Bioshock and copy protection

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1270 Words)

A lot of people have been ranting online recently about the copy protection the PC version of Bioshock comes with. Now, I’ve done my fair share of ranting about dodgy copy protection before on this blog, but I now find myself in the rather surprising position of being on the opposite side of the argument on this occasion, to a certain degree anyway.

Let’s get the hard, unpaletable facts out of the way - Bioshock has copy protection on it. Yes, it sucks that it’s deemed necessary, but I knew this before I bought it anyway, and here’s the deal - it’s actually quite a proportionate copy protection scheme, if there is such a thing. Yes, that’s right, proportionate - in that it doesn’t really inconvenience you as a valid purchaser, but is a pain in the ass if you pirate it. Here’s the deal:

  1. You have to register online once when you install the game
  2. That generates you a unique key based on your serial number and a hash of your hardware, which is stored in your registry. Like XP this remains valid unless you make major changes.
  3. You can generate keys like this 5 times (it was 2 but they increased it because some people hit the limit) before having to call customer support. Yes, that means you can use the game on 5 different PCs if you want.

So this is actually closest to iTunes in nature, with one exception - it’s missing the ability to deregister PCs right now. This is a major oversight but they say they’re resolving that. I doubt anyone will have any issues with that in the short term unless they’re a) reinstalling an unfeasible number of times or b) pirating it.

Let’s set aside for the minute whether any sort of copy protection is necessary, and compare and contrast it to alternative schemes.

  1. Physical media protection

    Doesn’t work on PC - copying media is easy and trying to use ‘extended’ features of drives (out of range tracks, tracks readable only by direct access etc), just causes the media not to validate properly on some hardware - something I’ve personally experienced more than once, and cursed about it. Give up on physical protection, leave this to the consoles.

  2. Rootkits

    Often used in conjunction with 1. to validate media, need admin access to perform hacky hardware tasks. Nasty, horrible things. Some overexited people claimed that Bioshock included one of these but were soon shown to be completely mistaken. They relied on a tool called RootkitRevealer which identified Bioshock’s SecuROM protection as a rootkit purely because of the fact that it installs a registry key with a NULL in it, which makes it harder to remove. They actually did this so that some muppet didn’t click ‘delete’ in a containing registry folder and lose their auth keys in fact. It IS possible to remove them manually if you really want to.

    Other people have reported that it installs a service on their machine which interferes with their machine and uses resources. Personally this sounds exaggerated and more educated people seem to quantify said service as harmless - SecuROM say this is to allow the initial authorisation to proceed for non-admin users. I’ve checked my system and don’t appear to have this service anyway, not in any process explorer, service list or in the registry.

  3. Steam

    I haven’t used it in a while but I believe this is still the case - that to play Steam games you have to be logged on to Steam, every time you want to play the game (or at least regularly). This is much worse than a single PC registration because you need to remember your Steam password at all times. More than one person I know of has forgotten it and lost access to their games, which is terrible. At least with a once-off registration all you need is a serial number. [edit]Correction: it appears Steam is one-off too now, according to comments, that’s good[/edit]

Now, that’s not to say Bioshock’s protection is at all something to treasure and hug to your chest, but in terms of genuine customer inconvenience it’s very low key. There are edge cases - like if you have to reinstall 5 times before they make the deregister option available, or if they decided to stop offering the registration service at some point 10 years down the line, but overall, right here and right now, it’s a pretty light touch. If you accept that some form of copy protection is required on PC because BitTorrent has rendered all unprotected content essentially free for all, then this one is actually not such a bad choice.

All the ranting about this on the internet has just revealed a lot of inaccurate information (like the rootkit claims) and disproportionate and poorly considered “I won’t buy this game because it has copy protection” attitudes, which is a shame. A large number of the ranters haven’t even played it, and the majority of those that have haven’t even had any issues with the copy protection (apart from the 2 registration limit, which was ill-considered but now changed) - instead most of the discourse has been of the ‘I heard this on a blog so now I’m (not going to buy it / uninstall it / mail a  parcel of poo to 2k)’ type. I could understand it if people had genuinely found a rootkit, or had found that the copy protection genuinely frigs with their machine in nefarious ways, or found that the game they bought wouldn’t run because it didn’t like some hardware etc, but if you really look at it sensibly, there’s none of that.  There’s a lot of people getting hot under the collar over relatively little substance (but lots of inference and supposition), as I see it. ‘Regrettable but measured’ is how I’d rate this copy protection scheme. [edit]I do take the point that if the activation servers were taken offline in a few years and you had to reinstall the game, that would suck. But for God’s sake, you’re going to deny yourself the experience of one of the best games of this decade just because of some theoretical problem that might occur in a few years, if at all? Talk about cutting your nose off to spite your face. I’m happy to enjoying playing it right now and to hell with what happens beyond 2010.

If there’s one way to prevent an absolutely fantastic game like Bioshock being made available on PC again, and to encourage more games to become console-only in future, it’s the disproportionate furore that has been raised here. Yes, lambast publishers when they do something genuinely disrespectful like use rootkits or copy protection that just barfs on some hardware. Yes, provide practical criticism when something mostly works but has kinks (the 2 registration limit and the inability to deregister). Yes, keep up the debate as to whether any kind of copy protection is necessary or worthwhile. But for goodness sake keep some level of perspective, and don’t just repeat ‘facts’ without actually checking them, and certainly don’t punish Irrational - we need developers like them. If you wanna miss out on Bioshock because of something you heard, or because of some deep-seated principle that defies the practical reality, you go right ahead, it’s entirely your own loss. Or, get it on 360 (and pay almost 50% extra in ‘console tax’ of course) - it’s one game that’s worth buying a console for if you’re ready to give up on your PC as so many seem to be doing now.