Bioshock: Ken Levine Interview

By Shamus
on Aug 28, 2007
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Joystiq has an interview with Ken Levine, Lead Designer for Bioshock. He answers a few questions about the problems with the PC version of the game, including the SecuROM DRM controversy.

As the Lead Designer, I’m willing to bet Ken wanted nothing to do with SecuROM, and would have been happy to see his game hit the market without it. SecuROM is the doing of 2kGames, the publisher. But now that the fans are outraged, pissed off, returning the game, and flaming the company in the forums, 2kGames is sending Ken out to pacify the crowd. What a rotten and cynical move. I guess they realize that anyone from their own company is going to be given more or less the same greeting and respect as the Mouth of Sauron, and so by using Ken as their mouthpiece they hope to trade on the goodwill and trust he’s earned with the fans over the years. Can you imagine how that phone conversation went?

2kGames Bastard: Hi Ken.

Ken Levine: Hello again, your evilness.

2kGB: Hey, remember that SecuROM stuff you didn’t want in your game?

Ken: Yes.

2kGB: Yeah. We need you go go out and explain to people why we did that.

Ken: Uhhh.

2kGB: Your fans are really mad. If something isn’t done soon it’s going to really hurt the sales of your BallShock thing.

Ken: BioShock.

2kGB: Yeah. Great. I’m sure it’s great. Just get out there and make them want this game.

Ken: Okay. They have some real genuine issues here. What have you done so far to appease them?

2kGB: Well, we’re sending you.

Ken: Right. Besides that.

2kGB: Nothing, really.

Ken: Okay. So what should I tell them?

2kGB: I can’t imagine. Anyway, good luck with that. Let us know how it goes.

Let’s step through his comments a bit at a time. When asked about the copy protection used by BioShock, Ken said:

Basically the copy protection, everything about how it works is exactly what you’ll see in other titles like Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Rainbow Six: Vegas, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Command & Conquer 3, Harry Potter. The only thing we have is online activation now. But that just does a check with a server and validates the installation.

This is the best part of the interview: A useful list of other titles to avoid. It’s not clear to me, but I gather that what he’s saying is that all those other games have SecuROM, while BioShock has SecuROM and online activation. The fact that SecuROM is installed without the users knowledge is an important distinction which gets glossed over here. (And actually, BioShock has SecuROM and Steam DRM and a CD key and the disc is required to play and it requires online activation.)

Later Ken adds:

There have been some concerns that the copy protection was something nobody had ever seen before, except for the online procedure, there’s nothing different. There’s nothing wacky going on there, at some point we’ll move back from online activation. If people want to play BioShock ten years from now, they’ll be able to play it. We have a commitment from 2K that that is going to happen and we’ll hold them to that commitment and they’re serious about it, we’ll make that happen.

And this one makes me mad. “This DRM scheme is just a little worse than previous schemes” is a preposterous excuse that ignores the principles behind the matter. Don’t install things onto the user’s computer without asking. Don’t install things that can’t be uninstalled. Don’t install things which circumvent security. Don’t leave a process running 24/7 unless you have a really good reason. (A 24/7 process to manage access to a piece of software that will be run for about twenty hours and then ignored is not a good reason.)

So 2kGames is promising that at some undefined point in the future they will release a patch that will negate the need for online activation. Since they were devious enough to sneak SecuROM onto user’s PC’s in the first place, their word is a currency of rapidly declining value. Ken is talking tough, like he’s going to make 2kGames do the right thing, but the truth is that if he had any power over the publisher then the DRM software wouldn’t have been added to the game in the first place. He’s as impotent as the users when it comes to the fate of the game.

And even if 2kGames lives up to this agreement, this is only a fraction of the problem. People will still have this Windows “service” running on their machines without their consent, they will still have malformed keys in their Windows registry, and they will still have to put up with all of the other layers of DRM in addition to SecuROM. 2kGames hasn’t budged an inch. All they have done is sent a famous and well-liked game designer out to make a non-binding promise on their behalf that at some point in the future they will abuse their customers slightly less.

