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 Game Dev Tycoon  fights piracy with piracy
Game Dev Tycoon fights piracy with piracy
April 29, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

April 29, 2013 | By Kris Ligman
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    25 comments
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Programming, Business/Marketing



Counter-piracy measures can be a bone of contention among developers and publishers big and small. But indie studio Greenheart Games has come up with an inspired solution to bite back at pirates.

When Greenheart Games discovered that more than 90% of its players for its game development sim, Game Dev Tycoon, came by the title illegally, Greenheart responded by seeding its own cracked copy, with a not-so-subtle modification to its code.

"Initially we thought about telling them their copy is an illegal copy," Greenheart's Patrick Klug says. "But instead we didn’t want to pass up the unique opportunity of holding a mirror in front of them and showing them what piracy can do to game developers."

This version of Game Dev Tycoon operates normally for the first few hours of use before undercutting the player's in-game profits. The effect, Greenheart says, is to illustrate the real effect piracy has on a developer's overhead.

"If years down the track you wonder why there are no games like these anymore and all you get to play is pay-to-play and social games designed to suck money out of your pockets then the reason will stare back at you in the mirror."

Note: Greenheart Games' website is currently experiencing periodic server outages due to the widespread coverage of this story. The original post can be found here.


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Comments


E Zachary Knight
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I really like the way they approached this issue. However, I do have one critique. They missed a massive opportunity to convert those pirates into paying customers.

When you look back at other examples, such as Hotline Miami, they took the time to be genuine with the pirate community and thus garnered a lot of success. However, these guys pretty much just pranked the whole pirate community with as far as I could tell, no redeeming factor. There were no calls to support the developer. No "You are playing the pirate version, to upgrade go to this site and purchase" or anything like that. A huge missed opportunity.

The way they tackled this was deceptive and offensive in some ways. It was deceptive because the torrent was posted under false pretenses, all developer experimentation and research aside. It was offensive because he continues to call those who downloaded the version he uploaded pirates and thieves. Imagine a cookie company giving away free cookies that taste like crap, then calling those who ate the free cookies thieves.

Overall, I think these guys are looking at this in the right direction, their aim is just off a bit.

Nathan Mates
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Trying to engage the pirate community in a "genuine way" is a lot like standing up at a live sporting event or at a movie theater to get a better view. It sure helps the first few that do it. However, once a certain percentage stand up, then everyone has to stand up, and everyone is worse off -- their view is about the same as if they sat down, but their legs are now tired. I just don't think that it's a good thing to add costs without considering the long-term consequences.

Ian Uniacke
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Developer calls pirates "pirates". News at eleven.

E Zachary Knight
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Nathan,

"Trying to engage the pirate community in a "genuine way" is a lot like standing up at a live sporting event or at a movie theater to get a better view. It sure helps the first few that do it."

Not true at all. A certain number of "pirates" are potential sales and it is up to all developers to work to attract them. I feel that while these developer had a novel way of tackling the issue, they failed to create a path for those potential sales to become real sales. This is not some unique opportunity only available to the first few who try it. It is available to any developer who wants to take the time to engage with their fans.

"I just don't think that it's a good thing to add costs without considering the long-term consequences. "

What you mean more than creating a unique pirate version? What I suggested would have taken very little extra time and effort than what they had already done.

But if you want to talk wasted time and money on piracy, let's talk DRM, take down letters, lawsuits etc. Now that is a waste of time and money with no positive gain in the end.

E Zachary Knight
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Ian,

I didn't say he called pirates "pirates". I said he called them thieves. Huge difference.

Dave Long
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There is indeed a semantic difference between 'pirates' and 'thieves if you're looking at the structure of language, but videogame pirates _are_ thieves, plain and simple. It's so big that a lot of people accept it, and even condone it, but ethically it doesn't have a leg to stand on. Pirates are not adding to the gaming industry or community in any way, shape or form - they are free riders. When people call out welfare cheats (people claiming welfare who have other means - not genuine people in need of state support), it is roundly condemned, because it is _theft_. Same story when you steal other people's work. Video game pirates are the welfare cheats of the gaming industry, and deserve a similar image.

E Zachary Knight
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Dave,

"but videogame pirates _are_ thieves, plain and simple."

And that is where you are wrong.

The difference between a game pirate and a welfare cheat is that the welfare cheat is taking resources from a limited pool of resources. There is only a limited amount of money in the welfare system and if people who don't need it are taking it, then people who do need it can't get it or can't get enough.

