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Games Prove a Hassle for Web Pirates

May 17, 2003|Alex Pham and Jon Healey | Times Staff Writers

Video game publishers say piracy costs them billions of dollars in lost sales every year, but the industry is unlikely to suffer the widespread online theft that record labels blame for decimating CD sales.

Game and console makers go to extreme lengths to ensure that their wares are tough to crack. Bootleg copies of popular games can be found on file-sharing networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus. But online "piracy is much lower for games than it is for music," said P.J. McNealy, an analyst with market research firm GartnerG2. "Orders of magnitude lower."

For starters, illegally copying a song is much easier and faster than pirating a video game. Even over a high-speed Internet connection, downloading a game can take hours. A compressed song can take less than a minute. And because games are purely digital, even a minor hiccup in the download can corrupt a file and render it unusable.

"When the download time is more than an hour, people have very low tolerance for errors," said Nathan Solomon, director of business development for retailer Electronics Boutique, which experimented with selling downloadable games. "They figure they can spend that hour going to the mall and buying the game."

A 32-year-old Kazaa user from Santa Monica who asked that his name not be used agreed that downloading pirated games can be a hassle.

"Usually, the files are broken up and compressed, so you have to decompress and stitch them together," the user, a database engineer, said. "Sometimes, there's missing data."

Even when downloading works, getting to the point where you actually can play the game can require several more steps.

Console games, in particular, contain physical features that make them hard to replicate. Games for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox, for example, reside on special two-layer discs, with security features embedded in the second layer.

"A normal DVD burner can't copy two layers," said Andrew Huang, a computer engineer and author of the upcoming book "Hacking the Xbox."

Games for Nintendo Co.'s GameCube are produced on miniature disks that only Nintendo makes. As a result, there are no pirated GameCube titles.

Console makers also build security features into their devices. Most consoles automatically check every disk for a hidden signature. Bypassing this check requires installing a device, widely sold online for $35 to $60, that tricks the console into skipping this step.

The Xbox takes it further -- the console is programmed to evaluate itself for signs of physical tampering. Consoles that have been modified are barred from hooking up to the Internet.

With the exception of GameCube discs, hackers have found ways around nearly all video game anti-piracy measures. But each work-around requires the inconvenience of a lot of effort.

"It's just a more evolved game of cat and mouse, one that's not as easy for the average consumer to play," said Andrew Frank, an independent security consultant in New York.

By contrast, CD players aren't designed to prevent piracy.

The roots of the music industry's piracy problems go back to the early 1980s, when Sony Corp. and Philips Electronics unveiled the compact disc. Their format, which became the industry standard, didn't include limits on digital copying. That decision was unremarkable at the time, because the Internet still was in its infancy, personal computers had limited processing power, and CD recorders were extraordinarily expensive.

Since then, consumers have bought hundreds of millions of CD players designed to play discs with no copy protection. And the players typically can't be updated to support new formats. As a result, if the record industry wants to introduce new, protected discs, it has to make sure they will work on existing players -- a trade-off that limits how stringent the anti-piracy features can be.

In addition, music fans in the U.S. have come to expect that they can copy music onto their computers, portable players and blank CDs. So the major record companies are looking for a new type of disc that stops illegal file sharing but allows buyers to make a few digital copies of songs for personal use, adding to the technological challenge for companies trying to develop the next generation of CD.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Breaking the rules

It's far quicker and easier to bootleg music files than it is to steal game files.

*--* Music Movies Games Estimated annual loss worldwide, discs or cartridges $4.2 billion $3.5 billion $3 billion Estimated number of unauthorized downloads per month worldwide 2.6 billion 16 million NA Average file size 5 MB 600 MB 650 MB Download time per file, 1 hour, 1 hour, using high-speed T1 line 39 seconds 18 minutes 24 minutes

*--*

NA: Not available

Sources: RIAA, MPAA, IDSA

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