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We launched a small puzzle game called Gerblins in September, and it failed to gain traction. In January, it was suddenly resurrected -- not by us, but by pirates. This post goes into detail on how we think it happened.

Seth Coster, Blogger

February 8, 2013

7 Min Read

How Piracy Saved Gerblins

Originally posted at http://www.butterscotch-shenanigans.com

Our little mobile game, Gerblins, has taken an unexpected, positive turn over the past couple months, and we did absolutely nothing to make it happen. The game went from sitting on the back shelf in the Google Play store, accumulating 0 downloads per day, to suddenly blasting into hundreds -- and then multiple thousands -- of downloads per day. How did this happen? We think we know who to thank.

Ridiculous Expectations

We made Gerblins on a whim over the course of a few weekends. It was a fun side-project at first, but as development progressed, we began to get really attached to the game. At the time we "launched" it in mid-September, we were so confident in our work that we were bracing ourselves for the game to just explode like Angry Birds. Our conversations would frequently turn to, "Well, you know, once Gerblins comes out, I'm gonna [insert expensive activity here]."

In this circumstance, we are North Korea.

Failure to Launch

The game did not not explode like Angry Birds. It imploded. In retrospect, it should have been obvious -- Gerblins has competition. A lot of compeition. It's a straightforward puzzler, and while it's fun, it got buried beneath tens of thousands of other titles competing in the same space. Not to mention, most of our marketing involved telling everyone we knew about the game via Facebook. We did get a review from Andy Chalk over at Gamezebo, but that was all the outside attention we could muster.


So we launched the game in mid-September, and it languished. We got a spike of about 1,000 downloads over the first few days, particularly on iOS, and then that spike just collapsed. Our Android version of the game was doing particularly poorly -- it hadn't quite hit 80 downloads by the end of the month. And this was the free version.
So, we thought, that was that. The game fell flat on its face, and as everyone was keen to tell us, there was no coming back from it without dumping vajillions of dollars into a marketing campaign. So we nodded and moved on.

Don't cry, little Blerg. This will only hurt for a second.

Enter the Pirates

We had written off Gerblins as a failure, despite it being a game that we were particularly proud of. There it sat, accumulating 0-1 downloads per day, all through October, November, and December. But then, on December 26, we got a Google News Alert that someone had taken the Gerblins Free APK and hosted it on their own site. Our first response was, "HEY! THEY STOLE OUR GAME!" This was immediately followed with, "HOORAY, SOMEONE'S ACTUALLY PLAYING OUR GAME!"

Stupid, sexy pirates!

Over the course of the next 2 weeks, more copies of the APK started popping up at various pirate sites around the web. We decided to just roll with it and see what would happen. All of a sudden, on January 4th,  we got a spike in downloads on Google Play. By "a spike" I mean 21 downloads, but for Gerblins, that was a huge improvement over our normal zero.
The next day was even better. 79 downloads. And 109 the next day. Gerblins started appearing on even more sites hosting their own version of the free APK, and our downloads in the Google Play store kept creeping up.
Pretty soon, we hit a peak of 2,238 downloads on January 26th. Yep, that's right -- we went from 0 downloads per day to over 2,000. And we did literally nothing -- all the legwork was done by legions of badass pirates. The proof is in the pudding -- here's a graph showing Gerblins Free daily downloads, from the day we launched to the present:

Thanks, piracy!

How did this happen?

So it seems that someone "stealing" our game actually managed to spread the word about it, and this translated to an unprecedented boost in legitimate downloads on our end. We aren't 100% certain how or why, but we have some ideas, outlined below.

1. Access

If your product isn't easily accessible, people will pirate it. They can't get it any other way, and even if they want to give you money, you aren't allowing them to. People recognize that by going to a torrent site or some other "non-legitimate" source for software, there's a good chance that they'll be downloading something malicious. It's risky, and they would much rather just go to the source where they know it's secure. In our case, people would see Gerblins on these sites, find that it appealed to them, and then go find it on Google Play.

We also saw a (smaller) spike in Amazon and iOS downloads of Gerblins as well, for probably the same reason. The more platforms your software is available on, the fewer reasons people have to pirate it.
2. Price This is a huge barrier for many gamers, particularly with $60 AAA titles from big developers. It's important to understand that a lot of your customers may want to support you as a developer, but they can't afford to. That, or you've just set your price point way too high for what you're offering. Still, your players want to enjoy your product, or at least try it out, so they download it from a torrent.
This is where many developers go wrong in their philosophy of dealing with piracy. These people who downloaded your expensive game for free -- they very likely would not have bought your game at its current price no matter what. Or you haven't offered a free demo, so this is the only way for them to try it out before making a purchasing decision.
By slapping tons of DRM into your game, what are you aiming to accomplish? You certainly don't boost your sales. Is there someone out there in the world who says, "Gosh, I was planning on pirating this game, but now that I can't, I guess I'll just spend $60.00 on it." Are you kidding me? It's more like, "I was planning on pirating this game, but now that I can't, I just won't play it." The question you have to ask yourself as a developer is, "Do I want more people playing my game, or not?" If the answer is "not", then by all means, DRM away.
The reason (we think) the piracy involving Gerblins translated into legitimate downloads is that we have a free version of the game out there. People would rather show support for the developer if they can, and they would rather get the game from a legitimate, secure source. Since price was not a barrier, they saw it on whatever torrent site and then got it straight from us.

So what?

The ultimate lesson we have taken away from this (and we hope you do as well) is that you can either 1.) shoot yourself in the foot and try to lock down your game in every way imaginable, or 2.) you can swim with the current and take steps to make your game available to people who want to play it. We'll be going with option 2.

FLY ON, LITTLE BUDDY. FLY ON. *manly tear*

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