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While console providers and publishers are mum about the next generation of piracy prevention as implemented in the Sony NGP and Nintendo 3DS, smartphone developers share their best strategies to combat the scourge.

Game Developer, Staff

May 18, 2011

11 Min Read

[While console providers and publishers are mum about the next generation of piracy prevention as implemented in the Sony NGP and Nintendo 3DS, smartphone developers share their best strategies to combat the scourge.]

Software piracy may have taken a heavy toll on the previous generation of handhelds, and it's a matter of concern for the new models, but when it comes to smartphones, developers shrug. There are more pressing matters, they say.

At least that's what anecdotal evidence from a handful of recent interviews indicates.

Exactly two years ago, then-Sony senior VP Peter Dille stressed the enormity of piracy's effect on the PSP: "We're convinced that piracy has taken out a big chunk of our software sales on PSP. It's been a problem that the industry has to address together."

That same month, Nintendo admitted that it lost trillions of yen a year thanks to software piracy, much of it due to R4 "flash carts" that allow users to download and play pirated DS games.

So it wasn't surprising -- with portable game piracy such a hot-button issue among publishers and analysts -- that Sony and Nintendo turned up the anti-piracy juice on their next generation of handhelds -- the Sony NGP and the Nintendo 3DS.

According to Nintendo UK GM David Yarnton, the 3DS is "one of our best pieces of equipment in that respect." Logically, Nintendo hasn't enumerated the technical specifics of its anti-piracy measures but, says Yarnton, "There are a lot of things we've learned over time to try and improve the security and protection..."

This month, asked to further report on its anti-piracy efforts for this story, a Nintendo spokesperson would say only that "Nintendo 3DS contains the most up-to-date anti-piracy measures available. We do not discuss product security details (for obvious reasons), nor can we discuss the details of countermeasures available in the Nintendo 3DS system." Sony chose not to comment.

So did Ubisoft, when asked what effect piracy had on its portable gaming strategy; Electronic Arts wouldn't respond to multiple e-mails and phone calls. It's clearly still a sensitive topic.

But elsewhere, on the smartphone side of the industry, the developers Gamasutra interviewed report they are far less concerned about piracy on the iOS and Android games they are creating.

The reason is twofold: the good "anti-piracy" work Apple and Google are doing on the developers' behalf and, more importantly, the current trend toward "free-to-play" -- or freemium -- games. When a game is free, developers say, who in their right mind is going to make the effort to crack it?

"Most people [in the iOS and Android space] could care less about piracy," observes Adam Martin who had been CTO of NCsoft Europe and is now CEO of Red Glasses, an iPhone studio in the UK that developed the game Star Catcher. "Obviously this doesn't apply to the bigger studios, but for individuals and small teams, every moment you spend thinking about piracy is a moment you could have spent doing another app and getting sales. Most people seem to be taking a 'life's too short to worry about it' view."

Brian Robbins is one of those people. As founder of Denver-based Riptide Games, he has personally -- at Riptide and at previous companies -- been building iOS games since the App Store launch in July 2008. In the next month or two he's about to launch Riptide's first big freemium title, My Pet Zombie, for both iPhone and iPad.

At first, Robbins saw piracy as a significant problem -- between 70 and 80 percent of the copies of some of his earlier games were illegal ones -- but not necessarily a problem he could solve.

And so, rather than spinning his wheels trying to protect his IP, he decided to spend just a small portion of his time trying to annoy the thieves while using the majority of his time improving his games and keeping happy the customers who were actually paying for his titles.

"I knew I wasn't going to convince the pirates to pay for my software, but I'd be darned if I was going to let them enjoy the fruits of our labor for free," he said. "So if I couldn't stop them, I was going to do my best to aggravate them."

Since at first it was easy for him to detect whether one of his games had been cracked, he inserted prompts in some titles to direct hackers back to the App Store to make a purchase. In other games, he put in code that would degrade the playing experience -- perhaps the pirate couldn't jump as high or run as fast. Or the game might even randomly crash after several plays. And, in one game, if an illegitimate copy was launched three times, the pirate earned an "I'm A Thief" achievement for everyone to see. That's the one Robbins is most proud of.

Unfortunately, he says, the tools to crack apps are far more sophisticated than in the past, and determining whether one of his games has been hacked is not as easy as before.

But suddenly piracy has become a "non-issue" for Robbins since, he says, Riptide has switched over mainly to freemium games that are either ad-sponsored or supported by in-app purchases.

"I can't imagine anyone taking the time to crack a game that they can have for free," he says. "And those games that aren't free are a lot less pricey than they used to be, perhaps just a dollar or two."

While piracy still plagues the industry, Robbins says that it's a fairly small percentage of users who exert the effort to hack games. "I mean, Apple says there are over 160 million devices out there. If five to 10 percent of the iOS market uses cracked versions -- even if it's as high as 20 to 30 percent -- you're still looking at 100 million devices that are legitimate and whose owners aren't pirating."

