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Piracy on the PC: Where do we go from here?

Just a sampling of the news this month in PC gaming:

  • Epic says that Gears of War 2 will not come to the PC, citing piracy as a primary reason.
  • EndWar creative director Michael de Plater asserts that the PC port of the game (which, incidentally, has not been officially confirmed to be in development) is delayed because of piracy.
  • Bionic Commando, the remake of the 80's hit, is coming to the PC a little later than the console version, again being delayed over piracy fears.
  • Fallout 3 has gone gold, and the XBox 360 version has already been leaked on to torrents. How long before the PC version, too, is leaked?
  • The Witcher developer CDProjekt is struggling to gain publusher support for its DRM-free classic-game service Good Old Games (gog.com).
  • A class-action lawsuit has been filed against EA for its use of SecuROM protection in Spore.

There's little disputing that piracy is a serious problem on the PC. It's also a problem for consoles, but it's certainly more prevalent on the PC. Unfortunately though, there's no real solid data to give us a clear picture just how big of a financial impact piracy really has. A study in 2004 found that music piracy, long blamed by the music industry for a decline in CD sales, was mostly unrelated to the decline. It's difficult to say whether this holds true for the PC as well; most piracy happens in Asia and Eastern Europe, so it's unclear whether game makers are really losing customers to piracy en masse.

But whether or not piracy is actually harming companies' bottom lines, it's clearly having a strong effect on their perception of the viability of the PC market. It's not unlike a bear market, where anxiety over stock viability creates a buying freeze. In other words, developers like Epic, Ubisoft, Capcom and id may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by relegated the PC to a second-class market.

At the same time, whether data supports them or not, developers are quick to blame piracy for any perceived lost sales. Epic, for example, dropped the ball last year with the PC port of Gears of War. The game was released a year late at full price with sparse new content, was not available through any of the many popular digital distribution channels such as Steam and Direct2Drive, and received bad word of mouth due to numerous game-breaking bugs resulting from a sloppy implementation of Games for Windows Live which, to add insult to injury, required a paid subscription to access all the online features. And yet Epic seems all too willing to ignore these factors and just blame piracy. I'm not singling out Epic—similar comments have come from Crytek, Infinity Ward, and many others. While piracy may indeed be an issue, the perception of piracy is clearly just as serious a problem, one that may prevent developers and publishers from addressing more immediate problems in their business models.

The response from developers and publishers to this possibly real, but unquestionably perceived threat of piracy has been to lace their games with more and more stringent DRM restrictions. When I wrote a blog chiding gamers for blowing DRM out of proportion, I was heavily criticized for failing to recognize that DRM really does create problems for a lot of users and, so say many, it just makes piracy worse. In retrospect, I was wrong to understate the impact DRM has on users, as well as wrong to overstate its efficacy. Clearly no DRM scheme does much of anything to prevent piracy—even the most heavily protected games are leaked very quickly; and clearly many legitimate users are inconvenienced by increasingly draconian DRM schemes—I've been there myself recently.

And yet, it's not clear to what extent DRM is hurting PC game sales if at all, or whether it makes piracy worse as some suggest—though both are valid possibilities. Again looking at music sales, some data suggests that Apple's DRM-free iTunes Plus may spur greater sales, and Amazon.com has seen great success with their DRM-free music service.

I applaud CDProjekt for their ambitious DRM-free Good Old Games service, and I applaud Bethesda for sticking with a simple CD check for Fallout 3. Ultimately the success or failure of DRM-free software will determine whether frustrated developers will continue to get away with blaming piracy for their woes, and whether DRM use continues to be prevalent. Regardless, it's time developers and publishers take a more critical eye toward their perception of piracy's true impact on their business, and start treating their customers a little better. As long as developers treat PC gaming as a second-class market, that's exactly what it will be.

Ars Technica tackles games with serious issues

Ars Technica closely examines some recent games that raise controversial themes and issues.

On Super Columbine Massacre RPG!:

Essentially, SCMRPG! is a psychological examination of Harris and Klebold. It attempts to put the player into their mindset, exploring how and why they came to do what they did. The subject matter itself questions what a game is meant to be. Though people normally play video games for sheer enjoyment, there is none to be found in SCMRPG! Instead, I found myself actively dreading entering the game world, unwilling to perform the actions necessary to progress.

On Metal Gear Solid 4:

In the world of MGS4, war has become a business, and PMCs are in the center of it. The new war economy means that the world is in a constant state of battle, locked in perpetual proxy wars fought for business purposes. But while this is an interesting concept to contemplate, unfortunately it is not covered with real depth.

