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Piracy is a fact of life, so why not just have fun with it?
Piracy is a fact of life, so why not just have fun with it? Exclusive
August 7, 2012 | By Mike Rose

August 7, 2012 | By Mike Rose
Comments
    37 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



Tackling PC game piracy is always an on-and-off talking point for indie developers. Every now and again a studio throws out awful piracy rate figures for its latest release, and the internet goes ballistic over how terrible it is and what can be done to prevent it. These discussions usually culminate in DRM being called the worst thing to happen to video games ever.

One indie studio recently took a different approach to piracy, and ended up being called out by a number of other devs for actually advocating piracy.

Under the Ocean, a fully-fledged sequel to 2010 free download Under the Garden, launched as a paid alpha build earlier this year, costing $7 for the base version of the game, and $25 for a special edition.

However, there is also a third free "version" of the game, titled "Annoying Cockroach Edition" -- although it's not really a separate version at all. It's simply a humorous acknowledgment that some people (well, "cockroaches") will skip the two legitimate options for obtaining the game, and just pirate it.

"Pirate the game when it comes out," the cockroach version's features list reads. "Not much we can do to stop you, is there?" There was even a link to infamous torrent website Pirate Bay, giving visitors access to a free, pirated version of the game.

The approach gained a lot of attention from game players and the press, with social news website Reddit in particular exploding with support for the game. Although the traffic from this influx has now finally died down, it earned the title a great deal of notability for a good while.

cockroach.jpgAt the time, a number of other development teams were not exactly happy about the phrasing, calling artist Paul Greasley and company out for condoning video game piracy. Says Greasley, this simply wasn't the case at all.

"If we could wave a wand and stop people from pirating stuff, we would," he tells Gamasutra. "But we can't. It's a fact of life right now, and in our opinion there's nothing wrong with a little gallows humor, so to speak."

Although the team removed the link to Pirate Bay after deciding it was perhaps a step too far, potentially linking users to malware on the website, it has kept the "Annoying Cockroach Edition" in place for visitors to see.

Greasley is keen to stress that many people have simply got the wrong end of the stick about what the team is trying to do with this approach.

"The Cockroach edition was actually not an attempt to cut down on piracy," he notes. "It was just one of the liberties of being an indie developer, with nobody to answer to. The elephant in the room is that 90 percent+ of people are going to pirate your game on the PC (and ours is no exception, based on the traffic logs). We just thought it would be fun, and frankly honest, to point that out!"



Instead, the team plans to convert pirates to purchases via simplistic methods. "We're going to be releasing a whole bunch of frequent updates, with lots of feature additions," notes the artist. "If you want to stay up to date, buying it is much easier than pirating it."

He adds, "The users win, because it's DRM free and they get a bunch of cool new updates for Under the Ocean, and we win, because the updates get us new ways to promote the game outside our game forums."

For Greasley, tackling piracy comes down to three key points: "Make a product people want and will talk about, make that product as good as you possibly can, and treat your customer base with respect."


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Comments


Galaxy 613
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DRM free game with login-required updater, the best possible solution at the moment IMHO...

Mike Motschy
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DRM free with login requirements, I don't see how that would work, wouldn't the uploader just add a text file with their login requirements? If it's DRM free, you should be able to load it on every computer you own for life... so you couldn't make it a set amount of logins...

David Navarro
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@Mike - that model seems to be working fine for Minecraft, though.

Mike Motschy
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@David I feel that minecraft does get pirated a lot (Notch even said if you can't afford it, to pirate it), it's just that the game is so big that it also gets purchased a lot as well.

Joe Wreschnig
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@Mike,

You can't make it a set amount of logins, but you can also reasonably assume if you see some"one" logging in on 100+ systems a day, it's probably something fishy.

Matt Robb
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@Mike, that's the solution to the piracy problem. If your game is good enough to pay for, you'll make enough regardless of the pirates, assuming there's some point in paying even if it's something as simple as automatic updates.

Kyle Redd
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The problem with a login-required updater is that it risks the future playability of the game once the servers are taken offline. At that point, legitimate buyers are stuck with the same "base" version as the pirates.

Noah Donnelly
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@David Minecraft checks to see if you're already logged in from somewhere else, and if you are, a message appears in the top left of the screen, but you can still play.

Kenneth Blaney
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Minecraft's login system works not to protect the game itself (as said, hundreds of people could use the same username and password), but rather the multiplayer part of the game. Since you need a username to play multiplayer and you can't have 2+ people with the same username, we have the situation where basically anyone can play the single player for free, but the multiplayer costs money. This works well for Minecraft because once you build something cool in the single player you sit back and say, "I wish there was an easy way to show people this".