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20208Feeling chatty? There are 48 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Skip says:

    well the good news is that it doesn’t appear to run the service all the time. It seems to only use the service if you run in a limited rights account. I haven’t tested this fully, but I did play through NWN2 which also uses this, and I don’t have it running, or the files even on the system. I do have the undeletable registry keys though.

  2. Phlux says:

    It’s pretty sad actually, how far we’ve allowed the game companies to push us before pushing back.

    When games first required CDs to be in the drive to play, nobody really noticed, because there was usually something ON the disk, like audio or video files, that weren’t installed during a “standard” installation.

    Once disk space was no longer at a premium, everybody was already used to having to have the disk in order to play. There was grumbling, and most games had a no-cd crack available. The developers didn’t seem to fight it too much because everyone in the software industry has long since realized that “cd as dongle” is a pretty worthless copy protection scheme.

    Then they started doing CD keys, and we were OK with it. Then they started validating our keys during online play and we were OK with that too.

    The tipping point seems to have been online activation. People seem to really hate that, because they know it affects their future ability to play the game.

  3. SiliconScout says:

    “a non-binding promise on their behalf that at some point in the future they will abuse their customers slightly less.”

    Pure liquid gold there man.

    And I, like you, REALLY wanted to play this game. And I, like you, refuse to buy it or the 360 version of it on matter of principle.

    However there is probably a 30% chance I will play a pirated version of it. I am not going to go looking for it but if someone comes up and hands be a copy I am not going to say no.

    Screw 2k.
    Screw SecureROM.

    They “protected” their game what 2 days, with a normal check for disk and CD key the cracks take about that long.

    They saved NO time, they “saved” NO sales, they simply treated their customer, in every way possible, as the skinny new “cute” criminal in prison. Yeah that’s right they are Bubby and the customer is his “bitch”.

    It’s a damn shame too, but I will never give them a cent.

  4. Steel Lynx says:

    The interesting news (or hot air, as it may turn out to be) is that they plan on deactivating the online activation/check. If this will happen at some point I can’t imagine it will take long before a no-internet crack is available similar to the no-cd cracks available for so many other games.

  5. Vegedus says:

    While the 2/5 installs is outrageous, sure, but I can understand what he’s saying about the DRM. This has happened before. It’s been worse actually, the ghost stories about Starforce keeps grown gamers up at night. Yes, it’s bad, stupid and immoral, but I don’t remember an angry horde of rapid gamers attacking the last game that came with secuROM.

  6. Dan says:

    “The good news is it doesn’t appear to run the service all the time?”

    Please excuse me if this sounds rude, but isn’t that kind of like saying “I didn’t punch my grandma in the face ALL the time. Sometimes I took naps.”

    Okay, that’s extreme. The virus that BioShock requires you to install…oops, I mean rootkit…oops I mean DRM…whatever, is, at a minimum, annoying. So, it only annoys part of the time after the initial totally annoying install.

    DRM groups should worry less about preventing 99% of their law-abiding customers from having fun and more time finding the mass purveyors and profiteers. I’m a rare geek, but I’ve never knowingly utilized or distributed pirated software.

    The fact of it is that the foreign piracy market is impossible to copy-proof, and the source of the majority of piracy profit losses. Installing poo-poo on my (law-abiding) computer does nothing to stall out a handful of inventive hacker/fencing operations. Even if only goobers all over my hard-drive for “part” of the time.

  7. Dan says:

    Ten bucks says this game is hacked, cracked and pirated heavily by the weekend, just because of all the attention.

    Idiots. Brings to mind the “How You Killed Your Brand” song.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R98qC0fd_1w

  8. M says:

    In response to Vegedus, “Yes, it’s bad, stupid and immoral, but I don’t remember an angry horde of rapid gamers attacking the last game that came with secuROM.”;

    Well, why the hell not?
    Anything installed onto a computer without the owner’s knowledge and consent is illegal, REALLY bad PR, and quite probably illegal – and if it currently is, it most definitely should be.

  9. Vegedus says:

    I don’t know. I don’t embody every single one of those angry gamers. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be angry. I’m saying they shouldn’t be especially angry at Bioshock over the DRM issue. If they are, they may be hypocrites, because there’s a good chance they’ve played a with SecuROM or another DRM in the past. Who says they don’t ALREADY have secuROM installed on their computer?

