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Dissecting Sony's Game

Why is Sony chasing PlayStation emulator developer Connectix when it's case is so weak?

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Analysis What is Sony Computer Entertainment up to? On Monday, the company's COO, Kazuo Hirai, told delegates at the American International Toy Fair, being held this week in New York, about the PlayStation's amazing sales -- more than four million units were sold in the last two months, he claimed. In short, a towering success. Yet at the same time, Sony is preparing its case against Connectix for attempting to bring PlayStation software to a wider audience through its Mac-based Virtual GameStation (VGS) PlayStation emulator. The contradiction here is that Connectix, with the best will in the World, will be lucky to sell a fraction of that figure in four years, let alone two months. That may be one of the reason's why the San Fransico Federal District Court last week threw out Sony's preliminary attempt to have sales of VGS banned until its main suit against Connectix is resolved. Sony's action against Connectix is nevertheless a precedent-setting case, and one that will be watched closely by other console vendors --- in particular, Sony's rival, Nintendo. Right now, it's pondering whether to sue two non-professional developers for their PC-based N64 emulator, UltraHLE. The two cases -- one real, one potential -- share some important similarities and some key differences. Sony's beef with Connectix boils down to three basic points: that Connectix hasn't accurately emulated what Sony calls "the PlayStation experience"; that by allowing users to play games without a console, Connectix is effectively allowing them to bypass Sony's anti-piracy measures which will, in turn, encourage games to be copied illegally; and, finally, that Sony and its third-party developers will lose sales to pirated software as a result. The first point isn't without merit. Connectix admits VGS won't play every single PlayStation title. And while the company's demos at MacWorld Expo earlier this year looked slick, they were conducted on top-spec hardware with the developer's pick of games -- owners of other titles run on lesser G3s may not see quite the same level of performance. However, this shouldn't bother Sony too much -- where the power is there, you get a good 'PlayStation experience'; where it isn't, it will surely encourage Mac owners to go out and by a console. They may do that anyway, so they can play the games VGS can't yet handle. Besides, Sony has claimed Connectix approached it for technical help, but that it rejected their advances because the emulator wouldn't offer the experience Sony is so keen on promoting. Connectix refuses to comment on that claim, but the point is, Sony can't complain about poor performance when it refused to help to improve that performance. However, the piracy issue is really what the case is all about, and it's where Nintendo/UltraHLE story comes into play. Like Sony, Nintendo has complained that UltraHLE bypasses its security systems. In reply, one of the emulator's developers said: "What security system?" The fact is, both consoles have fairly rudimentary anti-piracy technologies, geared more toward preventing titles from one market territory -- Japan, the US or Europe -- being imported and sold in another. So, Connectix won't sell VGS outside North America because the emulator can only handle games written for the NTSC US TV standard; games destined for, say, the British market have to be rewritten for the UK TV standard, PAL. Incidentally, like Connectix, the UltraHLE developers have said they only used publicly-available technical details, and no proprietary information was used to create the emulator. Getting proprietary data out of either console manufacturer would be damn near impossible, which probably explains why the issue of intellectual property infringement wasn't part of Sony's preliminary legal action (though it may appear in the main suit). But what about promoting piracy? Again, Sony isn't on steady ground here. Software developers generally accept that a small proportion of sales will be lost to illegal copies, much as stores accept that a percentage of stock will be lost to shoplifters. It happens and they deal with it. The fact is, Sony clearly accepted that too when it made the decision to base the PlayStation on a CD-ROM drive rather than traditional ROM cartridges. Nintendo wanted a more secure approach and stuck with cartridges. The fact Macs and PCs have CD-ROM drives that can be made to read PlayStation CDs isn't Connectix's fault any more than it's Apple's for fitting such drives to its computers. The precendent here is the hi-fi tape deck. Just because you can use one to copy CDs or play back such recordings doesn't mean you will. VGS will be used primarily to play genuine copies of games, but some illegitimate copies will be played too. The same goes for the PlayStation itself. Incidentally, this is where Nintendo does have a point. Unlike VGS, UltraHLE can't be used with legitimate copies of games -- at least, so long as PCs don't sport N64-style cartridge slots. It will only work with games downloaded from N64 cartridges and transferred to a PC. While you can argue that buyers have a right to make one back-up copy of their software, in this case that argument holds no water: ROM cartridge's effectively store data and programs permenently and perfectly. Besides, how do you restore your data to a Read Only device? Hi-fi manufacturers actually pay a small per-unit royalty to the music industry to cover music piracy, but the same US law that enforces this also omits computer equipment. That's why the music business ultimately failed to get Diamond Multimedia's Rio digital music player banned for contravening the law. Precedents like these should give Connectix and, to an extent, the UltraHLE guys heart. They may not prevent legal action, but they should make them easier to win. ®

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