Aug 5 2004
It never seems to take long for the latest PC games to appear on file-sharing networks where they become available to anyone with the time to download them and the desire to steal them. Despite the fact that PC games have gotten cheaper over the last few years, and are noticeably less expensive than their console counterparts, pirated copies of big titles like Doom 3 reach the Internet even before many retail outlets have the box set for sale. Of course, a game like Doom 3 will still make money, but it wouldn't be surprising to see a trend away from PC games in favor of (more difficult to copy) console games for precisely this reason.
The Doom 3 Case
Well aware that their game would pirated at some point, id Software made every effort to keep the game from being leaked onto the Net before its release. Even the media was denied the early evaluation copies which often give them a chance to have a review prepared for when the game ships. There is an interesting article on GameSpot which chronicles one employee's flight from San Fransico to Los Angeles in order to get Doom 3 slightly ahead of the official release.
Nevertheless, according to this BBC article, some 50,000 copies (or about $3 million worth) of the game were being downloaded at one point on Sunday, August 1st, two days before it was scheduled to appear on store shelves.
While, as HomeLan Fed points out, a questionable shipping policy may have contributed to this problem, it's clear that piracy could make or break a game of less stature than Doom 3.
Many of us are familiar with the long history of efforts that have been made to prevent rampant copying of software. Forms of disk copy protection were in use way back in the days of the 5 1/4 inch floppy. Most of the PC games on the store shelf today require a play disk in your CD drive to run the game. While this does make it a little more difficult to copy the game, it is still possible, and "No CD" cracks, which will allow you to run a game without the play CD, are readily available on the Net for most games.
CD keys (that long code on the jewel case or the back of the manual) are a common way to discourage copying, although there is nothing to keep people from sharing CD keys for single-player games. Like the pirated software itself, CD keys and even CD key generators are frequently circulated on the Net.
As well as not being particularly effective, copy protection also tends to create problems for those who do the right thing and purchase the game. They won't always be able to make backups of their game disks, meaning that a damaged or lost play CD will render the game unplayable. While publishers will typically replace CDs under such circumstances, they want ample proof that you actually bought the game, including a receipt. Even then, you are almost always charged for shipping and handling, which can exceed the cost of buying another copy of the game. Stolen CD keys also frequently cause conflicts for legitimate players, as the game will refuse their login request if their CD key is already in use. Some publishers have more or less abandoned copy protection for these reasons.
The Online Advantage
When it comes to fighting piracy, online games have a clear advantage over single-player games. Because you are playing over the Internet, it is quite easy for the game's developers to have the game check in with their server each time the player logs in to ensure that a legitimate CD key is being used.
The games with the least piracy concerns are persistent world titles like EverQuest. Since the world exists on the company's servers, and they require you to maintain an account to access those servers, a copy of the game is really of little value. This hasn't stopped hackers from figuring out how to emulate the game server accurately enough to start their own worlds, but it's a formidable task, and it's undermined by the fact that the overwhelming majority of players are in the official world, which is, after all, what makes them massively multiplayer.
The Road Ahead
One of the things that makes games like Doom 3 a relatively easy target for thieves is that the main attraction is the single-player campaign. I don't have Doom 3 yet, but it's certain that any online play will involve some sort of CD key authentication. I fully expect single-player games to be subject to a similar form of authentication in the future, as it has so far proven to be one of the most effective ways to combat piracy. Watch for the upcoming release of Half-Life 2 coupled with Valve's Steam content delivery system, which could well be a sign of things to come.