Copy Protection

Or, how pirates will always find a way to steal your game.

The topic of anti-piracy and copy protection in PC games has always been a volatile topic. Gamers want the least amount of inconvenience between them and the game they paid for. Publishers want the largest possible barrier between the game and the people who would steal it. And, of course, these are conflicting viewpoints. The larger the barrier, the larger the inconvenience to the customer. The more anti-piracy and copy protection software you load into your game, the less likely the paying customer is going to have a satisfactory experience with the product.

Most copy protection and anti-piracy software is bad for the industry for a number of reasons.

First, copy protection has never stopped pirates. Ever. In the history of video games. Pirates have always found ways to beat the software and then shared their success on the internet in the form of torrents. No matter how much anti-piracy and copy protection software you put in the way of the pirates, they will always eventually beat it. That’s just the way it is going to work for the foreseeable future. The best case scenario is that you load so much anti-piracy and copy protection that it takes them a few weeks or months to break it. But it will eventually be broken. And once it is, it will be available to everyone else. Anti-piracy doesn’t work if you are only stopping most people. You have to stop everyone. Because once one person cracks the game, he’s just going to share the crack with everyone else who wasn’t able to figure it out. It’s a losing battle. One that even the music industry has realized is a mostly frivolous endeavor.

Second, pirates were never going to buy your game in the first place. Publishers and game journalists will occassionaly cite sales figures or blame pirates for poor sales. Unfortunately, that is usually inaccurate. In most cases, if a person is going to pirate your game, they were never going to purchase it in the first place. The sales lost to piracy are not a one to one ratio. It isn’t as if all these pirates were going to pay full price but decided it was easier and more convenient to pirate. More likely, they would have never purchased the game at all if it wasn’t free. So, pirates are not causing you to lose as many sales as you claim. A good example of this is that as piracy has increased in popularity, sales of video games (across the board) have actually increased.

Third, word of mouth is the number one factor in video game purchases. I’ll need to dig up the link, but there was a recent survey that found that the number one factor in gamers purchases was word of mouth about the game. Pirates spread word of mouth, even if they aren’t purchasing the game. In this sense, they could actually be increasing sales (or at least making up for the fact they didn’t buy the game themselves).

Fourth, anti-piracy and copy protection costs a lot of time and money. Not only are the game companies paying for the development and implementation of the anti-piracy software, but also for the customer support after launch of the product. Issues with copy protection and anti-piracy software are one of the biggest drains on the customer service department of any game company. In most cases, the additional costs of copy protection are likely outweighing the money saved by stopping pirates.

Finally, anti-piracy and copy protection is annoying and an inconvenience your paying customers. This is my major grip with anti-piracy hurdles. They don’t stop the pirates, they aren’t saving sales, and they are potentially hurting your word of mouth about the game, and costing additional resources to development, implement, and support, but most of all – they alienate the people paying for your game. In any other business, you do everything you can to please your customer. You want to ensure repeat business (sequels, DLC, future releases). You do not purposefully implement features that you know are going to annoy, frustrate, or discourage your customers from giving you more money.

So, that’s why I think the industry should move away from intrusive anti-piracy and copy protection software. There are very little benefits and an overabundance of negatives with having too much anti-piracy. I understand that the publisher wants to protect their product. I really do. But the customer should come first. They should be more worried about whether or not their software is convenient and accessible to customer and less worried about whether someone (who wasn’t going to pay for it anyway) is going to try to steal it.

Just another example of a change that could benefit both the company and the customer.

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Completely agree.

  2. The software approaches tend to act like rootkits … and having Microsoft’s rootkit on my PC is enough, so there I agree with you.

    There are alternatives though which can work well … if you use hardware and online authentication. With USB dongles capable of running PKI encrypted code provided during the authentication step cracking could be made almost impossible (with the code being bits and bobs of the game which won’t require too much data/processing and are either infrequent or latency tolerant, not like the dongles of a decade ago which were only used in software checks and could be easily bypassed). Such dongles can be made dirt cheap in this day and age (couple of bucks manufacturing cost in volume).

    It would take cooperation between the big players to pull something like this off … and unfortunately one of the big players is Microsoft, which always has a hard time deciding whether PC gaming has to thrive to sell windows or die because it competes with XBOX.

  3. @Pinky’s Brain: Dongles are not an effective form of copy protection. Just ask AutoDesk or any other major developer of high-end productivity titles. They’re quite easy to emulate and/or crack in most cases, particularly since the majority of Dongles use Aladdin HASP technology.

    I largely agree with this post; however, my opinions on this matter are as unfounded as those in the article. I for one would prefer to see this sort of article written in a less anecdotal manner with some actual citations and or sources to back up the statements made.

    • HASP dongles are a bad joke, it’s just a question of reversing the right jumps just like with all the old style dongles before it. It’s like saying “no console has had end to end encryption to the disc drive yet so all consoles will always be easy to add mod chips to” before the present console generation (Microsoft unfortunately screwed it up by not protecting the firmware too).

