UK government hastily passed the Digital Economy Bill - that's DEBill to the internet savvy - through its third reading in the wash-up period before they rushed off to stand and smile in front of cameras for a month in the hope of retaining their position in government. This might not be of immediate interest to our American readers, but it’s worth us all thinking about what this means for piracy and video games.
The Digital Economy Bill: Mandelson's brainchild.
Other than finally making PEGI the sole ratings board for UK games, which has been going on for absolutely ages and doesn’t really change much, the bill gives the world’s most gargantuan publishers - I don’t need to name names - the legal ability to stomp all over consumers who’ve pinched off with some of their products. Jas Purewal, quoted in the Guardian Games Blog, sums it up nicely: "piracy is one of the great problems facing the industry, so I'm sure publishers and developers as copyright holders will look to see if they can use the provisions of the digital economy bill to protect their products. You could well be seeing publishers taking enforcement action against illegal downloaders in an effort to curb game piracy – the [Digital Economy Bill] mechanisms are intended to make enforcement easier."
This is all in the UK, of course, but the effects of piracy, and the responses of publishers attempting to make their intellectual properties off-limits to pirates, are felt worldwide.
There are many reasons why people pirate games. Some people just like doing it and would never purchase the game anyway. I’d argue the most common kinds of software pirate are people who get drawn into cycles of anticipation and hype by a combination of marketing departments and the gaming press and end up wanting to play everything without having the money to pay for it all - what teenager could possibly have enough money to afford every decent game released this year so far, for instance?
Piracy hurts the industry, of course, and large amounts of it has the knock-on effect of publishers not commissioning - out of fear of not recouping their money or just not having any money to begin with - future titles. That’s not good for consumers any more than it is the people who work on the games in the first place, and while video games have an undeniably high entry price (at least at launch), it’s still not possible to condone actions which take much-needed money away from the creative studios that make the games.
But, in the exchange between publisher and consumer, the power rests entirely with the former. They commission the games, choose when to sell the games and spend millions of dollars advertising the games. The only option the consumer has is to not buy into their products, but in gaming terms that would mean missing out on the titles many people cherish in their spare time. Besides, if people stopped buying games some executive suit would probably conclude they must be stealing their properties and add even more layers of restrictions and annoyances to the remaining customers.
Ubisoft prototyping their latest DRM methods.
It is Ubisoft who have most notably been in the firing line lately from a public infuriated over their always-on DRM solution required to play Assassin’s Creed II on the PC. What you might not know - I wasn’t aware until I started researching this article - is how even this solution has fallen to crafty pirates who’ve actually developed a tool to emulate Ubisoft’s own authentication servers: all it will take now is a YouTube video of somebody playing the game on a laptop disconnected from the internet for the entire maligned system to crumble in the eyes of tech savvy consumers.
Major clampdowns on people downloading mp3’s never seemed to work wonders for the RIAA, and locking down a title with draconian DRM has never made customers cheery to game publishers. Conversely, one of the few media avenues that has elegantly responded to piracy without bandying around the prospect of fines and penalties is the UK TV industry, who managed to stop most people downloading early episodes of Lost and House by showing it without a six month wait.
But what does this mean for the Xbox specifically? Microsoft’s smooth, white and RROD-loving console is no stranger to piracy, and those users with JTAG-exploited 360’s – which last popped up a couple of months ago when talking about the state of Modern Warfare 2 – have even managed to work out a way to uniformly convert Xbox Live Arcade trials, downloaded straight from Microsoft’s very own servers, into full versions of the game.
Shhhh, don't mention piracy! Ignorance is bliss.
The extent of Xbox piracy is rarely mentioned in the gaming media. One of the reasons is because companies like, say, MTV Games (and Microsoft, of course) wouldn’t like it reported that dodgy users with JTAG-exploited consoles are able to do things like nip on any old torrent search and download the entire DLC collection for Rock Band. There’s also the idea that making people aware of the situation will entice more people into piracy, which I think is particularly disrespectful of the average internet user because it implies the only reason they’re legally purchasing games is because of ignorance.
Microsoft’s best piracy deterrent, in my opinion, has been Xbox Live. By putting value in an Xbox Live account, with the use of a premium subscription and also personalisation options like avatars and achievements, a strange bond between user and machine is slowly cemented over many months of use. You only need to look at how many people on your friends list have plumped down actual money on intrinsically worthless, intangible bits of digital tat: I know for a fact X360A’s benevolent editor Dan Webb has spent more money on single items of Avatar clothing than he did on the t-shirt he wears to every single event he ever goes to. [Ed – Hey! It’s an expensive t-shirt. I need to get my money’s worth out of it!]
The threat of Microsoft banning your Xbox Live account, then, becomes a better deterrent than the threatening doom-mongering of the Digital Economy Bill, though it’s worth remember the bill is not written explicitly for video games and its scope has a far wider reach (and intention) than persecuting someone sitting in a basement downloading an ISO of Just Cause 2 - though that is an option, of course.
"Oh noes! They bricked my console!!1!1!!"
My point, though, is that Microsoft have effectively created a user base who have bonded with their machine in a way that they would never even consider piracy: most people are so attached to their multiplayer games of Bad Company 2 that the mere idea getting their console banned is enough to make them burst into tears.
Even when it became possible to hack Gamerscore, few actually bothered with it: the bond with their Xbox is already too strong in most users, and the potential risk of being denied access to your Xbox Live account makes it not even worth considering. Doing so would also make the process of obtaining achievements completely irrelevant and worthless, too, but that’s beside the point.
Like most discussions on piracy, I’m not advocating you go and fiddle with your Xbox so you can go and download an ISO of Halo 3. I don’t think piracy is right, but I concede that it exists across the entire medium, with the current exception of the PS3 - though if GeoHot has anything to say about it I’m sure it won’t be long until eBuyer start selling more Blu-Ray writers. No doubt you’ve seen articles dwelling on the statistics. Other than the obvious effect of publishers and developers losing money, it also affects the industry in other little ways. Most big name 360 games seem to have a habit of being leaked onto the internet weeks before their release - Halo 3: ODST and Modern Warfare 2 are two recent examples - and with that comes an inevitable wave of spoilers, which can be (and has been) horribly frustrating.
At the end of the day, this game of cat-and-mouse between publisher and pirate has been going on for decades and will continue on for many more. It’s the honest consumer who gets caught in the middle - but then we all knew that already, right? The Digital Economy Bill might have changed the rules a bit, but I sincerely doubt it’ll ever get close to ending the game.
Editor’s Note: Hot Topic is an all new experimental monthly feature here on X360A, where we take one of the month’s talking points and discuss it until your eye-balls bleed through sheer delight. Now that's intense! How experimental you ask? If it's popular, we'll keep them coming.
Martin Gaston is a freelance writer and a long-term friend of the site. His work can be found over at MegaDerived.co.uk where he spends most of his days weaving words into a wonderful illuminating basket of awesomeness (my words, not his).