Interview: Bohemia Interactive's CEO on fighting piracy, creative DRM

Nathan Grayson

Take-On-Helicopters_7

DRM is among the worst things ever to happen to gaming. In many cases it's intrusive, infuriating, and the worst DRM can even stop your legitimately purchased game dead in its tracks. But hey, at least DRM finally made piracy walk the plank and cackled maniacally as our team of trained sharks devoured it forever, right? Oh wait - piracy's still alive and kicking, and pirates can now rationalize their actions by saying "I want to get the version that works." So what's the gaming industry to do?

Many developers and publishers are stumped, and some flailing wildly by locking down games even harder. All hope, however, isn't lost: a few studios have begun to experiment with copy protection, and results have run the gamut from hilariously amusing to, well... mostly that first thing , so far. But are they really cutting down on piracy? That in mind, I decided to quiz Bohemia Interactive CEO Marek Špan?l about all things DRM. His company, of course, has been turning heads with its DEGRADE (often erroneously referred to as "FADE") tech, which slowly renders pirated copies of games like Take on Helicopters unplayable. Check out the full interview for his thoughts on just how bad piracy really is, ending the trend of intrusive DRM, "always on" schemes like Battle.net and UbiDRM, and much, much more.

PC Gamer: What prompted you to battle piracy with FADE? What's the general philosophy behind it?

Marek Špan?l: Please note that we do not call it FADE, but rather DEGRADE, as the term FADE was initially used by a previous publisher and we don't feel it's our trademark to use. We've used DEGRADE for all our releases since our PC debut, Arma: Cold War Assault, in 2001 (originally released as Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis). The philosophy is not to try to prevent counterfeit and pirated games from running, but instead (or in addition) to degrade the end user experience of such copies.

The motto is: Pirated games are not worth playing, original games do not degrade. Some of the symptoms are funny, usually annoying. In the Arma series, players with pirated copies have lower accuracy with automatic weapons in both single player and multiplayer, and occasionally turn into a bird with the words "Good birds do not fly away from this game, you have only yourself to blame." While we know we will never stop piracy, we use this as a way to make our stand that piracy is not right, that it has a serious negative impact on PC games developers.

PCG: DEGRADE's a very unique, outside-the-box method of mitigating piracy. Do you think that's the key to staying afloat in a PC world full of pirates?

MS: Maybe. But I'm afraid there isn't much that can be done to mitigate piracy as far as we talk about the offline single-player experience. But we need more people to realize that there is value in owning the original game. By buying the game they support us, and we can support them in exchange.

PCG: Does DEGRADE actually deliver results? Are your piracy rates significantly lower than they would be without it? Can you provide any numbers?

MS: It's not possible to provide any numbers. However, our statistics from multiplayer show that for every three legitimate buyers playing their game in multiplayer, there are 100 (failed) attempts to play with a pirated version. This indicates that piracy is an extremely widespread problem on PC, and it's also really worrying for us as a mid-sized, independent, PC-oriented developer. We do not have any such data for single-player, but I'm afraid there the ratio of pirates to legitimate gamers is undoubtedly much worse.

PCG: That's absolutely terrifying, to be honest. Do you happen to know how DEGRADE stacks up to more traditional means of copy protection - say, Ubisoft's much-maligned online system or Steam copy protection?

MS: We don't consider it a substitute to conventional copy protection, but rather as a supplement to it.

PCG: Why do you think so many developers and publishers are stuck on using DRM that inconveniences paying customers just as much as pirates? Their most vocal and loyal customers are shouting, "No! This is terrible!" at the top of their lungs. So why is it taking so long for them to listen?

