The Publishers vs. The Pirates, Part 3

By Shamus Posted Friday Mar 7, 2008

Filed under: Video Games 59 comments

I wasn’t originally planning on doing a Part 3, but there were so many great responses to Part 2 that I decided to extend the series. First up is Justin Alexander, in the comments here:

[…] I am curious about one point: How would you suggest companies register legitimate buyers of their product (as suggested in #4) if even entering a license code is considered too onerous for the customer (as outlined in #1)?

This is a good question. I originally had a bit about this in the previous post but I cut it when it began turning into a lengthy digression.

The answers to these are related. Entering a license code is a lot less onerous when you’re getting something in return. License codes are really annoying when all I’m getting in return for my trouble is permission to play what I ostensibly already own.

(Having said that, they could certainly be a little shorter. The standard seems to be around 35 digits. It’s usually case-insensitive, they use the letters A-Z plus the digits 0-9. You can think of it as a base 36 number system. That gives you a number space of 3635. If I’m reading my calculator right, that’s…


Or 2.96×1054, which seems excessive if all you need is a unique identifier for the game / user. In fact, there are “only” 8.87 x 1049 atoms in the Earth, which means that with a 35 digit system we could give each and every atom in the planet its very own license key, and then some. Of course, license keys are used for more than just identification, they’re used for authentication, which is why they’re so long and annoying. Only certain ones are valid – usually according to some inscrutable system – and they need a large number space to minimize the risk of you just “guessing” a valid key.)

But at the heart of the issue it’s not the length of the license key that matters, it’s the reason for entering it. Nobody objects to putting the CD in the drive to play a PS2 game, yet lots of gamers object when asked to do the same on a PC. People don’t usually object to entering personal information as part of creating an account so they can get something of value. Yet they will balk at doing so if the process is the digital equivalent of airport security. In the case of both CD checks and license keys, users can tell that they are being forced to do these things because the publisher regards them with a lack of trust. It conveys contempt for the customer and a willingness to needlessly waste their time, which interferes with making the customer view you as a friend. So it’s not really the hassle itself, it’s the reason behind it. The system carries the implied insult, “I think you’re a pirate. Perform this task to prove me wrong.”

Someone else pointed out that the piracy numbers do not seem to be even across the board. Certain genres seem to be targeted much more heavily than others. Brad Wardell suggests the same thing back in the original thread that started the discussion.

That is, programs like Multiplicity make a lot of money despite there being a free “competitor” because the people who might use this kind of program are more inclined to buy something if it provides them with value than say someone who plays an action game on the PC.

Like I said earlier, people who pirate stuff simply lose their vote when it comes to what actually gets made. I won’t make action games even though I love them (Stardock is full of Orange box addicts) because the cost to make them versus the PC market of people who actually BUY games is not compelling.

Assuming that this is true, that action games are pirated far more than (say) turn-based strategy, I see three ways of looking at it:

  1. It’s an age / economic problem. That is, if we assume action games are favored by teens and college students, perhaps those people will begin paying for stuff once they enter the workforce.
  2. It’s an age / generational problem. These games are favored by teens and college students, who have grown up in a world where P2P filesharing is ubiquitous and do not think of it as “stealing” or even “wrong”. They will continue to pirate even when they are older and can afford the software they want.
  3. It’s an attitude / personality problem. We assume that action gamers are not any particular age, but they are more inclined to pirate because the personality that makes them like those games also makes them likely to resort to piracy.

I have no idea, but it’s still an interesting question. In any case, I think Brad’s pragmatic attitude is something other publishers should adopt. Make games for people who buy games, not just people who play games. This can work against you, because the gaming press loves to hype the more visceral titles. The question is whether being ignored or marginalized by the press is more harmful that putting out a title that is likely to be heavily pirated. You could use the fact that Galactic Civilizations I and II did so well and Iron Forge Entertainment went under to make the case that aiming for an honest audience is more important than wooing the gaming press. But if you do that some wiseguy is going to come along and point out that the plural of anecdote is not data, and you’ve only got one anecdote to begin with. It’s hard to tell, really.

Several people brought up the problems of piracy in countries where piracy is ultra-rampant, where brick-and-mortar stores will burn you copies of Windows XP for $1, and where it’s difficult or impossible to obtain a legitimate copy of anything. I didn’t discuss this because I don’t see much that can be done. Combating piracy is hard enough when the publisher and the pirates are in the same country, under the same legal system, and there are laws to protect the publisher. Maybe Microsoft has the clout to affect international politics (I doubt it) but your average games publisher is probably better off focusing on building a loyal customer base in countries where there is already a viable market. Certainly this is where all the low-hanging fruit is right now.


From The Archives:

59 thoughts on “The Publishers vs. The Pirates, Part 3

  1. yd says:

    The key thing that has to be emphasized over and over is that the protection schemes have stopped NOTHING from being copied. Even with the resources Microsoft has to throw at the problem, Vista is being run unlicensed by many people.

    So why waste the time developing something that has no effect and just inconveniences the people who actually spent money on your product?

