In one of those favorable twists of fate, I happened to be doing a Q&A with Stardock about their public spat with StarForce as Allen Varney was writing Starforce Must Die. In my case, it was because Stardock had just released Space Rangers 2 on their TotalGaming.net service. Space Rangers 2 is an interesting case of what bad word of mouth does for you. We got two review copies in. And as the writers made their way over to my desk, the following inevitably occurred:
"Space Rangers 2? This looks interesting. Oh, wait, doesn't this have Starforce? Nevermind."
Stardock is giving what was (by the accounts of those who braved the copy protection) a pretty decent game a second lease on life. Ironically enough, it's by removing the DRM. Herein, Brian Clair from Stardock answers my questions about Starforce, DRM, and Stardock's model of copyright protection.
The Escapist: What lead to the anti-Starforce stance? Was it a design decision, business decision, marketing decision, some combination of the above? Or did they just blindside you?
Brian:You could probably classify it as a business decision. It's not so much that we're anti-copy protection so much that we don't believe that copy protection increases sales - which is supposed to be the point. We're gamers ourselves and we don't like having to worry about where we put our CDs or having invasive hidden drivers installed on our PCs, etc. Our stance is that by treating customers the same way we'd like to be treated, with respect, that this increases sales. We also believe that if someone is going to pirate a game they wouldn't have bought it anyway. It's not a lost sale, it's a non-existent one.
The Escapist: It seems like the Starforce guys came after you pretty strong (posting links to torrents of GalCiv 2 and such). What was your reaction to that?
Brian: We were quite surprised by it. You really don't expect something like that to happen professionally and I think it's safe to say that it hurt them more than it did us. What's interesting is that we contacted the torrent sites that StarForce's forum mod had linked to and they removed their GalCiv 2 links after we asked them to do so - before we even received a response from StarForce after contacting them about it.
The Escapist: Had they approached you before? Had you guys had any sort of business interaction? Like, was there existing bad blood from a deal gone sour or was it completely out of the blue?
Brian: No, StarForce had contacted us previously about using their technology. We simply weren't interested, however, and things ended cordially after that. I don't think there was really any malice involved on their part, just a bad decision by one employee.
The Escapist: Do you take a certain satisfaction on the way they fell from grace so quickly? For a lot of gamers, Starforce has become a "do not buy" sign.
Brian: Not really. I just think that the incident was the final straw that broke the camel's back so far as gamers were concerned. The market spoke loud and clear and we've all witnessed the results.
The Escapist: With Space Rangers 2, you guys are actually picking up a game that didn't do very well because of its copy protection. I know I ran into it here, since I had 2 copies and they were begging me to review it, and none of my writers wanted to touch it. Why? What's the incentive to try and sell a game that has already not sold?
Brian: In the case of Space Rangers 2, it's a fantastic game, and like you, I didn't install the CD version because of StarForce. However, the version we sell through TotalGaming.net doesn't use StarForce and so we wanted to give gamers a second look at the title. The response has been enormous, with sales that far exceeded our expectations. In fact, it's been the best-selling game we've had on TotalGaming.net, second only to GalCiv 2.
The Escapist: What is Stardock's stance on copy protection? Why do you not defend your copyrights as aggressively as many other companies do? It seems like you, as an indie developer, would have more to lose to piracy than, say, EA.
Brian: Currently, we don't believe in it since, based on our experiences, copy protection doesn't help generate sales. If we found the opposite to be true, we'd be all for copy protection (we're capitalists after all), though we'd find some way of doing it that wasn't inconvenient to end-users. That said, we do defend our copyrights, we just approach it differently. For example, we work to have torrent sites remove our game on one hand and give customers an incentive to purchase our games with outstanding after-market support via free updates on the other. We even allow our customers to re-download their games in the future through TotalGaming.net.
The Escapist: What can developers do to combat piracy? What do you guys do to combat it, if anything? What incentives do players have to buy your games when they can just download them from a torrent site without much trouble?
Answered this one above. :)
The Escapist: Stardock has also been one of the few developers to embrace digital distribution. Why? Where do you see it going in the future?
Brian: We've been selling our application software (i.e., Object Desktop, WindowBlinds, etc.) for years through digital distribution with phenomenal success. Given this, it seemed like a no-brainer to do the same thing with games, so we created Drengin.net in 2001. It's since been renamed to TotalGaming.net and opened to 3rd party developers and publishers, but it still fills the same niche. In fact, TotalGaming.net isn't just a digital store; it's a digital publisher as well. Where the PC games market used to be almost entirely at retail, today it's beginning to transition to the Internet as well. This is fortunate, since PC games continue to get less shelf space at retail. If we follow this trend forward, I think you'll see both developers and publishers start to view digital distribution as a way to capture greater sales than is currently possible at retail alone.
The Escapist: One of the complaints I've seen (and experienced) is everyone will make their own little client and you'll have to have 10 installed. My PC already has that problem: I have the Stardock program, I have Steam, and I have another one that Paradox uses for digital distribution. It is, frankly, kind of annoying to have to run all those programs, rather than just installing and forgetting about it. How would you address that?
Brian: I can really only speak to our own application, Stardock Central. With Stardock Central, you don't need to keep the program running when you want to play a game, or even keep it on your system after installation if you don't want to. Once installed, it's just like running the game as if you'd used a CD - you just don't need the disc in the drive. ;)
The Escapist: On the digital distribution front, we hear a lot about its upsides and downsides for gamers, but what are the upsides and downsides for you as a company and as a developer? On the development side, how much does it encourage you to experiment?
Brian: Well, on the upside it gives us an entirely separate channel from which we can sell our games and other software at a higher margin than via retail. On the downside is that running a digital distribution service isn't cheap and requires a lot of technical expertise. You have to consider and maintain servers, bandwidth, hard drive space, the server software, the client software, provide customer service, etc. From the development aspect, it gives us more freedom than we'd otherwise have and much more flexibility to do new things. For instance, our upcoming GalCiv 2 expansion pack, Dark Avatar, is going to be available only through digital distribution on TotalGaming.net. Additionally, we're able to run paid beta tests for our upcoming games thanks to our digital efforts.