MS: It's very difficult. Companies and teams invest a lot into game development, and with such widespread piracy, it's extremely tough to get the investment back. Our approach is to remove conventional DRM not too long after the initial game's release to ensure as smooth an experience as possible for our legitimate users and still appeal to our distribution and publishing channels. We're trying to cut off this vicious circle where piracy hurts owners of legitimate copies "protected" with annoying copy protection DRM systems, which may lead to more piracy. That is why, for example, nearly all games on Sprocket, our online store, are DRM-free. Arma 1 and 2 are already copy-protection-free everywhere, and have been for a long time.

PCG: What about always-online platforms, a la Blizzard's StarCraft II and Diablo III? Do you think those fall under the umbrella of "punishing legitimate customers for hackers/cheaters/pirates' crimes"?

MS: I don't see it this way. However, I still prefer a game to run without any type of Internet connection requirement, as it's really worrying that games may stop functioning at all just because running the central service is no longer viable commercially, or even because your Internet went down in a thunderstorm, etc. People still play and mod our 10-year-old game, and hopefully some will even continue to do so 10 years into the future. While systems and companies may fail over time, great games should last forever.

PCG: A few companies have actually claimed that, nowadays, developers' best bet is to work with piracy - not against it. Torchlight, for instance, got most of its recognition in China thanks to pirates . It seems like, to some extent, DEGRADE does that too. Players get a small taste of the full game before it turns to goopy mush. Is there any way of knowing how many sales you've gotten from players who tried a pirated version of a game, said, "Wow, that was fun," and then paid to keep playing?

MS: It's very rare to find people admitting to using pirated versions, so I'm unable really to share any figures here. But recognition is not too important, unless you see conventional PC games as a marketing tool for other commercial ventures and not commercially viable businesses on their own. We're trying to make users of pirated copies experience some limitation, make their version closer to a real trial version. As they often claim to be pirating games for trialling purposes only, we try to make sure it works that way.

PCG: Some developers and pundits, however, claim that pirates simply aren't legitimate customers. That is to say, if all piracy were eliminated forever, those people would opt to simply not play games instead of buying them. Do you think that's true, or is it just an excuse to avoid confronting a larger issue head-on?

MS: Certainly, not all users of pirated copies would turn into customers. However, if only five percent of these would buy the game instead, the legitimate user base may double or even triple. From this perspective, finding ways to have games pirated less is probably more important than the quality of the game itself.

PCG: So there's tons of doom and gloom, and then there's CD Projekt. The Witcher 2's digital version apparently sold quite well , and here's the kicker: The GOG.com version didn't have any DRM whatsoever. As a result, CD Projekt's claiming that copy protection's not necessary. What do you think, though? Are they onto something, or is this the exception - not the rule?

MS: It's all relative. They sold the majority of their copies through Steam, where the title is still protected by Steam's own protection system. Plus, I would say their comment is overreaching. Of course their own store sells more copies than other independent online portals. It's the place where they directed their hardcore audience, as there was no real advantage for non-Steam users in choosing another digital portal of a similar nature. It would be surprising if the numbers are much different. We see similar trends with our own releases and DRM presence or absence seems to have little impact. So in a sense I agree with their point that conventional, copy-protection-based DRM is becoming a useless tool in addressing the piracy problem.

PCG: Thanks to issues like innumerable potential hardware configurations and piracy, many developers have made consoles their primary focus. That in mind, what makes PC so attractive to Bohemia? Why is it worth all the fuss?

MS: We consider the PC superior to other platforms, always on the cutting edge. But for us, an even more important aspect is a complete freedom of development and publishing on this platform. We're not very compatible with the corporate structure and processes required in the console or smart phone worlds. We prefer more agile methods with our users in the loop. Certification and approval by platform owner for a patch? Beg your pardon? We prefer if we can iterate together with our user base, and that may sometimes result in several patches released in one day, in the most extreme of cases. We like the dialog and interaction with our users that can be achieved only on PC. On the other hand, piracy is for sure more widespread on PC for the very same reasons, and that puts us into a very difficult position in sticking with conventional games on PC for the time being. We have to be extremely cost-cautious and developmentally effective to make it work.

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