    Yes, exactly what you’ve said. It’s just so true.

  2. Mephane says:

    Shamus, I totally agree with everything you said in all of the three posts about this topic. Only that personally, I don’t mind entering a license key even for the pure installation. CD-Checks are way more hassle imho, because they are done everytime you play, not once.

  3. Dix says:

    OK, so the Rampant Coyote linked to this series, and he also linked to GBGames’ take on the whole thing. From the latter I pull out this paragraph, which I think will illustrate the point I’m going to try to make.

    Or you could start looking into different business models, models that accept the customer's ability to make infinite copies as a fact of life. Making copies and sharing them with friends is what they want to do, so why not capitalize on it? And no, I'm not telling you that all games of the future must be MMOs or require a subscription to play. No, I'm not suggesting that all games get supported by ads. I don't have to be the creative one that tells you what new business models you can implement, but I can say that both the music and video game industries could stand to reinvent themselves as Godin suggests.

    Fine. Except, see, from what I’m reading there’s nobody out there offering a suggestion as to what this/these new business model(s) should be. In fact, GBGames comes closer than anyone else in nodding to MMO and ad-supported models as at least existing. But surely there should be some other model, right? Well – like what?

    I’m just a customer, but as just-a-customer I can only see a couple of very slim possibilities for game producers to make any money after ‘surrendering’ to the tendency of players to ‘share’ content with one another (aka piracy). MMO and ad-supported games, duh. Customized content is a third possibility. Why customized? Why not just make updates and expansions available only to the registered? Because someone will register and then crack the download to make it available to their 20,000 closest friends. Only if the content is customized to the user is it valuable to the user without being – pirable, to borrow the term someone else made up in comments here.

    I should have my own blog to rant at such length, but basically, I’m still waiting to see someone suggest a business model that will solve this problem – rather than just exclaiming that such a model must be adopted. Maybe no one wants to make the suggestion because such a suggestion would be worth money, if one were a business consultant.

  4. Kimari says:

    A pirate I was meant to be! Trim the sails and roam the sea
    That song always brings a manly tear to my eye :)

    Anyways, the main problem about protection against piracy revolves around user friendliness. As I see it, the general publisher/developer demands some kind of protection so your average joe can’t copy the game the minute that it launches. But as the industry is apparently trying to learn, the DRM schemes are not that effective to begin with. You might not get a pirated copy on day one, but let me assure you that it will be available in a matter of days.
    So, the best approach to this would be to use the kind of protection that bothers the customer the least.

    But then, exactly how much adittional money does the protection bring to the table? I’m guessing that that number is far less than the costs to make/buy the protection in the first place.
    Sometimes ignoring an issue is more cost effective than trying to solve it.

  5. Mike says:

    Your logic is both well-thought and well-presented. Anyone who can do that is an awesome person, regardless of the topic. Good job! Couldn’t have said anything better myself. =)

  6. adam says:

    This discussion on Keys makes me think of Galactic Civilizations 2. For that game, there was no copy protection, and while there was a key, it was not needed for play, but to get updates.

  7. Ed says:

    Bruce Schneier, famed cryptologist and contributor to the book Cryptonomicon, talks about airport security measures being entirely for show. The phrase he uses is security theatre. It is a measure designed to give the feeling of security, while causing loss of efficiency and not actually deterring the real threats to security. DRM is universally fatally flawed and gives only an illusory sense of security.

  8. Rubes says:

    Regardless of your thoughts or opinions on the topic, I think you have to give Shamus a lot of credit for putting together a great, thought-provoking series.

  9. Jimmie says:

    I really don’t have a problem with entering a product key. It’s a means of validating that what I have is legitimately mine. Entering a long key one time doesn’t strike me as a particularly onerous process.

    CD checks do bother me because they force me to keep all my CDs close at hand. That’s far from convenient, especially when the program I want to use is on my laptop. Actually “far from convenient” is a huge understatement. My only workaround for that is, perhaps, to make an image file of the entire CD and keep it where the program can see it. That chews up a ton of hard drive space that I would much, much rather use for other things.

    I don’t think that either means of validation is working particularly well, though. In the end, I think that what may end up solving most of the problem is watching the numbers of PC games dwindle down to zero. Perhaps (and I’m not even necessarily hopeful of this either) watching the game industry bleed and die at their feet will convince the pirates to stop.

  10. Phlux says:

    I used to pirate stuff when I was in high school and had no money. I haven’t done it for years now, though, so I suppose that lends credence to your Theory #1.

    Theory#2 could easily have been the case also, though, because when I was in highschool finding cracks and no-CDs for games was easy, but getting my hands on the disk was tough. I had to burn a copy at a LAN party, know someone who had one, or spend days downloading it over FTP, Hotline, IRC, etc… There was no broadband and no bittorrent yet.

    Once I had money, it was just easier to go buy the games instead of pirating them. Now that broadband is fairly ubiquitous and downloads are plentiful and fast, kids might not “grow out” of that phase as quickly (perhaps never?).