As a Kojima game, MGS4 spends much more time tackling strange philosophical debates than it does real world issues like PMCs. And given the fact that the existence of these corporations only came to light recently, it's a topic that is at the forefront of many people's minds. The game is wonderful, but the opportunity for a serious look at the subject was squandered.

Soul Calibur IV Review

The tale eternally retold... with more muscles, mammaries and licensed characters

Read review of Soul Calibur IV

HIGH I'm not what you'd call a Star Wars fanboy, although I grew up with the series. However, whoom-ing a lightsaber while playing as a menacing Darth Vader was a strangely satisfying experience. Did I mention that Darth Vader is cool (PlayStation 3 only)?

LOW Realizing that I'd rather be playing Soul Calibur I or II, where the characters flowed slightly faster (in my memory) and there were more interesting learning/adventure modes.

WTF I miss the days of non-hulking characters. Kilik and Ivy are seriously bulked, in their respective fashions. And Ivy is beginning to remind me of a drag queen.

Soul Calibur IV

Game Description: Return to witness the epic struggle between the spirit sword, Soul Calibur, and the cursed sword, Soul Edge, in Soul Calibur IV. Warriors from far reaches of the galaxy battle to control the powerful swords and use them for their own goals. Should these fighters succeed, they will face the ultimate judgment. The ongoing story continues with new revelations, exciting new gameplay features and stunning visuals. And perhaps most exciting of all, a character from the Star Wars universe will also make an appearance.

"Life as a Disabled Gamer"

Life as a Disabled Gamer is a guest editorial at Game|Life by Andrew Monkelban, a gamer with cerebral palsy who plays one-handed. His piece covers a lot of important issues, but what most interested me was the kinds of games he likes and doesn't like to play, and why:

Up until recently, I've played predominately roleplaying games, with some focus on fighters. However, with the inclusion of online multi-player and other networking features in games and consoles, I've been able to try different titles and genres (i.e. Devil May Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto 4, and Mass Effect).

One example of a genre I can't play is shooters. Mass Effect is in this genre, and I had trouble playing it, due to the controls being too complicated for one-handed gaming. When you need to hold the controller a certain way, it causes problems when needing to reach some buttons.

Gamers are an incredibly diverse group of people, and I don't think most game developers or publishers (or indeed, most gamers, myself included) fully realize just how diverse we are. Can controllers with sensitive analog sticks and lots of little buttons be adapted for someone who needs a larger, simpler setup? Are there certain games and genres that gamers with certain impairments can't play because of the barriers involved? If so, are these barriers truly "just the way things are" or can we fix them? For instance, can we make audio cue-intensive survival horror games and first-person-shooters accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing gamers? (See the Doom 3 closed-captioning/transcription mod).

By blogging about gaming and disability, I hope to examine these and other questions. And, of course, alert readers to some really cool technology and people.

Spectral Force 3

Game Description: Spectral Force 3 delivers challenging strategy RPG gameplay, a classic fantasy story, and tons of character and item customization options. The ten kingdoms of the land, seizing the opportunity provided by OverlordJanus's death, are attempting to unify the continent under their own banners. This is the beginning of the Great Neverland War. In order to bolster their defenses, kingdoms have begun hiring mercenary units. As new members of the Norius Mercenaries, you and your friend Diaz are eager to prove yourselves. When the squad's commander Judo is mortally wounded in battle, the mantle of leadership is entrusted to you, and so the adventure begins.

Spectral Force 3 – Review

Read review of Spectral Force 3Despite being a game that appears on a gaming console that can put out some amazing graphics and support gameplay that couldn't be done on older hardware, Spectral Force 3 looks like a game that could have been developed for the PlayStation 2 and features play mechanics that were "fresh and new" back in the days of the Sega Genesis. This mediocrity serves to make it only more ironic that the title was developed by Idea Factory—because this is a game that is woefully lacking when it comes to anything resembling an actual idea.

Spectral Force 3 – Consumer Guide

According to ESRB, this game contains: Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol

Dark Sector

Game Description: Dark Sector is a third-person Action/Shooter that thrusts players into a sci-fi flavored nightmare scenario set in the post Cold War era. Playing in the role of Hayden Tenno, an unscrupulous covert operative sent on an assassination mission into Lasria – a fictional Eastern European city on the brink of ruin and rumored to be contaminated by a mysterious and frightening plague, Hayden takes out his mark, but before he can escape is attacked by an unknown enemy. Not killed outright as expected, he is instead infected with the virus that is causing the plague.

Dark Sector – Second Opinion

Having worked with Dan here at GameCritics for so long, sometimes it feels as though we think with the same brain. More often than not, we champion the same underdogs and see value in titles that others don't. However, there are rare occasions reminding me that as often as we agree, it's still a fact of life that we will occasionally take entirely different positions on things. Case in point: Dark Sector.

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