How to prevent Piracy

I wrote on this topic many times before, but recently I have realized that most of my rhetoric is often lost on certain kind of people – namely software developers who are trying to make a living selling their products. Lately I have been seeing indie game devs trying to rationalize and justify use of anti-customer DRM techniques. For example take this tweet by Cliff Harris of Positech Games in which he says he is not sure how Ubisoft or EA could protect their games without use of their invasive DRM. I guess I can see where he is coming from – for him selling games is a business. That’s how he makes money, so piracy does affect him quite directly.

So a person like Cliff probably won’t really care that piracy is a social problem, and he is already aware that the main reason people pirate is because they can. Being an indie dev selling his games online, he is already hitting a lot of the things on Kevin Kelly’s list of 8 generatives. But if his games are getting pirated, that does not help him to improve the bottom line. It is easy to see how someone like that could look at the very draconian Ubisoft DRM and conclude that while it sucks, it is probably a necessary evil.

I can rant about how DRM is the root of all evil, and how it only affects paying customers but that does not necessarily mean anything to people who just want to sell the product, and are not happy just ignoring the piracy issue. I do understand how DRM may seem attractive option. I only ask that game makers acknowledge the simple fact that no pirate will ever actually see their DRM in action. By the time the game gets to them, it will have been ripped out and exorcised from the final product. You paying customers on the other hand will see it every day. So the more invasive, and restrictive you make it, the more annoying it will be for them.

In other words, DRM is a customer facing toll gate. They have to pay this toll every time they use your product – not in currency, but in time, effort, or by meeting some arbitrary requirement (CD in drive, internet connection active, hardware check, etc…). Most people are willing to tolerate certain tolls without complaining, but for the others these can be deal breakers. Pirates don’t give a fuck, because they are playing your game DRM free. The only thing this toll gate prevents is casual sharing – like when little Bobby lends his game CD to little Jimmy down the street. And if capturing that market is important enough to you to alienate another part of the market (folks who get easily frustrated by restrictive DRM) then that’s fine.

But there are right ways to do DRM, and wrong ways to do it. Valve does it the right way for example. Steam is nothing more than a DRM scheme dressed up as a delivery service. You don’t own your steam games – you basically lend them from Valve, and you have to log in and authenticate with your Steam account every time you want to play them. And like every DRM system, Steam can lock you out of your games forever.

I know a guy who has lost his Steam password. To make matters worse, the yahoo email he used to create it expire due to inactivity, and then snagged by someone else. At some point he also cancelled the credit card he used to make all the purchases, and when he filled out the account information he used dummy data because he was concerned about privacy. Currently he has no way of proving to Valve that he has one owned that account – so he is out a few hundred dollars in games he purchased there. If he purchased these games the old fashioned way, he would still have access to them. This is a good example of what happens when DRM backfires.

But, you can hardly find anyone complaining about Steam these days. Why? Because in addition to being a DRM scheme it also provides it’s users a tremendous value. Valve will actually store your games on their server indefinitely, allowing you to re-download them at will. They provide a built in community tools including in-game chat, screenshot taking utility that allows you to post your action shots online, an in-game web browser, an option to install the same game on multiple machines, and share saves via Valve cloud service. For me this is a perfect tradeoff. I don’t get to own my games, but I get a lot in return. It works.

So to answer Cliff, how could Ubisoft and EA protect their games? Well, they could sell them on Steam. And barring that, they could try be more like Valve in the way they build their DRM. Little less stick, and a little more carrot. That’s really all it takes.

Just please, don’t try to make your own version of Steam. I really don’t need 57 steam like game delivery systems running in my task bar. Especially since most companies who try to copy Steam, have no clue what makes it so awesome – like EA’s Origin which will delete your games after a period of inactivity. You need to embrace the spirit of Steam and it’s long list of cool, user friendly features, not it’s game delivery mechanic which no one really cares about.

