Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Published on March 10, 2008 By Draginol In GalCiv Journals

Recently there has been a lot of talk about how piracy affects PC gaming. And if you listen to game developers, it apparently is a foregone conclusion - if a high quality PC game doesn't sell as many copies as it should, it must be because of piracy.

Now, I don't like piracy at all. It really bugs me when I see my game up on some torrent site just on the principle of the matter. And piracy certainly does cost sales.  But arguing that piracy is the primary factor in lower sales of well made games? I don't think so. People who never buy software aren't lost sales.

Is it about business or glory?

Most people who know of Stardock in the gaming world think of it as a tiny indie shop. And we certainly are tiny in terms of game development. But in the desktop enhancement market, Stardock owns that market and it's a market with many millions of users. According to CNET, 6 of the top 10 most popular desktop enhancements are developed by Stardock.  Our most popular desktop enhancement, WindowBlinds, has almost 14 million downloads just on We have over a million registered users.

If you want to talk about piracy, talk about desktop enhancements. The piracy on that is huge.  But the question isn't about piracy. It's about sales

So here is the deal: When you develop for a market, you don't go by the user base. You go by the potential customer base.  That's what most software companies do. They base what they want to create on the size of the market they're developing for. But not PC game developers.

PC game developers seem to focus more on the "cool" factor. What game can they make that will get them glory with the game magazines and gaming websites and hard core gamers? These days, it seems like game developers want to be like rock stars more than businessmen.  I've never considered myself a real game developer. I'm a gamer who happens to know how to code and also happens to be reasonably good at business.

So when I make a game, I focus on making games that I think will be the most profitable. As a gamer, I like most games.  I love Bioshock. I think the Orange Box is one of the best gaming deals ever. I love Company of Heroes and Oblivion was captivating.  My two favorite games of all time are Civilization (I, II, III, and IV) and Total Annihilation. And I won't even get into the hours lost in WoW.  Heck, I even like The Sims. 

So when it comes time to make a game, I don't have a hard time thinking of a game I'd like to play. The hard part is coming up with a game that we can actually make that will be profitable.  And that means looking at the market as a business not about trying to be "cool".

Making games for customers versus making games for users

So even though Galactic Civilizations II sold 300,000 copies making 8 digits in revenue on a budget of less than $1 million, it's still largely off the radar. I practically have to agree to mow editors lawns to get coverage. And you should see Jeff Green's (Games for Windows) yard. I still can't find my hedge trimmers.

Another game that has been off the radar until recently was Sins of a Solar Empire. With a small budget, it has already sold about 200,000 copies in the first month of release. It's the highest rated PC game of 2008 and probably the best selling 2008 PC title.  Neither of these titles have CD copy protection.

And yet we don't get nearly the attention of other PC games. Lack of marketing on our part? We bang on the doors for coverage as next as the next shop. Lack of advertising? Open up your favorite PC game publication for the past few months and take note of all the 2 page spreads for Sins of a Solar Empire. So we certainly try. 

But we still don't get the editorial buzz that some of the big name titles do because our genre isn't considered as "cool" as other genres.  Imagine what our sales would be if our games had gotten game magazine covers and just massive editorial coverage like some of the big name games get.  I don't want to suggest we get treated poorly by game magazine and web sites (not just because I fear them -- which I do), we got good preview coverage on Sins, just not the same level as one of the "mega" titles would get. Hard core gamers have different tastes in games than the mainstream PC gaming market of game buyers. Remember Roller Coaster Tycoon? Heck, how much buzz does The Sims get in terms of editorial when compared to its popularity. Those things just aren't that cool to the hard core gaming crowd that everything seems geared toward despite the fact that they're not the ones buying most of the games.

I won't even mention some of the big name PC titles that GalCiv and Sins have outsold.  There's plenty of PC games that have gotten dedicated covers that haven't sold as well.  So why is that?

Our games sell well for three reasons.  First, they're good games which is a pre-requisite. But there's lots of great games that don't sell well.

The other two reasons are:

  • Our games work on a very wide variety of hardware configurations.
  • Our games target genres with the largest customer bases per cost to produce for.


