Block Party

Block Party
StarForce Must Die

Allen Varney | 21 Nov 2006 11:00
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Today, months after the game's release, Galactic Civilizations II is still selling well, aided by Stardock's frequent online updates. Brian Clair, Stardock's director of Games Publishing, told The Escapist, "We have no regrets at all on not using copy protection on the Galactic Civilizations II discs. We're gamers ourselves, and we don't like the harsh DRM and copy protection methods that make legitimate buyers feel like they've done something wrong. We ran a poll of registered users on GalCiv2.com, and thousands of people said not having CD copy protection helped make the difference in their decision to purchase the game."

If There's a Lawsuit, We Win
Game journalists invariably frame the protection issue as "anti-piracy" instead of "why do we choke it down?" Still, ferocious community opposition to StarForce, in particular, has brought some change.

French gamer Laurent Raufaste runs the oldest of several "boycott StarForce" sites. Along with a list of protected games, Raufaste hosts forums for uncensored information exchange. "Before, the population concerned by StarForce was widespread on every publisher's forum around the web, and every post related to StarForce was moderated or simply deleted by the moderators. The Boycott Starforce website and forum are safe from easy moderation." Now, he says, "There are many examples showing that the boycott, and the increasing focus on the cons of StarForce by the gamers, has forced some publishers to change their mind."

Community reaction has worked, but indirectly. Raufaste says his boycott site helped inform American customers of StarForce's problems; "it was only a European problem before mid-2005, and I kinda hoped the U.S. customers would help in making the publishers change their mind. That's when a class action was started."

The outcry against StarForce succeeded only when it lured hungry lawyers. In March 2006, in U.S. District Court in northern California, Los Angeles attorney Alan Himmelfarb initiated a $5 million class action lawsuit against Ubisoft (.PDF), alleging its StarForce drivers can compromise Windows system security. Himmelfarb had previously filed a November 2005 class action against Sony BMG after Sony secretly infected half a million consumer PCs with its Extended Copy Protection rootkit. Twelve days after the StarForce filing, Ubisoft - after ignoring the months-long anti-StarForce firestorm on its Heroes of Might & Magic V forum - tersely announced it would drop StarForce protection from HoMMV and future releases. As other lawyers have started sniffing around the class action money tree, other publishers have started publicly disavowing StarForce.

Even so, some publishers grow ever more brazen. Inside the box of Battlefield 2142, Electronic Arts inserts a sheet that blithely informs you it will collect information on your surfing habits, so IGA Worldwide can deliver in-game ads (in the game you just bought for $50). Then, EA tells you, in CAPITAL LETTERS, to choke it down: "IF YOU DO NOT WANT IGA TO COLLECT, STORE OR TRANSMIT THE DATA DESCRIBED IN THIS SECTION, DO NOT INSTALL OR PLAY THE SOFTWARE" - that you just bought for $50 - "ON ANY PLATFORM THAT IS USED TO CONNECT TO THE INTERNET."

Blogger Bill Harris commented, "I wonder how much of this we will take. Gamers in general seem to be extremely complacent and entirely willing to get kicked in the face (or, in this case, somewhat lower). Is there a point at which even we get fed up?"

It's possible intrusive copy protection, and maybe even the piracy debate, will finally wind down when online game distribution overtakes retail sales. Customers will authenticate purchases not through DRM, but online through services like Valve's Steam, WildTangent and GameTap. This only begs the question, what will game publishers next shove onto your computer? Ad-service spyware, EA-style? Anti-cheating measures? In 2005, Blizzard secretly installed its Warden sniffer on at least four million World of Warcraft clients. If you play WoW, maybe you're fine with that. The point is, nobody asked you. What won't they ask you about next?

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