10 Ways to Fight Piracy


Last week I explained that DRM can’t stop piracy. This led naturally to people asking what should be done it, if not DRM? After all, publishers have to do something, don’t they? Being a strident non-pirate myself, I’m all for fighting it as long as that “something” isn’t counter-productive. I have ten suggestions:

1. Drop the onerous DRM.

I know I’ve already beat this dead horse into paste, but just for the sake of completing the list: It doesn’t wo rk. It pisses off paying customers. It costs you money. It just gives people another incentive to download a game instead of buying it.

Cut it out.

2. Make dev teams more public.

Gamers tend to connect with game developers. They admire John Carmack, Hideo Kojima, Sid Meier a lot more than (say) John Riccitiello or one of your forum mods. Developers are your karmic shield against the masses. Their faces should be out there from time to time to let gamers know, “If you pirate the game, this is who you’re ripping off.” One scrawny, unkempt game designer is worth a dozen slick marketing guys with a quiver full of buzzwords.

Some people are likely to think twice about stealing from a creative and talented developer. A giant corporation? Not so much.

3. Provide a demo.

The PC is not a single platform. The PC “platform” is an amalgamation of millions and millions of slightly different machines. They all have different graphics hardware running alongside endless permutations of drivers, diverse flavors of Microsoft operating systems with randomly-applied service packs and security updates, varying breeds of audio hardware, and unpredictable memory loadouts. As someone who writes software for a living, I can fully sympathize with the fact that it is an unbelievable bitch to build software on top of these shifting sands. People will cobble together Frankenstein machines of new and old parts and then have the audacity to expect you to write software that runs efficiently on the thing. This burden is inherent to PC development, and riding the technological edge only makes things more chaotic.

If you don’t offer a demo, then you’re proposing a gamer give you their non-refundable money and then find out if the game works on their machine. If it doesn’t, they’re going to rightly feel ripped off. And some of them might just adopt a “first strike” policy of ripping you off before you can do the same to them.

Giving them a demo will let them make sure the game will work on their mutant system before they put their money at risk.

4. Put out meaningful updates.

Stardock already does this, but you could do it, too. It’s okay. It’s not like they copyrighted the idea of paying attention to their games after launch. Just save a couple of those features that weren’t quite ready by the time the game went gold and put them out a few months later. Paying customers get to upgrade their game with a nice patch and pirates get to fumble around on the torrents. If it’s more convenient to buy than to pirate, then you’re doing it right.

5. Be open about piracy.

The common tactic is for publishers to make outrageous claims about their losses from piracy. If you’re going to talk about piracy, then at least acknowledge the basic facts which every gamer has already grasped: Piracy is hard to track, and most of your numbers are guesswork. More importantly, not all downloads are lost sales. If a million people downloaded your $60 game, you did not lose 60 million dollars. When you say things like this gamers conclude that you’re either a bunch of idiots, or that you think they are a bunch of idiots. Either way, they will tune you out instead of joining you in your lamentations.

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6. Get gamers on your side.

I don’t use the torrents myself, but occasionally I hear stories from people about how some downloads promise a particular game, but after a long download they actually end up with two hours of Japanese dubbed Spongebob. Someone poisoned the well with fake downloads. These cases are rare because people who accept piracy vastly outnumber the people who hate it. But if you can win gamers over (by following the previous suggestions) then you can make gamers care about piracy. Then you’ll have fewer people sharing your game and more saboteurs. This makes the P2P fileshare system that much more annoying to use. This will encourage some people to pay for a game, if only to save themselves the hassle of pirating it.

Remeber the Spore backlash where people went out of their way to protest the DRM by making it the most pirated game of the year? Just imagine what it would look like if you could get all of that passion and effort working in the other direction.

7. Stop the leaked games.

When a game appears on the torrents three days before the release, you can’t blame the gaming public. These are versions leaked from within your company, or from review copies you’ve distributed. I still can’t believe you’ll spend millions fighting piracy and you won’t spend a couple of hours setting up a system of tracking builds. Games weigh in at around, what? A gigabyte these days? Just stick a couple of identifying strings in that sea of data. Make sure that every review version you send out has a different set of strings. When the game shows up in the wild, look up that string and see who this copy was intended for. Now that you know where the leak came from, you know who to fire or what magazine was careless (or malicious) with your data.

This costs a little time and energy, but it’s peanuts compared to what you’re spending on DRM and will directly combat those zero-day copies showing up on the web.

8. Lower Prices.

As the personal computer revolution really took off, CPU manufacturers faced an interesting conundrum: Some wealthy users needed all the power they could get, and were willing to pay huge sums of money for the latest and greatest processor. Meanwhile, many newcomers just needed something affordable that would run the latest version of Windows and their word processor of choice. If the manufacturers sold the high-end units at prices that low-end users could afford, they would be walking away from the huge sums of money that could be made from wealthy customers. If they sold only high-end CPU’s at high-end prices, then the low-end users wouldn’t buy anything at all. Note that it was cheaper to make one factory to make only the latest high-performance CPU’s than it was to make the factory make both new and old processors.

Their solution might seem counter-intuitive at first: They took some of those high-end CPU’s, and crippled them after production in order to make them slower, so that they could be sold to low-end users. It was a good system, in that they found a way to take a seemingly indivisible product line and break it up to serve separate markets. Damaging your own goods seems strange, but it let the manufacturers make as much money from all the different markets as possible while at the same time providing CPU’s to as many people as possible.

I’ve mentioned before that prices should simply drop during the shelf-life of a game to glean the sales of those lower-tier customers. Some people can pay $20 for a game. Some will pay $40. Some will pay $60. If you only go after the top tier then you’re leaving money on the table and giving the lower-tier customers an excuse to visit the torrents.

9. Accept piracy.

Note that I’m talking about reducing piracy, not eliminating it.

Your plight is not unique. All businesses suffer losses at some point, and smart businesses will account for these inevitable losses in their plans. Wall-Mart puts up with shoplifting. They could probably catch more shoplifters if they strip-searched people on the way out, but they’re smart enough to know that such a policy would do more harm than good. Retailers know and expect a certain degree of losses due to theft. (They call it shrinkage.) Piracy happens. The goal should be to mitigate it without annoying or accusing paying customers.

10. Make games for people who buy games.

Stardock President Brad Wardell famously made the distinction between “Making games for customers versus making games for users.” While almost any game can be found on the torrents (or so I’m told by enthusiastic pirates) it’s true that some games are downloaded a lot more than others. Pirates seem to gravitate towards flashy hip action games more than (say) Sins of a Solar Empire or Mount & Blade. Pirates favor some titles more than others, so why you continue to make ten million dollar tech demos for the pirates is something of a mystery.

* * *

Note that Crysis was a tech-heavy game that was notoriously hard to run and offered no demo. It was saddled with install-limit DRM. It was a flashy action game, the kind that pirates seem to love. And when it was predictably commandeered by pirates, Crytek threw a tantrum and forswore further PC development. This is like setting your house on fire and then complaining about the neighborhood traffic jam caused by all the firetrucks.

CORRECTION: While Crysis had all of the other DRM customers have come to hate, it did not have online activation. (That would be Crysis Warhead.) Also, while delayed, the demo was out by launch day. I apologize for the errors.

Shamus Young is the author of Twenty Sided, the vandal behind Stolen Pixels, and he already knows you’re not going to listen to his advice. But he thought he’d try anyway.

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