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 13)
on Mar 24, 2008
The GeForce 9600 GT costs like 150 bucks. With that card every medium-fast PC sold in the last 2 years can play Crysis at medium details at least and all other available games on high details.Yes, it costs a little but its just as expensive as 3 games. So if there are like 5-6 games using this kind of graphics I'd upgrade.The Crysis demo actually defaults to the high settings on my 9600, and I haven't had any problems with it. The framerate is acceptable for my taste, but people who are pickier than I will probably want to turn it down to medium.But then again, I have some sort of "superclocked edition," so it's probably overclocked, and I'll play anything that has 20+ fps, so my tolerance of framerates is quite low.In any case, it's a great card - a lot of bang for the buck. So far, I'm loving it .

You are not getting 20+ (on High) with a 9600 in Crysis. I don't care how 'superclocked' your card is. That is not possible.
on Mar 24, 2008
You are not getting 20+ (on High) with a 9600 in Crysis. I don't care how 'superclocked' your card is. That is not possible.

Not necessarily. It's possible if you run down the resolution. It will look like crap, especially on an LCD, but it will speed up frame rates quite a bit.

Running Crysis at 1680x1050, my 8800 delivers 30-40 FPS in most scenes. That's with a high machine spec setting. I'm running the "extra high" usePOM effect which is a nice one, but to increase frame rates, I have shadow quality on medium and no AA.

I have Vsync forced through the nVidia control panel (I hate the tearing you get without it). That limits games to 60 FPS which corresponds to my vertical refresh rate. Every other game always sits at the max 60 FPS and the card runs cooler. I believe the GPU is waiting some amount of time for the vsync go-ahead so it's not as busy. On GC2 and Sins, frames render very fast so the GPU waits a lot and runs very cool. On Crysis, the GPU can't render frames even as fast as the vertical refresh so it's always busy and the GPU temperature runs all the way up.

I prefer it when games sit at the vertical sync limit, but that's never going to happen with Crysis. Even with the decent frame rates I'm getting, it doesn't pan perfectly smooth and that kind of bugs me. I wouldn't be happy at all with 20 FPS on any game in any scene.
on Mar 24, 2008
I have to agree with you about the issues people most likely run into trying to run PC games on your home computer. Most people do not have the time, patients or expertise to adjust there system to play individual games. The problem is a lack of communication between system suppliers or just the opposite. If its the opposite, we the customer are getting manipulated by the market to purchase new equipment to satisfy a desire to play a great game. It is possible, in my mind, the game is the video and computer companies underlying promotional effort to pressure people into purchasing additional upgades for there computer.

I think this is why consoles have gained such popularity. In time consoles could promote new console sales by changing the media specs but getting the correct media to work properly with your console is a no brainer.
on Mar 24, 2008
I generally agree with much of what was posted by Draginol. However, and this may have been covered in one of the previous posts (didn't read all 9 pages), Stardock is in a position to take a distainful view of copy production because its business model is a form of protection. A positive form of protection, but protection nonetheless.

Constantly providing added value content updates through the Stardock sales portal, encourages people, who would otherwise pirate, to buy. It is "inconvenient" to have to hunt for patches, and then wait for someone to write a cracks for said patch, then hunting down the crack. If you can afford it, you buy. Especially if it is a fundamentally good game. (It doesn't hurt that you can also buy more products on through this same sales portal.)

Enhancing this business model are the "paying betas". Hate "pre-ordering" and simply waiting? Not here - paying customers see the product as it is developed, and some feel that they have a role in fine tuning the final product. What about pirates? Well for starters, the big pirate groups can't boast of a 0-day coup when it's a merely beta version that will be followed by dozens of future updates. And if you're tempted to download half finished pirated code, you'd then be at the mercy of more suppliers to constantly provide added value content updates in a "timely" manner as the game matured. For convenience, you just pay your money and sign onto Stardock.