  10. MintSkittle says:

    If I’d known about it sooner, I wouldn’t have shelled out for NWN2 or C&C3. They weren’t even that good. That’s a hundred bucks I’d still have.

  11. Dev Null says:

    Maybe hypocrites Vegedus, but maybe they just didnt know it was there. I never played NWN2, but I seriously thought about picking it up, and there certainly wasnt anything on the box saying “this game will install unremovable server processes that will violate your machine’s security policies.” I think if I had played it I’d be just finding out about the DRM now, and pissed off about that too…

  12. milw770 says:

    “…a non-binding promise on their behalf that at some point in the future they will abuse their customers slightly less.”

    What a great line!

  13. Vegedus says:

    Of course, awareness has risen severely because of this, but that still doesn’t justify taking it out on Bioshock or 2k. That’s just killing the messenger (that delivers pox to a pox ridden village).

  14. MintSkittle says:

    Pox ridden though we may be, that’s no excuse to keep abusing legit paying customers like this.

  15. Gildragon says:

    I remember shamus I saw a while ago that you did a search for twenty sided in google and you came up first. you later stated that if a person looking for dice actually typed dice in that your site would not come up first. I just did a search with twenty sided dice as my keywords and you appeared # 8 on the first page of google. Just thought you might like to know

  16. quadir says:

    I was really excited for this game, all set to get it off steam too, knowing about online activation and all. But the secureROM thing pushed it over the edge, and it so happens I also don’t own any of the other games that come with it.

    Hopefully they will smarten up and remove it, but I doupt it.

  17. Andy P says:

    Whoa – Tomb Raider Anniversary had SecuROM? I didn’t know that. That means the crappy piece of rubbish is living on my PC already. Goddamnit…

  18. Shinjin says:

    I’ve seen a few references to StarForce as a worse DRM. It sounds like there is at least one key difference between StarForce and SecureROM. StarForce can actually be removed from your system without a full Windows reinstall.

  19. Joe says:

    “There’s nothing wacky going on there, at some point we’ll move back from online activation.”

    What a coincidence. At some point, I may buy this game. Guess which point will come first?

  20. Here’s the bit in the interview I don’t understand: “We will unset the online activation at some point in the future — we’re not talking about when.”

    (1) So you’re going to do it “at some point in the future”. When? You don’t know and you aren’t even thinking about it or discussing it. But you’re confident it’s going to happen… some day.

    (2) How, exactly, are you going to “unset the online activation”? Are you going to have magical pixies deliver new DVDs to the houses of everyone who purchased a copy of the game?

    Because the game that’s on the DVDs now is trying to activate itself online. And the only mechanic that could change that would be a patch… which we would download from your servers.

    So instead of having a game that’s unplayable because you’ve taken down your activation servers, we’ll have a game that’s unplayable because you’ve taken down the patch server.

    Well, that’s completely diffferent!

    Vegedus wrote: “I don’t know. I don’t embody every single one of those angry gamers. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be angry. I’m saying they shouldn’t be especially angry at Bioshock over the DRM issue. If they are, they may be hypocrites, because there’s a good chance they’ve played a with SecuROM or another DRM in the past. Who says they don’t ALREADY have secuROM installed on their computer?”

    Let’s say that you discover someone has been stabbing you in the back for years and you weren’t aware of it. Are you seriously trying to claim that you should just let them go on stabbing you in the back, because otherwise you’re a hypocrite for “letting” them stab you in the back in the first place?

    Justin Alexander
    http://www.thealexandrian.net

  21. Locri says:

    I completely agree… it’s been shown before with the whole StarForce fiasco as well as countless other DRM and Dongle schemes that no one really likes them and they end up causing more problems for customers _that actually pay_ than people who pirate. There have been far to many games and other applications and even OSs (gee, I wonder where from) that are much easier to install using a pirated version.

    I’m not sure if it’s still an issue or not, but I also distinctly remember back when Morrowind first came out that many people used the NoCD crack if only because the copyright protection stuff actually would drop your framerate by 10FPS! (I’ve tested it and it’s true.)

