Greenheart Games

Empathy, cracked games, and piracy: How Game Dev Tycoon forced pirates to look in the mirror

Empathy, cracked games, and piracy: How Game Dev Tycoon forced pirates to look in the mirror

Those who pirate games often talk about why they do so. Some say they’re escaping DRM. Others claim that there was no demo, and they like to try before they buy. Still others say that the game is too expensive, and they can’t afford it. Others argue that piracy is just a fact of life, and developers and publishers need to find new ways to deal with it.

Then there is the argument that piracy isn’t theft, since a stolen copy deprives no one of their own legit copy. People argue that piracy doesn’t impact sales, since the pirate would never pay for the game anyway.

You will very rarely find people who pirate games who openly admit that they do so because it’s easy, free, rarely has consequences, but they’re aware that it’s wrong. The reality of the situation is that taking something that someone else is selling just because you can, without paying, is on some level the wrong thing to do. If it’s not immoral, it’s at least dishonest. This is rarely brought up on the forums.

It's rare that pirates have to see their actions from the point of view of developers, but one clever independent studio forced the pirates to do just that.

You can't win

Game Dev Tycoon has a demo, has no DRM, is only $8, and the creators uploaded their own cracked version of the game. The result was a 93.6 percent piracy rate. The twist was that you can’t win the pirated game; it caused sales of your own virtual games inside the simulation to be pirated. Complaints about how you couldn’t win hit the Internet, as pirates watched their own virtual empires be crippled by people who refused to pay for the game.

The point was simple: If no one pays for games, fewer games are made. “We are not wealthy and it’s unlikely that we will be any time soon, so stop pretending like we don’t need your 8 dollars!” The developer wrote on the official blog post. “We are just two guys working our butts off, trying to start our own game studio to create games which are fun to play.”

The developer also brought up the fact that the response to piracy of this magnitude is often things like games that require a constant connection to home servers, or are free-to-play, or some combination of those two things. If developers and publishers can’t make a living on games that are sold for a single low price, they’re going to find strategies to combat piracy, and these strategies are usually things we don’t like.

This is a subject people are passionate about, so let’s do an experiment. We’re pretty deep in the story, and I bet at least some people only read the headline and the opening few paragraphs before commenting. If you’re still reading, put the word “sweet” in your comment somewhere. In a bit, we’ll see how many people rushed to comment without finishing the story. Moving on.

This story was covered everywhere, but the bit I find the most interesting is how strongly the pirates reacted to have their own virtual games pirated. One asked about whether he could research a DRM solution. It’s frustrating when a game sinks you due to piracy that you can’t effectively control, but it’s even worse when it happens with a game you spent significant time and resources to create and release. This is an interesting approach to the problem; pirates are made to feel the effects of piracy, and what it’s like to be helpless to stop it.

In a way they’re role-playing their own behavior, but viewed from the other side. As a rhetorical tool, this is a neat little trick, and it’s helpful that it was done with a game that exhibits none of the reasons many people claim for piracy. You can try before you buy. You can install it on multiple computers. The price is low.

There will always be piracy, and not every pirated game is a lost sale. But the act of taking a game you didn’t pay for is inherently selfish, and when done on this large a scale there is damage done to the industry, even if the scale of that damage is debatable.

You can’t do much to stop piracy without hurting people who paid for the game, or changing the design and monetization strategy of your studio, but showing pirates how it feels to have your game taken? It’s helpful. There may be a few who go through this, read stories about the hows and whys of this approach, and rethink their behavior.

It’s not much, but it’s a start. Sweet, right?