I have been an illegal downloader for some time and a fan of the PC gaming industry for even longer. Like most, it is all too easy to illegally download, with good intentions of purchasing later. Other times illegal downloaders believe PC games are too expensive, which they feel gives them the right to download and play for free.

Is this right, no, but what is worse is this has become all too acceptable. It seems the more it happens the less people seem to care. And I can see the PC gaming industry getting scraps from the masters table, and yet I don’t blame publishers for this!

Being a party to illegal downloading was my fault… Sharing is great, but publishers and developer need to be in on this. I understand piracy, I know of all its weaknesses, and that’s why I am the perfect person to stop this.

Vigilant Defender just needed a chance to show what we could do…

 

On the 31st of May 2011, a pre-build of Deus Ex: Human Revolution was illegally uploaded to the p2p networks. It was cracked a few hours later by a p2p group, ALI123, using modified files from a well known scene group called Skidrow.

This gave us an opportunity to demonstrate our anti-piracy strategy. Using the crack and the pre-build files we constructed a “Trial” version that looked identical to a full illegal working version. Our version basically allowed a user to play for the first two levels and directed them to a website.

The website questionnaire asked a range of questions on illegal downloading habits, current DRMs, and about Deus Ex itself. But we wanted to take it further, to see if illegal downloader’s would be willing to purchase games. Based on the answers given, we carefully targeted a specific demographic, and asked will you buy a download of the full working game? Basically to sell the illegal download of Deus Ex: Human Revolution to the illegal downloaders.

… and potential customers responded with: €382,233!

Piracy won’t be won with the best DRM system, it will only be won when illegal downloader’s realise that there are more benefits as a potential customer.

 

We learnt a great deal from the questionnaire, which you can read in full here:

http://www.vigilantdefender.com/Questionnaire.php

Or you can download the full PDF document from here:

http://www.vigilantdefender.com/files/Questionnaire2011.pdf

 

In short:

Downloading from torrents is very simple and convenient, which is preferred to using file hosting services. And yet … these areas of mass market distribution have yet to be utilised!

Illegal downloaders find that PC games are too expensive, or rather that they are not as good value as a Console game. Retail shops offer a trade-in deal for all games except the PC, due to restrictive DRMs. This makes purchasing Console games a better value proposition.

Illegal downloaders, of PC games, generally download 1 to 5 GB, which is a small amount of data per month. This could be due to the ISP broadband cap, though more research is needed.

39% of illegal downloaders would purchase PC games, in varying quantities, if there was no other way of getting them for free.

DRMs do not encourage purchases and publisher would be better offering “price incentives”, “added value”, and “Unlimited installs” instead.

Being the most graphically advance is no longer an incentive, as this depends solely on the power of the users machine. PC gaming rigs can be very expensive, over double what it would cost to buy an Xbox360 or PS3.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is considered to be a very good game, scoring very highly. GameRankings scored it at: 91.26% and Metacritic at: 89/100 (With a user score of 8.4/10). In our survey the illegal downloading population scored it at an average of 82.09%.

23.8% of the illegal downloading population pre-ordered and paid full price, while the distribution suggested most downloaders would purchase at €22.49 or $24.99. With a total 62.1% of illegal downloaders who would pay for this game at €22.49 ($24.99) or higher.

Regional prices are probably the highest cause of piracy in PC Games. When doing a price check 2 weeks before launch we found that Deus Ex: Human Revolution was being offered in Europe for €49.95 from Gamestop, and €44.99 via Steam. Even though Spain, Italy, Greece, and Ireland were going through, and still are, a severe economic crisis. And yet… Gamestop prices for Deus Ex: Human Revolution in the UK was £24.95 (about €29) and Ireland was €29.95. It is also interesting to note that Spain and Italy are often known for having the most illegal downloaders.

A digital playground needs to be created where downloaders can pick up any game they want, at anytime. If they enjoy playing that particular game, then a contribution can be made to the publishers/developers. It’s a playground where the gamer gets to make the choices, and sharing and benefits are for everyone.

“Phase one, Underpants. Phase two, erm… something. Phase three, Profit!”

