Game designer Chris Taylor pushes “secure computing” as solution to piracy

Adopted with modifications from my other blog, Supreme Commander Talk

Chris Taylor, the game designer who brought us Total Annihilation, Dungeon Siege, and Supreme Commander, believes that “secure computing” is the future of the PC gaming world, which is getting absolutely killed by software piracy. Now he’s not so naive as to think that DRM is the answer (because SecuROM, pretty much the best in the breed, is about as airtight as a shot-up sponge). His version of secure computing involves playing games from a central server rather than on individual desktops.

Now there are all sorts of ways to interpret what he’s talking about, because the description given in the article is pretty vague, but I think what he wants is for essential parts of the game not to ship with the client. The only way you’d be able to play is while in constant communication with the server. Think World of Warcraft: anyone can make copies the client, but to be able to play the game, you need to be able to log in to one of the servers. To do that, you need to pay the monthly $15 fee for an active account. Only Blizzard has access to the World of Warcraft server software, so no one can run their own pirate servers (and although attempts have been made to reverse-engineer the communications occurring between real servers and clients, knock-off server software doesn’t achieve the full feature set of the real deal). World of Warcraft is thus effectively “secure computing” according to Chris Taylor’s concept.

Sure, it works for MMORPGs, because a central server is necessitated by the nature of the game, and users accept and understand it. But for other games, especially single player games? Are consumers really going to put up with an unnecessary net connection required for no other reason than anti-piracy? That would ruin the experience on laptops, which many people use in situations where net access is not available (think airplanes, buses, and trains).

And this brings up another problem: the gaming company now has to run and maintain an unnecessary server farm to service all of the requests from people playing single player. Keep in mind that these servers won’t merely be doing verification or validation; if they were, you could either spoof a verification server that would always send back “Valid”, or simply remove the verification code step from the client executable. No, these servers need to be constantly running a critical part of the game that the client doesn’t have so there is no way the server can be excised from the loop. That’s not insignificant. And of course, access to the servers will be controlled by some means of a serial number that comes only with legitimate purchases (the key space would have to be sufficiently large enough such that trying random combinations to find one that works would be fruitless).

The nice thing about computer games as they are now is you can pretty much play them indefinitely, so long as you keep your compatible hardware in operating condition. Not too long ago I went back and dug out my old copy of Dune II and played through the campaign for old time’s sake. Now imagine if that game had been programmed using the “secure computing” paradigm; what are the odds that, after all these years, those servers would still be running? Very slim! With this form of secure computing, the PC game purchasing experience isn’t like buying a game in the traditional sense; rather, it’s more like purchasing a license of the game that expires whenever the game’s publisher decides it no longer feels like running the server, or goes under.

If Total Annihilation had used secure computing, no one would be able to play it today, because its publisher, Cavedog, has long since gone belly-up. Total Annihilation was a revolutionary real-time strategy game for its time and to this day it enjoys a large active fan community that are still releasing modifications for the game. None of this would be possible if players had long since found themselves unable to play the game.

I understand that copyright infringement is a big problem in the PC gaming world, but I don’t think that “secure computing” is the answer. It’s simply not fair to the consumer to make games require an online component for no other reason than to prevent unauthorized copying. That’s too punishing of the people who buy the game legally. Thus, I really think multiplayer games with value-added server components (think MMORPGs or matchmaking services like GPGnet) are the future of PC gaming. There’s simply no good way to make a single player game pirate-proof.

But if game designers like Chris Taylor really insist on using this method of secure computing, I have a few ideas to mitigate negative effects on the purchasers (negative effects that, if left untreated, would spell the death of the concept after a reasonable percentage of the market had been burned by them). Game publishers would have to get together and create a large, well-funded consortium to run server farms. For a game to be released using secure computing, two criteria would have to be met:

  1. The publisher would have to deposit enough cash to keep the servers running (including electricity and maintenance) for a period of five years. That way, even if the publisher goes bankrupt, the servers will continue running, because the consortium will already have all the necessary capital to do so.
  2. The game developer would have to deposit the full source code of the game, including the code to run the servers, into code escrow at the consortium. The source code would have to be of sufficient usability (i.e. unhampered by DRM) such that when it is released at the end of the five year period, remaining players of the game could use it to host their own servers and continue playing even after the servers at the consortium go dark. If the game publisher continues to pay the costs of hosting the servers, the code does not have to be released. This is good for everyone: the developers of typical games who see exponentially decreasing profits after the initial release period as well as the developers of superstar games, like Blizzard with StarCraft, who see good sales over the period of many years.

So as long as it is still profitable to do so, the publisher will keep running the servers, and when it no longer is, the source code is released from escrow and any remaining players can host their own servers and continue playing until the end of time. I think this satisfies everyone, and would be useful for all types of games that have unreleased server components, not just the ones using them for anti-piracy. Of course, the cost of hosting the servers is not insignificant, especially having to pay five years of server fees upfront, but if the piracy problem really is as bad as they say it is, they would stand to earn a lot more money overall.

7 Responses to “Game designer Chris Taylor pushes “secure computing” as solution to piracy”

  1. drinian Says:

    Reminds me of the old Blizzard case against bnetd. Running an MMO isn’t a guarantee of constant revenue, either.

    I have to take your modest proposal at the end without much seriousness, although I think either of those conditions would be sufficient. I know that there are plenty of indie developers out there who release without DRM, activation servers, or any of that other stuff, and gain customers because of it, and that seems like the way to go. (On the other hand, the Dreamcast was incredibly piracy-friendly, and I encountered a huge number of illicit copies of Dreamcast games when I entered college, among people who were not very tech-savvy).

    Also, I think that what he might be getting at is that PC gaming (and console gaming) may move more towards the software-as-a-service model; games that would have an expiration date, effectively. AFAIK there are DRM systems that haven’t been broken that require authorization, e.g. the old Google Video system. Will gamers go for this? If Halo 7 is only released SaaS, yes, I think they will. For some disposable types of games, like football or basketball with current player data, it almost makes sense.

  2. Supreme Commander Talk » Chris Taylor pushes “secure computing” as solution to piracy Says:

    […] 2008-02-28: Version 2 of this post is now published on Cyde Weys Musings. Why did I modify it and post it elsewhere? Two posts for the […]

  3. William (green) Says:
    See link for a slightly less obvious look at it.

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