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How Nacon Cracked and Pirated The Sinking City

A step-by-step outline of how a French publisher stole, hacked, changed the source code, and tried to cover up the reporting trail

The following video/blog post that we prepared shows how our former licensee NACON has cracked, hacked, changed our game’s code and content and illegally uploaded our game The Sinking City to Steam on February 26th 2021, in order to commercialize it under their own name without our knowledge. Some of you may have heard about our troubles in the past. This last action was the straw that broke our backs. Here is a step-by-step outline of how a French publisher stole, hacked, changed the source code, and tried to cover up the reporting trail. It’s corporate bullying, and incompetent hacking, at its finest. 

But first, some background

Since the release of The Sinking City was released on the 27th of June 2019, Frogwares has encountered continual problems with its licensee, Nacon. This post/video will look into a particular aspect of the game’s contract and the findings that we, Frogwares, have made. 

Steam is one of the listed platforms of commercialization in the contract between Frogwares and Nacon. But since the release of the game, Nacon’s unlawful actions have forced Frogwares to defend its property and react in front of the French Justice for lack of payments, attempts to steal our IPs, etc which we made a public letter about back in August 2020.

Since then Nacon has tried to force Frogwares to deliver a new master version of the game through the use of their lawyers. The French Justice refused Nacon’s demands twice, first in July 2020 and then in October 2020 during an appeal. The final decision on whether Frogwares is obligated to deliver the Steam version that Nacon is demanding is still set to be judged in trial court in the next months or even years.

So on February 26th 2021 to our great surprise, we found a new version of The Sinking City was uploaded to Steam and launched. But Frogwares didn’t deliver such a version. And this is not the first time something like this has happened. Alain Falc, Nacon owner and CEO warned us on December 28th 2020 in writing that“ You have 48 hours to upload a new Steam master otherwise we will use all solutions available within the law and the contract”. 48 hours later, Nacon purchased a version of The Sinking City through the site Gamesplanet and uploaded it to Steam like it is a Steam version. So immediately after his ultimatum expired, Nacon broke the law and breached the contract. We informed Steam of this and prevented the game from being released because it was obvious that it was a stolen version of the game.

So today, we discovered yet another unknown version of our game and what we found is that Nacon; a publicly listed company in Paris, valued at around 700 millions euros, https://www.boursorama.com/cours/1rPNACON/ is yet again behind it. This is now Nacon’s 3rd public attempt to publish a pirated PC version of our game with a previous attempt being made via Utomik in February 2020 and the attempted upload in December 2020. 

Nacon under the management of  its president Alain Falc asked some of their employees, who we even identified, to crack, hack and pirate our game, change its content in order to commercialize it under their own name, and this is how they did it.

How Nacon modified the game files

When launching the game version that Nacon released on Steam versus our version specifically prepared for Gamesplanet, you can see the following differences:

  1. The Nacon Logo has now replaced the Gamesplanet logo; an official Frogwares licensee. 
  2. The loading screen is different; once again the Gamesplanet logo is removed. 
  3. When on the main menu 
    1. the advertisement for Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is not present on the lower left screen, 
    2. the mention of the distribution platform on the lower right screen is also absent.
    3. the “more games” menu option is not present.

We took a look at the data that the Steam version made available for sale on February 26th, and noted that :

  • The folder names and structure is identical to any of Frogwares versions (Gamesplanet; EA origins, Etc…
  • The executable has a similar name but is of a different size than any of our own versions implying modification of the file.
  • The packages are 17Gb, this size corresponds to the versions created around summer 2020 when we switched to a new compressing method to reduce the game size for download purposes. Before this date the only available PC version – on the Epic Game Store – was around 30Gb in size.

In order to make changes Nacon had only one way: to decompile or hack the game using a secret key created by Frogwares since the totality of the game’s content is archived with an Epic Unreal Engine encryption system. 

To be clear this is hacking and when hacking has the purpose to steal a product and make money with it, it’s called piracy or counterfeiting. In order to achieve this goal, programmers with serious skills need to be involved. This is not DIY work by inexperienced people, this is done by programmers who know Unreal engine well.

The first step of Nacon was to obtain the key of encryption, then go through the config files and modify them (by the way, we are aware how they got their hands on the encryption key, and we are going to submit our findings to the court). Also add or change some files and then recompile the game like nothing happened and release it.

After decrypting the archive, Nacon had access to the config files, the game files and the game executable.

What we did is that we downloaded the Steam version that Nacon commercialized, and we used our own encryption key on the archive and it worked. The hackers didn’t even care to use a different encryption key than the one we created when recompiling. 

We therefore opened the packages and we identified immediately in the config files the version that was stolen and hacked:  it is a commercial version coming from the site Gamesplanet that was purchased by Nacon like any other player.

The config file shows the origin of the game that was hacked:

In order to add their logo to the game and pretend its their property, Nacon went to the config file and identified the file that contains Gameplanet logo :

Nacon simply took their own file and named it exactly like the Gamesplanet logo file (GamesPlanet_logo_video):

Instead of the original file: 

And there we have our first change. So it looks like a Nacon game.

