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Piracy and Prevention
by Anthony Hart-Jones on 07/07/11 07:08:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



Piracy is about as old as copyright; it's possible that the first time some caveman poet said 'no copying my work', someone would have gone home and tried to write a particularly pleasant poem in pictures.  Denying it exists is just naive. 

For the sake of this discussion, I'll focus on videogame piracy - that's the industry I'm in, so it's the one I feel most passionately about - but I think the theories will be applicable to many other media.  Even a play can be captured by the camera on a mobile phone, just as a book can be either re-typed or scanned into a PDF. 

Current Solutions

Right now, any gamer will be aware of the typical solutions.  The three most popular ones right now appear to be:

  • Disc Validation - generally, the disc is non-standard and so the program checks for special values which a CD-writer would either 'correct' or else fail to notice.
  • Online Activation - the game either needs validating before it starts (like Steam) or else requires a constant internet connection.
  • Program Controls - either a separate program runs which prevents unauthorised 'helper' programs and checks for common disc-copying tools or sometimes code in the game itself does this.

Each of these tries to combat piracy by preventing users from simply copying a game to a re-writable disc or uploading a ROM to the internet.  They all have mixed success, but they are considered a necessity.

Defective By Design

Each of these solutions has its drawbacks; disc validation doesn't often like obscure hardware or multiple drives, online activation is annoying for those whose internet is expensive or unstable, validation apps can't always tell if other running programs are being used legitimately or not. 

The issue is that legitimate users can find themselves unable to play the game they bought and paid for.  Very few of us have never been irritated by DRM, even if it is just the huge number of accounts we end up creating to validate our games.

When a new CD drive or an operating system upgrade stop you from playing a game, it hurts. 

Some companies remove the original DRM from their games, with both Neverwinter Nights and The Witcher replacing disc-checks with online accounts.  The former effectively had no DRM, since the account serial number was only ever used for multiplayer games.

In other cases, the official version of the game is not updated.  Sometimes, brand new games are unplayable. Legitimate players run to the internet to look for solutions.

The Grey Area

When an older game stops working, I have seen developers actually recommend downloading cracked executable files.  Technically, it is illegal to circumvent DRM, but many consider that the user's moral right to play the game they just paid £40 for is more important.

Those cracked versions are freely available and almost-inevitable, so it makes sense. 

The Losing Battle

Some crackers might be legitimate owners who wanted to remove the oppressive DRM and share the 'big-fix' with users, others will be pirates, but the files will be available to everyone.  More importantly, these files will often come out within days of the game's release if the game is sufficiently desirable. 

Some games, such as Assassin's Creed 2 and Spore, have been boycotted because of their DRM.  In the case of Assassin's Creed 2, hackers actually overloaded the Ubisoft authentication servers so that the only players who could use the game were those with pirated copies. 

We have lost the technology battle.  Some pirates are even compiling leaked copies of the developer's source code without the DRM.  There are even cases of pirated games being released before the official version, as happened with Batman Arkham Asylum. (though in this case, the developers added a little surprise)

So What Now?

If there is no way to prevent piracy, what can we do?

You may note that I never said that we could not prevent piracy, just that I think we have lost the technology battle.  We have been treating piracy as a technology issue for about three decades and we have always been on the losing side. 

The Social Problem

Here's where we get to the crux of the issue.  I think the major part of piracy is not technological in nature; 99% of pirates don't know how to crack an executable, nor have they even seen a C++ file in their lives.  Most pirates download a torrent file and then (if they have any sense) run a virus-scan before using it to patch or replace a game's executable.

The major issue is social.  Pirates happily confess to their crimes, saying it is a victimless crime or that big publishers had it coming for their rip-off prices.  They download their films, their music, their games, then say that it's all okay because it's not really stealing when you make a copy.

Some of them even say that piracy is no worse than buying pre-owned games because the developer makes no money either way.

The Consequences

It is not a victimless crime; publishers survive worse than this, even if they (justifiably) compain about it, but studios wither and die because they work with much less of a financial buffer. 

One failed game can sink a development studio, think about that.  I hesitate to name and shame, but look at Daikatana and what it did to Ion Storm or how APB (which was not even a bad game) managed to sink Realtime Worlds.

There are more persuasive arguments; some major publishers are talking about pulling out of PC development citing piracy, while others are making consoles their lead platforms and making PC ports afterwards.   In the end, I doubt we will lose AAA PC games entirely, but there already exists a question-mark over the profitability of developing for a platform with such a high piracy-rate.

Piracy hurts developers, has the power to put them out of business considering the pretty-awful profit margins, and may reduce both the quality and quantity of new PC titles, not to mention raising the prices as end-users end up paying the DRM licensing and development costs.

Don't Copy That Floppy


Yes...  I went there...

Piracy is a part of our lives.  Most people don't really think about it as a crime, certainly no more than speeding on the motorway or underage drinking.  On some level, they know it is wrong, but it ranks low on the hierarchy of sins. 

