Maybe you thought this was just going to be a two part rant, but this time around I have some real, practical advice on combating software piracy. But first:
I am always grateful when publishers remain steadfast in their support for the untamed, savage jungle that is the PC. Twenty years of Darwinian attrition has made it clear that this is not the platform for the meek. If you’re not sucked dry by warez leeches, you’ll most likely be devoured by something far larger and higher up on the foodchain. If you manage to avoid being consumed, there is always the chance that your efforts will be found wanting, and natural selection will cull your team in favor of something that is smarter, lives longer, or is better at replicating itself.
It is also true that at any moment you may simply exit the jungle and take up residence in the greener pastures named Nintendo, Sony, and (strangely enough) Microsoft. Places where there is enough for everyone and you earn a living by farming money. So if you stick with the PC, you have my thanks.
But if you’re set on staying in the PC realm then you need to be at peace with the idea that anyone who wants to play your game without paying you is going to be able to do so. In PC gaming, there has never been an unbreakable DRM scheme. Not once, ever. Most DRM systems have a lifespan measured in days. A small handful might live a fortnight. No matter how convoluted the system you devise, it just takes one guy to wedge it open and let everyone else through.
Michael Fitch can rant against the people who rip off his company, and he’s justified in doing so. While people argue about the degree to which damage has been done, the fact that damage has been incurred is manifest. But as I said last time, piracy is a social problem, not a technological one. The solution is therefore going to be social in nature, not a new DRM scheme. You can’t convert all of the pirates into customers, but – as Fitch noted – you don’t need to:
So the goal here should not be eliminating piracy, which is absurd and impossible. Instead, work on converting as many of those pirates into customers. Here are five ways to get people to pay for your stuff. Again, these are social changes – this has nothing to do with building a better DRM system. As a bonus, a lot of these things are free.
(Note that I’m going to offer advice for Developers and Publishers interchangeably. I know they aren’t. I trust everyone is smart enough to see how this advice applies to their part of the process without becoming confused. At any rate, publishers wield most of the power in the Dev / Pub relationship, so the process needs to begin with them.)
This one is obvious, which makes it even more infuriating that most publishers are incapable of grasping it. Your wonderful DRM scheme for which you paid so much money is going to be outlived by the average Drosophilidae. Your (legit) users are going to be faced with online activation, CD checks, and typing in serial numbers the size of nuclear launch codes. A pirate is going to click “install” and get on with the gaming, already.
I realize what a profound bore it is to hammer away at this appallingly obvious fact, but it’s less of a bore than that thrice-cursed dialog that gets in my face telling me to type in a huge string of mixed letters and numbers like some kind of king-hell CAPTCHA before I’m allowed to play. Knock it off already.
My antipathy towards 2kGames should be appallingly apparent to anyone who has read this site for more than a few days. They are crooks and liars, which deprives them of any high ground they might have against the pirates. The two deserve each other. When people leave comments about how they pirated BioShock, I react in the same way I might towards a guy who mugs spammers. I’m certainly not going to have any empathy for the supposed victim.
But if someone told me they were going to pirate Frayed Knights, I’d be damned angry. Jay Barnson is a great guy and I’ve followed his site since before he even began work on the game. I’m emotionally invested in his efforts, and I’d like to see him succeed. (He’s also never treated me like a thief.) Sure, it would be nice if everyone freely embraced a strict moral code; a planet of courteous and genteel paladins operating on the honor system with unwavering certainty. You can sit in your cubicle and imagine that bright shining fantasy world, or you can operate on this plane of existence and realize that the only way people are going to care about piracy is if they care about you. You need your audience to stop viewing you as a company and start seeing you as enthusiastic gamers with a passion for what you do.
Have a development blog. (Or just a personal one.) Give personal interviews, not just to the big publishers but to the podcasters and bloggers. Put your face where gamers can see it, so they will know who they’re stealing from if they choose to go that route. Get in the forums and interact with your customers. (Forums should always be a conduit between your developers and them, not a layer of insulation.)
