Since I'm a technical guy the first part will describe the technical implementation, then followed by the benefits this has for legit customers and the drawbacks for non-legit customers. Although this is aimed at MicroSoft Windows and PC Gaming in particular, the principle applies to Apple Mac and Linux as well as other platforms.
(Originally posted on my website EmSai.)
Roger Hågensen considers himself an Absurdist and a Mentat, hence believing in Absurdism and Logic. Has done volunteer support in Anarchy Online for Funcom. Been a Internet Radio DJ with GridStream. Currently works as a Freelancer, Windows applications programmer, web site development, making music, writing, and just about anything computer related really. Runs the website EmSai where he writes a Journal and publishes his music, ideas, concepts, source code and various other projects.
First of all there is no perfect solution, anything that is executable or stored on end-user hardware can be cracked in some way no matter how elaborated it is, and all it takes is for one individual to be able to do that, once that has happen that person gives a copy to others who in turn give it to others, none of those people need to worry about the protection as the cracker already have. This is true for disc checks, online checks, save games stored online, regardless of implementation it can be circumvented, disabled, emulated, replaced and so on.
Meanwhile the legit owners get annoyed, or end up with various issues some real and some philosophical while others are consumer rights related, and in some cases law conflicting. So what is the goal of DRM? It is to prevent copying, period. What is the best case scenario? Delay cracking for a few months and prevent casual copying, and lately DRM is becoming less and less effective, DRM seems to only be able to limit pre-launch leaks, and in some cases failing that. Pre-launch leaks is not DRM related at all, it's more an issue of trust and not keeping tabs on your own merchandise while not looking.
So, back to DRM (Digital Rights Management), or copy protection, scratch that, copy prevention, no not that either... I'm not sure what to call it, but whatever it is, it's not prevention/protection/right management nor anything close to that, it's more like product lock-in and product expiration and greed all wrapped into one, I guess you can tell I'm no fan of DRM or Copy protection systems, at least not any of the past or current ones I've seen out there.
The answer is simple, The Ideal Copy Protection is "Value Added".
What the heck does that mean? It means that the value of a legit copy should outweigh that of a non-legit copy so much so, that a pirate would seriously consider buying it, whether they actually do or not is another case, but if the product is good and they can afford it then they most likely will. Think of digital pirates as the client group of your fiercest competitor, then try to think of ways to lure them from your competitor to you company and your products. This is the unwritten law of the Free Market. A pirated product is no longer your product, it's a competing product, but it's also a lesser product, or at least it should be, but most methods used today actually allow the pirated copy to add value by simply reducing or eliminating any and all inconveniences for the consumer.
What would you choose (ignoring the social morality issue for now) if you had the choice between a free and hassle free software and a non-free software with an overly annoying hassled procedure to get it running and use it? I know what my answer would be, and I think I know what your answer would be too.
So what can you do as a developer/publisher? Ignore the pirates, and make potential customers realize that by getting a legit copy/becoming a legit owner that they get some value added, something that no pirate can give them.
But before detailing legit owner benefits, let me just do a quick technical outline of how the Ideal Copy protection should be implemented, and don't worry it's not overly technical, but be prepared to maybe look some terms up in Wikipedia if you are unfamiliar with them.
If a CD/DVD distribution then the following steps should occur:
But it all depends on what support you are willing to offer. A consumer does not just buy the product these days. They actually pre-pay for the software, the support and service for the life of a product, too many developers/publishers fail to realize this. Those who do realize this tend to beat their competition all the time. If you do not plan to provide any support, then forgo the registration altogether (unless you want the statistics) and prepare to sell the product dirt cheap. So what can you offer a legit owner that has registered?
Why not offer a digital download, either a low cost/near cost only download, or a free bittorrent download which moves most bandwidth cost from the servers to the user, it could also mean way faster download than directly from a overloaded server half across the world, this could also be leveraged during patching and downloadable content and extras or expansions, anything really. When possible also offer a "backup copy", this should be just a plain disc, it could even be a burned disc, just make sure it's got the product name and room for the user to write the serial on it, offer it for cost only and shipping.
Support services like asking for help via the website, email, phone is made available to registers users. Add as much "Value Added" material as you can. Offer the manual as a digital download, preferably printable and navigational and searchable for offline use. Offer media like the game soundtrack for download, concept art. "Behind The Scenes" featurette for download, offer outtakes of voice cast or motion capture actors and so on.
Make being a registered user a part of something bigger than simply playing a game. Internet play and multiplayer available for registered users, embed chat for registered users, messaging for registered users. Able to make posts on the official discussion forum, special "members only" forum for registered users of particular products, you'll find these will quickly become an exclusive club all on their own. Give special special forum avatars. Give certain registered owners that have proved themselves the honor of being a moderator in certain parts of the forums. Recognizing the games or software they own and allowing them to show others that they have them should also be possible. Although it should be optional for those really private folks.
Only legit owners that have registered will be able to download patches and updates, or get downloadable content, or get expansions or addons. Give registered owners a discount for new expansions or addons or downloadable content that have a price. Give them discounts on other products as well. Run regular raffles where registered owners can win stuff. Run promotions with hardware makers for discounts on hardware if they are the registered owners of certain software.
For games, why not offer save game backups, and how about free save game restoration, luckily it does not happen often but corrupt savegames can and do happen. As the developer you hopefully know how to parse a savegame and rescue as much info as possible from it, then give a fixed savegame back to the player, all those hours they thought was lost are now saved. (pun intended)
Other things to give a registered owner would be a downloadable or online game guide, walkthrough, developer cheat codes/command console to use in single player, maybe some MOD tools, or a Game Editor/Campaign Editor/Level Tool, make it easy for registered owners to create and share custom/user created content for your product, provide a ranking system so they can vote on the best, release a regular newsmag or email or similar where users and the things they create are mentioned.
Treat your valuable customers as what they actually are, that they are valued. And you will quickly see that they will in return remain loyal, they will even support you in return, they will spread you brand, convince others of your product (if it's good obviously), they will be more likely to get some of your other products, even if they aren't exactly what they would have wanted, or they do not have a need for it that much but they still like it because it's from you. You will find a growing community, and at times the support they give each other may actually ease up the pressure on your own support department, and the word of mouth would beat even the best viral PR campaign.
The whole point is, make those who pirate your product, those non legit users, make them feel like an ass for not buying it, make them look in envy what all those legit users get.
This may not be the answer you where hoping for when starting to read this article. but trust me, you will sell as good as or better than you did previously. Consumers will love you.
It will mean a lot more work, but these days you are not just selling the product but your support, service, community and more, all into that single sale, and if you throw the typical DRM on that thing your smarter competitors will win the market from you, because they are already working on most of the things mentioned in this article, and it's working.
Remember, The Ideal Copy Protection is "Value Added"!