Worse, they look at only the smaller picture - what is my £30 compared to the £30 million sales-figures on the last game? (even if the developer gets only a small cut of that and it won't stretch far in a studio of 100 employees) - and forget that a 90% piracy rate (the cited rate for both 'World of Goo' and 'Machinarium') is actually equivalent to £270 million in lost revenue.  If even 10% of those people would have bought the game then the developers would have almost doubled their profits.

Interestingly, games without DRM are often quoted as having no more issues with piracy than those without.

Is There A Solution?

I don't know...  All I know is that technology cannot save us from the pirates, so we need to try something else.  Enforcement is doomed to fail if 90% of all games are pirate copies, since you can't arrest 90% of all gamers without repercussions... 

All I can think is that we need to educate people.  Guilt and shame might help, but we may lose the PC gaming community we all enjoy if something does not change soon.

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Anthony Hart-Jones
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It wouldn't let me post the video, but for those who have not seen it -

Alex Leighton
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I think publishers need to take a "catch more flies with honey than vinegar" approach to piracy.. And what I mean by this is to reward people who purchase the game with something extra that can't be pirated. As things stand right now, there's no downside to piracy, and most of the time the legitimate copies are worse than pirated because of the drm issues you've stated.

People are just like dogs. If you only punish a dog when he does bad, you're going to end up with a pissed off dog who doesn't know what you want him to do. Instead, you reward a dog when he has done good, and instead of fearing punishment the dog will be desiring praise, and will be a much happier creature.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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It is a difficult one. Legitimate users get updates, but don't pirates put out cracked updaters? Legitimate users sometimes get multiplayer servers, but few games fail to include server software and so it can be hacked. Even shame is no barrier, since people don't bother to deny their piracy, so even providing prestige items or services for legitimate users (such as publicly-visible achievements) won't be a great incentive.

In the old days, we had things like 'feelies' or free t-shirts, but those are more retail vs. digital than legitimate vs. pirate and the way Paradox tells it, boxed retail is falling out of relevance.

Like I say, I don't know the answer to all of this, but something needs to change.

Jesper Skrufve
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Quite a bit of the article is about DRM, which by now everyone knows doesn't really do anything beside annoy people who actually bought your product (something the author points out as a curiosity near the end). Furthermore, it doesn't ask the right question.

In my mind, the video game industry seems to be a bit behind in the piracy debate. The question is still "how do we prevent piracy?", when it should be "how do we use piracy?". In my mind, piracy is not a problem, it's an opportunity. If you make a good product, people will want to use it. Some of people will want to use it for free and some will want to pay for it. If it's a digital product, you can't really prevent the former. However, there are of ways to leverage piracy.

First, a pirated download does not equal a lost sale. It MAY be a lost sale, but it may also be a person who wouldn't otherwise have tried it, loves it, proceeds to buy it and tell all their friends about it.

Second, there are positive long tail effects. Compare with the music industry: piracy tends to lead to lower sales for the very, very successful artists. For the unknowns, who don't have a huge marketing budget, piracy can be a big win. Granted, for many artists, digital/cd sales are usually not as profitable as live shows anyway, something which doesn't really translate to the game industry. The discoverability benefits should still apply though.

Third, if you're a struggling indie developer (as opposed to, say, EA), people who try your product are more likely to sympathize with you. Humanize yourself. At the very least, run a blog, have a paypal account. There are other ways to monetize than individual sales.

Something needs to change? Things ARE changing. Away from a single business model to plenty of new ones. And I'm not convinced it's for the worse.

John Martins
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I agree with most of this post, but the one issue that has gone largely unchallenged is the increase in piracy itself. The number of people stealing games/movies/music has been on a steady increase since the rise of the internet. My own mother knows how to download a movie without paying and she's in her mid-50s; I didn't have to teach her either.

As a society we're becoming increasingly tech aware, and eventually we'll have a population full to the brim of people who know how to get almost anything they want for free. Leaving them be may be a short-term solution, but it can only decrease in effectiveness as time goes by. The more people that know this dirty little secret, the more the "piracy doesn't equal lost sales" argument loses weight.

Don Incognito
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I think the reason DRM has always been on the losing side is because you can't simultaneously keep content from your customer and allow them to have it.

Past DRM systems have always been transparent to the user in how they work to verify a purchase and subsequently allow the customer to play the game (or play the dvd). Technologically savvy pirates (far more than the number of DRM designers) have always been able to see DRM systems at work and get around them. You also can't use encryption to obfuscate DRM. The honest user has to be able to play the movie/game/etc, so at some point, the user must have the ciphertext, the key and the cipher, which also means the dishonest user has them as well.

The other problem is that it only takes ONE time for a DRM system to be broken and then it can be copied ad infinitum over the internet. Needless to say, trying to design DRM is an immense technological problem with fundamental technical realities going against the DRM designers.

Lee Montgomery
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The critical misunderstanding, from my opinion, is that we're not in the business in preventing piracy. We don't make any money by preventing piracy.

We're in the business of convincing people to pay money to play our game. Forget how many people are pirating: our goal is to persuade more people to pay.

