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 6)
on Mar 11, 2008
Thanks for posting this. I've seen several discussions of this issue and some folks seem to be blind to reality, and worse, don't want to know the reality.
on Mar 11, 2008
Dont know if I can get a developer response on this, but from a Business perspective, am I insane to think that developers can save money in the long term by foregoing copy protection due to the cost of it? I have no idea how much top end copy protection costs per cd for example, but might it reach the point where money spent on copy protection exceeds money saved?

I am of the belief that pirates are going to pirate first, buy later if at all (if you are lucky and they really like your game they might go out and buy it to support you). I am also of the belief that all copy protection will be cracked, and 95% of the time it will be cracked before or on the official release date. Occasionally you see some new copy protection that takes the crackers a few days to tackle, but assuming that new protection costs the most, and even if that extra 3 days gets a few pirates to go out and buy your game instead of waiting, in the long run protection fees probably cost more.

So anyways, I just want to applaud the development team's efforts , and say that I appriciate all your work and I am glad to pay for it.
on Mar 11, 2008
I think something definitely needs to be approached differently about anti-piracy techniques. My Own example goes to the fact that I love Neverwinter Nights, and was completely excited to pre-order a DVD copy of Neverwinter Nights 2. The day comes I finally get my DVD in the mail open it and plop it in my computer, and what the hell it won't play. It turns out that atari's Anti-piracy software completely fried my DVD-RW drive. (I'm not the only person who suffered this unfortunate fate) so I'm forced to buy a new DVD-RW drive for my less then 6 month old computer. Then re-order the game on PC-CDRom so now my $50.00 game has cost me almost $200.00 to play. Safe to say I along with a few others we're not very happy about this. To Make matters worse they now have released an expansion pack for the game, and from what I understand the same anti-piracy software is still in use, and you can't purchase it on anything by pc-dvd, something I solidly refuse to do because I don't want to have to go out and buy a new DVD Drive for my brand new computer which I just spent $800.00 on. So they have kinda killed part of their own sales if you ask me because I'm scared to death to place any more of their DVD games on my system. I'm sure I'm not the only consumer who has this fear.

I love neverwinter nights too but I also have your problems with the DVD rom and it forces me to find and use a no cd cracks or a copy of the game in ISO formate.
on Mar 11, 2008
Thank god one company actually caters to me, a consumer of pc games. Thank you so very much. All that money in spent purchases on games, to finally have one company stand up for me an American who isn't Chinese with their 90% pirate rates. I'm so sick of other Companies blaming me for the Chinese pirating their games. Thank god we have a company who doesn't target a 90% pirating foreign communist regime.

By nature Communist believe everything is everyone elses, so why target them at all. And blame me, an American for their piracy rate. If these companies distribute to Communism, they should expect their products to be considered free. And they shouldn't come crying like a baby like Chris Taylor, Epic or Iron Lore to me, a proud non-communist pc gaming consumer.
on Mar 11, 2008
The times i've paid good money for a game only to then run into massive problems with it's copy protection.... going so far as having to uninstall software which has absolutely nothing to do with the game itself due to a blacklist or whatever they are using.. And then when you compare to how much trouble the 'pirates' are having with the same protection, they copy a .exe and are done with it, leaving the actual customers with all the problems. Copyprotection is a horrible idea, it costs a lot of money and it never works, I wish they would spent this money on making the games better instead.

Glad to see one company knows this.. and that it's paying off for you guys.
on Mar 11, 2008
on Mar 11, 2008
The major problem with some computer gaming companies is that they think that they can release a game to the market and forget about it. Not realizing that for a game to sell they have to continually support and update their game. GAL CIV 2 and its expansion have probably has about a patch a month. While some people may complain about this aspect of PC Gaming this is what makes the game more fun for me continually updating my computer to squeeze that extra frame and feature so that the game runs better each time.

Since Marvel Ultimate Alliance from Activision came out it has received no updates, I no longer play it.

Since Titan Quest and its expansion came out there has been only one patch, unfortunately I no longer play it.

Diablo II and Starcraft from Blizzard still receives patches and updates for their games even though they have been out for about six years now. I play them.

GALACTIC CIVILIZATIONS II and SINS OF A SOLAR EMPIRE from STARDOCK both receive regular updates. I play them.

As long as STARDOCK keeps on supporting the games they release I will continually play them.

One last thing. The companies which do not support their game for the PC are complaining about piracy and why their game does not sell. The companies which do support their games ARE NOT complaining about piracy or their bank book.

P.S.: A major factor in buying SINS OF A SOLAR EMPIRE was the amount of support STARDOCK give to GALACTIC CIVILIZATIONS II.
on Mar 11, 2008
All I can really say without reiterating what everyone else has already mentioned is this.

I whole-heartedly agree with what you said and what everyone else said in replies to a lesser degree.


Thank you!
on Mar 12, 2008
Thank god one company actually caters to me, a consumer of pc games. Thank you so very much. All that money in spent purchases on games, to finally have one company stand up for me an American who isn't Chinese with their 90% pirate rates. I'm so sick of other Companies blaming me for the Chinese pirating their games. Thank god we have a company who doesn't target a 90% pirating foreign communist regime.By nature Communist believe everything is everyone elses, so why target them at all. And blame me, an American for their piracy rate. If these companies distribute to Communism, they should expect their products to be considered free. And they shouldn't come crying like a baby like Chris Taylor, Epic or Iron Lore to me, a proud non-communist pc gaming consumer.

