Eurogamer has posted an approving report about the anti-piracy measures in Bohemia Interactive’s new game, Take On Helicopters, and how, in one case they outed a pirate by having him post about its visual degradation on their support forum. That’s great if your goal is to make pirates look stupid, or if you think you earn some kind of kudos by sneakily getting them to effectively admit to you what they’ve done, or even if you just don’t like pirates and want to ruin their fun. But… are any of those really the goal of anti-piracy measures?
I can see how as a small software house you can feel under attack by piracy, that you can start to see pirates as your enemies, and that from that perspective it can start to seem sensible to treat them accordingly. Tricks to make pirates out themselves and look stupid and games that perform badly for them probably seem like a good approach when you’re stuck in that mindset, but, viewed dispassionately from a business perspective, they’re the wrong thing to do.
The thing to remember is that pirates are not your enemy; they’re people who want to play your game. The goal of any anti-piracy technique should not be to piss those people off, but to turn as many of them as possible into people who buy your game. You obviously think that’s possible, otherwise you’d be following Brad Wardell’s advice and eschewing copy-protection completely.
I’m not saying treat pirates with kid gloves or let them have a free ride, but if your approach is to ruin their game with fake bugs then they are, to state the blindingly obvious, going to think your game is buggy. The equally obvious consequence of that is that you turn someone who wanted to play your game into someone who doesn’t. Not only is this a missed opportunity to turn them, instead, into someone who wants to play your game and is willing to pay for it, but it’s bad word of mouth. Pirates have friends who aren’t pirates and peer reviews are a hugely important factor in purchasing decisions. It should go without saying that you do not want someone telling all their friends that your game is buggy as hell and not worth bothering with, and that’s equally true whether or not that someone actually paid for the game.
So how do you turn a pirate into someone willing to buy your game? Honestly, that’s the hard part of this, and I don’t have all (or even many of) the answers. I actually have a lot of time for Brad Wardell’s opinion on the subject; most of them just aren’t going to be convinced. Whether you can convert enough of them to justify the significant cost of copy protection is something that only your own market research can tell you.
What I do know is that when you’re trying to convince people to buy your game, as with any other negotiation, getting all passive-aggressive is not helpful. You need to clearly state your position and what you expect. Be obvious; stop the game and stick a big message on the screen explaining that this game is pirated and thus isn’t going to work any more, but that a legal copy would be just fine. Don’t leave people wondering whether the reason your game was no fun is that they pirated it; make damn sure it is fun and then tell them explicitly they need to pay to carry on having that fun. Get your marketing people to craft the message, because it’s probably the most targeted advertising opportunity you’re ever going to have; the only people who’ll ever view it are people who want to play your game, but have not yet committed to buying it. Above all, and this bears repeating, be clear and respectful; treating someone who’s triggered your copy protection like a thief who’s trying to steal from you gains you nothing beyond a modicum of catharsis, whereas treating them like a potential customer might just gain you a sale.
Which would you rather have?