The 10th Art

In late July here in the UK the games industry won what it has called a â┚¬Å”major victoryâ┚¬Â in the fight against piracy, with a legal precedent being set in British courts. The High Court in London successfully prosecuted a Mr David Ball regarding a case brought by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. He was a major supplier of PlayStation 2 mod chips – selling some 1,500 of the Messiah 2 mod chip devices to customers in the UK. High Court judge Mr Justice Laddie (believe it or not that is his real name!) ruled that the sale of the devices was unlawful and went on to state that using, promoting or possessing chips for commercial purposes are all also illegal. His decision was made under the UK’s implementation of the European Union Copyright Directive, which came into force last October, and represents the firmest legal guidelines yet over the legality of console mod chips.

A victory against piracy? At first glance yes, but letâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s look at the subject a little deeper. Now, Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m not for one moment suggesting that piracy is either moral or justifiable. Developers work damn hard to get games onto our shelves and no-one should have the right to play these titles for free. But the issue of software piracy is not as directly linked to modding as you may have thought. I donâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t know how big the mod scene is over there in the States, but here in Europe it has a very large, if somewhat underground following. The argument I want to put forward is that the prevalence of piracy in Europe is not to blame for this modding culture â┚¬” instead, I blame the corporate strategies of the games publishers.

Let me think of an example (and with so many to choose from it shouldnâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t take me long). Ah yes, Nintendo. Good old Ninty. I love Nintendo like a newborn child, let that be known, and Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m not suggesting that they are the only culprits. But at the same time they can be an extremely infuriating company if youâ┚¬â”žÂ¢re a European gamer. Letâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s take an example â┚¬” how about Animal Crossing on the Gamecube, a tremendous game. In fact, in my humble opinion I think itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s the best game on the system. Thatâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s right â┚¬” better than Metroid Prime, The Wind Waker, even the mighty Ikaruga. Over there in the US youâ┚¬â”žÂ¢ve been enjoying that game for how long? A couple of years, I believe. Well, itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s finally due to come out here in the UK on September 24th. Can you believe that? For the record, Mario Vs Donkey Kong and R Type III on the GBA still donâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t have European release dates (though in the case of the latter, seeing as itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s such a shocking conversion I wonâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t lose too much sleep over it). Frankly, there are no justifiable excuses for this delay. None whatsoever. Nintendo can quote regionalisation issues until theyâ┚¬â”žÂ¢re blue in the face. Thereâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s even been a PAL version of Animal Crossing available in Australia for a good 6 months yet still Nintendo havenâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t seen fit to release the title over here and would still label anyone that chose to import it a pirate.

Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢ve been playing Animal Crossing for well over a year now thanks to a handy piece of software called the Freeloader by Datel. You guys may know of it. Basically, itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s a perfectly legal piece of software that overwrites the region lockouts programmed into the Gamecube, allowing you to play games from anywhere in the world on a PAL machine. All you have to do is boot up the Freeloader and when prompted insert your game of choice, and bingo! Youâ┚¬â”žÂ¢re in business. The same method has been used with the Dreamcast for years. Nonetheless, Nintendo hate this practise. Theyâ┚¬â”žÂ¢ll tell you itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s illegal, but it isnâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t. Personally, I donâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t understand their problem with it. After all, whatâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s the difference between me ordering Animal Crossing over the internet and Johnny foreigner buying the very same game from a shop in a US highstreet? Nintendo still get their money, the consumer still gets their product.

So what is all the fuss about? The reason this is frowned upon by the big boys is that it mucks up their strategy of artificially dividing up the world into incompatible regions. The same practise is seen in the DVD market. They do this because it allows them to inflate prices in certain territories where they feel the consumer is able to pay more. So in other worlds, letâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s say a factory in China knocks out 100,000 copies of Animal Crossing at $15 a piece. That very same game can be sold for $30 in one region, $40 in another and as much as $70 in some. Itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s the same product, made at the same cost, but knocked out at varying expense to the consumer. Does this not sound a tad shady to you? Itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s maybe no surprise then that in both Australia and Italy courts have ruled in favour of devices that break region lockouts, saying that they are legitimate because they bypass the anti-competitive nature of these practices and restore full rights to consumers. After all, should the consumer not be able to do whatever they choose with the console they paid ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£130 for?

So what has this got to do with modding? Well, taking the examples of the Gamecube, Dreamcast and original Playstation, whilst modding is possible itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s not strictly necessary. This is because these systems are top loading. All a region free device has to do is fool the region lockout sub routine and bypass the code that automatically resets the console when the lid is opened. That way, the tray can easily be opened at any time and the foreign disc inserted. However, with more modern systems like the PS2 and Xbox itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s not possible to access the disc tray without resetting the machine, at least not without severe physical modification. This is why any PS2 or Xbox owners wishing to play games from other countries must have an illegal mod chip installed in their machine (or else pay out for a whole new system from another region at vast expense). It just so happens however that every mod chip on the market also allows users to play copied games.

See where Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m going with this? Remove region lockouts and you remove the necessity to mod, and therefore you drastically reduce the number of players with the ability to run pirated software. Itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s a fact that a high number of gamers that chip their machines in the UK do so simply for the ability to play imported software, and with the UKâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s delayed release schedule can you honestly blame them? However, once a gamer has a machine modded to play import titles, the temptation to start running pirated software soon follows.

Lawsuits, prosecutions and stern press releases are never going to combat piracy effectively. Removing region lockouts, however, will go a large way to beating the problem. It doesnâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t stop there though â┚¬” thereâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s plenty more that can be done by the software companies. First of all, sort out the release schedules. If games had worldwide releases then again there would be one less reason for gamers to mod. Yes, worldwide releases cost money to organise, but if Atari can spend ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£40 million developing the pile of excrement that was Enter The Matrix, Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m sure they can find the money to address this issue. After all, if piracy is hurting them as much as they claim then the expense would be justified, no? Speaking of expense, with games shifting at $50 a go in the US and up to ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£40 a go in the UK (around $65) is it any wonder that some people turn to piracy? Again, Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m not justifying piracy. I love gaming and I want the industry to be healthy. I just think that routes other than the constant prosecution of pirates will be more effective. After all, you can arrest all the drug dealers you want but there will always be more waiting to take their place.

Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m not suggesting that these steps will eradicate piracy. The UK release date of Doom 3 for instance was only 3 days behind the US release but still itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s estimated that over 50,000 copies were illegally downloaded in this time and many more have been downloaded since release. Put in a situation where people can choose between a legal piece of software at ÃÆ'”šÃ‚£40 and an illegal version for nothing thereâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s always going to be some who choose the latter. I doubt, unfortunately, this will ever change. However, if the demand for pirated software was reduced by implementing the measures Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢ve suggested then, with fewer people interested, itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s logical to assume that the number of active pirates would at least decline. Handheld systems have been always been region free, and Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m hoping that the DS and PSP will continue this trend. Still, what are the chances of the PS3 and Xbox 2 following suit? Personally, I hope so. Not just for me, but also for the industry that I love.

As always, I welcome comments. Till next timeâ┚¬Â¦