Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Make being your customer more convenient than being a pirate
Published on September 21, 2003 By Draginol In Gaming

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.

or

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.

"
Comments (Page 3)
on Oct 12, 2003
While most people lump them into one group, there are actually all sorts of "pirates." There are the hackers, who love nothing more than a challenge, so they break copy protection schemes for fun. But they aren't into stealing the games. Then there are the software muggers, who upload programs to warz sites or sell bootlegged CDs, regardless whether they have copy protection or not. They have more in common with, um, muggers than with pirates. Much more, in fact. Of course we also have the two groups of "receivers" that Brad mentioned in his article.

Since you cannot get rid of thieves, at least not in the foreseeable future, so it's the same with pirates. However, a company can certainly build up customer loyalty by creating value for the money. This will reduce the demand for pirated software. As for the first group, the intransigent thieves, are never part of the potential market to begin with, so it makes no sense to worry about them.
on Oct 19, 2003
I agree, bout 12 years ago I was in category 1 and i didn't buy games ( Sometimes if i felt they were really good ) , but for several years I bought software ligitamately, then the cd protection came in.Now I find I spend a couple of weeks working,go home, fancy playing a particular game and i have to find the damn CD.
No CD patches are easily available on the internet and since the last two moves of flat have left me living out of boxes,its the only way to play a game when i want to.

No i don't get cracked copies of software, I own all i use, but yes i do frequent cracker sites so I know the're available..it's only a small step to total piracy , daft really.
on Oct 27, 2003
Great article. Iwhole heartedly agree! But for the love of God, proofread that article! It was a mess!
on Oct 27, 2003
Great article. Iwhole heartedly agree! But for the love of God, proofread that article! It was a mess!
on Oct 27, 2003
It's not THAT bad.
on Oct 28, 2003
Well done, i've been basically saying this for years, copy protection sends people looking for cracks. Gaming is often a spur of the moment 'urge' ... Hunting around a room amongst stacks of cd's is not an 'urge' many of us typically cherish however.

As you say, a lot of pirates simpley would not have been customers, what the RIAA and other agencies overlook with astronomical 'damage' figures is the simple fact that customers have very finite monetary resources (we don't have endless amounts of money). Generally speaking everyone at least buys some stuff, I feel most folks like to own originals of various stuff, whether it be movies or games. We buy what we can afford and a number perhaps copy what they can't, its that simple. We aren't made of money. Stuff that can be nocd'ed is done, stuff thats easier to pay for is. Its called prioritising, reduce costs and make it easier to be a buyer.
on Nov 14, 2003
please help me as I have lost the serial number of galatic civilizations.
on Nov 21, 2003
CD copy protection doesn't particularly bother me, I would normally go out and buy a game over downloading it anyway. This is because if I go out and buy a game on CD, I know I am getting a perfect copy of the game, whereas if I download the game, I may suffer slow transfer rates, download errors causing files to not work properly, and corrupted files. Plus, even at a high transfer rate of 50 or 60 or even 70KBps, a 700MB game file will still take about 3 or 4 hours to download, whereas if I go out and buy it, I can have it in an hour. If a pirate copy took 4 hours to download, it might turn out that it's a dodgy file anyway, which means I have to find a different copy, which will take another 4 hours. Since new games on any platform come in DVD boxes now, I find it very hard to lose one, just put the game away when you have finished using it, and make sure it is kept in the same room as your computer. Or if you plan on playing the game again later on after finishing a session on the game, hell just leave it in the goddamn disk drive! This is coming from a 15 year old, someone who you wouldn't expect to pay for games, and what's more, I only earn a measly £7 weekly allowance.

If you have a serious problem on your computer, and have to format the hard drive, then downloading the file again can be quite tedious. Alternatively, you could back up the file on CD, but then that brings you back to the point about hassle with CDs getting lost.
on Nov 21, 2003
CD copy protection doesn't particularly bother me, I would normally go out and buy a game over downloading it anyway. This is because if I go out and buy a game on CD, I know I am getting a perfect copy of the game, whereas if I download the game, I may suffer slow transfer rates, download errors causing files to not work properly, and corrupted files. Plus, even at a high transfer rate of 50 or 60 or even 70KBps, a 700MB game file will still take about 3 or 4 hours to download, whereas if I go out and buy it, I can have it in an hour. If a pirate copy took 4 hours to download, it might turn out that it's a dodgy file anyway, which means I have to find a different copy, which will take another 4 hours. Since new games on any platform come in DVD boxes now, I find it very hard to lose one, just put the game away when you have finished using it, and make sure it is kept in the same room as your computer. Or if you plan on playing the game again later on after finishing a session on the game, hell just leave it in the goddamn disk drive! This is coming from a 15 year old, someone who you wouldn't expect to pay for games, and what's more, I only earn a measly £7 weekly allowance.