After playing the Duke Nukem Fovever Demo, I can see this phrase going global. Of course it originally came from SouthPark, where Gnomes are stealing Underpants in preparation of their business venture.

It works on every level, just replace the word “underpants” and you have a 2010 phrase for:  “a leap of faith, into the pits of Idiocracy”.

Sometime ago, WarFace used the same analogy:

 

In much the same way as the SouthPark episode portraits it, it goes a little like this:

Phase one install a DRM on a PC game.

Phase two … Something.

Phase three … profit for the PC gaming publishers.

However after several decades, it has never been able to show that it indeed makes a profit! Of course the current claim is that DRM software is supposed to stop “causal piracy”! As in a friend copying the game and giving it to a friend!

But this also assumes two things:

1)      That people are unable to use the internet and “Google search” and find the files to remove the copy protection.

2)      That piracy is too difficult in the first place. As we believe that people are more likely to share a pirated copy! (As in share an illegal download among friends.)

What is worse is that all security companies seem to gloss over the fact that DRMs impose, limit, and assume. DRMs target loyal customers and not those illegally downloading products. Then DRMs companies make a huge profit and claiming it a success.

Technology has a nasty habit of forgetting that at the end of the PC is an actual human being. Loyalty is a bit of a two way street, when you forget that, your customer base will be less loyal to your products. This is not a criticism about any particular DRM technology; each one is clever in its own respect. Unfortunately DRM companies just don’t understand piracy’s one simple trait!

Take the two current PC games that have yet to be cracked, both from Ubisoft, using the same implementation of UbiDRM (v2). Both with over 230 days of being crack free, you would think that Tom Clancy’s HAWX 2 and Shaun White Skateboarding Ubisoft have it figured out!

Has sales gone up? Probably a little!

Has the company’s reputation been damaged by the implementation of UbiDRM? Oh yes…

Is Ubisoft using the same implementation in any game since? Oh no…!

It shows that a DRM doesn’t increase profits and that publishers know it! But in a strange coincidence, upsetting customers affects your company image, profit, and loyalty.  Publishers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and something needs to change…!

Customers First, Piracy Second, and as always a DRM should come dead last!

But what do you think?

Is it right for a publisher to use DRMs on customers?

Do publishers have a right to protect their software?

Often the PC multiplayer is quoted as 100% safe, and that it cannot be pirated. This is normally followed by quoting some WOW stats on profitability, and then accusing developers for being stupid, for not jumping on the band wagon.

 

The problem with this type of genre, people tend to commit to only a few MMO’s (Massively Multiplayer Online). New MMO’s enter a very competitive market, so they entice with incentives, and the most common is to make it free for a period of time or completely. Because unfortunately people will not automatically jump at your product no matter how good it is.

 

But it is a common misconception that multiplayer games are pirate free. Most people believe because the publisher controls the server, any pirates trying to access the game will be quickly found and booted out.

 

But as I pointed out to one such person on twitter, “What happens if the pirates own the server? Pirates in effect become the DRM; with the power to allow access to anyone they wish!”

 

In fact you might be surprised to know that there are several websites that cater exactly to this. Virtual Private Networks, VPNs, sites which allow you to connect with others regardless of the illegitimate nature of the game.

 

For example two of the more popular VPN’s are: (Games Checked on 6th June 2011)

 

Tunngle

Currently hosting: Minecraft, Hunted: Demon’s Forge, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas 2, Killing Floor, Company of Heroes: Tales of Valor, Need for Speed: Most Wanted  … and many others.

 

planethamachi

Currently hosting: HomeFront, Portal 2, Red Alert 3, Command Conquer Generals Zero Hour, Dungeon Siege 2, RC Cars, PES, Street Fighter, FIFA 10, Operation Flash point: Red River, Gears of War … and many others.

 

 

So why do a select handful of legal MMO’s games do so well???…One word, cheaters, or more precisely, the stopping of!

 

People hate cheaters, not illegal downloaders, but people that cheat on games. Some avoid the public VPN threads because on unregulated servers, the other people could be cheating. It is surprisingly hard to tell sometimes, even for the servermaster, they actually have to see real footage to be sure!