Next,  the loading screen is different from the original version on Gamesplanet. 

This is the loading menu file featuring Gamesplanet logo (third from left)

Same trick, Nacon deleted the original and replaced it with another one where Gamesplanet logo is removed (GamesPlanet_UI_MM_splash_screen)

Now if we go to the main menu; we see three differences:

The is the original version:

This is the Nacon version:

Both the advertisement for Sherlock Holmes Chapter One on the lower left and the “play more” menu option are not present. Nacon also removed the platform watermark “This version of The Sinking City is for exclusive distribution for Gamesplanet”. While this watermark is specific to the Gamesplanet version, all of our versions since summer 2020 contain a specific watermark that appears in the lower right corner of the main menu.

Nacon did one other notable change here; our game executable on Gamesplanet checks the internet connection; and it was important to remove the internet connection for Nacon and here’s why:

The “play more” option leads to dynamic content with links toward external servers. This dynamic content is also used to check and verify what version is used, it is a non intrusive security measure, made specially for pirates and hackers.

In order to achieve the removal of this protection and checking system, Nacon modified both the game executable and the config files inside the packages.

We believe Nacon did this to hide the fraudulent exploitation of the game on Steam but also on other portals which they may be planning to send the game to. Nacon wants Frogwares or anyone, including the French Justice, to never know the true scope of their exploitation of the game.

Note, that in order to hack and pirate the executable Nacon needed even more complex tools than hacking the game package.

As you can see the size of the two executables is modified, as well, while our game executable features our digital signature. The executable from Nacon’s version doesn’t contain our signature, because they cannot be recompiled without our electronic signature that is unique.

You can see on the two first pictures the digital signature tab and the content of this tab, and note that the executable was signed on June 24 2020. 

 

On this last picture, the digital signature tab disappeared while the executable name is the same TSCgames-Win64-Shipping.

 

This way Nacon “anonymised” the game master, making it impossible for the average person to know what was really inside and where it is coming from, but also to prevent any exploitation, lawful or not, to be tracked.

In addition: 

Nacon pirated the “Deluxe” version of the game. This version features content that was developed after the original release of The Sinking City by Frogwares. Nacon didn’t pay for this content or even tried to discuss it with us. Nacon is therefore stealing additional content of our game that is outside the contract we had with them.

And finally Nacon repacked the game after all these changes and uploaded it to Steam, albeit poorly. Their version deleted all the achievements we prepared, thus removing a key feature of the Steam community, 

Nacon then requested keys from Steam to commercialize the game on platforms where Nacon doesn’t have any rights to commercialize the game in order to extend their market with a pirated and hacked version of the game and prevent Frogwares from getting any money from their property.

Let it be made extremely clear here, that we still fully trust Steam and Gamesplanet. We believe that the Gamesplanet version was purchased legally by Nacon through the Gamesplanet site and then hacked. Nacon then submitted this version to Steam who were in no way informed of the game’s pirated state. This version was then offered by Nacon to all the listed legitimate distribution sites without them being informed that this is a pirated version. 

It was not the butler

Now that we found out how they hacked the Frogwares game, we were also quite surprised to see who did it and who specifically uploaded the pirated version of the game for release. Luckily the Steam client shows credentials of the person working with the builds: 

The account neopica_fh when clicking on it simply shows the name on the screenshot below: Filip Hautekeete

So we googled it and soon realised the name matches that of the Founder and Managing Director of Neopica, a Belgian studio behind titles such as Hunting Simulator 1 & 2, FIA Euro Truck Racing Championship and another 60 games. 

Filip Hautekeete is the technical director of his studio, a programmer with more than 20 years of experience. His experience is exactly the one needed for someone working on compiling games on a daily basis. The last games of Neopica are using Unreal Engine, just like The Sinking City. 

Neopica was acquired by Nacon in October 2020 after collaborating for several years

 “We are delighted to welcome the talents of Neopica, which will strengthen our development division and participate in new, even more ambitious projects”, said Alain Falc, Chairman and CEO of Nacon.

Hacking Frogwares intellectual property is probably one of those ambitious projects Alain Falc meant. 

In conclusion

Nacon decided to steal and pirate our game and they did so while leaving giant digital footprints.

Nacon has proved they are willing to do anything possible to serve their interest, including illegal actions. They ignored the decision of the Justice and bypassed them, pirating The Sinking City in order to deceive their partners, Steam in the first place.

But what is the bigger picture now? What happens now that our contracting party stole our assets and can use them their own way without any limits?

There are long term damages we need to take care of, Nacon unpacked our data, stole our source code and used it. Nacon can create a new version of The Sinking City using our assets; they can resell, reuse, recycle our content and our tools etc.

We have to take the measure of what happened now and follow the best path on the legal side to prevent anything like this happening again.

The owner of Nacon, Alain Falc will have to face the legal consequences of the decision of pirating and stealing Frogwares property. Incidentally, Intellectual property laws in France are rather serious and can lead to up to 7 years in jail and 750000 euros of fines plus damages as the article 335-4 from Intellectual property code points out. 

We have full trust in the Justice to see these actions considered as they should.

 

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