I’m not asking anyone to change their business model. I’m not asking developers to change their philosophy, and embrace piracy as free promotion or anything like that. You can do business like you have always done it. Just stop treating your paying customers as dirty thieves that need to be remindd how privileged they are to be allowed to play your games. Hide your DRM from the customers, or make it seem like something they would want to use. Hell, you can use the Ubisoft always-on scheme if you want, but dress it up nicely as a feature that lets me do something with my game that I couldn’t do before and I might give you my money.

What is your take on this? What kinds of DRM are you willing to tolerate, and which kinds are deal breakers for you? What are other ways companies like Ubisoft and EA could protect their software without pissing off their paying customers?

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11 Responses to How to prevent Piracy

  1. Andrew Zimmerman Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    I was so irritated initially when I actually bought Bioshock 2. And when it tried to login to my Windows Live account, and kept crashing and not loading. Oh first gotta update this Windows Live signin crap that is Just There to be there, not
    any use to me at all. Just another fucking GATE before the game.

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  2. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I’m OK with the whole iTunes App Store thing – despite my being a pirate in nature :) I found myself buying more and more apps and games there. I like that apps are available for both my iPhone and iPad.

    I liked the App thing for OS X as well, but there lies a problem. At some point during summer the developers of Pixelmator removed it from the store because of some problem. I couldn’t update to the latest version from the store and I didn’t have my key for the app despite having bought it to update from developer site. That situation resolved quickly but I’m not so optimistic for the future – it can happen at any time.

    What really makes me (and it’s not pure DRM, but I think, kinda related) is the regional restrictions. I really wanted a certain new book from Amazon but it was only available for UK citizens in Kindle format. I don’t see the point of a downloadable product if it’s regionally restricted. I understand that this is how the system works at the moment but it doesn’t make me any less mad. I decided to give it a try and changed my Kindle location to UK. Hello, new book! :) no problem in buying it at all. So, what was their kittens point anyway?

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Andrew Zimmerman:

    I steered clear of Bioshock 2 because it seemed like a nasty money grab. The first Bioshock told a compelling and interesting story, and I felt that there was absolutely no reason to revisit that setting.

    But yeah, this is an excellent example of how not to do it. GFWL is trying to be like Steam but fails at it so hard.

    I think I blogged abut it when I was talking about Fallout 3 but I initially started the game without creating GFWL account because it would let me do that. Then I wanted to add a DLC and had to create one. Without telling me, it moved all my saved games to a different folder and the game could no longer find them. I had to manually copy them back where they were supposed to be.

    GFWL is possibly the worst thing in existence.

    @ Victoria:

    Yeah, the regional restrictions are ridiculous. It may have something to do with the the publisher’s distribution rights. Whoever published that book for Kindle may only have rights to distribute it in UK, whereas distribution in your country may be handled by another company, which currently does not give a fuck about Kindle versions.

    It’s silly and annoying though.

    I get similarly mad when I discover that a lot of books/stories have slipped into public domain in every nation of the world except US. And of course you can’t buy them in US because they have been out of print for half a century already. Thanks to our endless copyright extension bonanza we now have abandonware literature. :P

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  4. Karthik UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    I don’t think publishers intend DRM to be piracy deterrents these days. It’s about control now. If you can control the terms on which your users play your games, you can sell them cosmetic junk and DLC forever. Diablo 3’s always online DRM, for example, isn’t about piracy at all. It’s about Blizzard’s cut in real money item transactions that they have no way of regulating with traditional disc-check DRM.

    I always believed that publishers will lose to pirates in the short term, but the industry will win in the end, to the chagrin of most legitimate buyers. This appears to be happening now, with

    a) The proliferation of free-to-play titles, which suffer in quality for obvious reasons. (Good luck pirating these!) Path of Exile and Firefall, for instance, might be great F2P games, but they’re basically MMOs, which means they’re more chores than stories and cannot have compelling narratives.

    b) Movement of game assets to publisher servers: Diablo 3 will not be cracked at launch! This pretty much kills piracy. There is no way to play skirmish modes on pirated versions of Starcraft 2, for instance, since Battle.net does much of the heavy lifting here.

    c) A steep decline in singleplayer narrative focused games, like Mass Effect or Fallout 3. This is the only kind of game I really enjoy playing.

