I'm going on a trip tomorrow and where I go, so goes my laptop. The laptop is a pretty good game machine. Unfortunately, I can't play very many games on it when I travel. That's because most games now use rather obnoxious CD-ROM copy protection.
Copy protection on PC games is, in my opinion, not just ineffective, but stupid. I say that as a software developer and publisher of 10 years. And as time has gone one, I've become increasingly convinced that any copy protection that inconveniences customers does more harm than good.
Programs like Object Desktop have sold millions of dollars in unit sales directly over the Internet to end users. No CD. No hassles. And on Galactic Civilizations, we insisted that our publisher, Strategy First, not put any CD copy protection on it. When you purchase the game at the store you can literally install onto your machine and throw out the CD. Heck, you don't even need the CD in the box, you could just toss that out and keep the serial # and use Stardock Central to download the latest/greatest version of the game. Then you can put it on your main machine, put it on your laptop, whatever.
Who are the pirates?
But what about piracy? Well, the first problem with piracy is that most people who worry about this kind of thing really don't have much experience in actually dealing with it in terms of what real world impact it has on sales. We've been selling our stuff via the net for years and piracy, as an actual cost to business, is vastly overrated.
That's because there are really two groups of software pirates that one has to deal with:
1) "The kids". These are the guys who wouldn't buy the product anyway. The "scary" piracy stats thrown around always counts these guys as if they would have been buyers. Many developers and publishers get really ticked off about this group. I know we did back when we got started. "These guys are stealing from us" and so all kinds of copy protections spring to the imagination to stop this group. "But what's the business objective here? These guys aren't going to buy the product anyway. If they can't crack it, they'll just not use it. And you punish legitimate customers.
2) "The casual pirate". This is where the biggest chunk of lost sales come from. For them, it's about convenience. These guys pirate not because they're cheap but because it's convenient.
To them, they'd love it if they could be reading a review at Gamespot and press a "one click buy" button and a link to an ISO CD image comes up for download.
Effectively Reducing Piracy
What we did with GalCiv was make Stardock Central in such a way so that you could play GalCiv with only a tiny percent of the game downloaded (i.e. figured out the meat vs. eye candy) so that a dial up user could just press a button and be playing the game in 30 minutes or so and get the rest electronically when they had time or wait for the CD to come in.
Our "copy protection" is three parts:
a) The serial #. Unique and virtually unbreakable since it's server generated (i.e. there's no "code" to crack).
Frequent updates. The frequent updates are the key. Remember, because it's all about convenience for group 2, then it becomes increasingly more convenient to own the game than to pirate it if one has to hunt around warez sites for each update rather than just press a button and have the update in a minute or two.
c) Full download ability. This means that 3 years from now, when they've lost their serial #, lost their CD from moving or whatever that they can go to the site, put in their email address or some other piece of info that may not have changed and it will automatically email you all the info you need. (and if you've lost everything have a phone # that they can call so that they can find you in the database and update your info). In Stardock's case, a user just goes to the support page, types in the email address that they registered with and they get everything (links to the full download of whatever they've purchased with serial #s).
This is what we've done on Object Desktop and its yearly revenue direct from the Internet (right form Stardock.com) is in the millions of dollars annually. And it's what we've done with GalCiv and retail sales of GalCiv are looking to be about 3 and a half times what our publisher had estimated prior to release. Sure, there are lots of other factors involved but certainly having users see the value of being a customer has to be part of it. And we're tiny fish really. So if little guys like Stardock can do well with this kind of system, imagine how well it could work on a larger scale?
It's also relatively inexpensive to implement. It does, however, require sucking it in and making it easy for group 1 (the warez kiddies who wouldn't buy it anyway) to pirate it. But even then, some percent of group 1 is going to still buy it for various reasons (group 1 isn't a bunch of amoral robots, it gets increasingly difficult to pirate from people who are providing frequent and free updates).
This doesn't eliminate piracy. But over time, it does reduce is considerably while at the same time not unduly inconveniencing customers. The easier you make it for someone to be your customer, the more customers you'll have.
The "Stupidity" of Copy Protection
There are no good statistics yet on what percentage of people are significantly affected by CD copy protection. But the anecdotal evidence is very disturbing.