Whenever you need someone to interact with the public, use developers instead of marketing guys so that fans can feel a personal connection with the people who made the game. You want them to walk away from the exchange excited. A fan is likely to brag to her friends, “I met the guy who designed Alyx in Half-Life 2!” If they meet with the Senior Vice-Executive Marketing Consultant Advisor from division 4? Not so much.
Companies are always so worried that their people will say something that makes them look like a jackass, and thus they prefer to tell everyone to keep quiet. But this just means that your enterprise is seen not as a collection of individuals, but as a whole. A huge, emotionless corporate monolith, a gestalt entity that communicates in doublespeak and frequently acts – ironically enough – like a jackass. Every team has a couple of people who love to talk about what they do and get reactions to their work. You just need to give them license to speak without clearing everything through marketing and legal first. The individual mistakes they make in these interactions will be more than offset by the giant mistakes you’re not making on the corporate level. (Ignore this advice if you employ John Romero.)
People might steal from strangers without regrets, but only a sociopath would steal from a friend. Be their friend, and they will line up buy your game. Some will even flame and shun the pirates on your behalf. These people want to love you. Stop treating them like lepers.
Given the capricious nature of PC software, lots of gamers want to make sure a game is going to run on their particular setup before sinking $60 of non-recoverable money into it. I see lots of people who pirate a game “just to try it out”. We all know how that’s going to go. They get into the game, hours become days, and pretty soon they’ve had a blast, beaten the game, but never got around to buying it.
Don’t turn curious customers into pirates by denying them a way to try the game before putting their money at risk. Don’t give them an excuse to download a BitTorrent client and figure out how it all works. Make sure that the only people who turn to that stuff are people who are intent on stealing. Remember that P2P file sharing feeds on itself. The more people doing it, the easier it is to find files and the faster they download. The more people you can turn legit, the fewer seeds there will be, the harder files will be to find, and the slower they will download. Get the inertia going in the right direction.
Game crackers seem to be quite competitive and release-driven. They brag about having the best games first. They pride themselves on “delivering” hot titles everyone is anxious to play. They’re also not real big on hanging around and “supporting” their crack for a months-old game when there are newer, hotter titles demanding their particular brand of mischievous attention.
Improve the game over time. If you make it so that registered users can just get the goods via an easy 1-click update, and pirates have to wade around for the right BitTorrent for the right language / release version, you’ve gone a long way towards rewarding customers and punishing pirates, instead of the other way around.
Where are all of these pre-release versions coming from? When a game shows up on BitTorrent days or weeks before hitting the shelves, you can’t blame the internet. These people are pirates, not ninjas. They’re not sneaking in and swiping your gold master from amidst the laser tripwires, robotic sentry guns, and teams of heavily-armed roaming guards you no doubt have protecting the thing. Someone who works for you or with whom you have a business relationship is out there putting your goods on the internet. How is it you’re willing to make your customers bend over backwards to use your product via invasive DRM, but you can’t seem to take a few basic steps to find the person or organization who is stabbing you in the back?
There are a lot of ways of dealing with this sort of thing, and I hardly need to belabor them here. Just (secretly) marking various releases with a few identifying numbers will let you know where the executable came from once you see it in the wild, which will go a long way to plugging those leaks. If the review copy you sent to GamePunkz Magazine shows up on the net, you at least have enough information to act. Maybe not enough to drag them into court, but maybe next time they will have to wait until after release day to get their copy.
You should at least be able to make it so that the hackers have to buy one copy of your game before they can put it on the net. Once again, this means paying customers get it first, and pirates get it second.
If the suggested numbers behind piracy are even half true, then a little progress should go a long way to boosting profits and making PC development a less dicey proposition.
The Best of 2019
I called 2019 "The Year of corporate Dystopia". Here is a list of the games I thought were interesting or worth talking about that year.
The Mistakes DOOM Didn't Make
How did this game avoid all the usual stupidity that ruins remakes of classic titles?
Steam Summer Blues
This mess of dross, confusion, and terrible UI design is the storefront the big publishers couldn't beat? Amazing.
Silent Hill Origins
Here is a long look at a game that tries to live up to a big legacy and fails hilariously.
What did web browsers look like 20 years ago, and what kind of crazy features did they have?