    Piracy is losing in more ways than one. I don’t blame the games industry for trying to engage us on their terms, but I do feel increasingly distanced from my once favorite hobby.
    I will never pay more than $15 for crippled games that can be turned off at the will of short-sighted publishers again.

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  5. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Another reason to add DRM, even if it’s cracked the same day, the people who pre-ordered the game will play first and sometimes getting it a little bit sooner is all it takes to consider buying it.

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  6. k00pa FINLAND Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Even if you lost your password and lost your yahoo account linked to it, you can still recover the account if you have any proof that its you.

    One good piece of proof is retail box with the cdkey. Another proof that works is example paypal transaction id for a game…

    So basically if you have at least one physical box linked to your steam account, you should be pretty safe from losing your account by forgetting the password.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Karthik:

    Well said. I’m the same way – I don’t really care that much for multiplayer. I have clocked way more hours in Morrowind, Oblivion or Fallout games that in TF2 and L4D. :)

    Re: cracking MMO’s though – there are actually scores of private WoW servers out there, so it is not like these games don’t get pirated. It is harder, and more time consuming though.

    Speaking of Mass Effect though, have you heard that Mass Effect 3 will be have a multiplayer co-op mode? I died a little inside when I found out.

    @ Liudvikas:

    Yep. Unless you have bought it on Steam and you are on PC. Like that time when I preordered L4D2, and Valve said it will get unlocked at midnight. At 2am my friend who owns an Xbox texts me to tell me he just went to the store and bought the game and is playing it. I was still waiting for Valve to unlock it. :)

    But yeah, legal customers usually get to play before pirates. They also get to see all the fun bugs before they get patched out. :)

    @ k00pa:

    I don’t think he has any machines linked to the account anymore. But yeah, there are probably some hoops he could jump through to get his account back, but I think he just gave up on it and came to terms with losing those games. I guess it is just too much hassle for him and he claims “he got his money’s worth” from those games anyway. Personally, I’d fight for it, but I guess virtual property is weird like that. His Steam games were more or less just an extended rental for him I guess.

    I half jokingly keep telling him to email Gaben and see what happens. :)

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  8. Karthik UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux says:

    @ Luke Maciak: The Mass Effect 3 co-op is an odd, odd decision. They say:

    “Success in multi-player will have a direct impact on the outcome of the single player campaign”

    Which is the worst possible thing Bioware could do; then they go on to say:

    “It is important to note that the system is entirely optional and just another way players can have control over your game experience – it is still possible to achieve the optimal, complete ending of the game in Mass Effect 3 through single-player alone.”

    Methinks
    i) The singleplayer will be somewhat shorter as a result.
    ii) Shepard’s decisions in the previous games will be trivialized, if you can make up for any losses with grinding through co-op.
    iii) This paves the way to enforce always-online DRM or some such idiocy.

    The best case scenario is that none of this happens. What a shame.

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  9. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Not the Mass Effect 3!!!

    Seriously though, I will be very angry if co-op will be needed to forward story in any way or form.

    They are making a mistake, I’d play the shit out of MMO in ME universe, but shepards story shouldn’t be contaminated by my non-existent friends.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Karthik:

    That’s what I’m afraid off – that single player campaign will be shorter, and even more linear than usual. Then again I had similar qualms about Portal 2 multiplayer and it worked out just fine. But, Portal 2 was made by Valve which does it’s own thing. BioWare on the other hand has to dance to the tune EA dictates to them. That’s the difference.

    Also, I wonder if this decision will allow them to make ME3 a Diablo3 style, online-only game.

    @ Liudvikas:

    I wouldn’t because it would be an MMO. In fact, I am completely uninterested in both The Old Republic and the new Guild Wars even though both are supposed to be these big paradigm breaking revolutions that aim to take the MMO formula away from the “Golden WoW Standard” template which everyone has been using for the past decade. I just don’t think they will be that much different. And if they are, I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised.

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  11. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Well I intend to play Guild Wars 2, it looks kinda interesting. As for old republic, I was never that much into star wars.

    Mass effect universe is too interesting to end with ME3, so we should get something else and I would love to explore the galaxy killing space rats. :D

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