Piracy remains one of the biggest issues facing PC gaming these days.
Last week, "Fallout 3"product manager Pete Hines told me that some development studios now calculate that up to half of their customer support calls involve dealing with people who have pirated copies of the game.
Hines discussed the problem of piracy with MTV Multiplayer just days before, ironically, the Xbox 360 version of "Fallout 3" leaked. Piracy is still far more prevalent on the PC side, which has serious implications for studios like Bethesda Softworks, whose development bread-and-butter has been PCs.
"It is probably the most...[long pause]...probably the most difficult issue specifically facing PC gaming right now," said somberly-toned "Fallout 3"product manager Pete Hines to me after playing four hours of his new game a few weeks ago. "How are we gonna walk that line?"
With this kind of concern at Bethesda, you'd never guess what kind of copy-protection they're putting on "Fallout 3"...
Since our talk, circumstances have changed. "Fallout 3" has leaked. But the problems remain the same. The biggest obstacle, explained Hines, is figuring out who actually is a pirate.
There will be no "Spore"-like digital rights management (DRM) in "Fallout 3." There wasn't in "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion" and Bethesda has seen no reason to make sweeping changes to their approach with "Fallout 3."
"The amount of money we spend supporting people who didn't pay us for the game in the first place…it's f--ing ludicrous"
"It's pretty mild," said Hines of the DRM. "Much like 'Oblivion,' we want there to be some level of protection there so people aren't just randomly pirating games and passing it around, but we're very sensitive to the end-user experience, particularly for the person who has bought a legitimate copy and not doing something that is too intrusive, invasive. You bought your game, you put it in your PC, you start playing it."
Hines is sympathetic to the complaints of legitimate gamers. That's why there isn't anything particularly intrusive in Bethesda's PC products.
"You know, I saw the Penny Arcade guys did a number of guest editorials from guys like [Kotaku's Brian] Crecente and [Gamasutra's] Chris Remo," said Hines. "It's not easy. Being a consumer, I totally see it from the consumer side. You know, get out of my way and let me play the game, right? I paid you money for this, I deserve to play the game with no barriers to entry and no frustrations."
Attempting to treat their players as legitimate consumers as widely as possible has its drawbacks, however. It becomes difficult for Bethesda to determine who is and isn't someone who paid for their game. This becomes especially distressing for the studio's customer support division.
"The amount of times we see stuff coming through where it's like, the resolution to the problem was [the] guy had a pirated copy of the game…" said a visibly frustrated Hines. "The amount of money we spend supporting people who didn't pay us for the game in the first place…it's f--ing ludicrous. We talk to other developers, guys who are [like] 'Yeah, it's a third, it's 50% of our [customer] support.'"
But there's a careful line for all parties. If someone calls in for support and seems to be experiencing a problem isolated to an illegitimate copy of the game, it's not in Bethesda's best interest to take a gamble and call them out.
"The worst possible thing you can do...is put them in a position where you're making them feeling like they better prove they have a legitimate copy"
"The worst possible thing you can do when someone calls and they're having a problem with the game is put them in a position where you're making them feeling like they better prove they have a legitimate copy," said Hines. "Really bad response."
That doesn't mean they won't call someone out, thought.
"You have to try and resolve their problem," he explained. "If, in the course of doing that, you can determine that there's something else going on there, then clearly you could call a spade a spade. But…you gotta be really sure before you imply that because people, rightfully so, get really pissed."
Readers, can you see both sides to this complicated issue? As gamers yourselves, what recommendations do you have for Bethesda's next game?