Monday, June 14, 2010

Bad eBay experience – Inadvertently buying a bootleg DS game

A couple of weeks ago, I had a hankering to play a classic RPG game.  After looking around at the available options for systems that I own, I decided to pick up a copy of Dragon Quest V for the Nintendo DS.

Unfortunately, even though the game was released in the U.S. just last year (2009), it’s already out of print, so I went to eBay.  There were just a few copies of the game for sale; most were going for around $30, but one “cartridge only” auction was going for a “buy it now” price of $17.  The auction was from a seller in New York and nothing about the auction at the time made me suspicious (though perhaps it should have – keep reading), so I went ahead and bought the auction.

I got the game in the mail a few days later, and played it.  The game didn’t slide particularly smoothly into my DS Lite – it was a slight “pressure fit” – but I didn’t really think anything of it at the time.  The game started up with no problems.

After viewing the introductory sequence (showing the main character’s birth) and proceeding to the first playable portion of the game (where the main character, now a child, is travelling on a small ship), I ran into a problem: I couldn’t figure out how to get off the boat or otherwise advance the plot.  I’d talked to all of the NPCs on the ship several times each, and explored everywhere that I could; after doing that, there just seemed to be nothing else to do, and no enemies at all to fight.

Eventually I consulted gamefaqs, but none of the FAQs gave any special attention to the boat scene – they all just seemed to assume that advancing past the scene would present no problem at all. 

I searched Google for terms like “dragon quest v boat stuck,” and got my first obvious clue that something was not right.  Apparently the programmers at Square Enix, the game’s developer/publisher, included code in the game that when playing a counterfeit copy of the game, the player would experience game behavior exactly matching the problem I was having – the game would just never advance past the boat scene, and the player would basically be stuck. 

However, all of the references to this behavior that I found were in reference to players playing an unauthorized copy of the game via an emulator.  I, on the other hand, was playing what I had thought to be a legitimately-purchased copy of the game, on actual physical Nintendo DS Lite hardware.  Still, the behavior I was seeing made me strongly suspect that I’d been sold an unauthorized, or “bootleg,” copy of the game.

Senator Vreenak says: "It's a FAAAKE!"Researching further, the copy of the game that I’d been sent had a serial number on the front of the cartridge of “NTR-CDXP-EUR.”  Googling on that, I found two things:

  1. That serial number actually apparently was assigned to some game called “Driving Theory Training” (and not to Dragon Quest V);
  2. A few forum posts from other people saying that they had a DS cartridge with that serial number (of various other games, neither Dragon Quest V nor “Driving Theory Training”) and they were suspicious that the cartridge was a bootleg. 

This convinced me that I did have a bootleg cartridge on my hands.  This made me pretty unhappy – I purchase all of my games legitimately, and don’t “pirate” games.  If a particular game costs more than I’m willing to pay to play it, then I simply don’t play it.

I contacted the seller, and he agreed to refund my money upon my shipping the cartridge back to him.  He claimed to be unaware that he was selling bootleg copies of games, and said that he would take the issue up with his supplier.  Ultimately I’m not sure exactly how honest he was being, but he did end up refunding my money (less the the $3 and change that I paid to ship the game back to him).

So: What should I have done to avoid buying this game to begin with, and what should I do to avoid buying counterfeit game cartridges in the future?  None of the following points taken on its own is a certain indication of a bootleg game; however, all together, they may be adequate cause for being suspicious of a particular auction:

  • Price: The low sell price of this game relative to other auctions for the same (somewhat rare) game should perhaps have been cause for suspicion.
  • Contents: The fact that the game was “cartridge only,” rather than including case and manual, should perhaps have been cause for concern.  (Again, certainly there are many legitimate “cartridge only” auctions, but this taken in combination with other factors should have raised a red flag.)
  • Origin: This particular auction was shipping from New York rather than from China; I have seen, though, some other sales of unusually low-priced games originating in China that are pretty obviously for counterfeit copies.
  • Image: The auction listing included an image of the cartridge, but it was blurry, and the serial number on the front of the cartridge was unreadable.

I couldn’t have determined this from looking at the auction online, but when I tried physically lining up the counterfeit game next to a few of my legitimate DS games, the difference was fairly obvious.  Although the counterfeit cartridge on its own was pretty legitimate-looking upon a casual inspection, the size and shape of the cartridge were just barely “off” compared to the other legitimate cartridges, which were all identical to one another.  (This was the cause of the issue I mentioned of the bootleg cartridge not quite being an easy fit into my DS Lite, like legitimate games all are.)

At least this incident was a learning experience -- that bootleg console game software is out there and is being sold.  In the future I will likely take one or both of the following steps before bidding on an auction that seems like it might be suspect:

  • Just ask the seller if the game is a genuine copy.  If the answer is anything other than an honest-seeming answer along the lines of “yes, absolutely,” then don’t bid.
  • Ask the seller what the serial number on the front of the cartridge is (if it isn’t visible in a photo on the auction).  If it isn’t what it should be, then certainly do not bid.

I might never have realized that I was playing a counterfeit copy if there hadn’t been this particular variety of DRM built into the game.  I’m not normally a big fan of DRM (who is?), but I understand the necessity of it; still, I wish this DRM had been of a “fail fast” nature (i.e. have the game refuse to run at all if it identified itself as being counterfeit) – then I wouldn’t have lost a couple of hours of my evening to playing a broken game and researching the problem.  I’d much rather have just had the opportunity to honestly purchase a legitimate copy of the game (and avoid supporting whatever pirate created this unauthorized copy) the first time.