Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
03 December 2006
How Nintendo is solving its piracy problem
Given the rampant online piracy of Nintendo's games, should be no surprise that they have constructed significant roadblocks to prevent emulation of their last three systems: the GameCube, the Nintendo DS, and the Wii. While the GameCube used a proprietary medium, the Nintendo DS and Wii have much more effective deterrents: their unique interfaces.

The transition from the Atari 2600 joystick to the PlayStation analog pad (two sticks, D-pad, left and right shoulder triggers) not only focused the industry on a fairly standard interface but ensured that the previous generation's controls were mostly a subset of the next generation's. That progression also permitted emulation of earlier systems on newer systems with a minimum of fuss. If you want to emulate a SNES on an Xbox, the button mapping is natural. The Game Boy Advance could emulate NES games and the Nintendo DS can emulate the SNES, no mucking with buttons required. For years those same PlayStation-style pads have been available for home computers as well.

That process makes emulation both possible and attractive.

While emulation of games with nonstandard interfaces has been done before -- we have commercial emulations of the arcade games Paperboy and Star Wars: The Arcade Game and Marble Madness and 720 degrees -- the compromise made to fit a different controller is always unsatisfying.

And so, with the introduction of the Nintendo DS touchscreen and the Wii's spatial controller we see that Nintendo has made emulation piracy far less attractive, albeit still possible. Will we see people trading Wii games over the internet in 10 years as they do now with SNES ROMs? Perhaps, but it will probably mean that you will have to have a Wii controller -- or a knock off controller. Anything less will be unsatisfying. And in 10 years you can probably bet that Nintendo will offer a relatively cheap and easy alternative on their next system -- which will work with the Wii controller out-of-the-box and offer Wii games for download for a few dollars. With appropriately priced hardware and downloads, Nintendo will keep people in the Nintendo store and off the ROM sites.

The same could easily be true for the Nintendo DS. If the DS were the beginning of another cycle of incremental improvements roughly paralleling the progression from Game Boy to Game Boy Color to Game Boy Advance then we may not see another radical evolution of the Nintendo handheld line for another 15 years. Despite Nintendo's claims to the contrary, the DS appears to be its future for the handheld, not the Game Boy.

There will always be the hardcore folks who refuse to pay. They're a sad fact of life. Someone will hack drivers to make the Wii controller work on an emulator running under Windows or even on a GNU/Linux-enabled console. And certainly you can emulate a Nintendo DS with a mouse. I bet it isn't nearly as entertaining to play Elite Beat Agents by clicking a mouse, but that won't stop some people from doing it anyway.

However as appears to be happening with music, most people will choose to buy their games instead of pirate them if there are enough blocks to casual emulation piracy and a reasonably priced legitimate alternative. That's Nintendo's goal, and I think they've made the right moves to attain it.

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--Matt Matthews at 23:37
Comment [ 8 ]

Comments on this post:

As if touch screen personal computing devices aren't common place.

I can see people being able to play ds games on their touch screen phones in the next couple of years. They even tend to have the right aspect ratio to be able to fit both ds screens on them.

Additionally, you can still buy a flash card for your ds, which with a pass through can play rom files.

The gamecube was chipped near the end of it's life, and you could just replace the case to accept normal discs.

I'm also sure we'll get an emulator once we have powerful enough machines. In 10-15 years time they might even reach the level of the snes / genesis emulators.

As much as you dislike emulation / piracy, thinking that it is going to become more difficult and a thing of the past is just wishful thinking.

There will always be hundreds of thousands / millions more people who are trying to crack any kind of protection / drm placed on the media than there will be trying to protect it.

I am also not convinced that itunes has made any impact on music piracy whatsoever. If anything, the preponderance of digital music devices with insane amounts of storage, have made music piracy far more common place. I don't know a single person who has spent 10 000 USD to fill their ipods.

You will always get people who want things for free, and you will always get people who like things enough to pay for them.

Providing a simple enough interface to allow the second group to not have to cross into the first group to get their fix, will only net you a small fraction of the first group.

By Anonymous Adrian, at 04 December, 2006 05:58  

Well, except that I'd expect more [popular] devices in the Wii mold to appear relatively soon [as in, within ten years of its arrival versus never in history before] as well.

Gestures on VR contraptions and, much more practical, mobile phones have been around for a while. Some consideration has been given to mobiles that feel movement to help one use them as mice-in-space (cue the muppet show).

I wonder how long before the iPhone (which, interestingly, is rumored to support all three wireless phone protocols in the US on release), the Wiimote (w/ Mii profiles), and the Bluetooth mouse all converge into the same device.

By Blogger rufbo, at 04 December, 2006 09:58  

I hope those three don't converge. I don't own a cellphone and hope to never have to, even if it isn't activated. heh.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 04 December, 2006 14:20  

Well, if the rumors are anywhere close to right, the iPhone is well-designed to do many things well, in just the way you would prefer it wasn't. The latest unsubstantiated, rumor is that it's a dual battery setup, so that you can't run down a phone by listening to music, etc. The profiles and Wii wireless discovery on the Wiimote suggest it might be going a similar direction.

Cool, but yeah, possibly paying for what you don't need.

By Blogger rufbo, at 04 December, 2006 14:31  

Apple: Taking your money for things you don't need.

Not to mention, things that are non-tangible and that you can't use (like brand identity and "hip chic").

It's no surprise that this is also one of the reasons that I dislike Sony.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 05 December, 2006 08:57  

Emulation is only a 'piracy problem' in about 10 years. The real 'piracy problem' is being able to download a game and play it on your home machine.

You could do this with the Dreamcast. And for a period you could easily rip games from the PS3. There was also some issue (now fixed) of getting virtual console games for 0 points using the DNS hack.

This is what you should be talking about, not EMULATION = EVIL.

By Blogger webrunner, at 05 December, 2006 09:07  

Another interesting effect of the "non-standard" controller Nintendo's gone with is that Nintendo could be setting themselves up for trouble down the road in terms of backwards compatibility.

One of the big draws for the Wii is the Gamecube compatibility/Virtual Console stuff.

If Nintendo wants their next console to keep game compatibility with the Wii, they will have to find a way to emulate the control scheme on the new console. This can be done, of course, but it limits Nintendo's options in terms of radical innovation.

Basically what I'm saying is that Nintendo cannot continue to radically innovate if they wish to keep backwards compatibility. One or the other will have to go.

By Blogger phanboy_iv, at 07 December, 2006 14:09  

I disagree that emulation is a problem equivalent to piracy.

Emulators specialize in older systems. It's very difficult to emulate current systems on a computer, but it's easy to emulate systems like the NES, SNES, and Nintendo 64. This does not cut into a company's sales like piracy because the games they emulate are so old, they can no longer be found in stores.

Emulation is not legal, and it's not entirley ethical, but it causes little harm to software companies like Nintendo, and makes a lot of classic games availbile to a new generation of players.

With Wii's new virtual console, I expect less people will resort to emulation, since retro games will be made available at very low costs.

By Blogger Norm Loman, at 19 October, 2007 17:07  

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