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The End of Piracy?

by David Trammell - April 10, 2001, 11:45 pm PDT

Take a look at what Nintendo is doing, and what they might be doing to prevent the copying of GameCube games.

What I'm about to tell you may seem unbelievable. In fact, it may seem downright stupid. I'm going to tell you that Nintendo may finally put an end to the streak of software piracy that has run through the games industry since the advent of CD systems. As most people know, you can burn working copies of Playstation 1 and 2 games, Dreamcast games and PC games with just a little effort. So, what makes me think that Nintendo will avoid the same fate? What can they possibly do to impede the efforts of able-minded pirates who want free games? Well, Nintendo can actually do a lot; whether it will work or not, remains to be seen. I'll be looking at two types of pirates here: professional pirates, and amateur pirates. You'd find professionals selling their goods in Hong Kong and amateurs making copies with their PC to play and perhaps sell to their friends. First, we'll take a look at the disk's non-standard size.

Many people think that the 8-centimeter size of GameCube disks will prevent people from burning copies of them. Unfortunately it's not quite that simple. A quick look in a standard DVD/CD loading tray shows you that 8 cm disks have been around for quite a while. The practical advantages of the 8 cm format are in seek time not piracy prevention. However, because every game uses this DVD-like standard, anyone who hopes to burn GameCube games will need a DVD burner at the least. While these are expensive now, they will be easier to obtain in the years to come. Now, Nintendo's format is not DVD, but it is very similar. I'm assuming that a normal DVD drive will be able to read and burn the data eventually, althought it may not. For now, let's pretnd that this is only a temporary problem for amateur pirates and no problem at all for professionals.

The next hurdle to software pirating of GameCube games is the encryption scheme. We don't know the depth of the scheme for certain, but it's rumored to be 1024 bit. While previous game systems have used encryption to prevent pirating, the strength of the encrypt has never been on that scale. High speed computers with parallel processing could make short work of smaller encrypts, but a 1024 bit scheme could take years to crack. Nintendo representatives have said that the GameCube is not impregnable to pirates, but the cost of pirating its games should exceed the worth of those games. So, what is an encrypt? Basically, it scrambles the information on the disk so that it becomes meaningless. Only with the "key" to the code can the data be properly read. Only professionals have a chance of cracking a code like this, but if they do, it will most certainly spread all over the Internet for amateur use. Don't think it can't be cracked though. You might say that it is inevitable. So, in the interest of moving forward, let's assume that the encryption is beaten sometime during the lifetime of the GameCube. This would pave the way for professional pirates to begin working full time.

The remaining measures are mostly aimed at amateur pirates. If they are armed with the encryption key, there should be other measures to stop them from copying games. For example, Nintendo might print GameCube disks in reverse spirals and have them read from the outside in. This would create a problem for your average schmuck with a DVD burner. Their drive won't be inherently built to read or burn reverse spirals. Somehow they'd have to get their drive to either burn from the outside in, or spin in the opposite direction. The only other option is finding a new drive that burns in reverse... perhaps Sony will sell one to spite Nintendo.

Now, this reverse spiral thing is only speculation, but it is grounded in reality. You see, the GameCube drive uses CAV (constant angular velocity), which means that the disk always spins at a constant speed. Normal drives slow down as the laser moves outwards to keep the data rate constant (this is important for normal CD audio and movies). However, the GameCube will have the fastest reading speed on the outer portions. This means that it's also in Nintendo's interest to start from the outside of the disk so that the game data begins on the fastest part. Nintendo has plenty of reason to use a reverse spiral and Matsushita is already supplying a custom drive, why not customize it a little further?

Now, you might think that this would be a problem for the Matsushita version of the GameCube that is supposed to read DVDs as well as games. However, it wouldn't be a problem to make that version work both ways. The other option is to simply cancel the release of the DVD/Cube combo. In fact, some have suggested that this Matsushita combo was only a knee-jerk reaction and that Nintendo never intended to release it. While that may be a little extreme, there is nothing to stop Nintendo from canceling it now.

I'll finish by providing you with speculation and rumors whispered in dark rooms between... ok, I'll cut the cloak and dagger stuff. Just keep in mind that these things could be helpful, but there is no indication that they will be used. First, Nintendo might change the size of the hole in the disk to stop your average pirate from using normal blank disks (although this again complicates the Matsushita combo). There could also be information on the extreme inner circle of the disk that a normal drive's laser can't reach. I've heard that special "holograms" might be on real GameCube disks that a normal burner couldn't possibly duplicate. The laser and track size could be slightly different from the normal DVD standard preventing regular drives from reading them. Ultimately, Nintendo has no shortage of options when it comes to stopping pirates from stealing games. The question is, will the security measures last for the life of the GameCube? Maybe not, but it will certainly slow down pirates and save millions of dollars in the mean time.

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