Two years ago, the games media was buzzing with tales of a small Australian developer called Greenheart Games. According to IGN, they had discovered ‘The Best Anti-Piracy Measure Ever’. Greenheart had launched Game Dev Tycoon, which puts players in charge of fledgling video game studios. Anticipating that the title would be illegally shared via P2P networks, the makers outwitted pirates by seeding a “crippled” version onto torrent sites themselves. Fittingly, players who stole the game were unable to progress because their fictitious studios were being ruined by piracy.
It was a twist on the established trope of developers seeding crippled software in a bid to frustrate online thieves. Though stylish, Greenheart’s attempt to trip up pirates has mostly failed. Success in combating piracy comes not only from prevention and defensive measures, but from improved technological capabilities which will identify and address fraudulent users.
An Insatiable Worldwide Appetite
As late Nintendo CEO and President Satoru Iwata once pointed out, calculating revenues ‘lost’ to piracy by adding up the face value of illicit downloads doesn’t make much sense. A vast majority of pirates probably never intended to pay the asking price anyway. A more realistic approach is to consider how many people might buy the game if it were priced better or marketed more enticingly.
In light of this, high levels of piracy might be as promising as they are problematic. Indeed, social game makers are realizing some of their most impressive results in countries boasting the most piracy.
For example, of the $6 billion that was added to the value of the global video games market in 2014, 82% came from the Asia Pacific region. China is by far the largest consumer of games in that region and the second-largest globally, with “online and mobile games making up almost the entire market,” according to Newzoo. This is a country where, though declining, overall software piracy stood at an astonishing 77% in 2011.
Of the other five countries powering the region’s dominance in games market growth - Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore - all but the last have a software piracy rate at least double that of the United States. Once again, these are countries where the market for social and mobile games is growing fastest.
Anti-pirate Economies and the Rise of Free-to-Play
How have social games been so successful in acquiring legitimate users, while harnessing the renegade demand shown by piracy?
First, it should be noted that social games are structurally difficult to pirate. To work as intended, they need to sit on central servers where thousands of players are simultaneously connected. Hacking those servers is not impossible, but creating entire parallel networks for stolen games is a considerable feat. There are reports of some games being barred by publishers from certain jurisdictions after serious hacking attempts - but this is rare.
Free-to-Play (abbreviated F2P) as a game economy was invented as a way to battle piracy in the 90’s. The idea is simple: You can install and play the game for free and if you want to advance faster, or obtain rare and lucrative items more easily, you have various options to pay. Such economy takes away the incentive to illegally copy the game, and players willing to invest their time and hard work into a game may achieve the same results as those who pay - albeit more slowly. The early games with this economy were a few relatively unknown RPGs; the first major release of a F2P game was by Nexon, a South Korean company who launched Crazy Arcade in 2001. From Korea, F2P spread to China, where a company called Giant was the first to adopt it for their online games.
Credit card use was common in Korea at that time, but in China, collecting the payment from players was more challenging. Local methods needed to be adapted, as many people relied on cash for the majority of their transactions. This led to the trend of online games being played in Internet cafés where game credits could be purchased for cash. Playing in such a café had social benefits, as players would congregate and form communities around their favorite games. To this day, F2P is the only economy that is able to monetize Chinese players at scale. Mobile games that charge money before installation, aka “Premium Games” are cracked and copied more often than not.
Unlike traditional video games where piracy focuses on hacking game restrictions or creating illegal copies, in F2P games, piracy takes a different form – one that is normally aimed at obtaining in-game resources without paying for them. A common piracy method we have encountered at Plarium is one where a single player operates multiple accounts in the same game. The player diverts all the free resources received every day into a single account, through which they advance in the game. Some players have used stolen credit cards to buy items, either for immediate use or to sell for real money and other players simply find loopholes in the game and abuse them to obtain unfair advantage.
In modern digital games, there is an abundance of information on the players. We track every action players perform in our games so that we can analyze them and build models of user behavior and provide a personally-tailored gameplay experience. These actions include clicking on buttons, engaging in battles, trading resources, and social activities, such as inviting friends or “liking” the game on social networks.
The main usage of collected information is to improve our overall offering and create a better experience. However, we also use this data to battle piracy, and maintain fair and equal gameplay. Our statistical models help us identify game balance anomalies, such as accounts that are only used for transferring in-game resources, or players who suddenly have an outrageous amount of gold coins in their account.
Over time, we have gotten better at identifying fraudulent accounts automatically. For instance, a few years ago, our team observed suspicious behavior and triggered a massive ban of accounts. More than half a million accounts were banned that day, and there was a significant drop in the number of active users. Proof of the team’s efficiency came within days; we confirmed that less than 1% of our revenues were lost by removing these accounts. They were, essentially, the criminal islands of pirates and had no economical contribution to the game.
Stealing, in all forms, is wrong. Content creators have been battling piracy since the dawn of creation and game developers are no different. In today’s world it is easier to understand the scale of this threat and through analysis automation, combating piracy becomes a more feasible task. The game industry has evolved to protect its copyrights and the journey is by no means completed, but significant progress has been made. Other creative industries can – and should – follow in these footsteps. Free to play models are widely seen today in software products as well. These products are not only safer from pirates, but are also easier to promote and distribute as the entry barrier for users was removed. A similar solution for tangible goods remains to be seen but the future may hold its surprises.