With game pirates, they are making copies from an infinite supply of copies. They are not taking any limited resource. A game pirate is also far removed from a shoplifter because the shoplifter is taking something from a limited supply and depriving a legal customer of part of that supply.

While, yes game piracy is illegal, it is a civil offense and not a criminal one. They are not stealing anything. What they are doing is violating a government granted right to exclusive copy control. A right that can change at the whim of Congress.

Because they are not criminals, we need to stop trying to treat them that way. That is the first step to bring many of them from the side of non-paying pirate to the side of paying customer. Treat them like human beings and you will be surprised that they treat you in the same way.

Chris Grey
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I never liked the "supply constraint" argument as to why piracy isn't theft. Money, as it stands now, is almost all electronic, much like software. No one would argue that adding a zero to your own bank account would not be theft. The argument is severe mental gymnastics to try to get around seeing that piracy is basically like a theft of services.*

*This is not to say that one pirate = one lost sale, or piracy is morally wrong or anything. The "supply constraint" argument is just a meme that happens to be subtly illogical and doesn't consider the full economic system we live under.

Dave Long
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@ E Zachary - unfortunately, that's not true. It is true that once you have a high fixed cost of production and zero (or next to) marginal cost of reproduction it gets a lot harder to understand the economics of it, and that's where most people (including yourself) have been trapped. However, you _can't_ just ignore the high fixed cost when you're looking at your zero marginal cost. That fixed cost is real, and can only be recouped by people paying money for copies of the title in question. While the number of copies that can be produced is infinite, the number of customers is very finite (and it's the number of potential customers that counts when it comes to game sales, not the number of potential copies of the game), and every customer that becomes a pirate reduces the return on that fixed cost - ie, it has a real, substantial economic effect on videogame development, and a real, economic effect on videogame developers. If you're looking for a real-world example, this has been well established in the music industry, where returns on production are still well down (and concert tickets, the only thing that can't be pirated, well well up) on where they were before piracy took hold.

So pirates are either:
a) Too poor to afford to game - but when there are over 1000 games for under $5 on Steam, and a plethora of free-to-play titles available, this argument doesn't hold water. It was once a little more understandable, if no less defendable, but these days crying poor is a false argument - it's making a soft excuse to avoid facing the uncomfortable reality.
b) Too thick to understand that their choice to pirate rather than to pay hurts real people. This is a substantial group of pirates. I have some sympathy for this group, not least because people keep coming out saying that piracy doesn't hurt anyone, confusing the issue for them even more.
c) Scum-sucking bottom feeders. I still think most pirates fall into this mold, although plenty still use excuse a) and b), because even the bad guys don't like to feel like they're the bad guys.

E Zachary Knight
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Dave,

There are two problems with trying to use fixed costs in this or really any scenario.

Problem 1) Consumers and pirates alike do not care what your fixed costs are. Their only concern is what it takes to get the game. That involves a lot of factors, such as the four currencies that Lars Doucet described. They care about how much the product costs them. They care about how long it takes to get. They care about how difficult it is to obtain. They don't care how much it cost you to make.

Problem 2) You have no right or entitlement to make a return on your fixed costs. That is the big one. Just because you spent $10 million making a game does not mean you will make that amount in return. That is a fact of business. That is why game companies go bankrupt. There is no guarantee even in the absence of piracy that you will make that return.

Even still, there are ways for game developers to compensate for both of those problems. Kickstarter has been one fantastic example. With it, you can reduce the risk associated with a fixed cost by only making games that earn their fixed costs in backer funds.

I am sure that as developers experiment more on that front, they will find even more ways to make money as well as make games. I expect that the indie scene will be the primary driver of these changes as it was with Kickstarter.

E Zachary Knight
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Chris,

My arguments were on the realities of why piracy is not theft. There is also a legal reason. Piracy, at least the type described in this article, is a civil matter by law and is not legally equivalent to theft. Theft itself has many branches within none of which describe the actions of pirates.

Thanks for agreeing that one pirate does not equal one lost sale.

Chris Grey
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?

Your argument isn't about the reality of anything as what you are claiming isn't true. Piracy is theft; it just looks more like the theft of labor/services than a physical object.

Robert McPherson
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A good point Knight, however considering those numbers I can't really blame for getting a bit snarky about it.

Ian Richard
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While I don't necessarily trust the numbers... I love when developers get snarky about it. I find the clever way's of ruining the experience for non-paying "customers" very amusing without explaining the situations. This may even take the prize for the my favorite idea... it's diabolical.

That said, if the solution hits even one innocent consumer it does bother me. Anti-piracy methods lose all respect when they punish the paying customers.