We also don't make games targeting the Chinese market

When you make a game for a target market, you have to look at how many people will actually buy your game combined with how much it will cost to make a game for that target market. What good is a large number of users if they're not going to buy your game? And what good is a market where the minimal commitment to make a game for it is $10 million if the target audience isn't likely to pay for the game?

If the target demographic for your game is full of pirates who won't buy your game, then why support them? That's one of the things I have a hard time understanding.  It's irrelevant how many people will play your game (if you're in the business of selling games that is). It's only relevant how many people are likely to buy your game.

Stardock doesn't make games targeting the Chinese market. If we spent $10 million on a PC game explicitly for the Chinese market and we lost our shirts, would you really feel that much sympathy for us? Or would you think "Duh."


You need a machine how fast?

Anyone who keeps track of how many PCs the "Gamer PC" vendors sell each year could tell you that it's insane to develop a game explicitly for hard core gamers.  Insane.  I think people would be shocked to find out how few hard core gamers there really are out there. This data is available. The number of high end graphics cards sold each year isn't a trade secret (in some cases you may have to get an NDA but if you're a partner you can find out). So why are companies making games that require them to sell to 15% of a given market to be profitable? In what other market do companies do that? In other software markets, getting 1% of the target market is considered good.  If you need to sell 500,000 of your game to break even and your game requires Pixel Shader 3 to not look like crap or play like crap, do you you really think that there are 50 MILLION PC users with Pixel Shader 3 capable machines who a) play games and will actually buy your game if a pirated version is available?

In our case, we make games that target the widest possible audience as long as as we can still deliver the gaming experience we set out to.  Anyone who's looked at the graphics in Sins of a Solar Empire would, I think, agree that the graphics are pretty phenomenal (particularly space battles).  But could they be even fancier? Sure. But only if we degraded the gaming experience for the largest chunk of people who buy games.


The problem with blaming piracy

I don't want anyone to walk away from this article thinking I am poo-pooing the effect of piracy.  I'm not.  I definitely feel for game developers who want to make kick ass PC games who see their efforts diminished by a bunch of greedy pirates.  I just don't count pirates in the first place.  If you're a pirate, you don't get a vote on what gets made -- or you shouldn't if the company in question is trying to make a profit. 

The reason why we don't put CD copy protection on our games isn't because we're nice guys. We do it because the people who actually buy games don't like to mess with it. Our customers make the rules, not the pirates. Pirates don't count. We know our customers could pirate our games if they want but choose to support our efforts. So we return the favor - we make the games they want and deliver them how they want it. This is also known as operating like every other industry outside the PC game industry.

One of the jokes I've seen in the desktop enhancement market is how "ugly" WindowBlinds skins are (though there are plenty of awesome ones too). But the thing is, the people who buy WindowBlinds tend to like a different style of skin than the people who would never buy it in the first place.  Natural selection, so to speak, over many years has created a number of styles that seem to be unique to people who actually buy WindowBlinds.  That's the problem with piracy.  What gets made targets people who buy it, not the people who would never buy it in the first place. When someone complains about "fat borders" on some popular WindowBlinds skin my question is always "Would you buy WindowBlinds even if there was a perfect skin for you?" and the answer is inevitably "Probably not". That's how it works in every market -- the people who buy stuff call the shots.  Only in the PC game market are the people who pirate stuff still getting the overwhelming percentage of development resources and editorial support.

When you blame piracy for disappointing sales, you tend to tar the entire market with a broad brush.  Piracy isn't evenly distributed in the PC gaming market. And there are far more effective ways of getting people who might buy your product to buy it without inconveniencing them.

Blaming piracy is easy. But it hides other underlying causes.  When Sins popped up as the #1 best selling game at retail a couple weeks ago, a game that has no copy protect whatsoever, that should tell you that piracy is not the primary issue.

In the end, the pirates hurt themselves. PC game developers will either slowly migrate to making games that cater to the people who buy PC games or they'll move to platforms where people are more inclined to buy games.

In the meantime, if you want to make profitable PC games, I'd recommend focusing more effort on satisfying the people willing to spend money on your product and less effort on making what others perceive as hot.  But then again, I don't romanticize PC game development. I just want to play cool games and make a profit on games that I work on.

