Flight Sim Labs is a company that makes very nice looking aircraft and sells them as Downloadable Content (DLC) for Microsoft Flight Simulator X. Selling DLC for flight simulators is big business, and in the case of Flight Sim Labs, having a reputation means being able to charge a premium. Some of their DLC is over $100 dollars which for regular gamers sounds a lot just for a plane, but to Flight Sim enthusiasts is around the price they would expect.
Piracy is of course a big problem for game developers and game publishers, with a large number of people out there showing little interest in ever purchasing games, or their DLC. The Flight Simulator market is no different, but a compounding factor is that often the developers making DLC for flight simulators are smaller studios who feel the hurt of piracy even more. So it is understandable that companies would wish to take steps in order to make piracy harder.
There have been numerous studies done into piracy in the music industry showing that as far as piracy is concerned those who pirated the most content also purchased the most content as well, suggesting that pirates may actually be using music sharing as a discovery device to help them discover bands they wish to support. While there are fewer studies into video game related piracy, Valve’s success with their online digital game delivery platform (known as Steam), has suggested both industries are similar. Steam executives have often stated that they built their business by turning people who formerly pirated games into paying customers by offering a better service than the pirates.
Of course there are a lot of companies that never figured out the secret sauce like Valve did. Such companies try to solve the problem of piracy in ways that aren’t so pro-consumer. One tool that companies love to turn to is Digital Rights Management (DRM), which is software and/or encodings that are supposed to prevent copying. How well DRM actually works is debatable, with it usually only acting as a minor inconvenience. Games such as The Witcher 3 have been wildly successful bestsellers despite not having DRM at all, while games like Sim City built from the ground up to be as tough to pirate as possible by no means guarantee the publisher commercial success. Indeed in the case of Sim City, it was such a commercial failure that when their next game also underperformed the developers were shut down.
So it seems a little strange that developers would go out of their way to hurt paying customers in order to go after customers who pirate, but they do. And in the case of Flight Sim Labs, they really took that sentiment to the extreme by bundling Malware into their DLC and then when caught used the very flimsy defence that their Malware was actually DRM. In the words of Fidus Information Security.
What on earth were they thinking?!
When Fidus analysed the Malware they found that it was indeed only going to activate in the case of a pirated Serial number, but also found that the data wasn’t very secure while it was being sent, nor very secure at its destination. Fidus also questioned why the developer would need people’s chrome usernames and passwords and raised the legal and ethical considerations.
There were a lot of people on Reddit’s Flight Sims Subreddit who made their distaste for the developer’s actions clear, but also a lot of people on Flight Sim Labs’ forum who also maintained that they would continue to support the developer despite the breach of trust.
Clearly it’s a delicate issue, but ultimately the impact of the decision to put malware in DLC is one that will play itself out in the coming months. The only people who have the power to change things might very well be the consumers, and if consumers don’t then is this a dangerous precedent to set?