      Times change, HASP dongles are no indication of what’s possible … compare them to Senselock for instance.

  4. The common argument from publishers is that copy protection isn’t intended to stop pirates, because that is a practically impossible task. The intention is twofold:

    1. Stop casual copiers. If you have a cool game and your friend wants to play it and can’t just use your copy, then your friend going to be more inclined to go buy his or her own copy.

    2. Delay piracy. For retail games, most of the sales happen in the first few weeks of release. If a publisher can delay piracy by even a few days, that will theoretically significantly increase the sales of a game. Pirating a month-old game is old news since that game might already be in the bargain bin.

    Not saying these are better, but they are reasons you didn’t cover.

    • I would make a comment here about the effectiveness of DRM in delaying piracy, but I’m too busy playing Mass Effect 2.

  5. I agree. Although I would add that most piracy occurs because people don’t want to pay for the game because it’s too expensive. If prices were lowered, I think piracy would die out. This is especially true for the music industry where I think being charged £15 for a CD is absolutely ridiculous.

    • Exactly.

      I alluded to this without actually saying it. If the game is too expensive, they’re probably not going to buy it anyway. Roughly the same concept as stated, but you explained in detail better than I.

      I mentioned something similar to this in the MMO Price Point posts, but games stay too expensive for too long a duration. As is also the case with music. It is beneficial to the company to start at that higher original price point, but after the first few months, there is actually more potential benefit in lowering the price. But many games will stay full price for up to a year or more (especially console games). And eventually people get tired of waiting for the game to fall into a reasonable price point for them and turn to more questionable means of acquisition.

      Personally, I almost never pay full price for a game. I might purchase one game a year at full price, and then the rest I wait until they go on sale for $30 or less. This is just simply because most games nowadays fail to provide what I consider $50 worth of entertainment for a video game.

  6. Price doesn’t really matter. Remember World of Goo and “pay what you want?” The majority of people bought the game for 1 cent, with few even paying anywhere close to $20.

    The real solution, and the only one that works for PC, is subscription-based gaming. That’s why so many MMOs exist, and a lot of the titles that would have gone to it go to the consoles instead.

    • I don’t follow.

      You say price doesn’t matter, and then give an example of how more people buy a game if the price is lower.

      Also, subscription based is a solution to what? And what games are “going to consoles” because of the subscription model?

      Either I’m entirely lost, or you just made a whole lot of no sense. 50/50 at this point.

      • They bought it for 1 cent. That means you gave it away for free. The point is that the whole “lower price argument” doesn’t work, because WOG let people set their own price, thereby allowing people to pay what they think the game is worth.

        They paid so little as to not be worth sellng the game. People are commenting on how the price of games are too expensive, yet even when you could set your own price, most people paid virtually nothing in that experiment.

        Subscription based gaming solves piracy. You can give away the game for free, and you make money on something that piracy can’t really affect for the average user. You can’t torrent a subscription, and private servers are not a force enough in most games to dent sales.

        Most of the non sub-based games are avoiding the PC in favor of consoles because it’s harder to pirate them.

        Hope this amplifies my thinking some, sorry I can be terse to a fault.

      • That experiment is a tad fuzzy. It was about choice, not price. The choice was between one cent and $20. Of course people are going to choose the lowest possible price when given the chance. That’s just common sense. It neither proves nor disproves that a lower price point can affect piracy (or that it doesn’t at all). All it really proves is that gamers are cheap bastards.

        There are ways to lessen piracy that don’t involve robust and intrusive anti-piracy software. Steam is a good example. For the most part, gamers are OK with Steam as an anti-piracy platform. It works in the same fashion as a sub-based game. You connect to their server, you get to play the game.

        I disagree with sub-based games being the answer. Mainly because I don’t like the idea of “renting” the game. That is, once you stop paying the sub, you no longer have access to your content. Which is kind of ironic, given I play and have developed MMOs myself. I like at least having the illusion that I own my games and subscriptions remove that illusion by blatantly telling me I’m only leasing them until I decide the game is no longer worth $15 a month.

        I also disagree that games are avoiding the PC because of piracy. Most console games are multi-platform and there are easily more “PC Exclusive” games on the market than there are console exclusives for all 3 systems combined. But this is mainly because the PC is the cheapest to develop for and console gamers tend to ignore or overlook anything that isn’t from a AAA studio.

  7. Subscription mechanics may be *an* answer to piracy, but they also keep potential paying customers away. I, for one, will not keep paying to play a game I’ve purchased. I do not accept needing to check in via the internet, either.

    Perhaps I’m just too steeped in console gaming, where permission to play was granted solely by having a console and media in hand. Ownership was fluid, because it didn’t matter. You either had the game and the means to play it or not.

    Maybe it’s an older time that won’t exist again, but subscription gaming only serves to push people like me out of the market entirely, and I’m not happy about it, so what word of mouth I might generate is negative. Very negative. I won’t pirate, but neither will I be spending money on DRM-heavy games or subscription based games. Chalk that up as a lost sale that has absolutely *nothing* to do with the quality of the game itself, merely the business model.


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