If you have a serious problem on your computer, and have to format the hard drive, then downloading the file again can be quite tedious. Alternatively, you could back up the file on CD, but then that brings you back to the point about hassle with CDs getting lost.
on Nov 21, 2003
I have only had a problem with copy protection twice, and one of those times I was trying to copy Red Alert 2 for my cousins. The other problem was with Worms World Party, which had a flaw in the copyright protection, which was fixed in the first patch for the game. To me, this flaw is no big deal, so what, there are always flaws and glitches and bugs in games. Does it really make such a difference if copyright protection is there? Most people don't even notice it. The only people that have problems with it are those who are trying to force their clunky old machine to play a new game, because their system spec is an exact match of the minimum requirements of the game. If your so bothered about losing the serial number, copy it to a notepad and keep it stashed away somewhere on your PC so it's just as safe as a pirate copy of the game would be. Or if your worried somebody might find it on your PC and use it to play illegal copies, write the code on a sticky label and stick it to your PC. JUST STOP THE BLOODY MOANING! Pirating software can result in serious penalties, use the fact that if your caught you might have to pay large fines or damages or spend a few months in prison as an insentive to play by the rules.
on Nov 27, 2003
hello...
may i ask favor to have a copy of the cd key of shadows of undrentide.
thanks a lot in advance..
on Dec 09, 2003
this is exactly why I had to learn how to do internet music. Because if I buy CDs in a store, half the time I cannot copy them onto my computer, but if I do the oppposite, burn songs from a LEGIT service like Rhapsody I can have them on my hard drive OR burn them to CD-R. Yeah so I never buy CDs anymore. It's more expensive and more of a hassle. And I can see that it must suck just as much with games.
on Feb 18, 2004
I don't generally buy games "because of the copy protection". I can afford them. When I buy something, I expect to be able to use it however I want to. If I have multiple machines, I should be able to use it on them all. If I can't load the game and then put the CD away it ends up getting ruined with the continual swapping. Then I've paid all that money for something I can't use. I then have to go out and buy another copy, or just do without. I don't pirate software, pirating is wrong, so, I've quit buying software that is copy protected. I stick with my old games that are not copy protected. Make the damn things work without the CD, or having to log on to the internet, and I'll start buying them again. Otherwise, I'll stick to playing my original copy of Doom, forever!
on Feb 28, 2004
http://www.petitiononline.com/emigroup/petition.html

Sign and distribute my petition to The EMI group regarding Copy Protection!!
Don't let them tell you what to do with your music!!
on Jun 10, 2004
I can't believe it! Someone in the publishing industry that has actually figured out the correct answer to piracy!

Back before CD protections, games were "protected" through codes. You had to flip through a manual, or put holed cards on top of each other in a special order, or whatever else, to get a strange string of symbols that would let you continue playing the games.

That's when I discovered that protections were only a tool to entertain pirates and annoy legitimate users. A hacker would crack the protection code so that the protection screen would be skipped -- or would accept any answer -- and pirates would use this more user-friendly version. Legitimate buyers would have to keep their code cards thingamabob in pristine condition and clutter their drawers or desktop with them.

Recently, the music industry decided to sell CDs that can't be read. Smart move. A CD that can't be read can't be copied, true. As the creator of the CSS encoding for DVD failed to see, the only way to prevent someone from copying stuff is to prevent him to read it. Crypting is not the issue -- you can always copy the crypted version, after all, and it will be accepted by any reader that can decrypt it, whether or not it's a legimate copy. So, the solution is to sell CDs that are totally unreadable. They could as well be blank. Of course, no one will buy them, maybe once, but they won't be fooled twice. Rather than buying high-priced blank CDs, they'll buy a cheap CD-RW, download the songs on Kazaa, Emule, DC++ or anything, burn them on their cheap CD-RW, and listen to the music anywhere without being annoyed.

After all, when people buy discs, it is to listen to music. Not for the sheer pleasure of buying a plastic thing.



Or to put it another way:

I've seen a documentaries on ecologists bringing endangered species of monkeys back to wildlife.

First, you take a monkey born and bred in captivity. Your monkey was raised to buy books, tapes and discs.

Slowly, you have to teach him how to find it by himself in nature. For that, you introduce slowly a natural environment to him, by establishing broadband Internet connections.

Once the monkey starts to know how to thrives all by himself, discovering his first Napsters, Kazaa, P2P, and other W4r3Z FTP, he is ready for being put back in the wild. Then come the most delicate maneuver: The monkey has always considered you to be his friend, provider of goods and foods, his mom; you have to teach him to go away from you, to fear you. To do that, you immerse the monkey in his new Internet home, and then you threaten and attack him with spectacular lawsuits and DRM. The monkey will think you've became mad, flee, and never again approach you or another human, making him safe from poachers.

It's the only logical explanation to these industries' strategy.
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