  11. Simon says:

    Heh.. in sweden we have a huge “problem” with piracy. about 1.2 million of our countrys 9 million inhabitants downloads stuff from TPB and such sites. This makes the governmentpretty powerless in making laws to prevent it, since they wouldn’t have a chanse in hell to arrest all of them. And if they’d take down tpb, the party who would open it again would have a nearly 100% chanse on getting elected the next time, since they would have 1,2 muillion votes almost instantly on their side.
    the situation has gone so fat that We even have comercials for piracy =P

  12. Simon says:

    oh, and this thing about cd-keys and stuff makes me think of ut 2004, you could use one valid cd-key and cd for an infinite ammount of tplyers to play on a lan at the same time =P

  13. Viktor says:

    The core of the problem isn’t really any of the 3 options you put up there, it’s the fact that a game costs $30 and a pirated copy is free. Once someone has figured out that they can get something free with no risk, why would they go back to paying for it? Yes, it’s partially the new generation who don’t see anything wrong with it, but it’s also just simpler to get something free than it is to buy it.

  14. Daosus says:

    That’s the thing though, the fact that it’s a tradeoff between “free” and “$30” is the problem. It should really be “free” and “$30 for the game, the updates and a whole bunch of stuff.” Get this — you’re not going to get people to pay for the game. You can get them to pay for the extra stuff. It’s like selling the XBOX at a loss only to make that money back on games.

  15. sithson says:

    I think you may have helped illuminate and taken steps to help solve the piracy problem with this series. bravo.

  16. Tarous Zars says:

    I have to agree with the sentiment that a Product Key is fine but a CD check sucks. Optical media is nice because it lets us put a lot of data in a relatively small space. But the dang things scratch too easily. The problem is exacerbated if you actual like the game because you will play it more often and therefore have a higher chance of ruining the disk.

    I also agree that extra benefits for real users is a great idea. Let them use that same CD key to login to your website. And then give them tons of extra features. Reward them for being a customer, and you never know, they may convince people it is worth the 30 dollars to buy the game instead of grabbing the free possibly warez ridden pirated version.

  17. DanK says:

    I would like to add a 4. to the list above.

    4. Percieved value of money for a shooter game.

    There are essentially 2 types of shooters – singleplayer and multiplayer (which sometimes have a short campaign bolted on).

    If you play multi, online, you will likely purchase.
    If you play multi, on a lan – you may not feel it is ‘worth’ the money for one game ‘per computer’ (while offtopic for shooters, interesting to note StarCraft gained a lot of momentum for allowing a single disc to make a ‘spawn’ copy for multi on a second computer – this in turn led to more sales so people could play legitimately on battlenet – an example of a value added service for a purchased game for free!)

    If you play single player (whether the bolt-on campaign on a multi, or a solely single player game) – unless there is a lot of replayability, you are paying 60 bucks for essentially one run through a game. Unless the game is spectacular, that is a lot. Add to that the vast numbers of substandard shooters produced, and I can understand how a lot of people would pirate these games.

    Now, I am not a large player of shooters (I prefer RPG games myself – more my cup of tea). I would have bought BioShock – but ever since DRM became so prevalant I have held off on purchasing games until I hear stories from early adopters about possible issues with the game.

    Having played through a pirated version of this game (which I think is awesome and a classic) I would have gladly rewarded their efforts in their vision and what they created – but the fact that they chose to include such invasive DRM has stopped them from seeing my money (and the fact that no anti-DRM measures have been introduced 6 months later makes me feel my decision is justified).

    It was just less hassle to grab a torrent than let errant software mess with my PC. And that is exactly point 1) in Shamus’ second post – the pirated version was simply superior.

  18. J says:

    Being that I took the plunge and got a “for-real” gaming PC middle of last year, I would not have minded getting Bioshock if not for the DRM. Don’t own a 360 so I’m just going to have to do without.

    I got Crysis instead (everyone’s favorite punching bag). It seems to use a newer version of that wonderful POS software SecuROM… one that happens to make it sound like my DVD drive is literally dying and crying for mercy. When I start the game up, it takes at least 30 seconds for the software to do its thing and lets me actually play. Vista boots up faster! So I get to wait and hear the MTBF of my drive dropping like a rock. That’s just wrong.

    I got a no-DVD crack but never bothered installing it since I started playing Guild Wars and (just yesterday) Fatal Hearts instead. Online and indie–reasons to stay PC. :)

  19. GAZZA says:

    Just a minor point: you’ve made a serious miscalculation in the number of available license keys. What you have calculated is only true if you assume that every character in the 35 character key can be any digit or any (case insensitive) letter, the same way that there are theoretically 10^16 different credit cards (Master or Visa) possible.

    Neither of these are true. Credit cards use the last digit as a validity check, so it is effectively fixed. I don’t know the algorithm for the license key validity checker, but there IS an algorithm; not every license key that can be entered is valid, as it is generally possible to install a game with no internet connection, so it can’t just be a database lookup online.

