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 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 "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 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 2)
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on Sep 24, 2003
Josef: As I explicitly mention in the article, you do not need an internet connection to use the game. This is not "net activation". What I propose isn't a specific mechanism but rather an anti-piracy policy. A set of policies that result in less piracy.
on Sep 24, 2003
I agree fully! Copy protection. Years ago on my AMIGA it was pure hell. I used to buy games but I actively went after cracks just so I could play the game without having to grab a code wheel, look at light blue numbers on a dark blue page etc... Copy protection that wouldn't allow you to install it to your HD.

I was happy to see that the IBM PC didn't do all that. Of course corporate greed... Look at the music industry...

Thanks for the great article. Hopefully it will do some good.

on Sep 24, 2003
I agree with the article.

Personally I fall in the first category of pirates. Not only do I not have the money to buy software, but my parents wouldn't buy games for me anyway. As of right now, my only source of entertainment on the computer is Freeware or Warez of some sort. Don't get me wrong, if I had the money and there was a game I liked, I would definately buy it off the shelf (or wherever). It's just a matter of having any money in the first place.


I also agree about the one-computer thing that Brian Mueller commented. When I get a laptop, I don't want to have to deal with all the red-tape that would go with having a game on both of my computers.

Just my two and a half cents.
on Sep 24, 2003
I enjoyed the article on copy protection creating pirates. It certainly is worth reading. I take it that you're not talking about those who make copies of software and sell those copies to people in third world countries or to other folks here in the U.S. I know from my readings at C/Net that this group is a large source of concern for many software companies. Would such a solution as you proposed help in reducing this more serious type of piracy?

There is another group that I prefer to call them, the "thrill-seekers". I agree with you that these people have NO intention of buying the software. While it is true that some will go find a free copy of "Civ III" from warez, I believe many of the others look at breaking the "copy protection" scheme as a challenge. If they break it, the thrill is over and done and they go on to the next challenge. Since the pirated copy is unlikely to be free, these thrill seekers may elect to pay for the crack or buy the tools to enable the cracking. Hmm, so much for a free copy of Civ III.

Would the method that Stardock help reduce piracy? If everyone has an Internet connection the idea of the server containing the serial # for my copy of GalCiv is great. However, the weak link is the person's access to the Internet. Yes, I don't need the Internet to play GalCiv and don't need the CD in the CD ROM to play it. Yet, what if my hard drive crash or I lose my copy of the game on my hard drive and can't find the dratted CD? If I have an Internet connection than it is a "no-brainer". I'd go to Stardock Central and download it from the server. However, the poor sole who is without such a connection is "out of luck". There is a simple solution, though and I didn't see you mention it. "Is this Stardock Sales?" "I lost my GalCiv CD, can you help me?" If the person had registered the game with Stardock before the above scenario of lost game than getting a new game CD (with current updates)) will be a snap.
on Sep 25, 2003
CD copy protection does suck, but serial number protection is even worse. I've never lost a CD, but I've lost serial numbers. Additionally, serial numbers are fragile - the chances of someone getting your CD is low, as they'd have to break into your house to steal it. But serial numbers can be gotten at electronically, or from employees at the game store, or whatever. Then your nice new game is unusable over net play because of duplicate serial number blocking. Grrr.

Copy protection is one reason I'm increasingly moving to console based games. Sure they have copy protection too, but at least I know it wont stop me from playing the game!
on Sep 25, 2003
I've been involved with warez for so long now, I ran a page on it, and had 10k ppl a day for 6 months, so I've seen the huge amount of ppl who would rather DL the game the go to a store n buy it. I my self, now being old enuff to have a credit card (where i was 15 when i ran the page) would gladly pay for the game to download the ISO and burn it at will. for my laptop, pc, work computer etc... many of the newest games out now rely on being able to play ppl online for the biggest thrill to the game. could u imagine owning halflife? planetscape? tribes? or unreal and only playing single player? thats like 25% of the game! maybe less! and since many games wont allow you on the net with a generated key, ur sh*t outta luck! if you like a game that much and the game it's self is worth buying. do it, it keep the industry alive. I have TONS of games that i have DLd over the years and have burnt and kept (some ive never played!) and i have never PAID for them. in rhetrospect I feel like I've cheated myself out of the experience of working hard @ my job, buying the game, opening it , reading the manual looking at all the cool sh*t written all over the box, throwing out all the usless junk that comes with it (who would wear a shirt of their favorite game? r u asking to b beat up in school??) and the putting it on my shelf beside all the other games Ive worked for and bought. I hope some ppl see what I'm really saying. This is just my two cents, (which is more then i spent on pc games last year )
on Sep 26, 2003
This is why I love the company I work for, it's real gamers making games that understand what pisses off gamers.. I have a game called Mech Commander 2 but guess what? I can't play it because I can't find the damn manual that has the CD-Key! Putting the CD-Key in the CD case is one thing but the manual??! What moron came up with that idea? The fact is I can't even get a new CD-Key from the company without buying a new copy. Everyone loses the manual and probably never even reads them. So why aren't the CD Keys on the damn Cd's in the first place let alone the CD case is my question.