Give Stardock's target market, convenience plays a big part for many people who can afford to buy. It may be more convenient to wait for a no-CD cracked version of a piece of copy protected software that relies on having a disc. And why download the crack when you can download the whole thing in one go? It may be more convenient to download a pirated copy of software before it is released in your country. And if you can afford it, it is more convenient to buy Stardock products through Stardock and get 0-day updates immediately and legitimately.

Given this business model, Stardock and afford to look down on copy protection.
on Mar 24, 2008
dup post
on Mar 25, 2008
Wired recently reported on this thread. Do you want to know more? You can read more here.

On a side note: it appears that some of the Wired editors are fans of SD & IC. Congrats guys! You are winning over the gaming world one editor at a time. One day we will see "Frogboy for President" banners all over game related websites.
on Mar 25, 2008
The first thing I do after I buy a game is look for the copy-protection removal hacks online so I can play it without the DVD in my drive.

When people who legally buy games still use pirate hacks, it's a pretty good sign that copy protection is stupid.

Long term, I see the PC gaming industry needs to start skewing slightly 'older' than the consoles - older gamers have more money to actually buy games, and are less likely to muck around with pirate versions. Stardock seems to be already onto this - GalCiv and SOASE are both games that tend appeal to older users.
on Mar 27, 2008
You are not getting 20+ (on High) with a 9600 in Crysis. I don't care how 'superclocked' your card is. That is not possible.

It certainly is.

a) The performance of the 9600 is way beyond the 8600. It's much closer to the 8800s in performance than the 8600s. The standard 9600 has slightly faster clocks than the 8800 GT. In reviews, it has even beat low end 8800s for some tests.

The reviews also state that it handles heavy loads better than most 8 series cards and doesn't degrade as harshly when pushed to its limits.

c) It has 512 MB of on board memory. Most 8600s have only 256 MB, which means they will choke on a texture hungry game like Crysis.

My experience has been pretty much in line with their observations: It's a great performer, and it handles heavy loads very well.

So don't assume it will handle like an 8600 - it's much more powerful.

I'll see if I can get a screen shot with a fps counter in it, but xfire has been cranky lately. I'll also need to close Firefox and most of my other software to free my memory. I will note that it may slow down below that rate sometimes, but it is certainly possible to get 20+ fps with a GeForce 9600 at high settings.
on Mar 27, 2008
I do have to agree with the OP, i heard that when blue ray came out it was cracked in what ... 2 weeks? Every newish game i know is cracked/pirated and on websites to download, ive only bought 2 games since sup commander game out (and i do regret buying it as it doesnt run well on my machine,a older computer that still uses AGP ) space empires 5 and sins are the only 2, i played the demo for sins and accually liked it unlike every other pc game that has come out for along time.

I agree its not pirates that are killing the market,its the devs who turn out the same stuff over and over and over expecting that with slightly updated graphics that people will continue to buy the same crapy game that was released with 10 clones from other companys, they rarely bring anything really "new" to the field, the story lines in new games suck horribly, its all about graphics with devs now, i still go back and play games from 10 years ago, starcraft broodwar, M.A.X. i loved (but doesnt work on my newer xp machine anymore, i think the cd is getting old), star wars rebellion even, they were fun to play and mess around with.

Games nowadays need to come out with new ideas, new "stuff" good story lines and replayability not flashy one time see get bored of graphics requiring 200 bucks of upgrades to play crap, and as for those who have vista machines, i feel sorry for you.
on Mar 27, 2008
oh and i did forget to mention, i do love the total war series of games, as they have always been fun and welldone i find.
on Mar 28, 2008

This is the most intelligent article on gaming piracy I've read in a long time. I'm glad you've been so successful and will be demo-ing out your games this week!

on Mar 30, 2008
is why, when people talk about pirating, they only talk about the pc. Xbox's can be chipped/flashed to play games without discs and so can Play Stations, don't know about the wii but you will be able to eventualy it's also possible to play g

This is true. In fact, pirating is EASIER on those. You crack the protection on the SYSTEM and then ALL future games work. With a PC you need to crack each individual game as it comes out. Much more difficult.