  20. Arun says:

    I’m sorry to say that piracy is the norm here in India. If you see a computer, chances are its running pirated software (yes, including mine). Microsoft has probably given up on getting legit versions of its OS running here – maybe 1 in 30 computers run a legal version of XP. Its even rarer to see legal version of professional software like AutoCAD, even in professional firms, although last I heard Autodesk is taking a tough stand on this. I don’t think I have to say how games fare, and the only people who still buy games are the novice gamers who aren’t aware of what a broadband connection could achieve. Its more or less laziness on our part as software is not as easily available here as it is to just burn it off someone else’s copy or download it. I don’t think most of us here even understand that we’re vicious pirates. I for one am trying move towards open source like Ubuntu, but considering how far removed this country is from the source of the software I think tackling piracy here has a long way to go.

  21. Shamus says:

    GAZZA: It doesn’t matter how the digits are used. What matters is the size and complexity of the number the user has to type in. If the second digit is always a numeral, or the very last digit is always a “Z”, it doesn’t make it any easier for the user to type in.

  22. Kilmor says:

    In regards to the “how do you make money if everyone pirates your game?”, things like microtransactions, maybe there are 20 special units or whatever that you can buy for 50cents a piece.

    Or you have a raffle among validated registered users, winner gets a free gaming PC(or 1000 winners get a coupon for 50% off any other game the company sells, thus generating more sales) AND broadly advertise who actually wins whatever was for the winning. So often with contests like that you never find out who won, if anyone, so there’s less incentive to register. Or something like a plushy or T-shirt, and get people to post “action pics” in their free shirts. Shoot, if there were like, 1000 special Portal shirts, assuming good quality, those things would be ‘teh awsome’ to have.

    Anyway, thats one lowly programmers opinion of what could be done to encourage more sales.

    Edit: Also, your alpha-numeric space for key entry is actually 34 characters, you typically don’t use Both I and one or zero and Oh. Just to be nitpicky :D But yes, without unique keys embedded in CD’s themselves you have to have some way to validate that particular copy of the game. And if the keys are too short they can just be brute-forced, so short keys are no good :\ We actually have a piece of software/hardware we use at my company that uses a USB dongle to validate itself, not that dissimilar from a satellite box having a smartcard. Probably cost-prohibitive for a game though :\

  23. I deal with court reporters all the time. All of them use dongles because the software they use requires them (and no one wants to sell it for free by skipping security). They all seem to do just fine with the dongles.

    Given the way USB ports are so common, I could live with usb dongles with my games. Or a key and an update protocol that encrypts my key and spawns a new on-line key necessary for updates and initializing the software (i.e. you buy the software but it won’t do more than run the demo until you go on-line to validate it).

  24. Kilmor wrote: “In regards to the “how do you make money if everyone pirates your game?”, things like microtransactions, maybe there are 20 special units or whatever that you can buy for 50cents a piece.”

    Except the “special units or whatever” can be pirated just as easily as the rest of the game was pirated.

    Kilmor wrote: “Or you have a raffle among validated registered users, winner gets a free gaming PC(or 1000 winners get a coupon for 50% off any other game the company sells, thus generating more sales) AND broadly advertise who actually wins whatever was for the winning.”

    This is actually illegal in the United States. “No purchase necessary” is the law of the land.

    Stephen M. wrote: “I deal with court reporters all the time. All of them use dongles because the software they use requires them (and no one wants to sell it for free by skipping security). They all seem to do just fine with the dongles.”

    Except the dongles can become a failure point: The dongle breaks and the game becomes unplayable. Plus those dongles are relatively expensive: They’d add at least $5 and probably more to the cost of the games.

    And, frankly, the dongle is no different than requiring the CD to play. It’s an inconvenience.

    I don’t understand the problem people have with serial codes. As long as publishers print them clearly and legibly (which I admit hasn’t always happened), what’s the objection? Is the 15 seconds it takes you type it in really that onerous?

    And the best thing about serial codes is that they’re trivial to be backed up. I lost the serial code to a game once… But only once, because from that day forward I made a point of entering all my serial codes into a text file on my computer. That text file is routinely backed up along with all the other data that I back up and can also be transferred to a laptop or a new computer in seconds.

    So, yeah, I’d say the best copy protection scheme is:

    (1) Unique serial keys.
    (2) With updates, bonus content, and the like accessible online with the use of your unique serial key.

    Which is basically the approach the much-lauded Galactic Civilizations II adopted.

    My only reservation with this method is that Stardock prohibits you from selling your copy of the software. So they’re still infringing on my fair use rights. But there’s no reason that needs to be part of the system I describe.

  25. scragar says:

    can I just point out that when it comes to pirated content it’s often easier as your not copying the code from paper, it’s often in a text file meaning you can just copy and paste the content.

    and what is wrong with having this unique ID stored in the game(maybe in a config file or something) so the user doesn’t have to enter it, if the user never has to enter it you are going to stop error, and in the even of the code being duplicated have the user phone a member of the team who can quickly verify that the copy is legit in some other way and allow this key to be used a second + time?