    P.S. For those with “undeleteable” registry keys or files, look up IceSword. It’s a nice little program for dealing with rootkit-like processes, files, and registry keys.

  22. Miako says:

    dan says:
    >The virus that BioShock requires you to install…oops, I mean >rootkit…oops I mean DRM…whatever, is, at a minimum, annoying.

    Call it a worm, Dan. That’s what it is. It doesn’t replicate.

    And as for it getting hacked quicker because of all the attention — from all that I know, hackers seem to like well written games. A lot. (how many thief fan missions are there — the engine is bunk, and practically requires hacking to get to work. well, no. it blows up pretty much whatever you do.)

  23. Miako says:

    Justin,

    The “at some point in the future” is a pretty easy line to figure out.

    Assuming they work like books do (and get receipts of how many are bought) — once they make enough profit, and all the product has hit the bargain bin (three years, roughly), it goes without the stupid internet activation.

    Easy, really.

  24. Just to give some more information: I played the Demo (downloaded via Steam) and I found it, well, really good, but not my cup of tea, then I went and uninstalled it, then I read about this SecuROM business, and followed the indications given to remove it, but I found no traces of anything, so I guess that uninstalling the Demo the ‘rootkit’ was also uninstalled, and this is a very long run on sentence.

  25. SamC says:

    Just to be clear, there’s nothing hypocritical about players who were unaware of previous secuROM issues on their computers being especially pissed with Bioshock. They would only be hypocritical if they’d known about it on other games and intentionally given them a pass. If they didn’t know, going back at this point wouldn’t have the same effect as rallying against a recent game known to have the issue. Publishers wouldn’t pay attention to the late stage protests, but a new game where the financial bite is present and obvious, might actually get their focus and get them to realize the idiocy they’re perpetuating isn’t going to be tolerated.

  26. Henebry says:

    Justin Alexander wrote: “Let’s say that you discover someone has been stabbing you in the back for years and you weren’t aware of it.”

    Puts me in mind of another of my favorite webcomics

    (Not sure I can put in hyperlinks in these comments. Guess I’ll find out.)

  27. Ranneko says:

    Justin:
    It’s easy to unset the activation issue.

    You only have to activate (currently) when you first run the game, but the installer forces you to download and apply the most recent patch before you play. So they just make a patch that gets rid of activation, easy as cake.

    Shinjin: SecuROM can also be removed without a reinstall.

  28. essell says:

    Ranneko said:
    You only have to activate (currently) when you first run the game, but the installer forces you to download and apply the most recent patch before you play. So they just make a patch that gets rid of activation, easy as cake.

    And when they stop hosting the patch server, what then?

  29. MintSkittle says:

    essell said:

    And when they stop hosting the patch server, what then?

    Cry.

  30. josh brandt says:

    Boy, Ken Levine hasn’t had good luck with parent corporations… Looking Glass/Eidos (although he had formed Irrational by then, I believe), and now Irrational (*ahem* 2K Boston) and 2K…

  31. Stranger says:

    At the risk of sounding like an idiot or like I condone this practice . . .

    This sort of thing MIGHT be buried in the EULA so well that it is NOT ILLEGAL, just immoral. There is a big difference there. One leaves you liable in courts of law. One leaves you looking like a douchebag to the people who you are marketing your products to.

    IF they ever realize you’re doing it, of course!

  32. nehumanuscrede says:

    Easy fix. Not so easy to implement unfortunately.

    It would take one time to be effective. Just once to get the
    message across. Don’t buy the game. With all the money spent
    on development of games today, it would only take one to put
    most companies out of business in a hurry.

    It only takes one, ” Whoops, ya we blew fifty million of
    investment money, our bad. ” to kill most game companies.

    While it would be as likely as my winning the lotto, if it
    could ever be pulled off, it would send a very sobering
    message to the developers.

    Do it right and your name will live in infamy. Do it wrong
    and you’ll cease to exist. Thank you for playing, please
    insert .25 to continue. . . .