Here's an example: If my game sold 100,000 copies with 100% effective DRM, you'd better believe I'd drop that DRM in a heartbeat if it meant 90% piracy, but 200,000 copies sold (and 1,800,000 pirated). My bottom line is copies sold; every decision I make should be measured against whether sales increase.

Taken from this standpoint, the DRM war is futile. Effectively, no one is removing the ability to play their games for free, and nearly everyone involved is making an inferior product (through DRM-related hardware incompatibilities, arbitrary always-online requirements, and so on). The effort is making the retail product inferior to the pirated version... which convinces less people to pay for it.

If we stop viewing the reality that some people are playing the game for free as a dire problem, we may actually get somewhere in the effort to convince some of them to pay. You have a 90% piracy rate; this means that 90% of your potential audience is unconvinced of the value of your product. We need to have a long talk about why our audience feels this way, instead of fighting a futile war against their reaction to our games' perceived lack of value.

Maurício Gomes
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Spot On.

I keep repeating that, and people keep saying that I am nuts when I say that.

I really do not understand them.

Seemly publishers do not want MORE sales, they want LESS free riders.

Roger Haagensen
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I'm playing connect the dots here.

This post, combined with the two following posts

Should help give a certain picture.

Anthony Hart-Jones
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I would suggest that GamaSutra saw a trend and featured all three posts, but it might also be that piracy is a big issue for both developers and consumers these days. I think the legitimate end-user is (via DRM and high prices) as much a victim of piracy as the developer.

Even as an indie, I can't say that the publisher is the issue though. I think certain publishers are lagging behind in their mindset, clinging to DRM because it is the least worst option other than the unthinkable 'do nothing' or applying marketing spin; they're trapped because it is the most marketable option while pursuing venture-capital. DRM proves due-diligence, while the other two options might be harder to defend in any quantifiable way in court.

Of course, when was the last time you bought an indie title with SecuROM? Steam copies might use the basic Steam encryption and validation, but deliberate DRM just doesn't seem to appeal to the indie community.

James Grimshaw
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Maurício Gomes
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Stop preventing piracy.

Focus on getting more sales. Screw piracy, let them be.

And probably someone will show up here and point that I claimed to be a pirate in the past. Yes, I pirated, a lot, in fact I still have in my hard disks thousands of pirated games.

But without them, I would never buy non-used non-pirated games like I do right now, because I would never saw those games in first place.

A clear example: Screamer, a racing game for 486, I had that game pirated when a little kid, someone gave me a floppy with it. When launched, and had Screamer as surprise addition, I imeddiately made a account there, bought Screamer and some other games (including ones that I never played).

I think if noone ever handed that Screamer copy to me, I would never bother with


Without piracy, games would never become mainstream. Just think about it: How many people actually played and recognize Mario 1-1 and how many people BOUGHT that game?

How many people get the cake jokes, and how many people BOUGHT portal?

How many people know how to pull Scorpion "get over here" move, and actually bought MK?

I am not saying pirates are right, in fact several of them are plainly wrong (the ones that have no good reason to pirate but do it anyway, like people with sufficient money to buy a game that has a good demo, and insist in pirating it instead)

But shutting down piracy, is the most stupid thing that as industry we can ever do, the worst thing for your game is not even commercial failure, the worst thing for you game, is noone playing it.

James Grimshaw
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While we are with you on that sentiment. Unfortunately some people want the game and are willing to buy it to play it. But because you can get it for free there is no point. Then you have the poeple that illegal download it, who find they want to buy it, but life just gets in the way.

One of the argument we find the most is the one from our own perspective.

e.g. "I am a pirate, I illegally download, I buy the games I like the most, not all! So the rest of the world must do the same thing!"

Publisher wouldn't mind that, however most people won't buy games because the perceived value is small. They play the game all the way through, its ok, but not brilliant, therefore not worth the parting of money.

I suppose there needs to be a gaming/value percentage. Say if meta critic scores a game at 59% you only pay that percentage of the price. :)

Maurício Gomes
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I think it is more a issue of cartelish behavior of the industry.

For example, DNF I would had bought it for 20 USD or something like that.

But I will never pay 60 USD for it.

In fact, only one game EVER made me part more than 30 USD, and that was The Witcher 2, because I liked The Witcher 1 a lot and I bought it for very cheap. (and I like RPGs, and RPGs have lots of content).

But I still see that if I had the habit of buying 60 USD games, I would only buy the best ones, not all games are worth 60 USD, specially short games (recent Call of Duty games, Mirror Edge) or mediocre games (DNF for example).

Luis Guimaraes
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One important thing to note is that, while in Brazil an AAA launch costs about USD $150 (with Steam being a way to skip taxes and EA Origin offering consistent pricing in local currency) and the physical piracy rates of USD $10 copies is rampant, in some of the considered core markets for AAA gaming, the $60 game is either the only game one person gets in the whole year and played online to death, or simply rented or returned to retail at a percentage of that price.

That leads for an strange perception that the actual worldwide AAA gaming audience is far inferior than the actual numbers, which, if tacked in the right way, could be many times more profitable than any of the today's selling records...