Discussion of Game Dev Tycoon’s DRM. And the game. And piracy.

I want to talk a bit about piracy. (Again.)

Game Dev Tycoon, released recently, has an interesting DRM strategy with regards to piracy – playing the pirated copy will make you lose after a while, because too many people pirate your game, and you go bankrupt.

(I will note this has really done wonders, press-wise for them. Not going into whether this was a marketing stunt (I don’t think it was, for the record – their blog post comes off as this DRM was more of an emotional response))

This strategy roughly says, as conveyed through the gameplay: “Piracy hurts sales and doesn’t let us make any money, and makes us go bankrupt”. It’s a bit harsh, especially since it makes you prematurely lose the game, so hours spent might go down the drain.

It’s sort of clever how the DRM is implemented, but the lesson being taught isn’t entirely accurate – piracy might hurt sales, but it doesn’t guarantee bankruptcy in all cases – hurt profits in larger studios, possibly.

Here’s one negative. When you do this, you are shutting off anyone playing the pirated copy from playing your game. In this group of people, there exist people who don’t have the money to buy the game, simply want to try before buying (And won’t buy otherwise), and people who just never pay – with some overlap between the groups.

You’re genuinely pissing off the former and latter party, which are possible fans. In my experience, some people didn’t have the money to pay at the time, but later paid. Or they told their friends to buy it.

I suppose it’s a VERY strong way of conveying the feeling of getting pirated – by playing the pirated version, you can never reach the goal of making enough money to stay alive. But it’s not entirely accurate. Other studios and I have had benefits from piracy, you don’t necessarily go bankrupt with piracy. Most pirates probably weren’t going to buy it anyways. But some of them would have!

And this is why I’m so mixed on this. The party of people who pirate and don’t think about it – maybe you’re teaching them something, it’s hard to say. But that’s at the cost of negatively affecting people who can’t afford, and people who were trying before buying.

I wonder if this lesson could have been taught more gently, without cutting off anyone playing the pirated version from finishing the game. But, that would have reduced the impact on the party who are “the problem” of piracy – people just pirating even though they can afford the game.

So…hmm. I suppose that, in the grand scheme, maybe this experiment was a good idea. In the short run, it hurts some of the studio’s fanbase. It’s sort of a not-entirely-true “lesson” being taught, and is a bit unfair for people losing their time. BUT, where the real win is, is that it does plant the idea of “hey, maybe I should pay for this” in the minds of the people who won’t pay for it, even if they can. Even if that’s conveyed through a message that is not true – that is a bit of empathy towards game developers, the sinking feeling of not making any money off of something you worked hard on. (Even if, again, Game Dev Tycoon itself isn’t very realistic about this)

But, that’s only part of the battle in reducing piracy in people who don’t need to pirate to play games – I think the other part also lies in increasing players’ empathy towards developers. Showing the human side of development, etc, which I think over time can make people think twice before pirating a game and never paying for it (if they can!) . At the same time, this also includes REALIZING that pirates can sometimes be people who can’t afford the game. It’s not just a group of evil, middle-upper class kids who will steal at every opportunity!

-Sean Hogan


(Oh, and yes, I’ve purchased the game. It’s good at conveying the complexity of scaling up a game company, the issues inherent with taking risks with IPs, having tough publisher experiences, the nervousness of release…and I think that gameplay itself can foster some empathy towards developers.)

For your amusement, here is “Andoyne” not doing well in Game Dev Tycoon 😛