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Draconian Copy Protection Not Necessary for Games

Stardock, creator of Galactic Civilizations 2, released a news item recently about the reasoning behind the lack of copy protection on its latest game. In it, Avatar Frogboy writes about better ways to combat piracy, namely by making it more attractive to be a paying customer than to download a copy illegally. It’s a refreshing viewpoint since most developers these days seem to believe that copy protection is a “vital” part of game development.

We realize that some people or companies might feel threatened at any evidence that implies that draconian DRM schemes or CD copy protection may not make that big of a difference in sales.

For example, we were quite disturbed to discover that the company that makes Starforce provided a working URL to a list of pirated GalCiv II torrents. I’m not sure whether what they did was illegal or not, but it’s troubling nevertheless and was totally unnecessary

Way to go, Starforce. Not only do you have a bad reputation for leaving behind junk on PCs when a person installs a game, but you go ahead and make yourself into quite a nuisance for companies that don’t fall for your marketing. Good job! You will continue to earn the scorn of gamers. Stardock should be commended for doing right by its customers and for keeping the moral high ground on this issue.

And look at the responses on that news item!

I bought the game for the sole reason you dont treat me like a criminal.

If anything knowing you can easily create a working backup of your games is what made me become a devout follower of Stardock in the first place.

Well Stardock I can tell you that ‘not’ putting DRM on your product is the reason I bought this game. I didnt buy ‘just’ because there is no copy protection, I also enjoy 4x games and GC2 is a good game. There are alot of games to choose from and I can only buy a few, so when it came time to decide what my next game was going to be I saw no copy protection for GC2 and my decisoin was made.

looks like I have to take might and magic 5 off my list too, I didn’t buy silent hunter 3 and X3 either just because
of that dreaded starforce

In some cases, the lack of draconian copy protection on a game made the purchasing decision easier for people. If you have a choice between buying two great games, one with DRM and one without, which would you choose? And isn’t it eye-opening that people are refusing to completely buy some games because of the type of DRM being used? If you want to increase sales, you make your product more valuable than a competitor’s offering. I haven never bought much music, but I have bought music at Audio Lunch Box because they promise me .ogg or .mp3 files without DRM. I don’t have to worry about copying my music to a second machine and having my music player accuse me of piracy. Why would I use anything with the misnamed FairPlay on it?

One poster referenced Rip Rowan of who wrote about the frustrations of so-called Digital Rights Management in Waves Native Gold Bundle 3.2 Featuring PACE Interlok. It’s sad how common a practice it is to purchase licenses and then use cracked versions for convenience.

In the best case, copy protection can be a mild annoyance for the customer. He also documents some worst case issues with PACE Interlok, including instances where uninstalling one “protected” package on a machine can invalidate the authorization to use another unrelated package, or installation reboots the system spontaneously, or the inability to use software due to downtime with the company you need to “phone home” to.

But the very worst part:

Within weeks of the commercial release of Native Gold Bundle 3.0, pirated versions of the software were available everywhere!

So all of my pain and suffering was for NOTHING! NOTHING! That’s what makes me so unbelievably ANGRY! It was all for NOTHING!

Now, why would you want your paying customers to feel this way? Why force them to jump through hoops, making cracked copies of your game all the more attractive? When you release your second game, or your fifth, what could you possibly offer to your customer to make him/her deal with your DRM crap rather than download a copy that can be played without effort? Why should I buy a music CD and risk having it ruin my computer when I can download the MP3s and know that they will just play?

I don’t like this sentiment, however:

Finally, I implore everyone who reads this article: do not steal software. That is why we are in this mess in the first place.

I’ve already written about how copyright infringement isn’t stealing, but that last sentence is what bothers me the most. Are you really supposed to believe that it isn’t the company putting you through painful copy protection? You’re supposed to just assume that it is the person who infringes the copyright that is at fault? Let’s take some responsibility here. Stardock isn’t forcing draconian copy protection on its customers. It’s game is not always legally acquired. If those darn pirates are the reason we’re “in this mess”, how does Stardock manage to take the high road?

