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DRM and Piracy Perspective: From Pirate to Content Creator.

Kamil Czajko from Kactus Games summarizes his personal experiences and thoughts regarding DRM and Piracy. How would these affect a small indie developer such as ourselves?

Sue Czajko, Blogger

January 22, 2013

11 Min Read

If you want to tl;dr this post it’s going to be “DRM BAD, we are not using it” feel free to scroll down to the bottom and take a look at a few gifs from the game. I will go over both my experience as an end user and also from the side of a content provider who knows that there will be piracy of the game but makes the choice not to use DRM anyway and cover our reasons why.

I’ve been a gamer for a very long time. My first console was a colecovision which my parents got for my 5th birthday. I went onto the Atari 2800, C64, Amiga 500, Amiga 1200, Amiga CD32 and then a bit of gaming on my dad’s Windows 95 laptop. I didn’t actually become a pc gamer until I built my first pc in 1997 and I haven’t stopped since.  I upgraded every couple of years and picked up a PS1, PS2, PS3 and PSP along the way. I’m looking at getting a Xbox + Kinect at some point soon as well, the only reason I haven’t had an Xbox already is that I prefer my shooters to be mouse and keyboard.

Now along the way was there piracy? I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t especially in the Amiga days, but I also had hundreds of legitimate games over the same time period, even when I had to be driven 40 minutes to the last Amiga game store in Perth. That is pretty much what my entire allowance was spent on. I am a pirate now? I’d say no, since more than a decade has passed since I pirated a game. I pretty much stopped pirating once I had regular work income.  However many of the people I knew pirated for a long time.

In the PC world I’d have regular LANs with half a dozen mates pretty much every weekend. Each week it’d be one game or another, and occasionally you would go to a larger LAN and experience games and gamers outside of your normal circle of friends.  I met a lot of different people and when it comes to pirates I can probably put them in the following broad, sometimes overlapping and probably insulting categories:

  • Dead-beat - He has no money, has a system made from pity hand me downs and is trying to mooch a couple of dollars so he can get a large fries when everyone goes for a midnight maccas (that’s McDonalds to you non-Aussies) run. You can’t get money from them since they have none.

  • Card Carrying Member - These people have an almost theological notion about IP and copyright and want to take down the system. The more you put up barriers the more intent they are on punishing you for it. They will not give publishers money out of principle but will often support an indie.

  • Vultures - Will pirate other people’s media but never purchase their own since they don’t see the point of spending money. Often have the best gaming rig. This is how the media portrays all pirates but they tend to be fairly rare.

  • Opportunist - If something is there for free they’ll take a look, otherwise they won’t go out of their way. Often interchangeable with the Demo but will probably wait until its cheap enough to justify purchase.

  • Demo - Sees piracy as a try before you buy. Will not spend a cent until they know they will get value. Often will not pirate at all if a large demo or trial version is available. If they don’t buy a game it’s because they don’t see any value in it and won’t play it.

  • Anti DRM - This person will pirate media even if they own it just to get a copy that doesn’t have copy protection. This can be a convenience thing such as not having to lug around dvd’s etc or just because people don’t like 3rd party DRM “infecting” their systems.

  • Collector - Must have a copy of absolutely everything. This also applies to people pirating abandonware, out of print and media that can not be purchased in your country or area, or if they can, not for months or years after initial release. These people often have hundreds of terabytes of pirated material, but also the largest legitimate collection of titles. One movie collector I know to this day will max out their monthly ADSL quota downloading torrents, but has the largest dvd and blue-ray collection I’ve seen outside of a video store (and it’s larger than some of the smaller stores. I used to work in a video store.). He had to write an app so when he goes to a store he knows which titles he has already bought.  These guys are really a publisher’s best friend but yet would probably be the first with their back to the wall if they ever were caught by authorities.

One thing I noticed time and time again however, copy protection never stopped a single person from pirating a game. Not even once. But it did lead to them pirating a game on more than one occasion.

Real life example: It was a fair few years ago when I was at a LAN, we had been setting up to play what ever game we were playing those days, when a mate rocked up to the LAN.  Let’s call him “V”, with his over the top gaming pc, rocking out with a Red Alert 2 T-shirt and a collector’s edition of the game under his arms. RA2 was the latest RTS at the time, most of us didn’t realise it had even been released yet.

V had gotten a call on the way to the LAN that his pre-order was in and had picked it up half an hour before hand. As he is installing it a vulture starts circling asking for the discs once he is finished, but V tells him in no uncertain terms that it isn’t going to happen. Everyone else crowds around to watch the intro and a popup appears “No disc inserted”. V takes the disc out and puts it back in several times. He reinstalls the game, starts searching around online for a solution and gets the vague support response of “Potential conflict with other software”. Everyone else by this point has gone back to the games they were playing before. V gets desperate, copies all his data to a second partition, formats his C drive and reinstalls windows.

