Editorial: In Which Sony’s Ninja Face Off Against Pirates And Inadvertently Kill Us All

I had hoped to spend today talking about the recent releases of Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy II for the iPhone, but alas, events in the Gamingverse have dictated that once again I take up my cape and scepter and descend my onyx throne to do battle with evil denizens of the depths.

It may be that, at the late hour in which this column graces the cheeto-dust encrusted screens of my readers, that the problem has been resolved, that computers sit forlorn and abandoned as the sweet, digital, pixellated lifeblood seeps back into our veins through the severed artery that is/was the Great PS3 Outage of 2010.

More cynical parts of my nature wonder that, given that the disease seems to infect only the older PS3 models, this is not Sony’s nefarious way of prodding us to CONSUME ever more of their streamlined goods. Another part wonders with incredulity at a gaffe of this magnitude with no apparent explanation of just how we were caught unawares by this insectoid invader.

What are the facts? First, the outage is global. Second, it is merciless, and all new games that require the “trophy” system or some sort of call-home style DRM are affected. A proper analogy might be that our automatic keyless entry to our cars, now smart enough to recognize when thieves are attempting to pull a Vice City on our pimpmobiles, has gone into full lockdown mode. That is, security has turned against the secured.

Piracy is a problem that needs to be addressed within the gaming community: veneers of “information wants to be free!” and “freeeeedom!” (say in a Braveheart voice) only gloss over the very real fact that, as in the Sixteenth Century, piracy is a form of crime we are wont to romanticize but never really own up to.

We are the fallout of Sony's war against piracy

We are the fallout of Sony's war against piracy

Speaking now as one who works in law enforcement, I understand the desire to prevent malfeasance before it occurs, as if by doing so we become the moral guardians of the public. There is a point, however, where law enforcement must simply become reactive. This seems counterintuitive: after all, it is more efficient and efficacious to stop crime from happening than it is to clean up afterward. However, the cost of such directness is often collateral, and otherwise law-abiding people (such as this author, who wishes only to virtually kill the Templar scum of Renaissance Italy) are forbidden from engaging in otherwise lawful activity not by the misdeeds of the miscreants, but through the too-heavy hand of proactive enforcement.

The answer, to both crime and piracy, is that in most cases, we cannot hold ourselves responsible for the moral failings of others. Sony, while cognizant of their duty to protect publishers and developers from lost revenue, is neither responsible for the actions of pirates nor responsible (primarily) for the enforcement of otherís property rights. Sony is, however, responsible for the experience of consumers that buy and use their consoles, and as such, the balance of loyalties ought to have favored the consumer here.

Piracy will exist as long as there are people that see breaking the law as an acceptable and cheaper alternative to paying for content. Remember, ye pirates, that the workers that made that code spent long hours in doing so to provide for themselves and their families. While some nascent populist romanticism might lead us to believe that by pirating a work we are thumbing our nose at a profit-driven establishment that cares only for profits, and not for workers and consumers, ultimately piracyís costs are borne by the workers and not by those who should feel the pinch. At some point, the never-ending escalation of draconian DRM versus self-destructing pirate must end; and as long as money is there to be made, I despair of publishers ever abandoning ever more complicated and hassling DRM schema. In a show of solidarity, let us then decide that we will not pay or utilize content that comes burdened with DRM that leads to upsetting consequences like the PS3 outage. But we gain nothing by feeding in to the system by pirating content that we would pay for but-for the existence of the DRM. At some point, we must decide that the sacrifice of playing a game we want is worth it to send a message to the companies that, financially, DRM is not a smart investment.

In other news of actual tragedies, please donate whatever you can to helping those people whose lives were devastated in the Chilean earthquake. Better our dollars spent there than on another DRM-ridden game system that breaks with the slightest provocation.