  33. Miral says:

    I haven’t actually checked, but I’m fairly sure I have SecuROM floating around my computer already anyway. But I still refuse to get BioShock on these principles:
    1. the #PCs activation limit irritates me (especially since the uninstall for the disc version doesn’t give you a credit). I’m not really planning to run it on that many PCs, but I don’t like the idea that it will refuse to install in five years time if I’ve had to wipe my drive a few times.
    2. the Steam version already has its own DRM and shouldn’t be encumbered with a (much worse) additional one. I buy stuff on Steam to *avoid* the crappy DRM software on disc games.

  34. Ozy says:

    I’m pretty sure malware is illegal. What about the possibility of convincing a federal prosecutor to bring criminal charges against 2K Games?

  35. Shapeshifter says:

    There’s also the fact that, when the insanely restrictive DRM was discovered, the people responsible lied and then when that didn’t work they lied some more. Even if they come to their senses relatively soon (not a good prospect, i fear) i’d still be nervous about giving them money.

  36. Ranneko wrote: “You only have to activate (currently) when you first run the game, but the installer forces you to download and apply the most recent patch before you play. So they just make a patch that gets rid of activation, easy as cake.”

    … uh, did you actually read my message before replying to it?

    The problem with requiring online activation is that it makes you dependent upon the company you bought the game from. You depend on them to maintain the activation servers and you depend on them to stay in business.

    What you’re describing doesn’t actually solve the problem. It just changes the word “activation” to “mandatory patch”.

    Shapeshift: “There’s also the fact that, when the insanely restrictive DRM was discovered, the people responsible lied and then when that didn’t work they lied some more. Even if they come to their senses relatively soon (not a good prospect, i fear) i’d still be nervous about giving them money.”

    Exactly. Which is why I’m not particularly allayed by an empty and non-binding promise that some unspecified day in the distant future they’ll do something that is technically impossible.

    Justin Alexander
    http://www.thealexandrian.net

  37. Steve C says:

    I like what you have say Shamus, but this irked me:
    ‘All they have done is sent a famous and well-liked game designer out…’

    Walking out the door and uttering one statement in defense of indefensible behavior can negate “famous and well-liked”. It becomes “infamous and loathed.” ‘Because I was ordered to by my superiors’ is no excuse. He could have refused to comment rather than defend an immoral and illegal act. Even if they fired him, he would go unemployed for 5.3 seconds.

    Goodwill my ass. I would spit in Ken Levine’s eye for his comments so far. I will never even play Bioshock, and hell will freeze over before they get $1 of mine.

  38. General Ghoul says:

    31 Stranger Says:
    August 28th, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    At the risk of sounding like an idiot or like I condone this practice . . .

    This sort of thing MIGHT be buried in the EULA so well that it is NOT ILLEGAL, just immoral. There is a big difference there. One leaves you liable in courts of law. One leaves you looking like a douchebag to the people who you are marketing your products to.

    Not an idiot, but uninformed…Remember you don’t get the EULA until you start to install the game, AFTER you have opened the package, so even if it was fully explained, you cannot take the game back. Also, the is a full debate at the forums picking apart the EULA, noting that 2K has broken there part of the agreement by not fully disclosing the limited installs and the draconian DRM. Big debate about the EULA not being on the outside of the package in the UK the EU, thus making it illegal there.
    As noted under another topic, I have too much time on my hands right now, so this soap opera Bioshock forum is quite entertaining.

  39. gyokuran says:

    nehumanuscrede: If gamers would actually unite in not buying the game and consequently ruining the sales take a guess what the PR section would make of it? The terrible sales are *of course* caused by the evil pirated versions which people download instead of buying our wonderful even if slightly blemished product. Yet another reason to *improve* copy protection mechanisms! Yay!

    Seriously though: I don’t think the copy protection race will end anytime soon.

  40. Shrike says:

    All this crap makes me want a console for games even more. Games on consoles are binary entities, they either work or they don’t. They either run properly or they don’t.

    And if they don’t run properly or don’t work, I’ve got tens of thousands people on my side when I’m complaining that the product doesn’t do what it should.

