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 4)
on Jun 26, 2004
Jesus christ will someone finaly going to fix this mess of a text???
on Jul 06, 2004
Just wanted to say that THIS article is the reason I purchased Galactic Civilizations!

Hope more companies go the RIGHT way with GAMING and CONSUMERS. (Like Stardock does!)

on Jul 21, 2004
All copy-protection does, like people have said, is annoy legitimate users. It does precisely nothing to prevent piracy, since the warez people will usually have a game cracked and out there on the day of or even BEFORE it's retail release. Sure a brand new, real tough protection scheme might delay the crackers for perhaps a week at most, but the tougher the protection you put on the software, the more determined the crackers are to break it. And it WILL be broken, meaning every subsequent product using this new protection will be broken on release now it's been "figured out". All it does in the end is cause trouble for people who have purchased the game legitimately, and want to make a back-up of a cd they OWN, or want to play without having to have the cd in the drive 24/7, or in some extreme cases, want to be able to play the game period.
on Jul 30, 2004
Oh, everytime you think you've seen the worst from company copy-protections, they find a new way to mess with consumers....

StarForce... one of the most hideous and insideous copy-protection schemes I've ever seen!

I mean, they are putting this thing on DEMOS! And from the indications I am getting, those who are getting messed up systems from the scheme are basically being told "to get used to" it by betas and Q.A. departments from the companies involved. And for all the people that have been told that... I wouldn't blame them if they ripped off every game those companies made after that.

They don't give everyone a full-body cavity search at the airport to stop drug smuggling from a small minority... so why do software makers/publishers feel they have the right to do this to us every damn day. So I am boycotting these companies, and I am going to tell them I am... that in their zealous efforts to try to stifle piracy, they are losing legitimate and long-term customers.

What dreadful days we live in.
on Aug 06, 2004
I think it is a good program, because tomorrow i am going to try to take over the world and every body will be ruled by ME!!!!!!!!!!!!! includeing you. How about that i will be able to take over the world and i will be so rich hoooooooooo haaaaaaaa hoooooo haaaaa.
Now back to the program i think it is grat idear aso how do think it will be going on out there for us.
on Aug 13, 2004
I agreewith you fully on this, Brad. I am an anti-pirate now since I wasn't really back then. I am a Christian trying to have a better relationship with Christ. One way I really wanted my relationship with Him to be better is to stop pirating. I confessed my Sin to Him and Repented from it (walked away from) and now I feel much better. This past has been forgivin by the only worthy Spirit. Your method of anti-piracy is very effective just by reading your article and me studying your system on my own account.
on Sep 23, 2004
does any one no any thing how we can stop piracy please reply in this site
on Oct 14, 2004
i totally agreed...
on Oct 30, 2004
Well spoken Brad!

I think that Stardocks policy of regestration promotes the least piracy than any other method.

Here is a list of Pros and Cons of all the regestry systems I know of.

Reg. Files


Easy to use
Near - Instant delivery (Small file size)


If you loose it then you will have to go through a tedious customer support form, Or worse: Buy the game again!
Easily Cracked - It takes an experienced cracker about a week to figure out a crack formula, And then its posted on the web!

CD Copy Protection


Fast and easy to install after purchase


A real pain later on when you use many games with this form of protection
The CD Keys generaly have so many keygens out there its not funny
Annoying - Like typing in CDF69 instead of CDG69
Cant generally make copies for your laptop
Drives people to crack it (No CD Patches)

B]Demo + Key = Full Version


Convinient for the customer - Needs no aditional downloads
Quick & Easy


Prone to cracks and keygens

Stardocks Method


No CD Copy protection - Means I can have my copy of Galactic Civilizations on my laptop and PC
Easy to get your codes back
Quick and easy to regester
Keygen proof
Regestry keys used by unauthorised users (I.E The ones that are posted on crack sites) Can be deleted realy easily


There are no real cons!