I suspect that many reading this have either personally experienced what I'm about to describe or know someone who has gone through this:
Joe Gamer goes out and buys a game from the store. They get it home and play it and enjoy it. But one day, a few months later, they go to play it and can't find the CD. Where is the CD? There are piles of CDs everywhere. Maybe the kids took it. Maybe it fell into the trash.
Frustrated, Joe Gamer goes onto the net to look for a way to play the game without a CD. They go onto Google or Yahoo or whatever search engine they use and over the course of an hour or two they finally make their way to the "warez" world where cracks, file downloads, etc. are all easily available. More than that, warez has gotten frighteningly sophisticated with seamless distribution file systems and more. They find not just the CD crack but links to all the latest titles.
So then Joe Gamer, who normally buys games, now has to look at his options:
a) He can do "the right thing" and drive out to the store. Spend $50 on the game, bring it home and deal with the CD copy protection.
He can click on a link and have the game in a few hours. No CDs to mess with and no cost.
What do you think many Joe Gamers of the world are going to do? And what about the Joe Gamer whose game won't work because the CD protection doesn't work on their model of CD-ROM drive or DVD drive? Talk about motivating people to learn about warez.
In short: CD Copy Protection Creates Pirates.
Joe Gamer previously knew nothing about this stuff. The demographic info on Joe Gamer (which we at Stardock over 10 years have a pretty good idea of) is that money isn't the issue, it's convenience. And once he's invested the time to solve his lost CD problem, he then has a harder time justifying the hassle of buying future titles. And many people find it very easy to rationalize their piracy. Joe Gamer included.
So the game publishers, in their attempt to stop the 16 year old pirate (and failing) has instead turned the 25 year old casual PC gamer into a pirate.
The Future of copy protection
So what should we do? Implement some sort of Microsoft-like product activation system? No. I don't think that is the solution. That doesn't solve the problem of people being able to install their game on their "main PC" as well as their laptop.
My suggestion would be to recognize the people who buy games for what they are: CUSTOMERS. Treat them as CUSTOMERS. A scary suggestion I realize but it's worked pretty well for us over the years. Make it easier to be a customer than a pirate. That can't be repeated enough.
So what does that mean? Specifically:
a) Have each game still have a serial # to it.
Give your users a personalized account. You can then tie those serial numbers to the account. You don't require it to play the game, only when they want to utilize some of the added benefits you create for being a customer. As I type this, there are approximately 654,000 Stardock.net "accounts".
c) Provide frequent and meaningful updates after release over the product's active lifespan. Like I said, you don't want to require people to have a net connection just to play your game. But if they're on the net anyway, you can then give them accounts tied to those serial #s. Since each serial # is unique, you can reduce piracy by keeping an eye out for duplicate serial #s floating around in accounts. Through these personalized accounts users can then get convenient access to frequent updates. These updates should address suggestions and ideas presented by users. Just assign a developer or two to keep track of the good ideas that aren't too expensive to implement and put out an update. We've found that users like to see updates every 45 days or so for a period of at least 9 months after release. The more updates you do, the more inconvenient you make it for people who are pirating your game to "keep up to date". Each update peels some pirates off and turns them into customers. And existing customers see the support they are getting and are more likely to purchase future products.
d) Provide added benefits to customers. Don't stop at software updates. The Internet is the key to this strategy. You want people to be your customer. So make it worthwhile to them to be your customer in every way you can. For us, we have focused on creating on-line communities where customers gain added benefits. In Galactic Civilizations' case, that mean mod libraries, medals, ranks, fan fiction, blogs, etc. Things that add to the benefit of being a customer. Check out this thread on the GalCiv.com forum. There are all kinds of rankings, users accesses, medals, etc. that can enhance the post-purchase experience.
Now someone may point out that these suggestions only work for those with an Internet connection. True. But people without a net connection are also not likely to be hanging out on warez sites either. And for those people, being hassled by CD protection is still a big deal. In addition, people without a net connection are probably more likely to remember which companies inconvenienced them with CD-ROM protection and which ones did not which can affect future sales.
The Big Picture
Game companies just need to realize that software piracy is vastly overstated in terms of how much it affects real sales. And there are ways of reducing software piracy considerably by recognizing who their target audience is -- customers and potential customers. Make the incentive for being a customer be greater than the incentive to pirate it and you'll see what we've seen -- piracy not having a significant affect on revenue and a lot of happy customers.