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Layman's Look: Combating PC Game Piracy with Value, not Invasion

In light of the volume of recent Gamasutra articles pertaining to game piracy and DRM, I try to provide a layman's look at combating piracy (what is being implemented and what we could be doing) without annoying the consumer.

Memoir of a Pirate

"Arr!  I be pirating games because it be too expensive!  They can't be expectin' us to cough up that much booty!"
"Aye!  I be pirating vidya games to spite the blasted DRM.  It shivers me timbers!"
"I be spiting X Company, because they are good fer nothin' landlubbers!"
"I wouldn't be buyin' that game at all anyways matey, so I just be takin' it for meself!"
"It's not theft if I be leaving the original where it arrrr."

How often have you heard these rationales when the topic of game piracy is brought up? Sure, it might not have the humorous pirate talk (which I thought would spice up some tired tirades), but the themes are the same: the games are too expensive, or the DRM is too invasive, or that person just plain hates that company for some reason, etc.  The list goes on and on; I can't remember all the "reasons" that pirates conduct their business as they do.  A great discussion is in the comments thread of the recent Gamasutra feature, "PC Game Piracy: Why Bother With DRM?", where many people weigh in on the motivations of piracy, with many good points all around.

These software piracy discussions are always very heated and passionate, and I know I will be opening a large can of worms by simply bring this up.  The purpose of this blog post is not whether game piracy is the metaphorical swine flu of this industry; rather, I'd like to, as a layman, take a look at the more well-received ideas at combating piracy through game value instead of invasive DRM practices.

Piracy at a High-Level Glance

I believe there is a common thread in all types of pirate, which may seem cynical to some:

 "Downloading software illegally is not only free, but it is also easy, and the chance of getting caught is slim, and nothing of value is lost if pirated."

Of all the ways to obtain goods, clicking a link and automatically getting it sent to you is the easiest.  There is no phone number to dial, no plastic card to swipe, nor does it involve starting the car.  Not only this, but downloading software has seemingly no immediate consequence.  (The argument could be made that it hurts the manufacturer of the goods, which impacts future releases, but I don't think this occurs to the common user, nor is it readily and immediately visible, unlike a store shoplifting alarm or mall police.  For these reasons, and for the sake of much needed brevity, I will ignore this.)

This common thread is the driving force of the piracy scene.  Combating this is a topic for another article; I am not as learned as I would need to be to balance freedom on the web and the actions required for the curbing of online theft.  I do not think anyone will disagree that this quality is what enables these avenues flourish. The last section is what I would like to focus on; how can we provide value to the legitimate purchase, since a cracked pirate copy is usually the same experience?

Proposed Idea: Two Types of Pirates

I have been musing over an idea which I would like to propose.  I believe there are really, when it comes down to it, two types of pirates, with differing motivations:

  1. Downloading games illegally because it is free, and they miss out on nothing by doing so
  2. The personal or collective belief that the particular game does not warrant the price tag attached

In my experience, these two reasons are the most popular (if not the ultimate) reasons behind game piracy.  Other reasons are tossed around, but, depending on your level of cynicism, it is either all too hard or all too easy to judge sincerity on the Internet.

So what is the course of action?  How can we stop the downloading of our games by these pirate?  A strong DRM attached to the software which would break the downloaded copy seemed logical to publishers who were considering this very question.  This had the negative affect of being ungainly and invasive, and when the cracked software was release, it was actually a better product!

Believe me, the DRM will be cracked.  It always is, and when that happens, the hassle the users have to go through will be for nothing, and the money you spent on the DRM software and implementation is wasted.

Making the Act of Purchasing More Valuable

So back to the drawing board.  Simple DRM isn't working, and if it is, there is only a short period of time before it is rendered useless.  Instead of trying to cripple the end product and complicate the user experience, what we could instead do is make the act of the purchase more valuable to the consumer.  Rather than protecting all the features, I suggest letting the pirates have the basic package.  Don't provide any copy protection.

Now you're saying, "What is this pirate-sympathizer talking about?"  Stay your pitchforks till I present this hypothetical situation:

A game is shipped with a key, which the consumer then can register online to your account, as services such as Steam and Impulse currently offer.  When the legitimate copy is registered, the game will receive constant updates (whether that is a good quality or not was discussed in a previous entry), exclusive content, and online capability.  Updates can take the form of bug fixes, new gameplay, and other goodies.  Exclusive content on purchase, much like the console release of Epic's Gears of War 2 "Flashback Map Pack" offer, make the purchase of a new game more enticing.  (What does this do to resale value?  Should we offer such services which limit the used game market?  Yet another discussion.)  You can go further and offer unlimited re-installs via the service, etc.  The possibilities are near endless when you can stream content to your users in such a fashion.

Now picture the pirate downloading the software.  The pirate receives no key and can not register for any of the above features.  In the case of a key generator, the pirate can chance the risk of registering the game, being identified as a pirate, which could potentially bring the rest of the games registered on the same account to a grinding halt (if identified as a pirated copy) AND possibly bring legal action. If the pirate does not register, s/he can play the basic game, forever unpatched, and get a small taste of what could be; future updates and online multiplayer with the rest of the community is forever out of grasp.  (Another argument at this point is that the pirate can play on private servers, which provide drastically different experiences, but private servers are a discussion all on their own.  They are an issue, but are not unique to this idea.) Optimists could even say that this is the ultimate demo, which may lead to future sales.  (Another excuse of pirates is "There's isn't a demo copy!  I won't buy what I can't play first!")

This means you have a system in place that you can use for other releases, the players have a one-stop shop for their gaming needs through the account, and, most importantly, you stop wasting time and money fighting the unstoppable force of piracy. Let them pirate, since they'll get it anyways, and instead lock away the updates, online connectivity and special features, which are generally more securable.

Not the De Facto Solution

There are many things which can be stumbling blocks with this scenario: the first is convincing a publisher that this will work.  With sales hinging on the software's online and future services instead of the actual game, the proposal could be a tough sell.  Pointing to companies who have done this in the past, such as Valve, Stardock, and EA, can help bring the ideas into perspective.

The second issue is designing an online service that will perform these functions for you that don't hinder the end user in the same ways DRM did (or even more so!).  The user should not have to be forced to use your online solution (that would serve as just an online check which is more cumbersome than the ones in place now), but make it worth his/her while to do so.  Not every company has a solution much like Games for Windows or Steam, and you can't expect every company to be able to develop one on the same level.  Releasing a game through a proven channel can help alleviate this somewhat, but relying on another company's automated systems might be an issue for some developers.

The third issue is making the online service worth signing up for.  If the released game is good enough on its own, and does not require online multiplayer, then there is little enticing the pirates to pay for the game in the first place.  After all, if the updates are not substantial, the vanilla game will suit them just fine!  This also requires that you'll be spending more development post-release, which may or may not be what your company does in practice.  You'll also have to ensure the updates don't leak out as well, which would make the authentication process pointless if the pirates get those too!

The final concern is that this may limit used game sales.  Industry opinion widely differs on used game sales, but most gamers will welcome the right to re-sell their games in order to get spare cash, often to buy newer releases (new or used).  This is yet another discussion which I could not go into depth here.  (Given the amount of issues directly connected, one can easily tell how PC piracy can be a murky issue to discuss.)

I am not heralding this as the future of game sales, but it is a series of ideas that has a proven track record for some companies.  When you start selling more than the initial product through online service, having a strong gateway to the future support, you'll be releasing unhampered games and supporting consumers.  This is but one solution to a multifaceted problem.

What do you think?

I write these blog entries as brainstorms, not as sermons.  Please write in your comments and suggestions!

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