Commentary > Game Over
Doom III for free?
2003's hottest game is the latest victim of $3B gaming piracy industry.
November 6, 2002: 10:03 AM EST

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Yarr! Beware mateys. For while there be gaming plunder here, there surely be Doom as well.

Internet pirates are getting a taste of 2003's hottest game these days, but if the developer and publisher had anything to say about it, things would be quite different. A very early and limited build of "Doom III" has leaked onto the Internet and it's spreading like wildfire.

There's nothing new about net piracy. But it's rare to see something with such a high profile and such high security - slip out so early. Word's spreading fast, too. On Friday, when rumors about the leak started appearing, the game was hard to find. By Monday, it was hard not to stumble across it. It's not the entire game that is being pirated - rather a three-level demo that was shown at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, the trade show of the video gaming industry but it's enough to outrage developers and confuse publishers.

While there are some rumors about who leaked the game, no individual or company has yet been accused. John Carmack, co-owner and technical director for id Software, the developer of the "Doom" series, did drop a few thinly veiled hints, however.

One of Doom III's gorier scenes.  
One of Doom III's gorier scenes.

"No, this was not leaked on purpose," he wrote in a recent posting at Slashdot, a news and discussion site frequented by the technical community. "Yes, we are upset about it, and it will have some impact on how we deal with some companies in the future, but nothing drastic is going to change in terms of what support is going to be available."

Publisher Activision (ATVI: Research, Estimates) declined comment, referring inquiries to id Software. id CEO Todd Hollenshead acknowledged the company's frustration, but declined further comment.

Piracy is a big problem to the gaming industry. The Interactive Digital Software Association estimates pirates cost gaming companies $3 billion dollars in 2001. The "Doom III" case is a little different, in that portions of the game have slipped into the public domain several months (if not more than a year) before it is scheduled to hit retail shelves.

"Doom III" has all the earmarks of a financial monster. Previous "Doom" games have sold nearly 2.5 million copies, according to the NPD Group, taking in more than $59 million. This latest installment of the series takes a graphical leap forward, with characters that border on photo-realism. (Its blood-soaked gameplay is also likely to revive the gaming/violence debate in a way Grand Theft Auto could only dream of doing.)

Analysts, though, say the impact of this leak on publisher Activision should be minimal.

Photo-realistic graphics are one of the game's chief selling points.  
Photo-realistic graphics are one of the game's chief selling points.

"It won't hurt sales of the product, because it's only a couple of levels," said Mike Wallace of UBS Securities. "If the entire [game] had leaked out, that would be a problem. ... The only issue is if the game isn't polished enough [in this alpha build] and people get frustrated trying to play it."

There's a fairly good chance of that frustration developing. In order to play the game, you have to know a little about coding. And even if you do, you have to have a top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art video card and a souped-up PC to get the game to run. Even then, it's a fairly sluggish experience that's prone to system lock-ups. Also, the odds of someone attaching a computer virus or worm to the leaked version of the game are fairly high.

The retail game, of course, will be optimized to run on a typical PC before it is released. Or, as Carmack put it in his Slashdot post, "making any judgements [sic] from a snapshot intended for a non-interactive demo is ill advised."

One of the more insidious things about piracy of this sort is how it can be so widespread on one level yet remain unseen on another. While messageboards chattered away about the "Doom III" levels and the game changed hands, a significant part of the industry had no idea it was happening. An Activision vice president I spoke with, along with more than one industry analyst, had no idea the game had leaked.

Click the shades for previous columns.

That's a little odd, given the level of security that has surrounded "Doom III." Activision and id (along with other companies that have been tangentially involved in the creation of the game) have worked hard to control the release of any elements of this game - from screen shots to story details. If the whispers are true and the leak did come from a corporate partner (accidentally or not), it points to a much larger problem.

Pirates might be sailing the Internet waters and curiosity seekers might be doing a little looting and pillaging too. But it shivers me timbers to think the keepers of the fort are the ones distributing the booty.  Top of page

Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email. Yarr.

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