Aquiantus it has nothing to do with communist lol
if you want to know why alot of them pirate software than you should go vist china and other asian countries and live in their shoes. There aren't that many computer hardware and gameing stores nearby unless you go to a huge major city, that are heavily influence by european country,the trip which is a very very long. and Chinese communist are a bit different than other communist countries and no they don't believe this "Communist believe everything is everyone elses" unless with permission other wise your a THIF(that will be the first thing I'll will call you if you touch and use any of my things) fyi
and what with the 90% pirating? china isn't the only communist country you know?
communist aren't the only places that pirate you know? noncommunist does it too you know? There alot more hard core gamers in asian country you know? and there alot more profits from selling games even tho there are alot of pirating you know? if there is 90% pirating in china I don't think how all those hard working game developers in china, korean and japan going to make a living, especially japan.
some of the reason china has a huge pirate number than the USA and other countries are because of they have a huge population than any other countries in the world. also the one that does the most pirating is the mobster and not the everyday people. I believe alot of you heard the news with microsoft that they are soo mad with a group organized crime that make over billions with pirated windows.
everyone saying chinese who care about communist. communist has nothing to do with gaming or software. and when somebody use popular software created from a communist contry I don't hear any complaining
so please don't say brainless things and brainwash people because of this kind of talk people don't get along and started to hate each others.
on Mar 12, 2008
Not much I can add I guess. I hate copy protection as much as the next guy. I love the fact I can fire up GC2 without a disk in the drive.
As for piracy, I do not do it. I for one would really love to try out Sins of a Solar Empire but I will not download an illegal copy to try it out. I hope they will have a demo soon.
on Mar 12, 2008
My thought on why PC game is declining is due to the fact that games have less substance to them now than they used to. I'll use morrowind as an example. In morowind you did almost everything on your own, nothing to hold your hand. While at times it was frustrating to find something, having to explore for things had me running into other ruins that I wouldn't have even ever found. While with oblivion you have the little compass that you stare at to show you the way and journal update every 2 feet telling you exactly what to do.
on Mar 12, 2008

Haven't we already been over this, in countless threads? Weren't there a fairly active thread just a while ago, that mysteriously disappeared (or, I just can't find it anymore )?

I'm not getting dragged into this again, because I know it'll just be deleted or locked. Bottom line - Overall i support piracy. If you don't; whatever.

on Mar 12, 2008
I did not purchase Heroes of Might and Magic V because of hearing about destroyed drives and granting root access.

Umm, they removed Starforce (the thing that damages drives and grants root access) before the game ever went to press.
on Mar 12, 2008
Well at least one games company is noticing that PC users are FED UP with "needing" a $1000 computer with 10gb of memory and xtreme slix10 shader 9 1000tb hard disk nuclear powered monster. Just to get a game to run at 10fps.I can't say how nice it is to see a game which did not need 10gb to install and runs like crap. I wish other developers would take note but they are too busy making games which need nuclear power stations to run and then wondering why nobody buys them and instead blame it on piracy.

By the same token, look at how many 'gamers' are still trying to run games with graphics cards from 2002. They're just as much to blame.

People are willing to buy a new console and a slew of games for it every few years, but complain that their Geforce 2 can't do pixel shading (no joke, I saw a thread on this in the Bioshock forums - someone was wondering what SM2.0 was and why they couldn't run it).

One thing I want to divert to here:

People are somewhat overreacting and being drama queens about this 'specs requirement' thing. Crysis is a heavy-demand game. Crysis is also not the norm. No other game has ever come close to requiring such space-age technology as Crysis, and none probably will. Crysis was supposed to be heavy demand. The appeal in Crysis, as I played it and found it very enjoyable, was in the immersion. The audio and graphical quality was completely top-notch, and that's what made it good.

Crysis is an exception, not a rule. Almost no other games have come out that require such hardware (I can't name any, actually), so I think people are being WAY too dramatic about this. If you can't run Crysis, stop being butt-hurt about it and deal. So you don't get to play it yet. Whatever. Crysis also didn't 'flop'. It had low sales expectations particularly BECAUSE of the high requirements, and it actually outsold those expectations. So there's that.

So back on-topic - yes, you shouldn't NEED the latest hardware to completely enjoy a game. But you shouldn't demand, and make a big fuss, because your computer that you bought from a pawn shop four years ago can't run UT3, or whatever.

Xbox owners didn't bitch that they couldn't run Halo 3 - they bought an Xbox 360 'upgrade' long ago.

Yes, developers who don't make their games widely scalable aren't helping the problem, but neither is the pig-ignorant moron consumer who thinks his 1.3GHz P3 is going to run anything made in the last three years.
on Mar 12, 2008
I did not purchase Heroes of Might and Magic V because of hearing about destroyed drives and granting root access.Umm, they removed Starforce (the thing that damages drives and grants root access) before the game ever went to press.
Actually, I think that just underlines his point even more. He didn't purchase HoMM5 because he HEARD about Starforce. While I have no doubt that what you're saying is true, it doesn't mean that HE kept himself up-to-date on the issue.

If the mere rumor of intrusive protection (such as Starforce) are enough to deprieve publishers of any amount of sales, how bad is the real deal?

Ps: On a completely unrelated note, anyone that calls modern China a communist country is utterly, utterly clueless. Marx is (hopefully) rolling in his grave, and Mao would no doubt faint if he saw what it is today. He'd not necessarily disapprove, under the circumstances, but still, imagine the shock. *snicker*