 

Speaking with many game publishers, they all rate this as the highest feedback issue… Unfairness!

 

Many Game Developers tell of people who passionately scream about the unfairness of a person or even the game. That often game updates will tweak a unit’s armour by barely half a point and this will be met by praise.

 

MMO sit in a unique position, and are not the answer to piracy. On the one hand people see the value of a “God” making sure that the balance of good and evil is fair. But on the other hand people tend to stay with the brands that they know, which means that most new MMO’s will fall away quickly.

 

But …what do you think?

Do multiplayer games hold the answer to illegal downloading?

Or is it that we don’t want to be cheated? And will pay for the privilege?

What Multiplayer games do you play?

It’s been a while since I have written a new blog … and that’s a good thing. In the small break I reflected and realised a few things; one that previous blogs where too long. And two, droning on about the facts of piracy can be a little annoying.

But we are all gamers here; this is something to cherish and to constantly talk about. So the new revised WarFace Blog is to talk about the real important stuff, gaming and gamers. And occasionally Piracy…!

Please note there are spoilers for “The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings”, quest “with Flickering Heart”

So why do I love games?

Personally if I have had a bad day, just to jump straight into a game and think of nothing else helps real life worries melt away. I suppose you could get the same effect out of any activity, sport, cooking, watching tv, or something that you like.

The only problem is that I have been around for a long time, so the latest Shooter thrills me less and less. Not to say they aren’t good games and that you shouldn’t enjoy them.

But as you play more games the truly great ones come less frequently. One of the greats is the newly released “The Witcher 2: The Assassin of Kings.”

Apart from the many marvellous things about this game and perhaps the equal number of annoyances too. What really stood out in Witcher 2, for me, was the side quest “with Flickering Heart”. This reaffirmed that games can be just as thought provoking as novels or movies.

(Spoilers)

So when Witcher 2 came out I was truly excited to play it… But what do I love about the Flickering Hearts quest? I won’t go into too much detail, but you have to make a choice between a beautiful lady who is a monster? Or a normal looking man who is corrupted?

The quest revolves around murders of the village men, and these are your two suspects. Not only do you have to make a choice, and normally in video games its kill either A or B. In this case Witcher 2 is no different from many other games, but this time you never find out if you are right or wrong!

Such a well crafted sub-story within the main plot, and still I ponder with this single thought. “I am pretty sure that I got the right person…  But I will never know?”

I could have just play the sub-story again from the different angle, but this time it seemed wrong. One of the benefits of saved games is that you can play the scene over and over until you are happy with the outcome.

But in this case, I really liked the fact that you do not know, the mere thought that I might have got it wrong is a ground pushing notion in video games. Normally you have the good choice and the bad one, but to have a choice were you have to convince yourself it was the right one, that is a decision!

Like all stories the best ones are the ones that have you asking questions afterward; the ones that you are sure, but can’t say for certain!

And if you’re wondering, who did I side with? … A gentleman never reveals!

The question I am ending with is… what game provoked a thought with you?

I am not talking about walking the plank, or spending an eternity in Davy Jones’s locker, I am not even referring to seafaring pirates! But I am talking about digital piracy, illegal downloading, and one of the hottest topics on copy infringement today:

Will a Pirate pay for a game they have downloaded illegally?

The funny thing is that I think most are consigned to the fact that illegal downloaders will never pay! PC Publishers should accept it and that the losses are minuscule! So much that people have stopped asking questions, or worse, looking for some answers.

But how do you find out if illegal downloaders are willing to buy games? I mean we are talking about illegal downloaders here, so asking them has to be stupid? But this is the kind of thinking that is fundamentally wrong. Granted not everyone tells the truth, but for the most part, most people are law abiding citizens?

If you like a game you have downloaded, do you buy it?

This is the exact question one person posed on a private p2p tracking site! If you are a member you can go see the independent poll in their forums.

 

And the choices were: 

  1. All the time — I try to support good developers whenever I can.
  2. Yes, on occasion — But only if I found it to be amazing.
  3. Rarely — Only for multipler [Multiplayer] support or other extras that you can’t pirate.
  4. Never — I wouldn’t dare part with money for something I can get for free.
  5. I don’t play videogames because they’re childish and I’m better than you.