E Zachary Knight
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Robert,

I am fine with being snarky. Nothing wrong with that. I get snarky pretty often myself. My complaint is just that with the pirate version, he didn't take any time or put in any effort to give those pirates an opportunity to go from pirate players to paying players.

Ian,

I agree about avoiding hurting any paying customers. That is why I am against DRM and any other tactic that has that potential.

Stephen Horn
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Ian: I'm willing to trust their numbers. I don't know whether I should discuss specifics, but these developers' numbers are very much in line with data I've helped gather.

In a "these opinions are strictly my own and do not represent my employer" fashion, I dislike the need for DRM but understand it. I am personally against a lot of DRM solutions which involve secretly installing third-party utilities as system services, and am categorically against always-online DRM. That said, when I work with DRM, I've always pushed for using its feature-set to its fullest.

Adam Bishop
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"My complaint is just that with the pirate version, he didn't take any time or put in any effort to give those pirates an opportunity to go from pirate players to paying players. "

Actually they made a significant effort to give them an opportunity to turn them into paying players: they uploaded a free but flawed version of his game to The Pirate Bay, and provide a version without those flaws for sale through their web site.

Creating the flawed version took effort, uploading it to The Pirate Bay gave pirates the opportunity to try a free version of the game, and providing it for sale through their web site provides the opportunity for pirates to become paying customers. They may not have gone about it in the same way that you would have, but to say that they didn't put in an effort to turn pirates into paying customers is false.

E Zachary Knight
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Adam,

Yes, they provided a store to actually buy the game. That is not what I meant. I meant that nothing I have seen nor read has indicated that anytime while playing the game that pirates were offered an opportunity to upgrade. Their approach was the equivalent of swatting a hornets nest to see how many hornets fly out. It had few redeeming qualities.

Justin Cox
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This was a very awesome idea: Having the pirates experience the "other side" of piracy.

Unfortunately they are simply focusing on punishing pirates. From what I've read it seems it's impossible to not go bankrupt from piracy in the game. The average pirate would simply get pissed off but completely miss the message entirely or react badly.

It would have been better if it were balanced so that it was possible to keep playing, making it a game on very "hard mode." After the pirate finishes the game there could have been a personal message from the developers; this would have been a great opportunity to turn some pirates into fans and paying customers.

Dave Long
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This is an inspired move - I agree that they could have made an attempt to engage those people who were pirating, but how often is this really tried? To use my example of welfare above, how often does the Government gently encourage welfare cheats to come of the system, as opposed to clamp down on them hard? I'd be very surprised if every single pirate didn't deserve every moment of confusion and frustration they got from this. Greenheart Games know a thing or two about karma ;).

Christopher J
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About the welfare comment, it’s not that folks condemn complaining about welfare cheaters. It’s just that “welfare” is roughly about 5% of your taxes… if that. Half of that goes to people/children who don’t cheat. There is about 95% left that could use more attention in regards to “better spending” that would give us bigger wins economically. Why waste time fixing the 5% of a problem instead of the other 95%? It’s like complaining about a scratch on a car that doesn’t even run. I think that’s why it gets frowned upon. But back on topic… I like that these guys tried a new creative solution to an old problem; we’ll see how it turns out.

Dave Long
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@ Chris - apologies, where I come from (Australia), people on welfare are seen as cheats first, despite the fact that it's a very small proportion (around 10 per cent or less, no-where near half!) that are cheating. People get angry about people cheating on welfare very easily, people get angry about corporate fraud, or insider trading. Many people seem to think videogame (and music and movie/tv) piracy is just fine. Complete double standards here - people are basically saying "it's bad when you're stealing from me, but it's OK when I steal". And we wonder why society's a mess ;).

John Byrd
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Devs have been doing this sort of thing for decades.

Some examples off the top of my head... In the 80s there was a game called "Crime and Punishment" that permitted you to assign sentences for crimes. If you copied the disk, then the game would still play, but the only crime you could sentence was "software piracy," and the correct sentence was always the death sentence. In EA's Starflight, invincible police ships would come and destroy your ship if the loader detected a copied disk. Superior Soccer would make the soccer ball invisible.

Anyway, the design for Game Dev Tycoon is ripped off wholesale from a Japanese game called Game Dev Story. So copiers are copying a copy of a copy.

Boris the Blade
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That's cool and all, except the game is game dev story rip off, so I don't think developers have the right to talk down to anyone.

Jesus Bosch
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I think this isn't even a good game, I mean, there are many game dev company management games out there... so I don't see any relevalnt innovation on this game. What they did better is marketing, everyone is talking about them.


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