Robbins is convinced that he hasn't lost any income through piracy since, despite what others might believe, he doesn't consider a pirated game a lost sale. "No one can convince me that if a pirate was unable to hack into one of our games, he would have bought it. No, he would have just gone on to crack somebody else's game."

Riptide will be testing the waters in the Android space in the not-too-distant future, and Robbins expects to carry over the same freemium philosophy, especially since he believes there are even fewer Android users of paid apps.

"I don't see a scenario now where we would release a paid app on Android, not because of the ramp in piracy that I've heard is there, but I don't think people generally would pay for paid apps on Android," he says. "We'd rather stick with the freemium side and do that in a sponsored way, just as we do on iOS."

Markus Nigrin, CEO at San Diego-based Windmill Apps (Japanese Garden), is already building apps for both platforms and doesn't believe piracy is a pressing enough problem for developers to warrant spending time on protection mechanisms.

There are three reasons for that, he says: "Protection mechanisms make your code more complex, which is likely to increase the chance of introducing bugs; you create a challenge for app crackers who will be happy to take it on; and you are fighting a group that may be loud, but in reality is rather small."

"And no one should misconstrue pirated copies as lost sales," he says, "since, for many in that audience, it is more of a hoarding reflex than anything else. There are incredible stories out there that most of the pirated apps are never even opened. Or they are opened for one or two seconds and then just deleted.

"I think some people just want to accumulate tons of pirated apps. I don't know what the point is, but those numbers are so distorting that essentially they aren't relevant. I hear there are 100,000 pirated copies of my apps out there, but that number is completely meaningless because probably 95,000 of them went through automated downloading services and they triggered a counter somewhere, but were probably never even opened. Why should that bother me?"

Besides, he says, one week of coding spent to improve his apps, make better games, and create upgrades and updates is better for his business than one week spent on preventing piracy.

However, that doesn't mean piracy isn't a problem -- but Nigrin looks to Google and Apple to put in the time and effort to discourage jailbreakers.

"I have no real data on how successful Google and Apple's recent approaches really are," he says, "but I can tell you that I don't know a single peer developer on either Android or iOS who would spend time on implementing copy protection mechanisms anymore."

Prior to speaking to Gamasutra, Nigrin says he conducted a quick, informal Twitter survey of indie iOS developers he knows. He got five responses and, he says, not one has anti-piracy measures in place anymore even though all of them did a year prior.

"They all stepped back from it," he reports. "One said to me, 'Why should I fight an army of 16-year-olds who has way too much free time if, instead, I could really just improve my app in the same time period?'"

But Pat Toulouse wasn't part of Nigrin's informal survey. If he had been, Nigrin would have learned that Toulouse is adamant about aggressively attacking the piracy that he claims affects around 90 percent of iOS titles and over 95 percent of those on the Android platform.

Toulouse is president and founder of Ottawa, Canada-based Ratrod Studio (Hockey Fight Pro), which develops games for iOS, Android, and other platforms.

"For indie developers or smaller studios that are working around the clock to make a good quality title, this can put you out of business if you don't adapt your game plan quickly enough," he says, adding that pirated versions of games start appearing as early as 12 hours after their official launch in their respective app stores.

Toulouse reveals that, in order to detect illegal installations, Ratrod has developed detection tools that are being implemented in all its games that check for specific files and codes and verify if they have been modified.

"Our detection methods are very accurate," he says, "and the data is then sent to our servers which keep everything on record. It allows us to determine the piracy rates per device, OS version, and country, and also keeps track of device UUIDs, IP addresses, play sessions, and conversion rates."


Ratrod Studio's Hockey Fight

Toulouse recognizes that the number of pirated installations doesn't necessarily represent the amount of sales lost since, he says, a large number of users might not have ended up paying for the game, as evidenced by the very low conversion rate data observed from pirates-to-paying customers -- 0.025 percent.

"But it certainly gives you an idea of how serious the problem is and why it's important to keep it in consideration for your future projects," he notes.

His best suggestions to other developers are these: keep the price of your app low since the pricier the app, the more people will be encouraged to find and download a pirated version. The heavier your app, the harder and more time-consuming it is to download, the more temptation there is. Finally, updating your game once in a while with new features, content, or bug fixes can also help reduce piracy rates.

He also recommends setting a Google Alert of your app name, which will automatically send you a daily notice with a list of all the web sites mentioning your game. You can then file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) form to request removal of the files off the various servers, since they are hosting a pirated version of your game.

Toulouse considers his anti-piracy efforts to be successful ones, although he accepts the reality that piracy is inherently unstoppable.

"But it can certainly be reduced," he says. "By adapting different strategies, we managed to trim our piracy rates by more than 15 percent over the past year. Considering a total amount of downloads ranging in the millions, 15 percent represents thousands of dollars in additional sales. That's surely a good enough reason to continue to monitor the situation closely and adapt our business model accordingly."

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