Starforce ditched by Ubisoft

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1080 Words)

As one of the many paying customers who gets constantly irritated by DRM software, I was glad to hear the news that the infamous copy protection software ‘Starforce’ has been abandoned by Ubisoft, one of their biggest customers. Starforce is particularly vilified because, like the Sony BMG ‘rootkit’, it installs software on your machine which remains even after you uninstall the games it protects, and which introduces horrendous security vulnerabilities while it’s at it (basically it gives any software running on your machine full privileges, opening the door wide open for torjans and other nastiness). Not only that, but it can cause system instability and worst of all, in some extreme cases actually trash your hardware - basically it can introduce errors in drive access which build up over time, leading Windows to progressively and inexorably downgrade the drive’s speed, which for some multifunction devices which are not designed to operate at low speeds can be fatal.

Clearly Starforce is on the extreme end of DRM software, and the only question is why it took so damn long for a piece of software that damages a paying customer’s software and hardware to be withdrawn at all. It seems that once again, only pending lawsuits seem to have slapped the companies hard enough to wake them up from their self-induced stupor. I seriously doubt this will be the end for DRM from Ubisoft, they’ll probably find another entirely pointless but undoubtedly shareholder-pleasing piece of ‘protection’ software to put on the disk. They’ll pretend this prevents lost sales due to casual piracy, but in truth they just don’t understand their market anymore.

The prevalence of DRM is driven by fear - in this case the board room fear of a losing control over their product. Fear always leads to poor quality, irrational decision making and this is no exception. What these people don’t realise is that they’ve already lost against the people they’re trying to fight. Piracy will never be stopped by copy protection, history should teach us that lesson very clearly. The more sophisticated and expensive the attempts to add it, the more of a challenge it is to break it and the more kudos those who manage it get. It just isn’t cost effective to try this hard - no matter how many people you throw at this problem, the world has far, far more crackers to counter it. Putting more effort into it just makes you a bigger target.

Sure, put a little barrier in there to stop easy copying on consumer drives, to remind people that piracy is a bad thing. But don’t try any harder than that - piracy is inevitable, and now in the age of the Internet, everyone in the world has access to top-level cracking expertise. The distinction between ‘casual’ piracy and (presumably) ‘nefarious’ piracy isn’t really there anymore - because it’s so damn easy to get cracks for everything under the sun, you don’t need much of an excuse to go and get it. Crackers are generally very good at making their cracks easy to use too.

So, because it doesn’t take much more than a small nudge to make people go look for a crack anymore, and because the process is so easy, what should content publishers do? The irony of it is that attempts (however futile) to prevent piracy actually themselves provide that little ‘nudge’ needed to make many users go get a crack. I myself do not pirate games, but I have been forced to obtain cracks for games I legitimately own because they contain copy protection which for some reason takes a dislike to my DVD drive. Ever more excessive copy protection is not the answer.

The answer is to entice your customers to buy rather than pirate. Make it easy, make it convenient, and make the product easy to use. At the risk of stating the obvious here, customers buy things because they want to. As a seller, it’s up to you to make them want to, and to make the whole experience pleasant for them, not to fight them tooth and nail because you think if you turn your back for a second they’ll nick your wallet.

Some people pirate games because they’re too tight to go and buy it, or they can’t afford it, or they just want to have a quick look and have bandwidth to burn. Face up to the fact that you’re never going to capture them as customers, because they wouldn’t have bought your game anyway. Your attempts at copy protection don’t stop them for an instant either.

Some people pirate games because they can get the game faster that way, or they want to try it out properly before laying out the full price. I’ve known some people to download a cracked copy of the game a few weeks before release, and then go and buy it later on if they like it. If this isn’t a demand for electronic delivery of episodic content, I don’t know what is. If you made this officially available immediately on going gold, in more manageable downloadable chunks (appropriately priced to entice people in), you’d probably capture the majority of this audience. The key is to make it easy, convenient and cost-effective. Lure the customer in with a good price, and if the service and game is good, they’ll stay because it’s easier and more reliable and a better service than downloading a cracked copy.

You get the idea. The key here is to lure, cajole and seduce the customer if you want sales. Don’t stick a gun to their head, or treat them all like criminals - that just pisses them off and in so many cases just turns them against you, leading to more piracy, not less.

Finally, I guess the other ‘corporate weasel’ aspect to this is that piracy is a damn good scapegoat for poor earnings reports. If you stopped trying to fight piracy so hard I guess shareholders might figure out that all the time you’ve been blaming poor sales on piracy, you were really just making it up - the real reason people didn’t buy your products was that they were a bit rubbish. I guess it’s nice to pretend that you’d have had a million more sales if only it wasn’t for those pesky kids. It’s like a universal Get Out of Jail Free card for CEOs at AGMs, and I suppose they’re loathe to give that up.