Let’s put the blame for overbearing copy protection where it belongs. Yes, someone “stole” your game. That person shouldn’t do it, but he/she did it. At the same time, we already know that two wrongs don’t make a right, so don’t tell me that copy protection that punishes the paying customer is out of your hands. You have a choice, so when your customers complain, you can’t just say, “Well, if it weren’t for those pirates, we would make it easier for you, but we can’t.” Aren’t you supposed to please your customer? You know, the person who actually buys your projects? Increases your sales numbers? Improves your cash flow situation? If not, then who are you trying to please?

8 replies on “Draconian Copy Protection Not Necessary for Games”

Very insightful writeup again (just like your previous one on DRM) and I agree 100%. For me at least, there’s just so much quality entertainment available nowadays compared to the amount free time I have, that I can afford to be really picky about DRM. For example, I haven’t yet bought a single StarForce protected game, and probably never will. Without it, Space Rangers 2 and Heroes of Might and Magic 5 would have certainly been on my “to get” list.

I’m much more tolerant with DRM on game consoles, but PC as a general purpose device makes it a very strong matter of princible for me to be able to use software how ever I like. While it may sound a bit harsh, if I need to find and put a CD/DVD in the drive just because of a disc check, I won’t play the game. Since pretty much every commercial game has a disc check nowadays (excluding GalCiv2, which I got on the release day btw), I have amended my princible to allow me to buy games where the disc check is trivially circumvented without needing game specific cracks (this includes e.g. all SecuROM and SafeDisc protected games, at least until the next version).

I haven’t released any shareware games yet, so I’m not sure what kind of DRM system (if any) I would use for my own games. For downloadable games, I think that visibly watermarking each full version of the game is enough. I.e. if the game is bought via a credit card, you get the verified real name of the buyer, and can include a “This game is registered to Mr. X” splash screen at the beginning of the game (maybe include the street address too for extra measure). Another option would be to use something like the credit card number as the registration code that needs to be entered when the game is installed (so the user would be less likely to share the code around). But absolutely no usage limitation (like a limited number of installs etc). Those just make honest buyers pissed off and wary of your products.

I agreed with you up until the end.

If there were no thieves, there’d be no locks on doors. Now, of course, locks aren’t the ONLY answer (which is the sentiment I DO agree with). Sure, you could arm owners with shotguns (which is closer to what we’re seeing with the latest copy-protection schemes… a lot of innocent people getting harmed to keep the guilty out). You could add a massive alarm system and surveillance system. Or you could say, “Ah, to hell with it,” and hope that nobody steals anything TOO valuable.

But there is a causal relationship. It started when Bill Gates discovered that people were freely copying his ALTAIR BASIC because in the 60’s and early 70’s, everyone was used to the software being nothing but a freebie to help sell the hardware. (Yes, it’s always Bill’s fault…) He put an impassioned plea in a hobby magazine as a result. I’m sure that was the point he started trying to figure out if there was a way to protect the program from being copied by end-users.

Don’t excuse the pirates.

Just like you shouldn’t excuse the jerks like StarForce who cripple your property with their lame justifications about protecting their clients from the pirates.

Yeah, I was worried that the last paragraph would come off sounding like I don’t think the people who do the copyright infringement are a problem. They are, and I don’t make an excuse for them. I just don’t like people using them as an excuse for ruining my stuff.

If people insist on using copy protection, there has to be a better way that doesn’t impact the paying customer adversely.

If you can think of a way, people will beat a path to your door. Sadly, there isnt one right now. However, remember that way over 95% of people not only dont have hell with DRM, they dont even notice it. I was buying DVDs for years until i tried to copy a clip of one once, and only then realised you couldnt do it.
Piracy *is* out of control. There is a whole generation of consumers growing up with the belief that they can have anything they want for free, if its in digital form. Thats just not sustainable.
Stardock are getting good PR from doing this, and it may not hurt their sales at all, may even boost them. But what about the 2nd high profle non DRM game? the 3rd? the 100th? You think people will still be saying “I bought this game, like the last 100 to support their DRM stance”. I doubt it.
I strongly doubt DRM is going away anytime soon, not unless a hardware solution becomes widespread (the trusted computing stuff).