 

From past experience of the piracy network we have guesstimated that 10% of illegal downloads could be potential purchases. This isn’t produced from hard facts; however, from observation of illegal downloading habits, we believe it’s a fair assessment.

We were wrong…!

The poll suggests the figures are much higher!

 

Here you can see that 21% would purchase the game, and if it was popular, this figure would rise a further 43% (Total of 64%). The Poll then goes on to claim even higher figures when you account for multiplayer access, adding 22%, something that isn’t easily pirated. That’s a whopping 86% of illegal downloaders would buy; as long as it fulfilled the first 3 criteria.

This independent survey shows that most illegal downloaders, at least on this private tracker, will pay for games. More importantly only 10% refuse to pay no matter what. This private tracker also caters for other digital products, so the last option with 3% of the vote, is just an option for those that don’t play games.

If we used the torrentfreak’s top 5 most illegal downloaded games of 2010, the top spot game Call of Duty: Black Ops was illegally downloaded 4,270,000 times. And seeing as it was top of the illegal charts it must be a popular game, so if you say that 64% of the illegal market would have bought the game. This puts the reclaim at 2,732,800 units, giving a figure of € 122,948,672 ($163,940,672).

The PC version sold in Europe at €44.99 and $59.99 in America. What is most telling is that the PC version only sold roughly 685,000 units in the US alone; assuming that the PC market share was 5%. The estimated the PC sales would be € 30,818,150 ($41,093,150), which is barely a fraction of the estimated losses.

“Black Ops top selling game ever, 13.7m US units sold” 11th March 2011 (http://www.nextvideogames.net/black-ops-top-selling-game-ever-13-7m-us-units-sold/)

Then of course the flip side is that if these figures are true, and believable? Is piracy actually a problem in the first place? Or is it the mere rants of the publishing houses and their offense to the fact that people have access to their products for free.

It’s probably a little of both, while the majority of people would be willing to purchase games. If they can get it for free why bother paying for it? We are all a little guilty of good intentions and the occasional tap dance on the path to hell.

Of course the real answer to the ultimate piracy question isn’t that easy, and needs a lot more research. But still the fundamental underlining fact is that it supports the claim that illegal downloaders will pay for games.

But what do you think?

If people illegally download do you think they would pay for a game?

Or do you think that you’ll never get money out of them?

Do you download illegal and buy a legal license? Or just illegal download?

There are different classes of illegal downloaders and each group makes a part of the whole piracy market. In its simplest form the Piracy Pyramid looks like the picture below and the illegal population consists of Crackers, Uploaders and Downloaders. As the colour gradient suggest, the top of the pyramid represents a very small percentage, which is probably less than 5%, of the illegal population.

 

Imagine if the Cracking Groups one day decided not to share the crack with the illegal downloaders. Instantly 95% of the illegal population would have no choice but to either move on, or buy the game. That’s mind blowing!

And personally … one of the things that really annoyed me… Sometimes illegal downloaders are very ungrateful. Not all, but those small minority, the ones that normally have big voices, would spoil it for the rest of the population! As wrong as it is, they are getting things for free, and yet most of the time comment boxes are filled with complaints, rather than thanks!

So what is a Free Rider Pirate? This refers to an illegal downloader that downloads anything and everything, regardless of what it is. They enjoy downloading because they have enough HD space, bandwidth, and perhaps are internet pack rats. They are often described as people would never buy this material, and almost to the point that it becomes a self propagating justification.

WarFace has heard all the excuses, but in all honesty there are only a handful of original ones. Even though most of the excuses are debunked fairly quickly, the pure arrogance of piracy is the fundamental belief that it will happen. There is nothing publishers or game developers can do to stop it; pirates will always crack your software.

This isn’t completely true… but you have to be smart about it! As the Music and Movie industries have shown all too often; suing anyone and everyone regardless of proof, shows that you are dealing with big cold hearted companies that don’t care!

But in this blog I am looking at one of the excuses that I always knew was rubbish, the Free Rider. The excuse, which most illegal downloading is done by a small group of downloaders! There are no stats for this, but it helps when I say it like this; that 10% of the total copy infringers, the free riders, are illegally downloading 80% of the material on the internet.

