I think all responsible should have their heads cut off and sent to their mothers. They are scum and should be accountable for the full worth of anyone’s PC who is affected by their DRM BS. Anyone who thinks otherwise deserves death also.
– “ME BIGGD01” commenting on Geek.com post “DRM causes big trouble again,” March 22, 2006
Piracy, or filesharing, is computer gaming’s West Bank, a bitter cycle of struggle across generations. Even choosing a term, “piracy” or “filesharing,” can revive the debate, which began on Usenet in the 1970s, then moved to 1200-baud BBS FidoNet feeds – to roundtables on Compuserve and GEnie – to Slashdot and Digg and a hundred forums. The argument has become ritualized, a pathological fugue state. In every era, in every iteration, combatants unfailingly, compulsively restate the exact same points, often in precisely the same order:
- It’s theft;
- no it’s not, it’s copyright infringement;
- yes it is, pirates take income from the creators;
- no they don’t, the pirates wouldn’t have bought the game;
- without copy protection, the companies would go broke and stop making games;
- copy protection punishes honest users and doesn’t stop pirates;
- blah blah, yammer yammer, mama mama please make it stop!
Yet in this spastic litany, one topic has finally united both sides: the widely used Windows copy protection software StarForce.
Choke It Down, Gamer Kid
Thirty publishers have used StarForce copy protection on over 150 PC games, including popular titles like Splinter Cell 3, Rainbow Six: Lockdown, King Kong and the TrackMania series. Some publishers even use StarForce on demos intended to be distributed widely and freely, to prevent hackers from using the demo to crack the protected full version. Consumers unwittingly install StarForce’s hidden drivers along with the game software. In theory, you need never become aware StarForce is on your hard drive. In theory!
To about the 80th percentile, gamers – or anyway, the gamers who post online – passionately loathe StarForce. In any forum topic about StarForce, embittered players across the spectrum speak in one voice about crippled operating systems and ruined CD drives. Many players report they bought honest, legal copies of StarForce-protected games, could not make them run and finally, in desperation, visited pirate sites to download no-CD cracks or warez versions. A dominant theme in these posts is resentment toward StarForce and game publishers for screwing up their customers’ computers without warning. Publisher representatives seldom post to apologize or ask details.
Some complaints mention the system’s combative publisher, Moscow-based StarForce Technologies Inc.. Among providers of copy protection, who are usually subdued, StarForce Technologies gained a high profile in January 2006 when public relations manager Denis Zhidkov threatened to sue Cory Doctorow, contributor to mega-popular blog Boing Boing, for calling StarForce “anti-copying malware” and thereby violating “approximately 11 international laws.”
In a post on CNet in November 2005, Zhidkov (after threatening to sue another user) claimed, “The percent of users that had compatibility problems with StarForce is 0.3%.” (For a million-selling game, this would be 3,000 users. Zhidkov was citing an October 2005 Ubisoft study that called the problems “consistent with any Windows application.”) “The drivers are installed with the protected software,” Zhidkov said, “and it is up to the software developer how they will be uninstalled. StarForce offers many ways to make the integration of protection flexible and user-friendly. And if some developers choose to select the option of manual driver uninstall, it is their sole right.”
Zhidkov was responding to, and implicitly confirming, a point by the user “W0lfe“: “StarForce is asserting, on the game’s behalf, that the game’s owners’ rights are more important than the users’ right to know, and control, what happens on their system. … [Users] should be presented with clear notice of what StarForce wants to do to their system and possible side effects – they shouldn’t be left to wonder why some of their other software/hardware suddenly doesn’t work correctly.”
Clear notice? Not likely. On issues of copy protection, most game publishers maintain a stony silence. For this article, I contacted nearly a dozen companies that use StarForce, asking them to summarize their position on copy protection and to comment on the idea of listing a game’s copy protection on its package. Not one company replied.
They may have asked themselves, “Why should we? We don’t have to tell anyone anything.”
My Way or the Highway
Steven Davis, CEO of gaming security firm SecurePlay, has written about StarForce on his popular blog, PlayNoEvil. Speaking to The Escapist, Davis says the StarForce controversy diverts attention from the larger issue. “Several major game companies are the real culprits. They allowed, very effectively, the StarForce brand to be the focus of consumer ire about anti-piracy. That we are talking about a small Russian programming firm, and not the huge companies that use the product, is a testament to the effectiveness of this tactic – the StarForce Trojan Horse.”
Meanwhile, game publishers keep invisibly messing with your computer – because it’s their “sole right” – and really, how can you stop them? Regarding Digital Rights Management, aka Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), it’s unclear whether you have enforceable consumer rights. Companies aren’t even obliged to list their DRM in a game’s documentation or End User License Agreement (EULA), let alone on its package; yet by accepting the EULA, you legally accept the copy protection. In a 2004 FiringSquad interview, StarForce Technologies’ Abbie Sommer said, “Our product is licensed to our customers [the publishers], and becomes part of their product, so the user, by accepting the terms, is giving approval.”
Fabrice Cambounet, producer for Ubisoft’s Heroes of Might & Magic V, in a choke-it-down post about StarForce on the Ubisoft company forum, asserted this like immutable natural law: “When you install a game, you have to install all of its libraries; you don’t get prompted on each of them. Either you agree to install the game, including its protection, or you don’t.”
StarForce itself is only a symptom, and the disease will continue until we address its cause: the industry’s obsession with front-loaded, fast-selling hits. Big publishers earn a huge percentage of a game’s total revenue in the first few weeks of release – because they’re good at working you into a lather in advance, so you must-must-must own hot new games the instant they debut. In theory, DRM keeps cracked versions off the filesharing sites long enough to boost sales in those first precious days. In theory! In practice, nearly every triple-A game hits every self-respecting pirate site within hours of release, if not before release. The effect on sales is one battleground in gaming’s incessant piracy debate.
Regardless, if leading retail publishers stopped using StarForce tomorrow, they’d still rely on other DRM systems like SafeDisc, TAGES and SecurROM. Putting this stuff on your machine is their “sole right.”
Games that follow a different sales strategy need worry less. The Stardock Systems space strategy game Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords, released in March 2006, drew attention partly because Stardock CEO and designer Brad Wardell publicly disavowed all disc-based copy protection for the game. “I’m not a crusader against copy protection,” Wardell told The Register. (Stardock’s utility software WindowBlinds uses product activation DRM.) “It’s just business. We make more money on a game like this – a single-player, turn-based strategy game – if we don’t put stupid copy protection on it.”
Seemingly in retaliation, a moderator on StarForce’s copy protection forums posted a link to a pirate site hosting an illegal copy of GalCiv II. Another StarForce moderator later apologized and removed the link. Wardell says he contacted the pirate site and persuaded them to remove the illegal copy.
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?
StarForce, whether it survives or dies, changes nothing important. In the name of combating piracy or cheating, or of serving ads – or, really, just because they can – publishers will keep deciding what to install on your machine, as is their sole right. And you, the honest gamer, will keep choking it down.
Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.