Adam Rebika
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What about a Steam-like system, where you can install the game on as many PCs as you want, except you can only run it on one PC at the time?

@Kyle: when the servers shut down, one can think without taking too many risks that the updates are stopped too.

Alex Boccia
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The so-called "fight against piracy" hurts developers because they waste their efforts on "combating piracy" instead of creating an intriguing and exciting game. Pirated copies but a wealth of buyers is far better than no buyers and only pirated copies, which happens to a lot of mediocre releases.

If I had to give you a case study of this it would be with CDProjekt Red and the Witcher 2, where they opted to completely remove the DRM from their title (save for the Steam release). Not only was this smaller studio successful in the PC launch, but they turned around the next year and made a port for the Xbox360 as well as a 10gb content update for original retail purchasers. CDProjekt's CEO also noted that the Witcher 2 had been pirated many, many times, but that the company's previous DRM measures would have had no affect in this statistic and would punish their loyal customers.

Christopher Engler
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A lot of people credit Lewis Carrol's popularity as a writer (Alice in Wonderland) to his stance on piracy. He purposely didn't sue publishers who copied his original works in favor of getting his stories and name out into the public. This is a sound marketing policy, but if you can't shame at least a few of these consumers into legitimately buying your product, then you won't be able to pay your development team for very long. Maybe it's an issue of pricing vs. perceived value. Has anyone done a study on pricing and the rate of piracy? My guess would be 99 cent mobile games aren't pirated at the same rate as those priced at $39.99 or $59.99, but I could be wrong.

Joe Wreschnig
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Several iPhone developers, over the past couple years, have shared numbers and it's still common to see 90%+ of their active users using infringing copies, even with < $5 prices. I assume it's as bad or worse on Android because many Android phones either don't require jailbreaking or support it. (This is not an excuse to discourage or outlaw jailbreaking, though.)

Price seems to have little effect on the ratio of infringing users, or at least the number of infringers so dominates the number of purchasers that such a metric isn't helpful. Let's say 99% of users on platform A got an infringing copy and 98% of users on platform B did - platform B users are twice as likely to purchase it, but the "piracy rate" is still about the same.

Aaron Fowler
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I don't have numbers to back it up, but I've heard that 99 cent mobile games get pirated a considerable amount as well.

Plus, just look at music. Most people download songs illegally even though it just costs 99 cents per song on iTunes.

I'm sure the price is the excuse for some pirates. But most pirates have no problem at all selling out their integrity and character for 99 cents.

If it costs anything. There will be pirates.

Ian Stanbridge
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Hi Christopher as an indie developer myself let me explain why your perceived value theory may not be correct. Take my game Topple Towers for example. It's a mobile game for both IOS and android. There is a free demo available and a full version for $2 and yet it experiences fairly high piracy rates on both platforms. As there is a free demo and it is also inexpensive the question has to be why are people pirating it ?

My guess is that the majority of people pirating are probably kids or people who don't have a credit card and so can't buy it whatever the price. You could argue that the perceived value of mobile games has decreased, you see people complaining when games cost more than 1$ when at the time that the app store launched people were exited about only having to pay 4$ for Monkey Ball. At the same time a lot of developers have reported increases in the rates of piracy or no change.

There are of course a lot of factors that affect piracy but I don't think price is a major factor. I think the major factor is how easy it is to pirate something. My guess is piracy rates are increasing as more people become aware of how to jail break iphones and more sites offering free downloads become available. The main reason for piracy is obvious it''s that people like getting stuff that you normally have to pay for for free.

I think the industry needs to change tack and start going after the people that profit from the piracy rather than the users.From what I can tell everywhere my game has been made available illegally it is either paid for by displaying lots of ads while they download it or by including malware with the download itself.

The issue is there is no easy or cost effective way of stopping this piracy at present. The only option open is to sue the distributor which is both costly, risky and time consuming. If someone mugs you in a park, society doesn't expect you to have to sue the mugger to solve the problem they expect you to call the police. Why isn't there a police force for the internet ?

Considering that most piracy if funded by advertising and that most advertisers probably don't want to advertise to pirates anyway there must be a way of shutting the practice down. Bearing in mind that everyone who receives advertising has had to identify themselves in order to receive the money stopping these people would be fairly trivial if a procedure such as sending an email to an internet police force was setup. As soon as there was no longer a financial incentive to make a pirated copy of something available I think the problem would largely go away by itself.