What this in effect is saying, that one illegal download doesn’t equal one sale. Basically “Free Rider” pirates are downloading so much, and wouldn’t buy it anyway, that if you discounted this portion of the illegal scene; the piracy figures would be very small. Therefore the leftover illegal downloaders, who might perhaps buy the product, are such a small percentage that the losses to the company are supposedly minuscule!

Apart from the fact it’s supposed to be an excuse for the “Free Rider Pirates” that they would never buy it anyway. It also seems to be an excuse for the rest of the illegal downloaders who might have paid for it. However these excuses never have any proof, facts or figures, but ultimately it helps keep the piracy thought alive!

So how do you work out the difference between a free rider pirate and an illegal downloader? And of course what percentage of the piracy market do they own?

If there is such a group of illegal downloaders that just download anything and everything. Well call me silly but they should have a major presence on the P2P networks. Therefore the difference between a highly popular torrent and a lowly one should be the 20% of average illegal downloaders. Because they are the ones who only download in small amounts! Right?

The graph below tracks a number of illegal titles recorded throughout 2010. We have listed them in order of the number of illegal downloads per day, the lowest, Silent Hunter 5 (106) to the highest, Call of Duty: Black Ops (26,713).

 

But it clearly shows that as the popularity of games is higher, so are the number of times it’s downloaded. To be honest this is what you would expect, games that are popular are downloaded more times than unpopular ones.

However in the test results we have Call of Duty: Black Ops the block buster of 2010, both legal and illegal. This wildly upsets the results, in favour of the Pro-Publishers, putting the Free Rider population at 0.004% of the illegal downloader population. So let’s call that an anomaly and exclude the results for Call of Duty: Black Ops.

But still there is no evidence for the “Free Rider” pirates, as the table below shows. From the total results, by taking the first 5 and the last 5, then comparing the difference, it puts the Free Rider at around 2.6% of the population.

 

Then if you look at the first and last 10 results, 20 results, and finally first half by the second half; you can see there is no correlation to “Free Rider” pirates owning the majority of the illegal population. The most you can suggest is 14.4% could possibly be downloading lots of illegal material.

  

14.4% (12,620 downloaders per day)

85.6% (75,049 downloaders per day)

87,669 (Total downloaders per day)

Are there hoarding pirates out there? Of course! Do we all know one? Probably, it’s very likely! But this is no reason to claim its prevalent, and even less of a reason to use this as an excuse to justify all illegal downloading habits! 

I know what you are going to say next! That this is rubbish! free riders make up “80%” of any particular torrent not “80%” of the illegal downloading scene. So if we assume that 80% of a torrent is a waste, and we get no revenue from it, we can show an estimation of the losses.

If we take the lowest torrent, Silent Hunter 5, with roughly 106 illegal downloads a day. Assuming only 20% (21) of the illegal downloaders are going to buy Silent Hunter 5 every day, worldwide. The total losses over 6 months is € 135,376 for the lowest popular torrent in our test range.

 

The highest, Call of Duty: Black Ops, would have lost € 34,116,107 over 6 months. The 2nd highest being Medal of Honor and its loss was € 10,375,445 over 6 months. Of course Black Ops was a block buster anomaly of 2010. If you are wondering what the average 6 month loss is, if Black Ops was discounted, it comes out € 2,153,176.

Please feel free to download and view the data sheet containing all the results used in this experiment: http://www.warfaceaps.com/files/FreeRider-DataSheet.pdf

While you can argue these figures; what you really have to ask, is € 135,376 worth putting an anti-strategy plan in place? For example, it may seem like a small amount for a PC game, and €34 million seems like an awful lot. But from a previous WarFace blog we calculated the legitimate sales of Call of Duty: Black Ops using the quanties reported from this feed http://gamrfeed.vgchartz.com/story/82685/call-of-duty-black-ops-sells-7-million-copies-on-day-one/.