Comments (Page 4)
on Mar 11, 2008
For pc gaming multiplayer is where the money is. If you only use a cd key type of protection which is something rather easy to crack but if there is an aditional server side check (on your end) then the illegal keys can easily be blocked or will be in use 24/7 anyways.

And for the love of god don't protect LAN play especially if you want the game to be popular on lan parties.

This way the single player will function mostly as advertisement for the multiplayer that will bring in the big $'s

Of course actually making a game that is soo kick ass single player that people buy it out of respect for the studio that made it but thats very rare.
on Mar 11, 2008
Thanks for a well thought out post.

on Mar 11, 2008
Note that I didn't omit any games - I just picked the ones that came to my head first that were dual-releases. There's likely a lot more that I missed, but I don't really keep track of games I know will be console trash.There's a couple I do want to include since I just thought of them:GRAND THEFT AUTO 3:PC: [93/91]PS2: [97/86]GRAND THEFT AUTO VICE CITY:PC: [94/82]PS2: [95/84]GRAND THEFT AUTO SAN ANDREAS:PC: [93/77]PS2: [95/86]XBOX: [93/81]Very interesting....

Well basicly the only reason Sanadreas was popular on PC is because of the "Hot coffe mod".
on Mar 11, 2008
I think the type of game that is being sold is an important factor. For example, I love turn-based and real-time strategy games. But in my family, I'm probably the only one who plays them. Everybody else goes for the shooters. And as for me, I buy games for times when I'm on the road, stuck in a hotel room (and I don't have five grand to spend on a call girl like the governor of NY) and thre have only been a couple of games that have interested me. GC, Alpha Centauri,
Starcraft, Total War. That's about my whole list for the last fifteen years.

GC didn't get my attention until I read about it in SciFi magazine and then did a little research. Bought it, played it, hooked.

Seems like the games that get more press and companies that have more flash are the ones that complain the most about piracy. You would think that by now they'd build that factor into their sales models.
on Mar 11, 2008

Couple other points about "piracy" on PC gaming:

  • Piracy on non-games is vastly worse than it is on games. It's not restricted to just games. Yet no one is yelling that PC applications are "doomed".
  • My PC applications don't require me to keep a CD or DVD in the drive. And the piracy rate is at least as high on them as it is on games. Maybe they know something that game developers don't.
  • The game industry is obsessed with the hard core game.  Without naming names, I have read 2 page review spreads of hardware systems from PC makers whose total product line sells less than 10,000 units annually.  The magazines, like the game developers, get obsessed with what's "cool" rather than what people are actually buying.

In short, the game industry is obsessed with the concept of glory and coolness without really caring about the economic consequences of their actions. When sales don't live up to their expectations, they choose to blame piracy as if piracy is somehow only an issue to the PC game industry.

on Mar 11, 2008
I want to buy all your games, PC game industry, but they don't work on my computer anymore.

People actually buy cool stuff, Brad, 5 years later for $10 at Wal-Mart. Because the price curve has finally caught up on the computer system end of it, and they can afford the rig to run the cool game from 5 years ago. But you don't want to produce something today to be bought 5 years from now, and I think Stardock's policy of supporting older computers is what sets you apart.

I wouldn't want to be in a lockpick business, because someone who's buying a lockpick probably isn't going to pay for one. So why cater to those who aren't paying?
on Mar 11, 2008
An interesting article. But, I wonder, if the costs and effort associated with game development and getting the game out to the public are rising, wouldn’t the attitude advocated in this article possibly lead to a loss of pluriformity in the industry, and stifle the prospects of change and innovation over the whole breadth of (possible) genres and games? Since it might as easily eliminate markets, genres and userbases as it does pirates in this text.  

I'd also alike to respond to what I think are misconceptions, exaggerations and oddities in how people view PC gaming, which show in this thread (and all throughout the internet).

First of all, it's equating the term 'hard core PC gamer' with the hardware rather then the games played (and bought!) and time spent playing. It doesn't matter if someone always keeps up-to-date with the hardware, when he then refuses to use it (and plays on a console instead, for example). And it doesn't matter if someone uses a four year old or cheap computer when he uses it to play all the newest (or older!) games. In this case there's no doubt who the PC gamer is, and as such who can only qualify for being a 'hard core PC gamer'.
Why then do we insist on calling only those who pay buckets of cash each year to upgrade their PC 'hardcore PC gamers'? Or otherwise, why do we insist focussing on those 'hardcore PC gamers' when it says nothing about how much they game on PC?  

