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Casual Games and Piracy: The Truth

Casual Games and Piracy: The Truth

February 12, 2008 | By Russell Carroll

February 12, 2008 | By Russell Carroll
More: Console/PC

[Just how rampant is piracy in PC casual gaming? In a startling instalment of his regular Gamasutra column, Reflexive's director of marketing Russell Carroll (Wik, Ricochet) reveals the 92% piracy rate for one of his company's games, and what worked (and didn't work) when they tried to fix it.]

"It looks like around 92% of the people playing the full version of [the pictured] Ricochet Infinity pirated it." It's moments like those that make people in the industry stop dead in their tracks. 92% is a huge number and though we were only measuring people who had gotten the game from Reflexive and gone online with it, it seemed improbable that those who acquired the game elsewhere or didn't go online were any more likely to have purchased it. As we sat and pondered the financial implications of such piracy, it was hard to get past the magnitude of the number itself: 92%.

In the casual games space, where the majority of the industry is tied to an internet-distributed product, piracy is a common problem. Search for any casual game through Google, add the word 'crack', and the search engine will help you find and illegally acquire every casual game you can imagine.

One way to fight the search-engine facilitated piracy is to work to remove the ever-expanding number of links to illegal copies, but in many cases improving the Digital Rights Management (DRM) system to be more secure can be more effective as it renders a large number of those links obsolete. This is tricky to be sure, because improving the security must be done without making the DRM so onerous that it keeps honest customers from purchasing games.

Reflexive, where I work, is in a peculiar position in this regard. Whereas most of the casual games industry licenses their DRM from a vendor, Reflexive has its own in-house DRM. Over the years it has undergone many improvements, including several changes made specifically to combat piracy.

With that background, my penchant for actual numbers, and a lot of help from Brian Fisher, Reflexive's king of number crunching logic, let's tackle the question of the 92% piracy rate on Ricochet Infinity. Could we realistically assume that stopping piracy would have caused 12 times more sales?

Beating the DRM

Pirates beat DRMs through Exploits, KeyGens and Cracks. Each of these approaches is distinct, and requires differing amounts of effort. A brief description of each, in order of least to most effort involved to make them work, can be found below.

Exploits are holes in a DRM that can be circumvented without downloading anything to the computer. For example, going into the registry to delete a time limit on a game demo, renaming a hidden .exe file, or using task manager to 'quit' the DRM are all things that have been done in the past or can be done currently to circumvent casual game DRMs.

Most DRMs work around an encryption system that delivers the full game to players but limits them to a 60 minute trial. The full game can be unlocked by entering in a serial-type key into the game. Keygens are programs that illegally create serial keys to unlock a portal's games. They are distributed in multiple ways, often shared among friends, as well as being sold or provided free of charge on websites around the internet.

Cracks are perhaps the most commonly mentioned type of piracy. In this case the entire game is made DRM free by the addition of a file that impedes the DRM. Closely associated with cracks are 'cracked games.' This refers to a DRM-free version of the game that was cracked and then distributed by pirates. Obtaining a crack or a cracked game requires downloading files to the customer's computer from locations that are clearly illegitimate.

Fixing the DRM
Over the last 2 years, Reflexive has made a number of security updates to its DRM that were designed to make one or more of the existing DRM workarounds obsolete and thereby turn the people pirating games into purchasing customers. While the updates haven't made the system unbreakable, they have made it so all known or search-engine-findable piracy tools ceased to function.

Fixing The Holes - The Results

Below are the results of sales and downloads immediately following each update:

Fix 1 - Existing Exploits & Keygens made obsolete - Sales up 70%, Downloads down 33%

Fix 2 - Existing Keygens made obsolete - Sales down slightly, Downloads flat

Fix 3 - Existing Cracks made obsolete - Sales flat, Downloads flat

Fix 4 - Keygens made game-specific - Sales up 13%, Downloads down 16% (note: fix made after the release of Ricochet Infinity)

From the results above, it seems clear that eliminating piracy through a stronger DRM can result in significantly increased sales - but sometimes it can have no benefit at all. So what does that mean for the question about whether a pirated copy means a lost sale? The decreases in downloads may provide a clue to that

As we believe that we are decreasing the number of pirates downloading the game with our DRM fixes, combining the increased sales number together with the decreased downloads, we find 1 additional sale for every 1,000 less pirated downloads. Put another way, for every 1,000 pirated copies we eliminated, we created 1 additional sale.

Though many of the pirates may be simply shifting to another source of games for their illegal activities, the number is nonetheless striking and poignant. The sales to download ratio found on Reflexive implies that a pirated copy is more similar to the loss of a download (a poorly converting one!) than the loss of a sale.

Though that doesn't make a 92% piracy rate of one of our banner products any less distressing, knowing that eliminating 50,000 pirated copies might only produce 50 additional legal copies does help put things in perspective.

The Future of Piracy in Casual Games

Certainly in casual games the issue of piracy isn't going away anytime soon. As the casual games industry continues to combat piracy, there are many battles still to be fought. The question most of the portals ask themselves isn't whether or not to fight piracy, but what is the best way to fight it.

Casual games is an industry still in its adolescence, and certainly as it matures, more and more lessons will be learned about what the best approach is to fighting piracy, and what the realistic returns are of doing so.

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