  26. Gremlin says:

    Assuming that action games might indeed be the most pirated type of game then I have a suggestion as to the reasons why. Consider the following factors:

    1. Action games tend to be more graphics intensive.

    2. They are harder to play.

    3. They cost more (due to the graphics).

    This is just a rough generalization and I won’t point to any specific game. I suggest that action games are being pirated by people who actually have no intention of playing them. They just want to see the cool graphics that they heard or read about. Undoubtedly, many of these people will also go get the cheat codes for the game. Armed with god mode or whatever, they can then walk around in the game at leisure and gawk at the eye candy.

    The big culprit is game difficulty. Lest anyone suggest that maybe I’m just a wimp at playing games, I have been playing games off and on since 1980. My first game was Defender and I am a master at it. I still play it (PC emulator). I have been playing Doom for over ten years. I think I somewhat know my way around games. Yet, I have cursed just about every action game that has come out since Doom because I think the difficulty is too high. I mostly get frustrated with vertical aiming and weapon reload. Okay, so maybe I am a bit of a wimp but so are all of my friends, all of my relatives and all of my business associates. Who the heck can play these games? Darn few people as far as I can tell.

    My suggestion to the game industry is to smarten the heck up and start making games that normal people can actually play. I’d be more than willing to fork over my 60 bucks for your razzle-dazzle game if I can actually play it worth a darn. I expect something better than a 15-hour grind (gawking at eye candy gets old very fast).

  27. folo4 says:

    Gremlin, there is further reading in this blog about punishing difficulty, mostly about how easy is NOT easy in most games.

  28. Gremlin says:

    Punishing difficulty? You mean like trying to kill a Cyberdemon whilst circle strafing in a room the size of a walk-in closet? Been there, done that. That’s not what I meant. I am referring to simple game mechanics like aiming, shooting, jumping, etc. The sort of stuff which ought to be intuitive but isn’t. I don’t have a problem with making a headshot or timing my strategy to the weapon reload. What I do have a problem with is DOING THESE THINGS ALL OF THE TIME!

    It would be nice if these games would take a break from forcing me to be always perfect. I enjoy sniping enemies in upper windows. I don’t mind if it’s hard because something like that ought to be a little harder than ordinary. But, for Pete’s sake, why does it have to be hard just to shoot the guy who is standing right in front of me? What, he won’t die because it’s not a direct head shot? Give me a freaking break!

    I guess you might call this “cumulative difficulty”. Individually, these little tests of skill are not that hard to do. It gets hard as the game progresses and you keep frigging forgetting to reload the damn weapon and you find yourself stuck in the midst of a bunch of bloodsucking creatures while you wait for the goddamn reload frames to finish. Can I get control of my gun back, please, pretty please?

    It all adds up, in the end, to a game which starts out being fun until you figure out that it’s really an endurance test for all of the 15 hours or so it takes to play through the game. What I’m saying is that some people have caught on to this bullshit and would rather just pirate the fool game than pay to be spit upon by narrow-minded developers who thinks it’s their job to make people unhappy. Phooey! Now I feel angry.

  29. HeadHunter says:

    Thanks, Shamus, for such an interesting and engaging topic!

    I’m in agreement with both of the points Ethesis mentioned. The game-key generating an online key for updates and new content is innovative and could easily work!

    On the topic of dongles, I remember using them with some of the software I had in the ’80s on my Commodore and Atari computers. My word processing and desktop publishing software used dongles. I remember a couple games that used “code wheels” at certain points in the game for validation – but that was burdensome to the legitimate user, easily photocopied and treated us all like suspected pirates. The dongle, on the other hand, is simple, and if it’s got a pass-through port it’s even better.

    Though a dongle might sound cost-prohibitive, it’s got to be better than the revenues lost to piracy.

    Another point I haven’t seen brought up is the prohibitive cost of the products. Even setting aside inflation, games are far more expensive than they were 10-20 years ago. I’ve got nothing against a company wanting to make a profit, but when companies like Activision post earnings in the *billions*, it’s clear they don’t need to charge as much as they do for games. When people are faced with a choice of “free or $60”, many people who would have gladly paid a more reasonable price will pirate instead. A more reasonable cost can be offered while still being profitable for publishers, and this should diminish piracy to some extent.

  30. william says:

    random thought
    what about a disc check or a CD key?
    so the software prompts you when installing
    please enter CD key now to allow discless operation?

    just my two copper pieces

  31. Kilmor says:

    Scragar, you can’t have a unique key in a CD/DVD distributed game because all the discs are the same, they’re all stamped copies of a master disc. The only difference may be a CD key printed on Top of the disc, which a cd drive can’t read. :\

  32. tussock says:

    The simplest answer for action games is that a lot of pirates get a copy of everything, especially if it’s advertised at all (which action games often are to show off graphics).

    Purchasers, meanwhile, actually *play* the games. Action games simply not included so much in that.

    Back when I was a full-on pirate, I only installed a small fraction of what I copied (which was in itself a small fraction of what was floating around amoungst the locals), based on what friends said about what was worth playing. Most that I installed I didn’t play for more than a half hour, and deleted a few unplayed whenever I ran out of HD space.