We calculated that Black Ops sold roughly 210,000 copies on the PC, taking 3% of the sales market share. The PC versions was sold at a cheaper price of € 44.99, the consoles price was € 54.99, and the first day sales was € 9,447,900 million for the PC. Plus you have to remember the above piracy loss € 34 million is also based on the lower € 34.99 game. Every statistical result is in favour of piracy being a problem and having a profoundly negative effect on business!

This clearly shows that 20% of the illegal downloading population makes a significant difference. Of course it depends on the popularity of the game in the first place, but the piracy losses could be far greater. The average income lost per title for the 6 month shelf life of a game has been calculated at around € 2 million.

Call of Duty: Black Ops sold roughly 375 million Euros on the first day across all platforms.  But the likes of Ubisoft Silent Hunter 5’s loss of € 135,376 could be perceived as nothing. But it isn’t, in these trying times Publishers will be cutting back on expenses, and one of the main ones is Game Developer costs!

If you have to ask how far you could stretch € 135,376, then you’re not a small software development team in the tough world of gaming media! Struggling week by week, hoping your publisher will reward your talented work and that gamers will recognise your games.

On 11th of February 2011, Crysis 2 was illegally leaked; the official release would be a month later on the 22nd March 2011. But what really is interesting, that the first game Crysis was a PC release only. But they soon realised after the amount of Piracy, releasing a PC exclusive title was unsound as a business plan! If I was Crytek, I would flat out refuse to release Crysis 3 on the PC at all!

What does this say for the PC industry as a whole? Does it make sense to release PC games at all? Sure people by PC games, but when Call of Duty: Black Ops makes € 227,108,700 on the Xbox and € 138,574,800 on the PS3. You have to wonder from a business point of view why go to the expense of releasing on the PC at all? Now ask yourself do you honestly believe that piracy isn’t killing the PC industry?

What are your opinions on PC gaming Piracy? Do you think there is a small group of people illegally downloading the whole illegal market? And if you think there is, how many people do you know who download at such an extremely high rate?

Of course I am not going to tell you how to do it exactly. For a number of reasons, the first and foremost is that I don’t know how Ubisoft DRM works. Just like the crackers of the DRM software, you make good guesses, explore the program and try to work around what you have. It’s about repeating these long, arduous and mundane steps until the games DRM is cracked. From the point of view of the scene, I can respect the challenge!

Ubisoft doesn’t have just one DRM system; it in fact released several different versions of the UbiDRM, testing the waters as to what works best. Some games like Prince of Persia and Splinter Cell Conviction used a less sophisticated method of the DRM. But the newer UbiDRM, being used now, uses an incremental release of the play files.

Clever!

This means if the games DRM is bypassed, a cracker has to double check the whole file, otherwise it could look bad on their part. Of course this means that when Ubisoft were boasting it hadn’t been cracked, and the crackers where saying here you are, they where both right. But it was wrong of Ubisoft to say anything in the first place, then to say nothing afterwards. However at the moment the DRM is proving its ground. And good luck to it!

Not that it ever was a weak DRM in the first place. Much to the surprise of many people, the first round of UbiDRM was not cracked straight away. Even though it was widely reported as being done in 24 hours, it was not completely true, but what happened is a story in itself.

Personally I don’t agree with the UbiDRM! There is no denying that this is a very clever system, but it breaks one of the most fundamental rules of the ten DRM commandments.

I. You shall not have any DRM before me! (One DRM protection method per Game is enough!)
II. You shall not make for yourself any likeness of the Game or DRM! To those that crack games or illegally distribute you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.
III. You shall not take the customer’s name your god in vain, for the customer will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain!
IV. Remember the Game, to keep it holy. For days the customer shall labor, but the weekend is for serious gaming.
V. Honour thy Game Publisher and Developer, that your gaming may be long upon the land which they have provided for you.
VI. You shall not corrupt the gamers rig.
VII. You shall not cheat on the gamer.
VIII. You shall not steal the gamer’s personal information.
IX. You shall not bear false witness against thy gamers rig.
X. You shall not covert thy neighbour’s DRM, Rig, Gaming Experience, nor anything that is your neighbour’s!