    Too bad I only play RTS games like Dawn of War and Company of Heroes – so I’m stuck with a PC…

  41. nehumanuscrede says:

    gyokuran: You’re right.

    There is no way on Earth they would ever admit that something
    they did could have possibly caused the decline in sales.
    It has to be pirates, Ninjas, Hitler’s evil twin, something.

    They apparently hire from the same pool of intelligence as
    the RIAA and MPAA do. . . .

    WHAT ! CD sales are down ? Our music can’t suck ! It must
    be the work of evil pirates once again . . .

  42. Nanja Kang says:

    I bought the game, and play it ALOT! General Ghoul has the right idea, and this multi-blogged secuROM issue has its point and counter points… but honestly from all of the varied data on this forum and others, I don’t know whether to crap my pants in fear or just laugh at most of you…

  43. eloj says:

    I wish some heavy site would interview one of these SecureROM/whatever-loving developers and start with this question:

    “How much money did you and your distributor spend on copy-prevention mechanisms in this game in total, including support?”

    When they refuse to answer, say simply “Okay then, I guess this interview is over.” and publish only that, and never talk about the game again, ever.

    Repeat until question answered.

  44. Deoxy says:

    To answer the question about STARForce, it is/was worse than SecuROM because it could actually cause physical damage to your computer (it replaced the CD drivers with one of its own… you can see how that is a bad thing).

    SecuROM is NOT a worm – worms DO replicate. Rootkit is probably the closest existing term, though it’s not an EXACT fit.

    Dan: Ten bucks says this game is hacked, cracked and pirated heavily by the weekend, just because of all the attention. Uh, dude… there was a cracked version available online 42 hours after release.

    I’m another one on the “you CAN’T (realistically and usefully) ‘unset’ the activation requirement” crowd; as has been pointed out, the only way to do this is by patch, and then, when their servers come down, no patch=no play.

    Sombody els said it REALLY well: Exactly. Which is why I’m not particularly allayed by an empty and non-binding promise that some unspecified day in the distant future they’ll do something that is technically impossible.

    :-/

    Luckily, I wasn’t really interested in this game, anyway (FPS is not a big draw for me), some of the other games that have SecuROM make me sad… :-(

    No, the copy protection arms race will probably not end any time soon… the game distributors seem to LIKE trying to dig themselves out of the deep hole they’re in. 42 hours, man – that’s not an arms “race”, that’s just freakishly pathetic.

  45. Zereth says:

    As somebody who purchased Bioshock, then uninstalled it after it didn’t work right (I am goign to laugh and then cry if it turns out my hard-locking is due to the DRM), while it’s hard to uninstall it, and if you run any game with it the stuff will pop right back up, apparently if you uninstall ALL thigns that use it (since I had formatted just before installing Bioshock), it seems to go away on its own.

    And leave several files and registry keys that are designed to be impossibleto remove through conventional means.

  46. bignose says:

    Please, don’t repeat the disingenuous “copy protection” term. It’s a straight *restriction* on copying, and there is no harm that needs protecting against.

    Call it “copy restriction”, and we’ll actually be describing it properly.

  47. Psyco says:

    The biggest news so far is now the company PR rep./site admin at 2k are now banning people for bringing up the fact that this DRM scheme not only is garbage, but in fact may violate several laws/regulations based on the fact it installs without user notification/consent, and is not removed with the software it was intended to “protect”

    if you would like to read up more on this, there is a thread with several links with proof of miss “2k Elizabeth” (the PR rep/site admin) taking the aboved action against a member, simply because he called her out on the issue and asked quetions to which she refused an answer, then concoted a story as to why he was banned…read it fast and copy what needs to be, it will surely be deleted….

    http://forums.2kgames.com/forums/showthread.php?t=13160

  48. Alec W says:

    Interesting post-script:

    I was cleaning out my old C drive the other day….and I could not delete my old user profiles.

    Their folder structure remains, implacable and eternal, as the SecuRom files at the bottom cannot be removed using any means available to Windows. I suppose I could grab an Ubuntu disc to get rid of them or just low-level format the drive, but I’ve left them there as a reminder of why I don’t do business with UbiSoft or 2K anymore.

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