Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cracking

So on my recent trip to Taiwan and Indonesia, I picked up various kinds of electronic equipment for friends and for myself: a microSD card, a reader for said card, a portable hard drive. This being Asia, invariably there were stands nearby selling all kinds of pirated DVDs, music, and video games. (On one of the occasions, I was wearing a suit, so it was a little weird walking through.)

I'm not going to talk about the benefits and evils of pirating. I'll make one quick comment and one long observation. First, quickly, Taiwan has really cleaned up its piracy issues. I remember several years ago walking along the night market outside my grandma's house as seeing DVDs everywhere. Nothing now.

Second, and longer, the experience in Indonesia especially got me thinking about some recent developments in video games. It's very difficult to copy-protect DVDs - sooner or later someone cracks it. But I wonder whether the recent trends of online play, constant updates and upgrades, and occasionally half-finished game releases aren't in some way tied to anti-pirating efforts. On several of the games, I saw disclaimers (in English, surprisingly) that you could not use the DVDs to play online. In addition, the ones where that was possible (I haven't obviously tested whether this is true) appeared to be older games that came out a minimum of 1-2 years ago.

And the reason online play is blocked is because the game developers can constantly check up on the legality of your copy. Most cracks to play games illegally require invasive changes to the executable file or core game files. That kind of thing is pretty easy to suss out. Similarly, constant file updates also make it very easy to catch crackers and force them to reinstall. Cripple your initial release just enough, string out your updates long enough, and you'll likely get all the people who were going to purchase the game to do so legally.

So, how plausible is this? I'm sure it's not the only reason behind buggy releases and constant updates with limited tweaks. But it could very well be a contributing factor to why certain types of games - especially single-player, offline ones - are increasingly being packaged with specific online features.

5 comments:

Jonny America said...

I can't comment on the software updates because I know too little. But I must admit that I am suprised that Taiwan has been able to crack down on piracy, especially with the Pirate Kingdom located right next door. Even New York is filled with DVD peddlers and littered with fake video game stalls. Do you happen to know of any specific measures Taiwan has taken to reduce fake DVD sales?

hcduvall said...

I don't think it's industry wide duplicity as much as it is the reality of shifting revenue streams in video game publishing. Online play, with either subscription fees and/or extra fees, makes more steady money than older school blockbuster style economics. These things cost a lot, have years of lead time now, and are almost bigger than movies. Heck, Halo 3 has a decent chance at beating Spider-Man 3's opening weekend with a 120m+ release day take, assuming it goes higher than Halo 2, which had a around 120m single day take. An online game may have development costs equal to a blockbuster (say, Bioshock) but is going to keep making you money (say World of Warcraft) with the same engine.

I wouldn't past them to seed and drip material out--expansions basically (The Sims franchise), but bugs and updates of bugs are always bad pr and more hinderances to money making than not. Plus with episodic games (Half-Life 2, Sam and Max) you start getting the benefits of revenue stream that can come multiple financial quarters with cheaper sets. Weirdly enough, this all makes the video game industry sound more mature to me than the movie making one, since while it still has blockbusters and too many sequels, it seems to be developing more "midlist" games if you will, especially with online delivery. Heck, there's more money to be made in advertising than anything else. When the companies expand from charging for adspace in every copy in Rainbow Six, that you can also charge for every time it's generated in an online game...

Re; Taiwan dvd sales. Well, there's filled with dvds from peddlers and stores that get ticketed or raided regularily, as in New York, and asia filled with dvds in bookstores, airports, on the street, and what have you.

Chengora said...

I have no idea why Taiwan's gotten better actually. Maybe WTO entry, but that doesn't seem to have helped China. It could be because I went a bit after the blockbuster season, so I just didn't see anything. But that didn't stop the people in Indonesia evidently.

You know, everyone compares the video game industry to the movie industry. Might it be better to compare it to the TV industry instead? Sure, games have blockbusters, but the steady release of content (whether in episodic form or patches) suggests that you don't get the full experience unless you keep up.

Also, my point isn't that online play's profitability isn't the major driver of its market penetration. Rather, I'm just wondering if it has knock-on advantages that game makers have started taking advantage of. But either way, it's an interesting issue to me.

hcduvall said...

I don't know, considering how much the film industry is so predisposed to sequels, it's not as if tv has the lock on that sort of release of content. And the switch to going episodic in video games is new, other than Sam and Max and Half-Life 2, no one has actually thought of it as seasons. Maybe online now, but roll outs are in clumps. Plus, when you consider budgets, it's just easier to think in movie industry scale.

My basic point is that no, bugs aren't intentional. The benefits of subscription and/or the prolonged exposure and brand growth from good online play (*.craft in general, in S. Korea specifically) doesn't acrue with bugs. The patching is more just a reality of the complexity of software development, money is the only driver of the format.

HoBs said...

bugs aren't intentional, and I agree with duvall that the major shift to the subscription model is to smooth revenue and to extract greater rents. Much easier to get people to dish out $10 a month for 3 years for WOW, than to ask them to cough up $360 up front.

People have been talking about this constant upgrade model for a long time. You can see it in Apple's iPhone, google's office apps, etc.

But no doubt the anti-piracy component is also very important. people have been talking about that possibility for years.