Noah Donnelly
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@Ian There was an attempt to police the internet. It was called SOPA.
I think that it probably isn't children. I am a minor myself, and about as tech-savvy as they come, but I wouldn't know how to go about pirating a game. I think that the problem is young adults who might not have the money, or the wish, to pay for games. They have found a way to get something for nothing, and probably won't stop pirating until they are offered something they can't get through pirating.
In regards to your wondering why they pirated when there was a free demo, I would think that the people in question have been pirating for so long that they might not even look on the appstore/market, but go straight to their pirating service to download something.

Kenneth Blaney
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I think a big thing that leads to piracy on digital items regardless of price is the "monetization friction". That is, people making their first purchase in a game/service (be it facebook credits, smurfberries or Steam hats) are much more resistant to parting with their money. Once people get comfortable doing that, it becomes easier.

In a market like iTunes, there is a lot of trash. No one wants to feel like they got ripped off even if it is only $1. This, I think, is why F2P has become so big and will stay popular even now that microtransactions can be pirated.

Ian Uniacke
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My gut feeling is that the cheaper a game is actually the MORE people pirate it, because you're getting the attention of the masses with the cheap price who are more likely to pirate. But I could be wrong about that.

Ian Stanbridge
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@Noah Good point you brought up about SOPA being an attempt to police the internet that failed. The thing is though that SOPA wasn't a police force as such it was just an attempt to change the law. People objected to SOPA and rightly so in my opinion largely because of the effects it would have on no longer allowing people to be anonymous on the internet. The thing is though that we already have enough laws in place ( the copyright law for instance ) to tackle piracy. The problem is that there is no one enforcing these laws effectively.

Most legitimate internet businesses already go out of there way and welcome any measures that remove the ability to be anonymous when business transactions are involved on the internet. In fact you could argue that internet commerce would cease to function without these systems in place. Internet piracy largely relies on these very same systems. It is largely funded by advertising revenue. A pirate already needs to identify themselves in order to receive advertising revenue so you don't need any new laws.

There are legitimate reasons to want to be anonymous on the internet and these rights should continue to be protected. If you expect to be paid for something however in my opinion you lose your right to being anonymous.

Joshua Darlington
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Business models based on exclusion and driving up the price through false scarcity seem iffy if it cannot supported by the underlying technology.

Calling customers bad names seems to be cathartic but is it the best approach to monetizing content? -Compared with a switch to inclusive excitatory business models that take advantage of the 21st century tech landscape?

IMO People will start downloading cars as soon as 3D printing tech improves a bit.

Ed Macauley
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"IMO People will start downloading cars as soon as 3D printing tech improves a bit."

That's got nothing to do with software piracy.

Hunter Mayer
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"My other car is stuck in the print queue"

Sherman Luong
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Best solution: Create a mal-ware game version that destroys the console. :D Then you can see how many would try to download pirated games.

Brent Gulanowski
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The only way to succeed in the face of piracy is to make customers love you, because then they get the warm fuzzies supporting you -- something that they cannot ever get through unlicensed copying. Kick starter is a profound demonstration that people will pay for good will.

People really need to abandon the term "piracy", btw, it's completely stupid. Just like the whole conversation about unlicensed copying is basically stupid, uninformed and accomplishing nothing beyond making marginalized people feel even more marginalized.

Read this: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-08-01-lost-humanity-6-kill
ing-pirates

Ed Macauley
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No. Just no. That's quite possibly one of the worst articles about piracy I've ever read.

"Or what if that thirty or forty quid has to feed your family for a fortnight? What then? Do you just do without?"

Yes. If you can't afford to buy something, it's not OK to just steal it. How is that hard to understand?

Ian Uniacke
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I'm sorry but this "make your game better so they don't pirate" argument just flies in the face of logic. Do you get to eat McDonald's for free just because they're crappy burgers? It's not related...if your product isn't worth the value that's justification to not purchase not justification to pirate. We live in a capitalism where commerce is driven as the balance of supply and demand, not driven by consumers holding suppliers to ransom.

A S
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I'm sure this won't be a popular opinion, but this is how I feel.

If you have ever pirated a game, look in the mirror and you are looking at a thief.

Whatever your justification is, you are a thief because you took something that doesn't belong to you. Would you be proud telling those you love you're a thief?

Ed Macauley
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And once I grew up and learned better, I quit doing it. That doesn't mean I have to accept it now.

Jack Kerras
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You can't make decisions about games because of pirates.