I am sick of copy protections in general, the other day I picked up "The Temple of Elemental evil" it installed fine on my home system but when I tried to put it on my work machine it didn't work. I wanted to show the GalCiv2 team the cool way they did the fog of war, now since this could be considered research and development time you could argue the company LOST money due to bad cd copy protection. I didn't even bother looking for a nocd crack since the game was so new I figured it wasn't even out yet, when I checked the forums I found there where hundreds in not thousands of people that could even get the game to work. In turn this could in fact ruin the company that made the game because of the amount of returns, if people can't even play the game you can still return it to the publisher.

I really wish other gaming companies would give me the option to just download the game and be done with it, who knows I may even buy more games since I don't have to deal with BS.
on Sep 27, 2003
I agree with the article but... yes there is a but - i live in Poland and lets say we 80-90 % of games in poland are pirate every week on small markets young ppl sell lastest games for just about 3-4 $ and police cant do anything about it. thats because of 2 things:
1- polish mentality we dont treat this as stealing but only as buing for lower price,
2- in poland avarege wage is about 500$ per month but over 60% of ppl earn 150-180 per month and original version of game is about 25-30$ so the difference in price is big.
im asking what to do about this ??
on Sep 27, 2003
I fully agree with the article, and its good to see there are actually gaming companies realising that just because there were 50,000 copies pirates, doesnt mean they lost the sales of 50,000 copies.
Personally, I have been involved in warez for years, but I fall into the first group, the reason I dont buy games is that I cannot afford to, on the odd occasions that I have had the money to spare, I have bought some of my favourite games, but never before trying them - in actual fact, if I had not first pirated them, I never would have bought them, and as such my piracy GAINED them a sale. - for example, I had a pirated version of Neverwinter Nights, and loved it, so i bought it, when the expansion pack (Shadows Of Undrentide) came out, i got a copy of that, and figured it was worth spednign the money, and as I had just come into a little money, I ordered that too.
on Sep 29, 2003
Great article. Copy protection of any kind sucks. Back in the day of my C64 the copy protection schemes that came on 5 ¼ floppies would literally rattle the drives. I would quit playing games for fear of ruining my (then) expensive hardware. Today I pirate stuff for two reasons: Software is too damned expensive and I get tired of being ripped off by software that sucks. Too many times I have paid top dollar for seemingly great software only to find myself incredibly disappointed and angry with no course of action. If I download software off the net today and like it, then I pay for it. Otherwise it gets deleted. But I will not pay for any software before previewing the full version. BTW – I did pirate a copy of Window Blinds back before version 2. So taken I was by this software that I subscribed to Object Desktop for 2 years. Great software will get my money every time. I know I would purchase more software directly if I had a means of returning it if I was dissatisfied. But until software manufactures get their collective heads out of their a**es, I’ll just have to continue downloading off the net.
on Sep 29, 2003
I see someone mentioned the real threat to software companies. The "Professional Pirate", those lowlifes who not only steal the game, but make a handsome profit while doing so! Since I work in the computer industry I see a lot of numbers roll across my desk with regards to piracy. One of the most notable of late was a percentage of computers purchased with pirated software pre installed. In the states it's estimated at between 5% and 15% of all new computers purchased have pirated software installed. The customer doesn't even know it! Recently I was fixing a medium sized network for a business client. Their NT 4.0 machine was dying and needed to be repaired. We couldn't find the manuals or serial numbers for any of the software (NT4, win98, WinFax Pro, Office, etc) for any of the 20 or so computers. When we got the NT4 system back to the office I went into the licensing properties and behold "Not available in the not for resale version of Backoffice". Every software on every computer there was pirated! The customer paid for it, it's on their invoice. The computer company they purchased it from has since vanished into thin air and they are SOL! These are the people we need to be really worried about! Locally we get in between 20 and 30 computers a day for repair (hardware, software, virii, etc). And on at least 1 in 20 there is pre-installed pirated software (i.e. windows with a disk, manual but no serial, obviously counterfit). Usually these are from smaller computer shops, so called mom-and-pop shops. I could go down the street right now to one notorious mom-and-pop shop and purchase Windows XP Pro for $55 (it's corporate, and counterfit to be sure), or Office XP Pro (corporate again) for $129! Other titles available, and what about computer shows! These people setup booths and sell pirated software, crack cd's, serial # cd's, dongle hacks for AutoCAD and more. Why does the software industry concentrate so much effort on the one off person who would not purchase the title anyway (either for lack of money or lack of caring) but tend to put only a token effort into stopping the rampant "for profit" piracy that runs rampant! CD Protections don't stop these people, they break them, then mass produce and resell for a fraction of the retail cost. And average Joe Consumer doesn't know the difference. They expect to get stuff cheap at a computer show so it just doesn't register with them that they might be getting something not completely legal! If the business mentioned above would have gotten a "spot check" from good old uncle Billy you can bet your bottom dollar they would have been fined. Why? Because they had pirated software they didn't even know about!

