This article is my decisive statement on how developers should deal with pirates. It includes humorous anecdotes about how dumb I have been in the past. And, believe me, I've been pretty dumb.
I am very confident about what I have to say on the subject. I have used these guidelines for protecting our newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress. So I'm not just putting my money where my mouth is, I'm putting all my money. If I'm wrong, my kids don't eat. So I hope I'm right.
One of the most common questions fledgling developers ask me is how they should protect their games from pirates. My answer is, generally, "The minimum amount you can get away with." That is because I have learned never to forget the following guideline ...
Whenever you find yourself starting a sentence with, "I don't want people to pirate my game, so I am going to ..." you are very close to making a big mistake.
I really, truly believe this rule. Here are two examples of times when I have forgotten it, and the grim consequences.
Trying To Protect My Hint Books
From the very beginning, I have sold hint books for my games. People like them, and they are easy money. When I started, in 1994, there was no convenient format like pdf for online file delivery, so I had to print and mail actual books. This cost lots of money and boxes of hint books took up tons of space in my house.
Then pdf files happened and people started to request that I send the book in electronic form instead of making them wait a week for the post office to do whatever it does. I refused this reasonable request for two reasons. First, I was afraid people would buy the pdf version and send it to their friends. Second, I didn't know how to create a download link for the file that couldn't then be e-mailed around to everyone in the world. So I kept spending money and precious storage space for the booklets, inconveniencing my paying customers as I did so.
Finally, three years ago, I got fed up with it. I made hint books available as downloadable pdf files. (People who want a printed version can get one for an extra two bucks, but they almost never do.)
But how did I secure the download link so it couldn't be shared? Here's the brilliant part. Ready? I just put it in with all of our other files. Anyone can download it. Anyone who knows how to use ftp can find it. When people order the hint book, I send them the download link, but they could have found the file for themselves if they looked around.
But here's the thing. Anyone who wants to pirate pretty much any PC game can do so easily. That means all of my orders are from honest, nice people. So why waste our time figuring out how to hide the hint book from them? They will pay for it because they know selling things is how I stay in business and make more games for them!
Here's the punch line. Want to know how switching to undefended pdf files affected sales of hint books? It didn't. The sales rate was practically unchanged. Know what that means? All those years humping around boxes of hint books, all those thousands of dollars sent to printers, all those slaughtered trees, all wasted. All because I was scared of people pirating my lousy hint book.
But there is a more gruesome example of my foolishness.
The Worst Registration System Ever Devised By the Hand of Man
In 1994, electronic distribution of demos was very much in its infancy. My plan was to release a demo with a small fraction of the game. Then, when the correct key was entered into the game, it would unlock and everything would be playable. A sound plan. The problem was the implementation.
At first, I thought I'd just generate a key when someone ordered and send it to them. But then I thought, hey, I don't want people to pirate my game. If I just send them a key, they can make it public or send it to all their friends. So here is my brilliant idea. I will ... will ...
God. It hurts to even think about it.
Here's what I did. When you ran the game, it generated a random code, a 4 or 5 digit number. When you ordered, you had to provide that number. I would use it to generate a key specific to your copy of the game. I'd send you that key, you'd enter it, and the whole game would be unlocked.
So what does this mean? First, when you tried to order a game, you had to have this number with you. Did you realize you needed it? Probably not. So you'd be at our online store trying to give us money, only to have to leave to dig up some stupid number. Want a tip for running an online business? When a customer is at your web page, credit card out and in hand, do not give them a reason to leave!
The system was confusing, and this wasn't helped by the fact that we were the only ones ever to use it. Oh, if only we could have back the countless hours spent explaining the system to confused parents. Countless more hours making new registration keys for people who switched computers or had to reinstall their OS. The weird system made us look unprofessional at best, deranged at worst. And, as a special bonus, it did exactly zero to stop people from pirating our game. Name a way to crack our registration system, and people did it a hundred times.
We stuck by this system for fifteen years. Might as well have just made a big pile of money and set it on fire. At least we would have gotten the warmth.
A year ago, I finally got fed up. New system. When you order our newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, we send you a serial code. Enter it, and you're up and running. Buy the game for the Mac and want to play it on Windows too? Enter the same key. Want to register your copy again ten years from now? Use the same key.
And the result of switching to a slightly less secure, infinitely easier to use system? Sales of Avadon are the highest of any game we've put out in years.
Just Do the Minimum
You need some way to force people to pay. Not because they are evil or dishonest, but because they procrastinate. Registration is a pain. They'd rather be spending their time playing your game! If you don't do anything at all to make them pay, they'll just forget.
But tread lightly. Once you have any barrier in place at all, you'll get your payment from all the honest people, the people who know that, if nobody pays, you won't make more awesome games for them. Anything beyond that will inconvenience your paying customers and do little to nothing to prevent piracy.
It took a long time for me to learn this. Too long. And, whenever I start to forget, I look at the monolith of boxes of old hint books gathering dust in my garage. If you're an Indie developer, be nice to people. In the end, the ability to be nice is one of the best weapons you have.