0 comments on “Editorial: In Which Sony’s Ninja Face Off Against Pirates And Inadvertently Kill Us All”

  1. Let me be clear from the beginning: I FUCKING HATE DRM.

    That said, the underlying DRM in PS3 (trophy-enabled) games has been exposed here, hidden as it was heretofore. What was masquerading as a happy little achievement system has now been shown to be nothing more than DRM which requires a constant connexion to Sony’s servers in order for the software to function. This is fucking heinous.

    Yet, this is a most apt time for this particular bomb to fall on unsuspecting Phat PS3 users (myself inclusive). It was, after all, only a short while ago that Ubisoft’s incredibly VILE DRM was announced to widespread outrage. Will Ubisoft back down? Eventually, perhaps. Their constant dodging of the direct question, “WILL YOU TAKE PRECAUTIONS SO THAT IF THE SERVERS ARE EVER TURNED OFF THE GAMES WILL STILL WORK?” bodes ill for anyone who wants to play their games for, you know, more than a few years. Considering I spend most of my time playing games which I bought in the 1980s, this obviously figures large in my mind.

    If you pirate a piece of software which you could buy, you should be ashamed of yourself. If you pirate things solely for the sake of pirating them, you should be ashamed of yourself. I don’t wish to equivocate. There are pirates out there who think they are like Robin Hood, sticking it to the man and striking a blow for the little guy–but this is nothing more than a rationalisation for their self-serving and illegal behaviour. Let me be clear: piracy is wrong. It is not wrong to make a copy of a PS1 game that YOU ALREADY OWN so that you can play it on your hacked PSP without having to buy it again from Sony. But it IS wrong to download a bunch of games that you don’t own, have no intention of buying, and wouldn’t buy even if you had the money.

    If you like games, support the developers. Otherwise, we’ll have nothing but Wii shovelware in a decade or two. And then I really won’t have anything to play but games from the 1980s.

  2. Sorry, apparently I missed the technical details of the PSN issue yesterday, but what exactly happened when you tried to play a trophy-enabled game? I know SN said he was able to play Heavy Rain just fine (presumably offline). Do these same issues pop up if you try to play a game from a PS3 that’s just disconnected from the net for other reasons? If that were the case, it seems like we’d have heard about it before now (or maybe we wouldn’t. Know a lot of people don’t have their PS3s online, but I don’t know any of them). I did hear various report of games (Heavy Rain specifically from a few forum posters) kicking you out to the XMB after erroring out when trying to install trophies or something along those lines. Like I said, does the same thing happen with a PS3 that’s just not setup for network access (and thus not connected to PSN)?

  3. Exactly, Shawn. By pirating a game, we don’t hurt the big evil companies like Sony or Ubisoft, because of all the people unwilling to pay for games, those with the savvy to pirate a game represent an even smaller fraction. Only when people who would otherwise buy a game refuse to do so (such as professional reviewers, bloggers, etc.) will companies listen. Imagine if IGN or Gamespot or PA or someone said, “Hey, you know what? We refuse to review or even discuss your game until you remove this asinine DRM software!” Then people might listen.

    That said, these DRM systems are no less annoying than other kludges used in the past. I recall buying a CD-ROM used back in the day (Quest for Glory something I think) and not being able to progress because when I got to a certain level, I had to look up something in the game manual. The game manual I didn’t own.

    Attempting to prevent piracy is like attempting to prevent DWI by making everyone use a breathalyzer on their way out of a bar. You’ll end up arresting and harassing lots of people that weren’t even going to drive just because you’ll catch six or seven that would have driven drunk. At some point, you’ve just got to say, “When we catch you, justice will be swift.”

  4. This wasn’t a DRM issue though. It was a mishap with the internal clock thinking it was a leap year. PS3s that never connected to the internet where effected. It was a matter of the system not being able to load software and connect to PSN do to date defferance.

    The PS3s thought it was the year 1999/2000 so a lot of software stopped working. Much like what the Y2K bug was supposed to do.