Second, older and less expensive pc's can qualify as a 'gaming pc'. Especially for those (like me) who prefer PC gaming for reasons other then simply the power of the available hardware or the graphical quality a game can have. Older or cheap computers can play games too, you know.
It isn’t the money spent on hardware that determines the gamer, if you ask me...

Third, it's the idea that pc gamers 'need' to upgrade every year to keep up with minimum specs. Yet a prudently build (not even top-of-the-line), not too expensive pc can usually last for years. Or at least, it does for me 
First one to two years with most games playable at mostly maximum graphical settings, and then two or three slowly building down to minimum. A simple, usually cheap upgrade can keep you going without hiccups even those last few years and guarantee performance while at it. But that's a choice you can make, and not mandatory.

Fourth, being able to upgrade, change, swap and choose what goes into your machine is a privilege and an advantage to PC gaming as much as it’s a weakness. Imho, the PC is all about customisation and derives many strengths and weaknesses from it. Just like consoles derive many of their strengths, but weaknesses too from various levels of uniformization.  

Perhaps thinking about PC gaming should be done less in terms of hardware? And perhaps the consumers too should think less in terms of hardware?
On this (final) note I find it disturbing that new hardware is released and bought when the old hardware has (afaik) hardly reached it’s limit…
on Mar 11, 2008
If piracy is killing gaming, why do we still have games for the PC? Let us take a trip back in the way back machine. In the early days games were on cartridges and diskettes. Now back then if you got the disk version you had to find some word or phrase in the manual to unlock and start the game. The best ones were the tiny sheets of paper that were on difficult to copy paper that often finding the unlock code was the hardest part of the game. But gaming on the PC thrived and continued.

What is killing gaming in general is the BS Hollywood stuff that has become modern gaming. Why do games need a staff of hundreds and production values that rival movies to make a good game? They do not. What has happened and what is killing gaming is the flash and fizzle that covers up poor game play.

I have a Wii, because its not the most powerful, but the most fun! Dear lord how dare I have a fun system?! Games that are FUN make me buy them, I do not need multicolored vomit on the screen in hires to keep me happy. Look at casual gaming, PopCap etc., do they need killer graphics? No, and look at their sales, they are quick FUN games! Make games fun! Simple.

Sins is a game that is fun. It is scalable and honestly fun. Do I wish it had more flash, maybe, because in this case it would add something little more to it, but it is not necessary. I read that Sins needed a single player campaign, but really I want to play this game now, and not hope that Stardock spent extra time and money for just that. I can imagine a nice campaign, but its not needed and it is more fun and enjoyable when YOU the gamer make up the back story, I do not need some Hollywood extravaganza to puke it up for me.

Piracy is NOT killing gaming. Poor developers, lack of creativity, mega companies that recycle the same idea to death, are killing gaming. Make games fun, people buy them. Simple. Piracy killing gaming is blaming the wrong person, it is you the DEVELOPER that is killing gaming, make something fun for once!
on Mar 11, 2008
You can change your email address by contacting support.

on Mar 11, 2008
The best thing about this is that my boss, who makes X20 more money of me may buy some competitive crap anyway - and won't ever care or maybe not even open the box. Thats why you never get to the front pages of popular magazines (which you actually do), not enough propaganda. I have pirated your game though and seriously think about buying it - halvely because of this great post, which makes people THINK instead of ANGRY. I need to get some money first, though

Some pirates say pirating helps you to realize what you are buying.
on Mar 11, 2008
mostly i rip first the data..before buying...
Simple facts of Eula's and Gamemakers..

first of all if you don't like their product or don't work on your system by unknown cause you can write your money on your belly you never get refonds..

Second when you buy a game you never realy own it you are allow to play the game Basicly meaning it's bad bisness to buy a product..

3e if you not expecting what they say you bought a failing product witch leads to rip off by unexpected mis told information..