If you decide to invest heavily in DRM, you're going to sell very few extra copies of the game, people are still going to pirate it, and you'll have not only wasted your time, but treated your paying customers (the only people who actually have to deal with your logins, limited activations, or what-have-you) like criminals.

People break the rules, and the folks who are going to break them because it's fun and they've built the skillset to do so (read: people who make cracks and pirate games) are going to do it because it's fun and it's something they can feel genuinely clever about; someone spent hundreds or thousands of man-hours developing a system to keep pirates out, and they crushed it in a matter of hours.

Screwing up paying customers' experience for the sake of this exercise in futility is where you run into problems. I remember buying Unreal Tournament 2004 after loving the demo, installing it, and being told my game was not genuine and I could not play. I called customer support and customer support said sorry, wait for a patch. I patched it, all right. That is some bullshit, and I am annoyed about it to date; I haven't bought another of Epic's games outside of a bargain bin since it happened. I like their games, but I refuse to pay a relevant price for them after they dicked me over like that.

Ubisoft gets much the same, if I buy their games at all. I remember these things for a -long- time, and so does everyone else who gets screwed by crappy DRM.

The issue with this, to my mind, is a very long-term issue. For one shitty problem I had nearly ten years ago, I won't buy Epic's games. I don't even know if the same people work there, but their brand is fuckin' poisonous as far as I'm concerned. Ubisoft, very much the same. I want to play Far Cry 3, but you bet your ass I'm not dropping $60 on it. I'm over it.

I will not be treated like a criminal.

John Gordon
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I have to wonder what percentage of piracy is just people who download everything just because they can. These are people who are not really even interested in playing your game. They just want to own a copy of everything.

Amir Barak
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Let's throw my two cents worth of rumbling, mumbling and bumbling... People pirate stuff because it's easy and they don't perceive it as stealing because it's virtual. In people's minds if the item isn't there physically then it's alright to make a copy of it. This is why people won't steal a game box from the shop but will gladly copy the contents of it once its on their computer.
Calling it piracy is pretty silly (like another poster said) and thinking that you can stop it by advocating dumb DRM schemes and even dumber actions (such as persecuting individuals for theft) is pretty stupid in and of itself.
I think the "Under The Ocean" approach is not only really funny but an actually valid way to deal with it :D

Ed Macauley
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DRM doesn't do anything to stop dedicated and experienced pirates. They'll just get the hack. DRM can only stop casual pirates or the people who just don't know better. To this day I have friends that think it's perfectly legal to copy a CD, game, movie or whatever to give to another friend. "Hey it's personal use, right?" -- I'd rather educate those folks than slap some DRM on a game. That's just going to piss off my legitimate customers and help make the inexperienced pirates into more experienced ones.

Steven Christian
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I suspect that a lot of AAA companies have trouble with the "treat your customer with respect" part, rather than the piracy.

Melissa Highlander
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It's simply about enforcement. Nobody getting caught, nobody getting punished. It seems piracy has no effect. Games and music continue to be made regardless of the pirate not paying. At the least, the annoying cockaroach version is a voice from the developers directly to the pirates and the internet, saying "that hurts and it sucks. We wish we had a better relationship with you." They seem to be right. That's pretty much all that's in their power to do until any enforcement is introduced.
I remember the MPAA were going after people who downloaded songs. What happened to that? What are the difficulties in policing this kind of downloading practice?

Marcus Miller
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This is pretty much the same argument used for the sale of used console games. I have bought quite a few used games for my kids. However, I have bought pretty much the all the DLC for these used games as well. Call me a scumbag for buying used...

Christopher Casey
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This article is pretty much spot-on. You can't ever stomp out piracy -- we know the statistics. Anti-piracy measures that actually have a shot at working can be expensive in terms of both time and actual cost, and may simply not be worth pursuing for a small or indie developer. It seems perfectly reasonable, in that case, to add a "premium" value to legitimate purchase rather than attempt to punish piracy. Make the cost of piracy higher by making illegitimate users have to constantly interface with pirate sites if they want updates or new content -- always risking viruses, malware, and wasted time, while paying customers get a nice smooth experience. You'll still get gouged by piracy, but when piracy is inevitable, this approach is without a doubt the most sensible one.

Austin Farmer
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Maybe they should have made the free version require the player to take part in the beta test. If theyre getting a free version of the game they should at least have to help with the beta. Like the game wont work offline until you have logged 15 hours in the beta and filled out 5 bug reports... I dont really know how betas work as you could probably tell. What do you guys think?


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