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 14)
on Apr 02, 2008
@Delusi0onal - I'll do my best. For the record, the system is STILL in the shop! The GPUs have been replaced twice already and it still has issues doing geometry from what the engineer tells me. Fortunately the card maker has been very supportive sending me newer versions of the cards each time for free. I hope this time they are sending dual GPU cards.
on Apr 07, 2008
I bought SoaSE after reading about it not having copy protection.

I hadn't even heard of it before that, wasn't going to pirate it, or even play it, but I started looking into it solely because of that.

Fun game, controls are a little wonky to me*, and the "epic scale" descriptor is a deceptive misnomer because all the actual fights are limited to tiny bits of 2d space around fixed points of interest, meaning the zoomed out view of all the spread out systems could be replaced with a small grid and the game wouldn't change a bit.

Now, Neverwinter Nights 2.

Great game, or so I heard.

Wouldn't run. I had "Illegal" software installed, my DVD drive had been going dead and wouldn't work sporadically, so I had installed clean drive emulation software and laboriously made images of the relatively few games I owned that required a disc in the drive to play, all of which was legal and within my rights as a consumer.

Pirating the game hadn't crossed my mind up to that point, but it certainly did afterwards, what a waste of money that was, wouldn't even run after I'd removed the software (had replaced the broken drive, didn't need it anymore anyway).

(myself coming primarily from the lovely , intuitive interface of Supreme Commander, a game that incidentally had its copy protection quickly removed after launch for both the original game and its expansion)
on Apr 14, 2008
As a software developer myself, I have to agree with the first post. I like specially this:
Our customers make the rules, not the pirates.

That's exactly my point of view, and why I like Stardock too.
on Apr 15, 2008
Far too many people seem to think that the newest shiny games won't run on their low to mid-range PC's. I have news for you. They will.

Now, having said that, the drawback is quality. They can be down-right old looking when you scale everything down, but let me point out I can run Call of Duty 4 (Which uses the Unreal 3 Engine) on an AMD3000+ 64bit, with a GeForce 6600GT and 1GB of PC2700 ram, at medium settings and hit a nice stable 70fps.

That aside; I work in a LAN gaming center (and have managed 2 over the years) and have had plenty of fun dealing with copy protection systems over the years. Starforce is the worst (and we all remember that fun instance of the StarForce employee linking to a pirated copy of GC2 don't we?). It's impossible to circumvent essentially, and installs some fun new IDE drivers and stealth drivers on your system that can stop SCSI drives operating. Fortunately it seems very few games at all anymore use StarForce and have typically fallen back to SecuRom, which being honest, is no big issue.

It only seems to bugger up whenever you have MagicISO, Alcohol or Daemon and a virtual drive active, and even then it won't shaft your PC. So I do have to say, at least, that "draconian" copy protection systems seem to be dissapearing in favour of far more discreet copy protection systems.

PC game piracy also seems to be lower. I have, over the years admittedly, downloaded a few games to try them before buying when the demo was unsatisfactory (such as TIME LIMITED WHICH ANNOYS THE HELL OUTTA ME). But only when I have a serious interest in buying it (Which I did do. The games in question are CivIV of which I own the GOTY ed, and The Movies which is a lot of fun). Having checked a lot of the popular sites, including one thats been in the news a lot recently, it seems less games are being shared about by less people. A good thing surely?
on Apr 16, 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 $'sOf 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.

i dont know how many times i wanted to get some guys at the lan party to try a game to generate interest, only to fail due to difficulty due to protection.

My advice to PC game studios. Give it up on single player/ LAN PLAY. Use CD keys to enforce online compliance instead. PC gamers want multiplayer. Let console junkies do there single player stuff on the console.

Lanparty multi player games are todays DEMO in the PC world. this will sell you games. Our RTS lan group requires/enforces Legit game software once we decide its a game of choice. Users of illegit copies of Sup_com and Sins dont get to play


I would also like to state I agree with making games that run well on low end computers. People where having fun with computer games way back in the 64k days due to GAME PLAY / and quality programming. I got decent hardware at the moment and yet many games run like shit
on Apr 20, 2008
I don't mind copy protection. It doesn't cause me much in the way of inconvience. Though I do HATE cd-keys (mostly cause I loose them ... so I've got the software I've bought but I can't play it). I wish more developers would print the CD-Keys on the CDs (like Silent Hunter III).

The last "big" PC game I bought was Supreme Commander (and my system only BARELY runs that).

I used to be a hard-core PC gamer. I'm still a hard core gamer ... but my time is limited to mostly World of Warcraft and the Xbox 360.

Why? Becuase I can no longer afford to buy the hardware upgrades required to play the games I want to play (and BARELY running a game doesn't count). As it stands now I need to spend about $1500AU to get a system capable of running Forged Alliance & Kane's Wrath properly (not to mention Call of Duty & the various other games I like to play).

With my X-Box I can buy a game and KNOW it's going to work. I KNOW that cheating is extremly hard on X-Box Live (damn near impossible) and therefore someone is less likely to ruin my on-line experience. If I go to a LAN I KNOW that the games are going to work. The last PC LAN I went to it took us 1.5 hours to get the systems all running the same version of the software talking to each other. In contrast, at the X-Box LAN it took longer to set the X-Boxes up than it did to get the network working & games started.

Top this off with the FACT that games on my X-Box look just as good as they do on a PC (or in my case ... better). Why would I bother paying for a PC copy that's got all the PC problems when I can buy an X-Box copy for the same ammount and have almost no trouble with it at all.