    The very few that I got into were mostly turn-based strategy games, very deep simulators, or the odd lan-party friendly shooter/RTS with endless community support mods for longevity, and I’ve got the box and license for most of them. Depth in games has real value to me.

    Not that I’d actually install the commercial versions for them, what with the pirate version already being NoCD’d and “registered”. For most purposes, I paid far too much money for very small cardboard boxes, most of which didn’t even include a printed manual.

    Most pirates only purchase the cardboard box if it includes something of real value to them. Quality printed manual, glossy gameworld maps or key charts, a miniature figure, or access to options the pirates can’t crack (which isn’t a lot, there’s plenty of unofficial servers for all the popular MMOs if you know where to look, and authentication/patch hacks for popular software going back 20 years or more).

    Anyhoo, as long as the developers sign deals with per-box payouts, the distributers will continue to maximise profit-per-box rather than total sales to reduce royalty patments, which will continue to see consumers ripped off with expensive air-filled cardboard, which will continue to drive people to pirate.
    But the devs can’t do otherwise, as every other royalty system ends up screwing them even worse.
    id Software recommends getting almost all the money up front as best practice if you can swing it, royalties ultimately meaning less sales, and thus less money for the next project.

  33. Iudex says:

    It is interesting to see this as I just read an article in Wired about how the trend is for internet and other companies to offer things for free. I also wonder if perhaps the development of games might end up falling to altruism, after all what if instead of buying games the first time the game was used (and only the first time) the game asked for a donation, and left a menu at the top to easily and quickly online donate to the creators. I feel like this would support the people who developed them, perhaps this might bring profits to the gaming industry, or perhaps instead of voluntary donations it offers expanded content if registered but registration is voluntary. I agree this is also a sociological issue as much as a technological and perhaps the paradigm of people buy games from manufactures needs to shift to include the factor of free downloadable copies.

  34. Lord_Lothar says:

    I think the key thing to do is to offer something of improved value in the purchased copy. Whenever it’s a big cardboard box with a few envelopes for the discs, I can’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. It’s especially annoying if you are going to have to store those discs, because paper envelopes are really easy to lose. Give me some value-add for purchasing, and hey, I’ll purchase.

  35. David V.S. says:

    Dix asked for business models…

    In a previous comment, I suggested the “installation is free, the first time played each day costs a dime” business model.

    Here’s another, which I’ll call the “character creation online” business model.

    (a) The game is free to acquire, but in this state only runs in a Demo Mode that uses a generic and limited character.

    (b1) I use a website to create my alter-ego for the game, which requires online registration and is where the actual purchase happens. (This character could be a FPS protagonist, RTS general imagined to be leading the troops, or RPG party leader.)

    (b2) If the human desire to create our own alter-egos is not a strong enough force to prevent piracy (i.e., I can still give my friend my character code) then have the character creation website ask for my operating system’s registration number. (If this option is used, I would also recommend the ability to make “expires in 5 day” codes for free since LAN parties can be great advertising.)

    (c) When I have created my alter-ego the website produces a personal code that allows the game to run at more than a Demo mode.

    (d) If my computer is online the game can reach out for the code if I allow it, to be hassle-free. If I do not have internet access at home or do not want to give the game firewall permission I could request an e-mail copy of the code.

    (e) When the game is updated, it needs the code again.

  36. Scourge says:

    I just have to think about Neverwinternights 1, an rpg. it had 2 add-ons and each add-on required you to enter a code, however in the latest patch was the cd check removed so you can play it without a disc. and guess what, it has more players than nwn 2 or most newer games, and tehg ame is already pretty old.

  37. Felblood says:

    Dongles!? Are you mad!?

    People complain about having to swap out CDs in order to switch between programs, and you want to make them carry a bag of dongles around?

    Those court reporters. They probably only have the one dongle for the one program that needs to be secure. A gamer is going to have at least 3 games on his laptop and several times that on his desktop. If you make him dig through a drawer full of USB chips before he can play your game he will curse your name in his sleep and your product will end up on his “I was going to finish it, but I never did. I wonder how it ended. I won’t buy the sequel” list.

    –And heaven help the poor souls whose USB ports are filled with actual peripherals.

    When you download a copy of a Torrent Client in order to procure no-CD or no-Dongle cracks, you can say you won’t use it for actual piracy, but you will only be fooling yourself.

    Few men can stand that sort of temptation.

  38. Martin says:

    I’m just here to say that I’d happily pay 19.95 for a new game if I could download it, enter a license key, even have that game check my license key for repeated non-unique IP hits now and then, and I don’t have a box or jewelcase to dispose of.

    I’d be even more likely to pay 9.95 for a version with crappy (reduced) graphics since my system is relatively old, and after growing up with the Atari 2600 and later the Ultima series, they don’t matter to me much anyway.

  39. Chris Arndt says:

    I hate Product Keys.

    I hate it when the game I purchased, or worse, recieved as a gift, can no longer be mine and played as mine just because I lost the damned packaging.

    “Hey! I lost the packaging! No biggy! I made a copy of the game! Wait! I don’t have the Product Key!

    Where’s the packaging!” I hope these antiPirates have to share a prison cell with pirate nerds for ten years.