Cliffski: I’ve noticed that an entire generation is growing up today that never had to experience using a card catalog at the library, waiting until they get home to call someone, or writing actual letters in the mail. Everything is immediately available. Some of the best stuff online is freely available. They want instant gratification, and copying a game for free from a friend can be simple to do.

On the other hand, I believe that most people will do the right thing if informed about the consequences of their actions. While I don’t believe that all non-DRM games will get the same publicity, I do think that people will prefer to purchase games that they can trust as opposed to those that would ruin their machines or give them trouble in case of a reinstall or installation on a new machine.

If DRM isn’t going to go away soon, then the industry’s race to see who can shoot themselves in the head first will be long and drawn out.

Interesting to hear about this. I was reading a book by Robert Cringely called “Accidental empires : how the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle foreign competition, and still can’t get a date” in it was a few pages on the “Father of Shareware” Jim Knopf aka Jim Button. Essentially him and another guy (Andrew Fluegelman) basically started asking for some money to help cover their costs. (In Jim Knopf’s case, he was spending most of his time covering support for his program called PC-File — originally called Easy File). To make a long story short, he got around 450k dollars for that, and decided it was more profitable to do that then to work for IBM at 50k a year. And thus started shareware.

Of course true shareware means providing the full program for free. In an interesting interview with Mr. Knopf at this page “” were two questions of note :

“Question: Do you see any relationship from downloads to sales? Is it predictable?

Answer: Wider distribution is one of the cornerstones of sales. It’s predictable: no distribution, no sales. All other factors being equal, if you can double your distribution you will double your sales.” and

“Question: How do you feel about software pirates, from the authors point of view?

Answer: As an author, I always felt that pirates were an ally. If a person isn’t going to pay for the program, the next best thing he/she can do is pass it along to others.”

This is quite an interesting take on the whole copy protection stuff. Obviously major retail companies can’t take this approach, but we indies are rebels and daredevils. We laugh in the face of danger 😉 In fact i’m thinking about making a game that I give out for free with the true shareware intent in mind. I’ll ask for registration but will not require it, and get people to copy it and pass it on as many places as they can. I’ve just got to figure out the right one to do. I don’t really want to do it with my Hypno-Joe and Enchanted Lands projects as they’re my biggies, but I will make one that if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t really bother me that much.

So the fact that stardock is not putting on copy protection is probably part of the true shareware concept. The idea that you share the program with others and make money on the fact that the more people use it the more they want to buy.

But it’s interesting this comes up as i’m looking into shareware.
Just look it up on wikipedia –


ps, sorry for such a long post

Keith: Shareware is meant to be distributed. You’re supposed to give away the demo or even the full version and allow people to likewise give it away in the hopes of reaching many, many eyeballs. The more people trying your software, the more chances someone will like it enough to purchase a copy.

When someone puts copy protection on their software with the purpose of making it more difficult to share the software, it’s almost funny. The movie industry is making it less and less appealing to go to the movies while simultaneously raising prices, and then they wonder why ticket sales are down. The music industry lashes out at fans who share music with each other, and in a recession they blame piracy for low sales.

No one has any real statistics on the effects of piracy on mainstream, retail software, and we definitely don’t know how it affects shareware sales. Some indie game developers can link specific sales to good copy protection, which sounds promising, but there are developers making quite a living without using anything at all, too. Even though we can’t say definitively one way or another, if copy protection does more to prevent copying, then less people will get to try it. I wonder if getting a 5% conversion rate of 1,000 downloads is really preferrable to a 1% conversion rate of 100,000 downloads.

50 sales, or 1000, hmm… tough choice 😉

I think the best thing for an indie to do, is seperate demo/full version download, either that or like we said, just giving out the full version as shareware is to show it to as many people as possible.

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