The game still doesn’t work on a clean install.

After two hours V gives up and throws the discs to the vulture who takes an iso image of the CDs, mounts it in a CD emulation program without any issue and begins to play while distributing copies to everyone else.

V tries to do the same and still can’t play. The copy protection does not like something about his hardware configuration, even when he tries to run it emulated like everyone else. He ends up having to download a secuROM crack at which point everything works fine for him, and begs every one that pirated it to install it too just so he can play multiplayer with them.

There were four people in that group calling around to find a store that had it in stock. After seeing what happened to V, no one bought it that day and V definitely wasn’t putting his money down for the expansions.

Some of you are probably thinking that was an isolated case but here are some other incidents that actually happened to me after buying games legitimately:

  • Purchasing Fear, starting the game and having it update SecuROM. Unable to start the game again after it exited. Found out after several hours of searching that it conflicted with Getright.

  • Continuing issues with GTA4 mean that I have been unable to play much of the game and could not even reinstall it last time I tried.  Waste of cash.

  • Issues with almost every Unreal game that have meant patches have stopped the game from working.

  • Music albums I’ve bought and haven’t listened to even once, since they will not play in the PC since the activation servers don’t respond anymore.

  • The Saga of Neverwinter Nights and the broken patches that punished anyone who actually bought the game.

That last one is quite a sad story of how you cultivate fans and then put them off from ever buying your games ever again. I wrote something up at over a page in length and it was clearly too long for this post. I’ve summarised here; imagine a rabid fan of a company and franchise taking a fortnight off to play the latest expansion.  It takes them ten days to get their legitimate copy working at which point they have no desire to ever play any of the said company’s games again. Ever.  It’s not even a case of trying to punish them, it’s a bad taste that sits in your mouth every time you try.

And it’s sad because out of a desire to ensure the pirates don’t get the game for free they punish the people actually putting their money on the table. That is the misguided notion behind DRM and copy protection. You only hurt the ones that are supporting you. Pirates download the game with everything already patched and removed. It works. DRM adds no value to the end user, only robbing value from the game and ruining user experience.

I actually started this post because LA Noire is now available for pre-order on Steam. I had my finger on the buy button until I spotted the 3rd party DRM. I avoid DRM like the plague after my raft of bad experiences with it. I didn’t buy RA3 until they eventually removed SecuROM. I know a bunch of you will probably think that “Hold up there! Steam is DRM too” and although that is technically true, it is unobtrusive and it gives me some value in return. I can play games offline, install games unlimited number of times, and redownload them whenever I want. It keeps saves of the games that support the feature synced between computers so I don’t need to worry about backing them up before I reinstall. On top of that I get a store with sales that lets me pick up games cheaper than retail.

I don’t get that value with SecuROM, Games for Windows Live, or pretty much any other DRM strategy to date. Restrictions on physical hardware, install limits, gamer passes and similar heavy handed tactics are not useful for anyone.

But at the same time I can see why they do it. I can empathise. As I write this I’m terrified that Legacy of Barubash might bomb and that I’m left with the development costs against my house. I’ve read about how easy it is to pirate android games, and the stats, and I wonder… am I just opening up myself to failure? You start to calculate x number of users multiplied by the piracy rate, if that was 0 then I’m less likely to be out of pocket. But at the same time I know deep down that anyone who wants to pirate it will be able to, and even if they can’t, they won’t miraculously hand over money because of DRM. I won’t be able to sway someone to hand over money if they have no desire to, and I know that anything I put in is just going to hamper legitimate users.

So what can Kactus Games do?

  • We are striving to make a fun and in depth title that allows both casual and more lengthy play sessions.

  • The price will be low and affordable.  

  • There will be a large free demo containing the entire first world and is only limited by a lower level/xp cap.

  • We are going to make it available from multiple stores and even direct from our website since we know that many people can’t purchase through the Android marketplace. I’ll even accept cheques and notes stuffed into an envelope so there are no excuses there. ;)

  • It will be completely DRM free.

  • The online components are completely optional and do not send any identifying information unless you specifically sign up for leader boards in which case they pass your username, character details and score only. We won’t turn on anything by default and you can change your settings at any time.

  • There are no adverts and no “recruit your friends to get in-game gold” schemes but if we get enough sales we will keep producing new content for free.

  • And we are giving 20% of all money that we get straight to charities regardless of what our costs are.

What else can we do?

I’m hoping that the above is enough to at least get us a bit of support. Keeping the donations page open might also mean that someone who pirates it might send us a few dollars after the fact if they feel so inclined.




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