  5. @Oyashiro: This was not a DRM issue per se, but what it shows is that the trophy system *works* like DRM in a sense. Games that require it need to verify submitted data with Sony otherwise they simply don’t work.

    The PS3’s internal clock is completely invisible to the end user and is used to sync with PSN, as well as time-stamping trophies and downloadable content activation certificates. Yesterday, with this invisible master clock now set to a date that simply didn’t exist due to a misunderstanding of leap years, most trophy-supported games wouldn’t launch either online or offline, PSN couldn’t be accessed, and the activation certificates for downloaded content became invalid. Those affected were left with a games console that wouldn’t play games.

    Essentially, trophy-enabled games are using the trophy system as a way to ping/validate with Sony. If anything impedes the correct responses, the game doesn’t work. This could be something like a hacked console, an attempt to cheat the trophy system, or (like yesterday), a bug that produces an invalid date from the system clock.

    This isn’t necessarily DRM in the ‘Copy-Protect’ sense, but it is clearly DRM in the sense of ‘Data-Protection’ where the data in question is the validation of trophy data and console authenticity. What I think is telling is that this is built into the substrata of the system (and we take it for granted these days) to such a degree that it completely went unnoticed by everyone until it caused a massive problem when a key component went sideways.

    Fifteen or twenty years ago, the idea that a company would be surreptitiously monitoring your game playing–whether on a PC or a console–would have been reason for massive outcry, whatever the reasons given. Now, it is simply taken for granted and, indeed, is completely unnoticed by people.

    Not all progress is progress, I suppose.

  6. I don’t believe Sony intended it to be a sort of DRM like you said it was probably more or less so people couldn’t cheat the system. Trophy games don’t need certification from PSN to work. That was a side affect from the date mishap as well. This thing is that most games now are tide in with dates do to trophies in order to stop cheating in a sense. The reason peoples trophies disappeared was because the PS3 saw them a not legitimate as the dates where before what the system thought the date was. Downloaded games that didn’t have trophies reverted to demos for that day as well, i thought that was sort of funny.

  7. I just think people are over reacting. Sony has been one of the more lax companies on really any form of DRM. No region locking, you can share downloaded games with a few people. and even if something required the use of PSN, they let you do so for free.

    It just kinda feels like the internet wanted to go “AHA! Your black box isn’t so nice anymore!”

  8. Before I say anything, I just want to say I completely agree with everything Lusi and Lane have said about DRM. It’s a horrible system that punishes paying customers and really hasn’t done anything to stop piracy as a whole. It’s almost as ridiculous as the thought that Bobby Kotick is paying out of pocket for every pirated copy of MW2.

    However, I think Oyashiro’s right in that this particular case seems more like a bug than DRM. Of course Sony has some sort of validation on trophy data, everybody would be all over them if they didn’t. It’s the same way people would expect Blizzard to fix a bug in WoW that allowed people to conjure themselves up unearned loot. I think the key is that not all trophy games were effected. One of my friends at work said he was able to play Uncharted 2 fine (single player, of course) throughout the whole ordeal. To me, that says that most games just aren’t handling the trophy error case correctly and either crashing or mistakenly exiting the game. The correct response would obviously be to let users play the game, but just disable trophies.

    The downloadable content issues seem to be much more worrying. I remember a few times I had issues loading my Dragon Age (on the PC) save because the ping to the EA servers to verify the DLC was taking too long. I can’t remember the specifics, but at one point I loaded up my game to find the special armor set you got hadn’t been verified, so my character was suddenly running around in the buff! Again, I understand the need for these protections on DLC, since really they’re just files sitting somewhere on the PS3’s hard drive which could, presumably, be copied to another hard drive elsewhere, but like Ubisoft’s draconian DRM scheme, I feel like they cross the line into assuming paying customers are criminals.

    @Oyashiro: I think the most hilarious intermorons are the ones who are trying to demand that Sony compensate them by giving them a new PS3 slim.