Mobile Game Piracy: Lessons for the Industry


Okay, so I debated writing this for a bit, but decided that writing a little expose on the problem of illegal copies of games on mobile phones was needed. But there's definitely a fine line between talking about specifics and outright advocacy. I'm eager to show some of this stuff off because I'm just amazed it's possible. But I don't want to encourage this sort of thing because it's bad for the industry as a whole and just wrong. It's a real problem though, and I don't think most people are aware the extent to which pirated software is playing a part in the burgeoning mobile applications industry.

I've written about mobile piracy before. It's my thought that mobile applications are too small to adequately protect against copying and the only real future for mobile applications is in online services. I've seen a tutorial by a cracker where they have gone into 64k programs (or even a little larger) with a byte reader, followed the progress of an app, and surgically removed any protections on the byte level. There are people dedicated to doing this and I personally don't see how they can be stopped technically or legally. The DMCA does not extend to Russia, but the Internet does.

The way things are going now, I really think the mobile industry is on a collision course with this reality because they don't seem to be doing much about it. As the mobile phones become "smarter" with more power, memory and storage - it's becoming a pirate's playground with every version of commercial software available online in cracked format and widespread copying. And it's been mostly the little guys who've been hurt, but you'll soon see that even Nokia isn't immune to the problem.

It struck me this morning how bad it is as I loaded up yet another cracked version of a game "just to see." (which I put in quotes because I realize how bad it sounds, but its true). Mobile games can be considered the most mature of the mobile app business right now, which is why it's getting hit the hardest I think, but I'm going to use it as an example for the industry as a whole.

Let's look at the various ways I've played with illegally copied games on my mobile phone:

Java Games: Java Games are the most ridiculous of the lot to copy and use because they are distributed in .jar files which have no copy protection whatsoever. And because of their sandbox and lack of any support for digital signatures, MIDP 1.0 games really can't be protected. (MIDP 2.0 supposedly addresses this problem). Here's a pic of my Nokia 6600 playing Siberian Strike, which I purchased almost a year ago on my Nokia 7650. I've simply copied over the .jar file and it worked perfectly. When I see IDC reports of Mobile Java games selling in the billions in a few years, I always wonder if they've taken into account the ease with which these games can be copied.

Gameboy ROMs: My favorite app on the Nokia's Series 60 phones is the GoBoy emulator. Its current form is as a shareware app where you need to pay to listen to the sound for more than a few seconds. But the app is just the enabler, it's actually the ROM files which are my favorite part. ROMs are copies of the original game made from the cartridge and saved as files. All Gameboy ROMs are illegal. I've found the original Tetris DX color online and have it on all my phones and if I wanted to, a quick search using Kazaa or Shareza would easily bring up hundreds more of these ROMs. All high quality games created by commercial vendors, all available online for the taking. The newer GBA games aren't supported, unlike the special hardware and memory cards you have to buy to play those ROMs on your Gameboy Advance, all it takes to play these GBC ROMs on your Series 60 is this emulator.

MAME ROMs: This is the most recent addition to the Series 60 Illegal Gaming world, launched just last week. It a port of the original MAME gaming emulator for the PC and it works surprisingly well, if it a little slow. Unlike the GoBoy emulator, most people probably won't be using this app (for now) because it's a little kludgy to use, but the fact is that it exists. But it's useless without the games - which range from the original Pac Man to Dig Dug - and all those ROMs are illegal as well. One would think that those in the mobile technology world would want to downplay this sort of thing since it's such a bad example, but not so. Nokia actively encourages its N-Gage users to go try MAME and its illegal ROMs. It's that whole "retro gaming" trend which people seem to think is fine, but the honest facts are that retro gaming == illegal gaming. Regardless, I'm sure the guys at Nokia were tickled pink to see the MAME has been ported to the Series 60 as it means more games for their hardware platform.

Ahhh, but the sword cuts both ways.

N-Gage Cracked Games: This is my latest discovery. I had sorta thought it was a rumor that the N-Gage games had been cracked, but it's not a rumor at all. As you can see from the pictures here,here and here TombRaider works without a hitch on my new 6600 and obviously it'll work fine on the N-Gage itself as well. For the price of a decent sized MMC, suddenly you can fill it up with commercial, high-quality games that normally cost $35 apiece in the stores. Obviously Nokia's efforts to clamp down on this thing aren't working because I didn't get the app from illicit ROM site to find it, but just via your normal P2P means. It's ridiculous, actually, some Symbian developer has gone to the trouble of making a cracked game launcher and everything.

So here I am. Happy as a camper to have all these games available and easy to get. I'm going to like being able to play TombRaider (which I own - along with several other games on my N-Gage) on my 6600 which I carry around with me, and I like the geek factor that MAME has and the fact that Tetris is the best game ever invented and I can play its best version on my phone. But that's not the point. The point is that each one of these illegal games has taken money out of the pocket of a mobile developer somewhere. Some software house just hired one less programmer. One guy with a killer app in the Czech Republic just had to get a job at McDonald's because no one pays for his app any more. It's insane. I'm not just saying piracy exists (you knew that), I'm not just saying its easy (you thought that as well), I'm saying it's INCREDIBLY EASY and some parts of the mobile world are even promoting it.

I'd say this is a wakeup call to the mobile industry as a whole. I think Nokia is on the right track with their purchase of and the N-Gage Arena. Even the crackers of the current N-Gage games knew that they shouldn't mess with the Arena and disabled access to it. This it the key for future games: Those that intricately use online services - which is what will make them compelling - will be able to escape the pirates. This may not happen today or tomorrow since GPRS is still too slow and expensive for most users, but within the next year or so as bandwidth ramps up and prices drop.


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