Earlier this week, I stumbled across an article about a new video game company that had programmed a unique bit of anti-piracy in their first release, Game Dev Tycoon. Users of the cracked version of the game would find that after few years into their company’s life, their games would be pirated to the extent that makes it impossible to generate a profit. GreenHeart Games, a two man indie developer, purposely leaked this cracked version of their game to a torrent site. After the game had racked up a few thousand downloads, the developers watched the fun unfold on their forums as people who pirated the game complained about the amount of piracy was destroying their virtual company.
GreenHeart Games’ message was clear, piracy can destroy a video game company. After one day of being release, GreenHeart reported that 93.6% of the 3318 copies of Game Dev Tycoon were the cracked version. Of course, this number is extremely skewed because the studio themselves uploaded a cracked version of the game. To go along with the anti-piracy, GreenHeart Games also published a page that aims to convert would-be pirates to consumers. The resulting publicity from this situation has led to many major video game news sites writing about Game Dev Tycoon, something that surely did not happen before its release.
Anti-piracy in games is far from a new idea. Many companies have included bits of code designed to sap pirates of the full enjoyment of their downloaded loot. From erasing all of your progress in Earthbound to a vuvuzela enhancement in the DS version of Michael Jackson: The Experience, anti-piracy has been around in varying forms since the days of the SNES. As with all types of DRM, anti-piracy is by no means unbreakable. One example of this is Nintendo DS flash carts. When the flash cart scene exploded, developers began to program copy-protection into the ROMs. This anti-piracy was easily thwarted with an update to the flash cart’s firmware.
Pirates have long been a thorn in the side of PC developers, deftly circumventing new DRM measures as they are released. While many developers regularly blame pirates for disappointing PC game sales, the actual effect of piracy is impossible to pinpoint. Some developers have responded to perceived piracy threats with extremely restrictive forms of DRM. EA, Ubisoft, and Activision Blizzard have all utilized a form of DRM that requires an internet connection, and all have experienced a considerable amount of backlash for this. In the end, Ubisoft abandoned this model, Activision Blizzard fixed their issues, and EA told everybody to go fuck themselves.
On the other side of the debate stands companies like CD Projekt Red, developer of the Witcher series of games. With the release of The Witcher 2, CD Projekt Red did a bit of an experiment, they released a boxed copy of the game “protected” by SecuROM and a DRM-free version through Good Old Games. Much to the surprise of the developer, the DRM-free version was pirated far less than the SecuROM version. CEO of CD Projekt Red, Marcin Iwinski, believes this is because cracking a game is a badge of honor to crackers (hackers who crack software, not white people), and when there is no DRM to crack, there is no badge to be won. Shortly after the release of The Witcher 2, Projekt Red announced that all future titles would be released DRM free. When asked by Forbes about the future of DRM, Marcin Iwinski offered this response
First of all let me dispel the myth about DRM protecting anything. The truth is it does not work. It’s as simple as that. The technology which is supposed to protect games against illegal copying is cracked within hours of the release of every single game. So, that’s wasted money and development just to implement it. But that’s not the worst part. DRM, in most cases, requires users to enter serial numbers, validate his or her machine, and be connected to the Internet while they authenticate – and possibly even when they play the game they bought. Quite often the DRM slows the game down, as the wrapper around the executable file is constantly checking if the game is being legally used or not. That is a lot the legal users have to put up with, while the illegal users who downloaded the pirated version have a clean–and way more functional!–game.
The stance that DRM harms consumers far more than pirates has long been the argument against its use. While most gamers would likely be ignorant to the anti-piracy methods I mentioned earlier, DRM’s restrictive methods are hard to miss. DRM has become such an annoyance to PC gamers that some will download the cracked version of games that they legitimately purchased, all in the effort of sidestepping DRM.
Many developers deceive themselves and claim that each copy of a game that is pirated is a lost sale. While some do certainly represent a loss sale, even the most heavily pirated games would likely see the majority of pirates eventually purchase the game. The true problem with piracy numbers is that they are always thrown around at the initial release of the game. Games are on the market long after the first few weeks of release, and people who initially pirated the game ultimately purchase the title. Many pirates simply wait for the game to drop to a price that their income allows. While this is not an excuse to pirate a game, it does run opposite of what most developers think of pirates.
Piracy will never go away, it is as simple as that. While I can understand a developer’s desire to protect their hard work, it should not be at the expense of their supporters. The unfortunate truth of the war on piracy is that the preventative measures will only continue to get worse. The extreme backlash at EA over SimCity‘s DRM will likely be long forgotten when people line up to purchase the next Xbox. Society has bred the idea that waiting is for pussies, get that hot, new item any way possible. It does not matter if it is laden with DRM, or if piracy is one’s only option, all that matters is that one possess it before anybody else. While I hope that more developers follow the route that GreenHeart Games did, I can not help but be a bit frightened at what other liberties will be taken with the next wave of DRM. What do you foresee to be the future of the War on Piracy? What ways have DRM methods affected your enjoyment of your purchased games?