Dabe Alan

When pirates outnumber paying customers 10 to 1, online games die very quickly

When pirates outnumber paying customers 10 to 1, online games die very quickly

“It’s been a bit of a nightmare,” Andrew Mulholland said after taking a deep breath. “Most of our iOS games are single-player, they’re doing alright.” Mulholland is a company director of the game developer Hunted Cow, and the company recently launched a multiplayer iOS game called Battle Dungeon. The game was doing well, players were enjoying themselves, everyone was happy.

On Saturday, Mulholland received a Google alert as people began to discuss a pirated version of the .ipa file that allowed anyone to install the game. Once it was installed on someone’s iOS device, the player needed only to set up an online account to play. “Then 90 percent of our sign-ups were coming from pirate copies of the game,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. Running the servers and supporting the players cost money, and the legitimate sales simply couldn’t keep up with the flood of pirates.

“The lead developer, he had a bit of a breakdown I think. He went home. I worked thirteen hours with him on Sunday to see what we could do,” Mulholland said. “It got to the point where he just had his head in his hands. He didn’t know what to do.”

They made the difficult decision to pull the plug on the game. It took a few e-mails and phone calls before we connected to talk about the problem, but he said was stuck at his desk anyway. Mulholland was busy refunding people’s money.

The real cost of piracy

This wasn’t the first time that Hunted Cow’s games had been pirated, it was only the first time they had released a game that could only be played online. Anyone who wished to play had to create an account, which gave them an easy way to tell how many people had bought the game, compared to the number of pirated copies.

“With single-player games this isn’t that big a deal, piracy can help popularity and even help increase legitimate sales. Civil War and Tank Battle are still high in the charts and doing great,” the company said in a statement. “But when you host multiplayer servers every player playing your game has a cost and ten signups to every legitimate sale was a ratio none of us expected to have to cover.”

They had tried to avoid a game dominated by in-app purchases, a strategy that ironically would have shielded them from this problem. If the game is free and play has to be purchased from a central server, there is little, if anything to pirate.

Instead, the game favored a strategy that was more in line with miniature games. “The ability to level up characters and buy better equipment was balanced against a point-cost system in which having more powerful champions meant playing with fewer of them,” Touch Arcade wrote. “It was an appealing package for anyone who wanted more ‘crunch’ and micromangement out of their async strategy games.” The game cost $5, although players could also purchase more champions if they didn’t want to wait to unlock them.

“We could have released the game for free with a heavy bias towards IAP (In App Purchases). But we are players of games ourselves and like a lot of you, we don’t like when the guy with the deepest pockets gets the biggest sword,” Hunted Cow posted. “At this point the future for Battle Dungeon looks uncertain, it wasn’t designed as a free game funded entirely from IAP and we’re not even sure if it’s possible with our current game play model.” Touch Arcade was about to run a positive review of the game when it was pulled from iTunes.

So what happens now? “We’re still thinking about that. We worked for about two and a half years on it. I don’t know. It’s been a nightmare, to be honest. Yeah,” he said, and paused. “Yeah, I don’t know.” They are discussing the possibilities of re-purposing the game for single-player.

Hunted Cow is going to be fine in the long term. They have more games on the way, and successful, existing properties. For the short term, based on my phone conversations and e-mails, it seems everyone involved is shell-shocked at the sudden loss of a game they were enthusiastic about launching.

“I’m usually a bit chirpier,” Mulholland told me with a heavy voice as we discussed the game’s piracy problem. The company’s statement on the matter ends on a dire note. “All in all, we’ve learned a lot from this and hope other developers can learn from our experience,” they wrote. “In our opinion multiplayer mobile titles need to be ‘free to play’ with a heavy and appealing bias towards in app purchases if you wish to cover the costs of server hosting.”