Blah, I hate the software side of this industry sometimes!
on Oct 01, 2003
Recently there was a loud discussion on the CivFanatics forum because patch v1.29 was only usable in North America and Australia, not in the rest of the world. The reason was that NA/Oz had one particular copy protection and everyone else had another. For almost six months those folks in NA/Oz who wanted to play CIV3 online with European players had to have the unpatched version on their HD. The Europeans couldn't understand why they had to wait MONTHS for someone to get off their dead a$$ and stick another copy protection on software that was already available to others. This caused much hate and discontent expressed towards Firaxis and Infogrames/Atari. I know of at least two people in Britain who refused to buy the CIV3 PTW expansion because of this problem. So copy protection ended up losing sales.
on Oct 10, 2003
Good read, but even better replies - interesting all around.

The idea that piracy can not be stopped, only curtailed, is true - for now - just like piracy on the high-seas was unstoppable for a certain period of time. But what happened to the r/l pirates? They (technically) died off due to a number of factors, the biggest of which was that the naval ships became more advanced, thus whooping out-dated pirate ships, and so on and so forth.

The same will eventually happen with software. Someone will eventually write the ultimate "pirate killer" app that will send software pirates packing. Of course right now, we're still in the infancy of computer science - it's only been around 60 years (give or take)! This killer app probably won't be written, or even designed, in our lifetimes, but it will happen. Until then, piracy is here, and StarDock has one of the better solutions that I've seen in a while.
on Oct 10, 2003
I read an article about a new copy protection called "Fade".

Sounds like a great scheme.
CD drives have error correction, the code looks like a scratch.
Copy the CD error correction tries to remove this code.
The programmed which is copied then Fades over time.

This means people can copy programs and test them for awhile.

on Oct 11, 2003
Good article. I would like to point out that piracy in the atlantic rose and fell because an environment was created that allowed it to grow like an infection. The spanish were slaughtering the latin american peoples and stealing their gold, taking it back to europe and using it to buy troops to fight in wars. There was a low population during the early years and the main focus of the European Powers was in Europe. So as a result the cities were of low population and protection. The other powers promoted piracy as a means of cutting off the flow of gold to spain, so governors in the atlantic were willing to afford them protection(for a percentage of the take). Once it was no longer acceptable to the powers in Europe, the pirates kept doing it because it was 'easier' than going back to their old life.

What ultimately brought it to an end was not better ships or better technology, but a fundamental shift in the environment. Disaffected peoples began coming to the colonies in droves and with more people came more law, more troops, more ships and more civilization as a result. The pirates no longer had anything to sustain their lifestyle because the cities were more populous and hence more fortified and defendable, the ships were better designed but also had more of them because of the rise in population, finally the political powers that once found them 'convenient' now found them 'inconvenient' and were no longer willing to afford them protection.

I think the environment promoted the need, and the need promoted the advances in technology and thinking which brought about the end to piracy back then. But without the felt need on the part of the people, the ideas couldn't get a foothold. I think that is the problem in our day, we need to create an environment where people see the need not to pirate. This is why I believe that these ideas are essential to bringing about an end to the piracy issue.
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