Somewhere along the way, we took a left turn and ended up in the bad part of town. Here, there is no code of honor. Everyone is in it for him or herself and the only currency is the credibility earned from quickly and thoroughly stealing from someone else. It used to be localized, though. The rough neighborhoods of bulletin board systems grew into the very first warez sites before the wave grew so large that even in the suburbs of cute cat photos and lyrics repositories became bastions for the beckoning toward free stolen goods.

In the old days, before everyone had every bit of available information at their fingertips, it was easy. Include a printed manual in the box, ask for a specific word from a certain page and move on. No password? No access. It was the equivalent of an open window or an unlocked door. Everyone understood that you shouldn’t just walk or climb in, but if you really wanted to, it wasn’t that hard. With the advent of the Internet age, though, we needed to start locking our doors. We installed that second deadbolt of rudimentary DRM, but those persistent enough just found a lockpick or battering ram.

So, we went on, just like that famous scene from The Untouchables. Developers brought a knife. Hackers brought a gun. That was about 10 years ago. To carry this metaphor to its conclusion, I’m pretty sure there is a war being waged between lab-grown mutated Manbearpigs and enormous mechs that would make the most diehard FASA fans explode in an alpha strike level nerdgasm. The end result? A scorched earth scenario that leaves innocents huddled underground hoping not to be turned into mutant food or crushed under the weight of a giant walking tank.

Somewhere along the way, the focus shifted just a little bit too far toward militarization to defend multi-million dollar software projects. It’s not that publishers shouldn’t be working to defuse piracy. They absolutely have the right to defend themselves against theft. Unfortunately, it seems like the consumer, the person who walks into a store, puts down his/her hard-earned money and comes home with a legitimate, legal copy of the product is the one that suffers. The first time that anyone needed to go online and download a pirated copy of a game that was already fairly purchased, the bell should have been rung at the offices of publishers around the globe. Someone should have stood up on a desk and shouted, “Something is wrong. We need to rethink this.”

I think that the community of paying customers; those that have never searched for an illegal copy (or have left those ways behind) are pretty much in agreement. They don’t like being treated like criminals. They want to be able to play their legally-purchased games on a train or airplane or even at home when their ISP is having technical issues. That’s why, I believe that there is a right way and a wrong way for publishers to protect themselves, with Starbreeze the most recent developer to take a more passive, amiable approach to the matter.

Recently, a user discovered a pirate-style .nfo file on the Syndicate PC disk. It’s a cute and clever way to remind people that a great deal of time and money went into making the game. However, that message alone isn’t going to stop someone from cracking and posting an illegal version for the unscrupulous masses to download. The file goes a bit further, asking for hackers to submit their resumes to Starbreeze for possible employment. Even if this doesn’t stop pirated copies from appearing online, it is a far different approach than penalizing your paying consumer base. If even one hacker stops, thinks and applies, Starbreeze is onto something.

To give them all the credit for this approach, though, ignores a history of both olive branches to the pirating community and other creative DRM that doesn’t adversely impact the experience for those with legitimate copies.

Last year, Blizzard listed a position (reported on IncGamers’ Diablo channel) that was clearly designed to attract “L337 Hackers” with the intent of further securing Battle.net. As malcontents continue to attempt to perforate the online gaming platform, the House of Warcraft decided to fight fire with fire.

During a TED presentation in July 2011, journalist Misha Glenny made an impassioned, amusing plea for an intelligent approach to hacking. The presentation started with Anonymous’s message to FOX News in advance of hacking the news outlet’s Twitter account. Included in the talk? A mention of the Playstation Network hacking, of course. Ultimately, Glenny believes that putting the skills of these individuals to good use is part of the solution to balance the need for security with the desire for freedom (or, in the case of DRM, the basic ability to play the game you just dropped $50 on). His approach is a bit controversial, but he also makes the point that no one is making the effort to actually engage hackers in a conversation. In the 18 minutes I spent watching the video, I learned more about the psychology of this subculture than I have in years of reading countless “hacking bad! DRM good!” and “hacking bad! DRM bad!” news stories and opinion pieces.

Ultimately, I think we can all agree that what publishers are doing with DRM isn’t working. The protection is often stripped away in a very short amount of time, leaving the only victims as those paying customers who just want to shoot, stab, drive and platform without having to fight through a wall of “protection” and “safety” to get to the main menu. The dialog needs to change.

Right now, there are only two sides: the perspective of the publisher and developer and that of the hacker and pirate. The conversation of the ongoing “war on piracy” needs to have equal representation that reflects the interests of the paying consumer. Never should we have to discuss a situation in which paying customers are unable to play their games for an extended period of time because of server downtime. It’s a slap in the face to everyone who ran out and supported a publisher with a sale. To force consumers to suffer this without even the hint of being contrite or offer of recompense is unacceptable and, more importantly, undermines the message of, “buying our game is the right thing to do.” It might be the legal approach, but I would wager that there are paying customers that don’t feel “right” about not having access to products they paid for.

Until consumers are heard and respected by publishers, piracy will remain a symptom of a larger problem. The disenfranchisement of paying customers doesn’t breed good will, foster a sense of loyalty or enhance the building of a community. It drives people in the very direction that publishers do not want them to go. We’re all living in that rough neighborhood right now. It’s only going to get cleaned up if we work together.

[Source: IncGamers, TED, The Cutting Room Floor]