Thanks for the insight brad!
on Jan 20, 2005

My son bought MOO3 and GalCiv at the same time because Amazon was doing this deal where it was only $5 more or something like that, 2 weeks later he completely ignores MOO3, even though I thought MOO and MOO2 were good games, and was playing GalCiv, despite the fact he bought the combo for MOO3.  (apologies for the grammatical badness of the previous sentence)  He liked the idea of being able to download other games from Stardock for only slightly more money.  Brad, your downloading method and convenient browsers are truely an amazing development.

Cheers to you

on Mar 27, 2005
Indeed. Of all the things you mentioned, I have to agree most with "use serial numbers, and make it easy to find your lost CD keys/serial numbers," since they /will/ get lost. I, in fact, was in exactly this situation with Neverwinter Nights; having lost the CD Keys and wanting to find them. Fortunately, Bioware seems to be sensible about things-- the CD keys are stored in plaintext in a .ini file that was easy to find and copy CD keys out of. Unfortunately, I've also lost one of the necessary CDs, and sadly they don't appear to put CD images online for download, even though I have the CD key for it. ::shrugs:: Oh, well-- two out of three ain't bad. Oh, and they also allow you to have an account on their website, and have a convenient "Store your CD key here" feature. Having the CD key gives you access to more content, and allows you to find your CD key if you lose it.

And then there's the fact that they have Linux ports of the server and client.
on Jun 30, 2005
You should send a copy of this to Microsoft. Their Activation protection is definitely a pain, especially if you are a dial up user. Their support and customer care is also lacking. I have never felt wanted as a customer with them, and I doubt anyone else does either.

There is another side to the story, though. People today have been trained by companies competing for business to want everything to be convenient and easy for them. I think that consumers have learned to want what they want now and on their terms, and that's not always a good thing. For example, I work for a veterinarian and one day when the doctor was in surgery a client walked in without an appointment. He wanted his dog vaccinated and became quite hostile and threw a very unpleasant temper tantrum when he was told he would have to wait 15 minutes for the doctor to finish the surgery and that it's generally a good idea to at least call ahead to avoid this kind of situation. That wasn't good enough. He actually expected the doctor to leave someone else's pet under anesthesia with their abdomen sliced wide open, risking that pet's life, just to have the doctor examine HIS dog and give annual vaccines. His dog wasn't even sick, but he felt he needed immediate service at his convenience and on his schedule. This has become an increasing scenerio that we deal with numerous times each week if not daily. And it's not just us, and it's not our front desk staff either, our receptionists are ladies who will bend over backwards for clients and go the extra mile and they are friendly, well trained, professional receptionists who let everyone know we care about their pets health and well being as well as their happiness. Heck, we wouldn't work in the veterinary field if we didn't love animals, it is really a low paying career in AZ where you can get a higher starting wage at Taco Bell. Consumers have, in my opinion, become literally spoiled rotten by the "age of convenience" and "do it my way" and have a very difficult time understanding situations where that just isn't possible or applicable.

We also had another client who we had to cancel an entire day of appointments so we could perform emergency care on one of her dogs. It was an emergency, and that takes priority. But, a year later, when the doctor was going into emergency surgery on a critical patient, this same lady called for an appointment for her other dog who had started limping. We thought that she would understand that we couldn't see her dog that day, since we had given her other dog similar priority critical care a year before. She also became very hostile, said our doctor was her personal veterinarian and should drop everything just for her no matter how critical the other patient was, even though her dog was in no immediate life threatening danger. She decided to take her business elsewhere, but to be perfectly honest, there is no veterinarian out there who would handle prioritizing critical care any differently than we do. If there is, they should have their license taken away for denying emergency care to serve non critical patients first.

Yes, I like convenience, too. But it also creates some really unreasonable people that we've had to ask to take their business elsewhere, regardless of how much we want to help their pet.

I do however agree with everything Brad has said below, and I have actually been very pleased with their service and products.