Yes, UbiDRM breaks the third DRM commandment:

It takes the customer for granted. Well honestly it breaks more than one, but the third commandment is such an important one. To say we are constantly watching you! Is saying that you don’t trust the honest customers, no matter what benefits you dress it up with, Ubisoft is branding all as the one. And that’s insulting, and of course this is the territory of the double edge sword.

You want to target the illegal downloaders and convert them into happy customers. You don’t want to target everyone, force them to the doors of the credit card company and force them to pay!

I pre-ordered Assassins Creed 2, then some months later when more details came out. I found out that it would come with this uPlay/UbiDRM system; at that time I don’t think it had a name. So my internet connection being weak and intermittent I just knew that it would never work out. I sent out a complaint to Ubisoft and they never even bother to reply.

Instead they hired some third party PR company to solve all their complaints. The Third Party PR Company were fantastic and did everything Ubisoft has failed to do, respect the customer. I cancelled my pre-ordered copy and they sent me out a free game. It was King Kong 2005, the one with StarForce protection system. The thought was nice, but I don’t attribute this goodwill gesture with Ubisoft. Sometimes I get the impression they can’t even be bother or even worst they don’t care!

Anyhow!

It’s interesting to know how UbiDRM or the always online DRMs differ from the past protection methods such as SecuROM. These newer DRM, in comparison are a whole different ball game when it comes to breaking the DRM. In the old days, with SecuROM, you’d come to some code that performed a security check, which basically look like this:

[–GAME CODE–]
Perform Security Check!
If it FAILS{ Stop the Program from Working EXIT}
If it PASSES { Continue playing Game }
[–GAME CODE–]

With a very liberal brush, I am tarring all the old DRMs as employing this simple method. It’s not true, but the point is that problem is that once the game kicks you out, this gives away a tell-tale sign. This tells me some security protection happened at this point. So with a debugger, a common programming tool, a lot of time, you can rewrite the main exe file to skip the security check. So it now looks like this:

[–GAME CODE–]
Skip 3 lines down!
Perform Security Check!
If it FAILS{ Stop the Program from Working EXIT}
If it PASSES { Continue playing Game }
[–GAME CODE–]

Of course I really have underestimated the brilliance of what crackers do and the brilliance of the security companies too. Most of the newer DRM version don’t do these simple security checks any more, but still use this exception rule of kicking you out of the game. That is enough to give crackers a starting point, and all they need.

As my old college professor used to say “let hack to learn, not learn to hack!”

Currently there are a number of implementations that make up the UbiDRM. The one here is specifically for the PC game Tom Clancy’s H.a.w.x. 2 released on the 16th November 2010. What Ubisoft has decided to do, and quiet rightly, is to use a whole host of security methods. Because time is the enemy of the gamer, and there is a limit to the amount of time an illegal downloader is willing to wait.

The things that UbiDRM uses is the handshake, UDP connection, Cookie, Server Checks, Ubi Launcher, partial files and maybe some other methods. And of course I want to make it perfectly clear; I haven’t discovered or explored any of these.

The first thing you have to realise is that human speech isn’t like computer speech. Computers need order and timing; otherwise it would get into a big mess. As for human speech, it is a big mess, but we normally use visual clues as to when we can talk back. Computers use a handshake, and at its most basic level it’s a greeting from one computer and an acknowledgement from another. In this handshake, the computers agree on the message size, frequency and a whole other list of protocol issues. But in its simplest terms, if you think of two radio stations, you can think of it as agreeing to say “over” at the end of the conversation.

UDP, now this is surprising as all other UbiDRM games used the TCP method of transmission. Basically Transmission Control Protocol is message system that uses the handshake method, it is very controlled and every message sent is sure to be received and acknowledged. While UDP, User Datagram Protocol, doesn’t use a handshake method. It’s more fire and forget, if the message gets there then so be it.

Ubisoft must have its own internal handshake sent on an unreliable transmission system. Or that the game files don’t regard the transmissions as important, which means there must be a leeway in the time between communications. But as it turns out, blocking the UDP ports still allows the game to function, so they can’t play a huge role in the protection system.