  40. scragar wrote: “and what is wrong with having this unique ID stored in the game(maybe in a config file or something) so the user doesn't have to enter it, if the user never has to enter it you are going to stop error, and in the even of the code being duplicated have the user phone a member of the team who can quickly verify that the copy is legit in some other way and allow this key to be used a second + time?”

    Nothing. And if you’re talking about a game bought through online distribution, there’s no reason it should be handled like that.

    If you’re talking about a game bought in hard-copy, however, there’s really no way to include a unique serial code on each game disc without greatly increasing the cost of the game.

    Chris Arndt wrote: “I hate it when the game I purchased, or worse, recieved as a gift, can no longer be mine and played as mine just because I lost the damned packaging. “Hey! I lost the packaging! No biggy! I made a copy of the game! Wait! I don't have the Product Key!””

    Allow me to translate: “Hey! I lost my data! No biggy! I made a back-up copy of my data! Wait! I didn’t back-up all of my data!”

    Seriously. Backing up your serial codes is trivial. And useful even if you don’t misplace the original copy.

    Complaining about lost serial codes is like complaining that you forgot to copy the executable when you were backing up the game CD.

  41. Nick says:

    Where are you getting games for $30?! I assume that is US dollars, they are three times that price here in Australia.

  42. Scourge says:

    30 dollars.. wow.. that is cheap, most games cost about 60 € where I live (not sure how the translation rate is, either 1 $ = 1.3 or so € or the other way around)

  43. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    Justin Alexander:

    If you're talking about a game bought in hard-copy, however, there's really no way to include a unique serial code on each game disc without greatly increasing the cost of the game.

    Not much.You could adjust the presses to swap a few essential 1s and 0s after each print,and thus generate different serials.However,the number of errors would rise greatly.

  44. Re: $30 games.

    That’s pretty much what I pay for the games I play. I might occasionally go as high as $40, but there many more instances where I’m only paying $10 or $20 for a game.

    For example, right now I’m seeing Crysis ($30), Bioshock ($20), Call of Duty 4 ($25), the Orange Box ($32), Unreal Tournament III ($25), and Gears of War ($25) all sitting in that price range on

    I don’t know what causes Australian prices to be so extraordinarily larger than that. Is there a lack of Australian publishers? Are all these games being physically imported? Is there some kind of heavy sales tax being applied?

  45. Seracka says:

    I usually wait until the price for a game is one I can stomach. So, I am usually plaing old games. Unless I KNOW I will like the game. For instance I played The Sims when it went to bargain prices…so, now I am addicted and will pay full price for The Sims 2.

    I do like what The Sims 2 does, they do send you a ‘cheat’ if you register your game. This is not the same as the prodcut key but, it easily could be. The ‘cheat’ is a little thing and quite frankly you could find the same information online but, it is like EA saying, we will tell you how to make the game easier so you don’t have to dig for it.

    They also do that with pre-orders. If you pre-order the game sometimes you get bonus content, okay, this is a swing set that only the pre-orders can get but, again it is a little thing that creates good feelings.

    So, other publishers could do something like, if you validate your game you will get a hint that will make reloading your weapon much easier. Or you will get updates with content that will only come in the update. The publishers just need to understand:

    1 – That they are creating bad feelings amongst the gaming community.

    2 – Maybe listen to said community for things they can do to create good feelings.

    Just my 2 cents.

  46. Kurayamino says:

    Some guy from Stardock (Sins of a Solar Empire) talked a wee bit about piracy, and his view on it. You might find it intresting, I kinda did. Here’s the link found on the frontpage of Sins of a Solar Empire:

  47. KMJX says:


  48. Annon says:

    There’s one last factor I haven’t seen touched yet. I, for one, have used pirated copies of many great games, but I have also paidfor tehm as well. I buy them becaus I enjoy playing them, then grab a CD-key crack so I can play with my spouse without being forced to shill out another 80 bucks so I can play a LAN game with her.

    Seriously, all I have to do to play a multiplayer game on XBox is plug in another controller–if it isn’t that simple I won’t buy the game. Why can’t it work that way on the PC too?

  49. Jansolo says:

    I’m sorry your headache (that was the story of today)

    But I write in order to discuss piracy.

    I’ve got a PSP and I’m expecting Final Fantasy VII crisis core with a lot of anxiety. I’m spaniard, that is, I come from Europe, where the game will be release in June.

    The released date for the USA is 28th March.

    Today is 18th March. And the game is already available in all P2P enviroments: torrent, e-mule, pando, and so on.

    Today, IGN has pubished its review.

    It’s a pitty, because a special edition of the game will be published in the U.K., it will include an art-book. Nice try.

  50. Kris says:

    I don’t know if anyone else is having this problem, but since you added the “ShareThis” link at the bottom, my RSS reader is freaking out and throwing all sorts of errors. Not sure why, but the error message reads ‘”SHARETHIS” is undefined’.

    Anyone else having problems?

  51. Jamesalexw says:

    I work in a games retailer – serial keys are terrible – you have no way of allowing a customer to return a product as you cannot determine if that key is still in use somewhere.