Two things sell games to me

1. A genre I like
2. Knowing it will work on my hardware with minimal or no problems

on Apr 28, 2008

Imagine what our sales would be if our games had gotten game magazine covers

For your information, Sins of A Solar Empire made the cover of the French Cyberstratège magazine. Obviously it's a bit of a specialised magazine, but still, Brad, you get some covers!

On topic, I feel the point about targetting an audience that can afford your product is well made, and that providing free fixes and patches goes a long way towards reducing piracy (particularly for MP).

on Apr 28, 2008

On topic, I feel the point about targetting an audience that can afford your product is well made, and that providing free fixes and patches goes a long way towards reducing piracy (particularly for MP).

agreed with free fixes and patches
another problem now days is that they wont include everything in the game from the start example: new halo 3 maps, extra mods for oblivion. They want you to pay even more money just so you can use more features that should have been built in with the game from the start. It hurts sales because that makes me not want to buy products from that company.

on May 08, 2008
With the success of the Wii, DS, casual, independent and retro gaming, and the lower sales of AAA titles, a revolution is taking place in video gaming.

People want simpler games with simpler graphics that run on their current machine with no expensive upgrades needed. They have been 'wowed' enough, and graphics are of a standard that gamers have been happy with since Far Cry and Half Life 2.

We are destined to have a very different video gaming market in as little as two years. Especially given the fact that you just can't see a future X-Box 720 or PS4 ever appearing in a form similar to their previous incarnation. or even appearing at all!
on May 08, 2008
Draginol (Brad?), you're my new hero. Your arguments are exactly the same as mine when I'm fuming over moronic copy protections that *only* annoy the honest, paying customers. Pirates hardly see a trace of it. Why not make a game worth buying instead of spending tons of money on crappy protections that only piss people off?

I've been an ObjectDesktop (and other various stuff, I love Multiplicity hehe) subscriber for a while now and you guys will definitely get my hard earned coin when it comes to games too.

Keep it up - hopefully more developers will put down their rocklegend aspirations, remove their heads from their rear end and follow suit. I applaud you.
on May 08, 2008

They release games that have ridiculously high system specs despite the fact that most people own mid to low range pcs.

Just an example that they are targeting that tiny fraction of the market which is the hardcore gamers section.

From original post:

Our games work on a very wide variety of hardware configurations.

This is what's called targeting the largest potential market, why do you think WoW was designed to run on a wide range of PC configurations.

In contrast, consoles are easy. Pop in the disk and off you go. Maybe some patching will happen, but you're not dealing with file directories and mucking around. the hardware is the hardware and it's all sight unseen. With what a mess a lot of games for PC are released in, is it any wonder people are fleeing PCs?

I don't agree here, consoles are junk (my personal opinion), not least the limited interface, and the singular purpose, gaming!

The reason many prefer the PC is that is has other uses as well, not just gaming, but it's basically a shiny tool box with a lot of different uses.

If you have a PC, you don't NEED a console!
If you have a console you MAY NEED a PC!

The reason consoles are becoming a huge potential market, is that a lot of people buy them for their kids, just buy the box, hook it to the TV and you know it's the thing the kid wanted, because they tried this "fantastic" game at a mates place.

Console releases tend to be many, stream lined, too much alike, and there is not really anything new in any of them except for better graphics, new special moves, or smashing effects. In short the games for consoles are all covering the same few themes just in different wrappings.
on May 08, 2008
Sooo - basically consoles are crap and only aimed at children with all that it entails in dumb software, big shiny buttons and droolproof controllers - whereas pc's are all for big, mature grownups with big, meaty brains and complicated games that you need a degree to play - assuming you're smart enough to start it in the first place.

That about right?

Or did you just want to stir up some pc's vs consoles drama?
on May 08, 2008
As for desktop software and also when you think of the windows vista ultimate scam then Im sorry but the licenses are so expensive that many could never afford them, some may be students and need certain software for studying and many other reasons but the fact is until the industry has a reality check on the gross overpricing of software licenses then they only have themselves to blame.

In regards to PC gaming , so many companies are treating the end user like criminals where they have to phone big brother up every PC upgrade that for the most part I have little sympathy for the industry in general. This creates resentment which in turn breeds contempt which when you force consumers into a corner what exactly do you expect them to do? You can argue the ethics of it all day but some of us werent born yesterday and know that companies are some of the biggest offenders in breaches of ethics and down right privacy infringment but they have the money to finance expensive lawyers to appeal and appeal a decision if it goes against them until they win or bankrupt the people in question. (To me thats even more serious and its no wander less people are having sympathy for corporations who use money to get over any legal ethical hurdle that they infringe)

In many cases piracy is an easy place to attribute blame other than aknowleging that some software is just down right sub par and isnt worth the price tag
on May 08, 2008
Just to add , I do have some sympathy for the likes of SD , but the practices of some of the bigger companies are doing you no favours and look when it comes down to it if a product is good, it will sell, you will make a profit and anything else is just greed and an attempt to back consumers who already have extorionate costs of living and dont all have the luxury of hig paid jobs into a corner.
on May 08, 2008
The reason many prefer the PC is that is has other uses as well, not just gaming, but it's basically a shiny tool box with a lot of different uses.

I'll have to agree with this - no matter what, I'll still need a PC for word processing, online banking, image editing, writing software, etc.

So no matter what, I have a PC, whether I decide to buy a console or not. The PC is much better suited for general purpose computing, while the console specializes in games. Since I already have a PC, why not just buy a graphics card and turn it into a gaming machine?