There is also a theory going around that UbiDRM uses http cookies, of sorts, that it creates text files that the server can then analyse. Cookies, basically a bite size chuck of information stored for your web browser. They are not code and cannot be run, but contain instructions that can be used by something else. This is why you are warned so often about cookies, as they can be to store information on your computer and you.

Server check makes the majority of the security protection system here. If Ubisoft can constantly make changes to the DRM from the server side, this is good as they have total control. But its bad, if Big Brother is going to watch the honest gamers who have purchase the games. They might as well take it one step further and setup all games in Ubisoft HQ and play under their watchful eyes. This further punishes the honest gamers, but at the moment the H.a.w.x. 2 still doesn’t have a crack. But the real test will be Assassins Creed Brotherhood due out next year.

The Ubi Launcher is a security system in itself, not only does employ some of the tactics, such as communication with the server, it also has a CD check. Currently, this isn’t a problem as the cracker groups have release a work around for this. A very good start, but means nothing at the moment. As you are able to bypass the security check to gain access to the main menu, just not play the singleplayer game, however you can play the LAN.

The partial file is also a good system to use, as it means that someone has to play the whole game, and upload it for someone else to work on. Because rarely are the two the same people, this means more time is needed before the game is cracked for the general populous. Black ops sold 7 million copies in the first 24 hours, this means you only have to protect a new game for a short while to get the majority of sales.

Of course in the pirate world this isn’t completely true. For starters I believe that illegal downloaders are so use to having a crack, they are prepared to wait for the one stubborn game. But after 1-2 weeks that patience wanes significantly, but of course it depends on the game. If Black Ops was protected for the length as H.a.w.x. 2 is, I believe that the sales number would be very significant.

Tom Clancy’s H.a.w.x. 2 was released on the 16th November 2010, and it is now crack free for 34 days (20/12/2010) and still counting.

Unfortunately the waiting game is also a double edge sword as new titles are constantly being released. If one game proves to be very secure, but not in high demand, people just move on. But if publishers don’t protect their games, they lose money, if they do and it takes too long people move on, there just seems to be no winning for the publishers at all. A protection company would need a constant series of wins, before becoming a threat.

Even though Ubisoft uPlay system is very customer unfriendly, it seems to be doing the trick. There seems to be only two ways to crack the UbiDRM, either by pretending to be the server (emulation) or through removing the DRM from the game exe file. Both are difficult tasks.

The first round of UbiDRM was removed through a cracking process and the sever side emulation, through a program called dormine. Skidrow have created the crack and released it, but to the jeers of the other groups, who believe that they have stolen code. Technically it’s not it not completely true, did they take the dormine code, yes. But in the rules, yes cracking groups do have unspoken ones, there has never been any mention of not being able to borrow code. And as it stands the dormine program will only get you to second base with UbiDRM. It only solves the handshake, TCP, and encryption, i.e. once you have the message you still have to know the correct responses. Skidrow did a commendable job in figuring out the rest and for the first Ubisoft games, all their bases where belonging to Skidrow.

The second method is just a pure crack, this doesn’t require an emulation of the server because it will strip out the protection code completely. However this is a difficult task, because you have to manually search for the parts figure what it is doing, try to remove it, and make sure that you haven’t missed anything. Finally it’s extremely difficult if Ubisoft are withholding parts of the game files. Because now its not about removing the security protection, is about rewriting the missing parts.

Imagine, I could tell you the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but could you write a page or even a paragraph, exactly from memory. How hard would that be? We know Ubisoft is on to a winner with this security protection system. But as for creating a revenue source from their DRM, they have a long way to go.

As for Tom Clancy’s H.a.w.x. 2, this is unfortunately a game with an average want value. Most people are willing to wait for this game to be cracked, because it’s not high on their Christmas list. Now next year Ubisoft will be releasing Assassins Creed brotherhood, a highly anticipated game. It will be on everyone’s want list. This is the real litmus test, and I fear why Ubisoft should have released this DRM with that game. As this has given the crackers time to explore this method, and depending on the circumstances, could hinder the UbiDRM protecting Assassins Creed Brotherhood.

But for the many illegal downloaders looking to get their hands on H.a.w.x. 2 it’s a case of singing “All I want for Christmas!” And it’ll probably happen too!