I think the big difference is that console game makers aren't freaking out about piracy, and that console have MUCH lower graphics quality then PCs, so every console game tends to be designed to be as fun as possible. That leads to MUCH better sales than games like crysis that are intended to be as "beautiful as possible..." on the 5000 computers worldwide that can play them. With games geared to be fun there are no issues where a CEO needs to make an excuse for the company failing by blaming piracy.
on Mar 31, 2008
I wanted to see just how much it would cost to build a God Box

Hey 1Spartan! Thanx for making a point about difference between hardcore gamers and PC builders. And please keep your e-penis out and wave it high and proud . People like you test-drive latest technologies supporting both hardware manufacturers and enthusiasts like me - happy owner of $2300 PC ($700 videocard). All parts of the said PC get along perfectly fine from the moment I plugged them into relevant slots. No doubt because several month ago bunch of people like you there sticking them together in all crazy combinations and loudly reported on wounds resulting on various forums.

And back to piracy issue. I pirate for budget/filtering reasons. My yearly budget for games - $200 (~$20 per month), for hardware - $500. PC is being totally rebuilt about once in 3 years (note that I write off computer at tax time so it really cost me less than above mentioned price).

PC is a toy itself. It isn't just bought and upgraded to play games, but for the fun of researching, selecting, buying, assembling, configuring, learning about technology on the way and finally using it for games, movies, music, working (it earns my leaving), socializing etc. etc.

I don't buy a game before I played it. Once I did, if I liked it I wait till game goes <= $40 (no exceptions). Game also shouldn't have any Starforce or other hostile protection. As my income improves, so does game budget and price limit (3 years ago it was $20).

A year ago I also bought my very first console - Wii, and couple of games for it. Because games were expensive I never bought any more and gradually stopped playing. Then Wii Key came around, my collegues started to chip their Wiis, they started to dongle all those pirated games in front of my nose and discuss number of stars they got in Mario Galaxy. I couldn't take it anymore. Chipped mine too, learned how to update chip firmware etc, copied dosen of games and started playing. That was my downfall. In 1 week I bought 4 (four!) Wii games. Sure on sale about ~$50 a game, but budget already blown. But for Wii Key, my Wii would be gathering dust under TV and developers never got those bucks from me.

I don't appologize for my piracy. I like games and I pay to developers what I can for services I enjoy. If piracy really destroys PC gaming, so be it. Without games for PC and console games too expensive I'll have to entertain myself some other way. I think I'll start writing small PC games and share for free with friends, may be we'll get so involved we'll pull some medium-sized games eventually, and so one and so forth PC gaming will rise again in some new format depending on technologies available.
All is to the best in this best possible world.

on Mar 31, 2008
sorry. Dup.
on Apr 01, 2008
A side note on business sales for computer games is not necessarily the advertising, but in most business models that have a product, the biggest factor is word of mouth.

Think of WoW - I know atleast a half dozen people who only bought wow because their co-workers play it, who at the same time, never played an rpg in their life.

In terms of piracy, I think piracy has many extraordinary benefits - it is pretty much a selling tool, even if it seems to reduce sales. I am at a university with laptops and high speed connections in class. I can attest to the amount of illegal downloads that goes on - but beyond that, I think it gives people a way to play the entire game prior to buying it (pretty much a demo). I personally (as a gamer) feel that this is a great thing because there are SO MANY BAD GAMES on the market made by gaming corporations who only care about sales and not their client base.

While others are to disagree - consider investing in a house where you are told that it is 'in a beautiful setting with lots of space' and are given a tour; everything looks great initially. You end up investing money only to be surprised when you find the basement is full of bugs and there are cracks in the walls, and after living there for 3 months, you notice a smell from the attic.

Moral of the story: Demos are fine - however I have played my fairshare of demos, and some have led to sales, only to find out that what they showed in the demo was a polished version of the real game. Thus, piracy gives you a heads up on what to expect.

After so many let downs, I'm surprised that there isn't a ton of people downloading games. I have a shelf full of lame games that were not worth the price I paid.

Moral note: If you download a game and you enjoy it, you should buy it.