    Most of the other guys play consoles and look at me puzzled when I moan about not being able to return PC games. Couple together the fact that PC’s will sometimes simply fail to play something until you reinstall your os/get the latest drivers/perform voodoo with the retailers inability or lack of interest in returning a PC game and you have a recipe for complete lack of consumer interest.

    My advice.

    1. stop releasing unfinished shite on to the PC that requires six months of patches.

    2. give the retailers the ability to return your crap software if you fail to accomplish 1.

    3. stop putting minimum system specs on the box that mean you can install it, but on play make it look like you’ve got cataracts and someone is constantly pressing a secret pause key.

    4. get rid of the security software – it won’t stop the pirates – it annoys us – we then thank the pirates by downloading their crack to get rid of aformentioned security pap.

    5. If the game needs the CD / DVD then it doesn’t need space on my hard drive as well – a PS2 plays entire games from the disc drive. It might be slower but if I have to put a disc in after the install I’m going to get fed up.

    6. Give us the convenience of an Xbox 360 – which can be chipped BTW and does suffer from piracy – and a reason to BUY.

    7. How about a rolling game system that gives discounts to verified owners of your previous games.

    8. How about a USB key for all the games in your portfolio that can have games activated and deactivated on purchase or return by an authorised games retailer.

    9. How about all the games developers get with program and have one box design like the “Games For Windows” thing that Microsoft developed. I can’t believe how many developers have ignored this while whining about piracy and reduction in sales. The same devlopers make sure as shit they release the Xbox 360 games in the right box with the right cover.

    Make the PC a PLATFORM – not a confused muddle of Johnny from the art departments latest take on PC Box design.

    – rant – end –

  52. maximus says:

    I have tons o’ cash (not meaning to brag) but i still “steal” off the internet. personally for me its the thought of losing money. and in my business (marketing for attorneys) I’ve learned it is a psychological fact that everyone doesn’t like to spend money for anything. (half my trade is convincing people to spend that first dollar).

    so thats my two cents.

  53. Bearmug says:

    CD checks are annoying for two reasons:
    1. I have to keep CDs somewhere near. More games I own, harder that becomes
    2. If I have game CD in the drive, I can’t put in a musical CD.

    Still, if game installs only basics on my hard drive and keeps the bulk of data on the CD/DVD, I don’t really mind. If it takes 7+ GB of hard drive and it still takes over my CD drive it annoys me. I know hard drives are not expensive, having 80gb taken with 5 games is not fun (although one of them is AoC, which seems to grow by itself….).

    Personally, I’d go with no checks on install (or maybe cd check during install only), but need to make an account to update/patch.

    And there MUST be a trial/demo version for download, after buying 3 games in row that I played a total of 5 hours, I tend to wait for demo or just skip it. And AoC is not an exception unfortunately.

  54. CD keys don’t bother me much. I take care not to lose them. That seems the least intrusive protection method and the least annoying I’ve encountered in my days as a PC game player.

    I have to echo a lot of posters in saying it’s the CD checks that make me tear my hair. I recently had to buy a new optical media drive so I could continue playing games because it started having trouble reading the discs to prove I own the blasted game. There could be a number of factors going into this–the CD getting a bit scratched up because I had to have it nearby if I wanted to play, the drive getting old, the drive getting older before its time because it had to spin up discs more often than it should…I don’t really know. I do know that it’s tempting me to get no-CD cracks for the games I own.

    I have no problem whatsoever shelling out money for a game–I like to know that the developers are getting paid for their hard work, it would just be nice if I didn’t have to do anything more annoying than type in some letters and numbers. I can do that.

    That said, I probably won’t be buying many more PC games until the DRM stops being so restrictive and buggy. There are Sims 2 expansions I’d like but won’t buy because of DRM. Then again, I did just buy a second Diablo II expansion so I can make storage characters for myself and play over the net with friends. But that’s an exception…the game is Just That Good. I really would rather not have six or seven game CDs sitting on my computer desk just so I can play them easily without hunting down the discs.

    Just don’t get me started on Microsoft DLing and running “Genuine Microsoft Advantage” to check the legality of my copy of XP every single time I get an update from them.

    Steam is nice, but it bugs me in a fundamental sort of way…I don’t like having to get on the Internet to play a game which does not require the Internet to play. I know there’s an option to play offline, but the whole process grated on my nerves enough that I simply don’t play the Steam games I have, not knowing when they’re going to want to snoop and make sure I’m still legal after I’ve optimized by computer for game play by turning off the net and my security programs :/

    Anyhow, thanks for the insightful articles. I enjoyed reading them, and I think you have a lot of good points.

  55. mazer says:

    One thing I’m wondering about that has not been addressed anywhere (to my knowledge) is the term “Piracy”

    How many times growing up did your parents tell you you cant be a ninja, or a pirate, or a robot, or a cowboy or whatever. Well, they were right about ninjas, but now ANYONE can be a pirate without ever leaving thier room!

    Gotta be the biggest marketing snafu in history.

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