4e mostly their Piracy Protective "systems" software is so agressive that Piracy the software is their own results like SafeDisc. witch basicly kill your CD player or your newly bought Blu Ray player of 600$

after i got the data and i realy like it like SINS i buy their product sinds i know it support and stimulate other game company's to make their "own" type game that looks like it..and yes you can check my Stardock ID i am legimate
on Mar 11, 2008
@ draginol

I'd like to hear your thoughts regarding piracy and the increasing age of people who spend their entertainment dollar on PC games. I would imagine that as people get older they are more likely to purchase a product over pirating it.

Do you think that games that wish to focus on being profitable will eventually gravitate towards the older gamer due to the above?

Do you tink the genre' of your games is a big factor of the success you've achieved? The number one difference between PC game options and console game options (for me) is strategy and role-play type games. When Neverwinter Nights 10 and Civilization 100 starts coming out on consoles (assuming its as convenient to play as PC), that is when people like myself will begin to seriously think about buying a console to play games.

I would think hardware costs and companies (current and future) like gamefly or blockbuster cut into game revenues more then piracy. As has already been said new vid cards cost more then an Xbox. You also can't get a PC game from gamefly, beat it, then return to get another. For those who use games as a primary form of entertainment, its just smarter econmics to rent if you're beating $50/60 titles in less then a month. Thats another advantage of stardocks genre' of choice. They're not the type of games you win then move on from.

I also think your attitude (if I'm completely understanding you) is correct for the next successful (as in black ink) MMO title. It seems currently that companies are focusing on the 'hardcore' customer. Promising awesome group and raid play, then throwing in a smattering of content for the 'casual' gamer. This, to me, creates a downward spiral where they need to dedicate resources to attracting new players outside the original demographic, while needing to plug in content to the hardcore group you originally wanted...all of whom are maxed out and crying for more to do. I think the paradigm will need to shift to providing to the casual crowd. After all they provide the same amount of revenue, there's more of them, and since they take so long to get through the content you already have you can allocate more resources to ramping up a game for 'hardcore users' without pissing off the original base.

on Mar 11, 2008
All Good points.

I have been a Medium Core PC Gamer for ages (since the Apple II) also have a Mame Arcade and a Wii.

1) Consoles are actually easier to pirate than PC's. A $35/chip in the wii, and I can download burn and run any game I ever wanted. Odd thing though, although I have boat load of games, the vast majority of these Wii games suck and I only found them out by trying a pirated copy. I went out and bought (in some cases had to due to a peripheral like guitar hero) the vast majority and felt I got value. Previously, to getting the chip, I felt raped by having to buy 8 games out of 12 of which only 2 were good as part of the forced bundling program. So if retailers/manufacturers wouldn't take advantage of consumers, consumers might feel less guilt about taking advantage of manufacturers.

2) I've pirated a small handful of PC games over the years. The amount of technical effort and hell required FAR outstrips the difficulting of pirating console or handheld games. My time is worth money, and it's easier to just buy them (let alone more legitamate) What is pissing PC gamers off is these crap protections schemes like starforce which insist on basically doing rootkit like installs into my OS for a game a play once in a blue moon or to not allow my pc to use software like Alcohol which has many legitamate purposes for mounting CD oriented products on the hard drive.

I have 1 terabyte of internal storage and I have to keep a room full of 640mb CD's. Cd's of which any of my 4 kids, like to use as frisbees or scrape along the floor and when damaged the greedy manufacturer pretty much makes you buy a new game to replace.

Simply put, keep putting out good games, be honest and straight with your buyers, give away full blown demos, and all but the least ethical will buy games worth buying.

Consoles go in waves. Once this "next gen" becomes "last gen" and PC's starting pulling way ahead technilogically, there will again be a renesance of PC gaming.
on Mar 11, 2008
If you are going to do a demo of this game, with its complexity, if you don't want to turn off first time buyers, you need more than the crummy 4 tutorials. you need at least a short campaign.

Any software given away as a demo that is complex, ends up with negative feelings without some way to train the users, whether its a game or business software
on Mar 11, 2008
Okay, alright... I just have to ask... what games target the Chinese market?

The only one I can think of off the top of my head is the semi-MMO version of Company of Heroes that Relic is supposedly developing exclusively for the Chinese market. Not sure what the heck they're thinking there, really. I mean, yeah, it's a big market and it's not too easy to pirate an MMO, but China-only?