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Video game developers get creative against piracy

by Amanda Yeo

A few years ago independent Australian developer Greenheart Games released their first PC game - Game Dev Tycoon. In it, players are tasked with building a successful video game studio from the garage office up.

However, soon after release, many players began complaining that Game Dev Tycoon made it impossible to succeed.

A few hours into the game a message would appear onscreen: "Boss, it seems that while many players play our new game, they steal it by downloading a cracked version rather than buying it legally. If players don't buy the games they like, we will sooner or later go bankrupt."

Soon, regardless of the quality of their games, the large percentage of virtual players pirating would cause the studio's costs to outweigh its income. Eventually, their fledgling company would run out of money and it would be game over.

Players were aggrieved. "Why are there so many people that pirate?", griped one. "It ruins me!".

That was the point. The message only shows up in Game Dev Tycoon if you're playing a pirated copy.

Video games are in a unique position among entertainment media when it comes to piracy. While an entire film, song or book can be contained within a single file, games contain multiple lines of executable code, and most players are ignorant of how they function.

This has enabled developers to be inventive when it comes to copyright protection.

Minutes after Game Dev Tycoon went on sale, Greenheart Games uploaded the alternate version on torrent websites, causing pirates to unknowingly download a sabotaged game.

Other studios have gotten even more creative. Rumu, released by independent Australian studio, Robot House in 2017, is coded to check its files for signs of piracy. If the game is found to be illegitimate it will essentially turn into a demo preventing the player from proceeding beyond the first act.

Instead, a character will lecture the player about piracy and the game will open a web browser to Rumu's Steam page - a feature pirate Dethlkloktopus discovered for themselves late last year.

"It is funny, but it was pretty irritating to get that far & [sic] be unable to save or finish, to be honest", they wrote in a Reddit post. "I simply can't afford to just buy games whenever I want, but I try".

In many pirates' minds, piracy is a harmless crime. They're only copying files so it isn't as though they're physically taking an object and depriving its owner of its use. Some say they wouldn't have bought the game anyway, so their piracy is inconsequential. The gamut of justifications runs wide and complex, ranging from lack of funds to checking if it will run on their computer to wanting to play games that aren't available for purchase legally.

Kotaku also heard that many gamers who pirated when younger began buying games once older, employed and less inclined to put up with the danger and hassle of piracy.

But in many cases piracy comes down to a simple unwillingness to pay. And though today's pirates may be tomorrow's paying customers, developers can't live on the promise of tomorrow. A person playing their game without having paid for it deprives developers of income, renders their work unsustainable and causes the industry to lose fledgling talent.

"[A]s the developer, who spend [sic] over a year creating this game and hasn't drawn a salary yet, I wanted to cry", wrote Greenheart Games', Patrick Klug, regarding the piracy of Game Dev Tycoon. "Surely for most of these players, the $8 wouldn't hurt them but it makes a huge difference to our future!".

Piracy remains a gameplay complication in legitimate copies of Game Dev Tycoon, though you are given the choice to either warn or sue the culprits. If you warn them, you'll garner goodwill and earn more fans. If you sue them, you'll earn some money in court but you'll lose a lot of fans.

As it is in the game, so it is in real life. How developers deal with piracy is as much a matter of public relations as it is protecting their interests.

The Australian Government has discouraged video game piracy with many of the same measures taken to prevent film and music piracy - namely, website blocking and the imposition of harsh penalties. But pirates are nothing if not wilful and a hardline stance can prompt them to redouble their efforts.

Encoded anti-piracy measures offer an attention-grabbing, lighthearted approach, opening a dialogue with pirates as they often contact developers in the mistaken belief they've encountered a bug. These measures also deny pirates full access to a game, turning pirated copies into demos.

Such measures have been employed in numerous games. In illegitimate copies of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman is unable to glide, causing the dark knight to fall to his death. In The Talos Principle, pirates will find themselves trapped in an elevator, unable to progress and in Crysis Warhead, all bullets turn into harmless chickens, leaving pirates bereft of satisfying gunplay.

These efforts don't just gut the pirated game of enjoyment. They serve as an effective reminder to pirates that developers aren't ignorant of their actions and encourage pirates to consider the people behind the games.

Pirating a game can be troublesome. Websites hosting pirated content are often rife with false links and even selecting the correct link carries a non-zero chance the pirate is downloading malware. Further, many games require online connectivity or a connection to official servers for at least some functionality, which illegitimate copies cannot offer.

Inbuilt anti-piracy measures compound upon the reasons not to pirate helping to make it not worth the hassle.

After reading Dethlkloktopus' post, Rosser gifted them a legitimate copy of Rumu. It isn't practical nor reasonable to ask developers to give away their games for free but in this one instance, Rosser considered that the pirate had helped him in a way, having proven the game's anti-piracy measures worked.

"[A]ll players of our games, pirates or legitimate players, are real people with emotions", said Rosser, "and not just numbers or machines".

For their part, Dethlkloktopus was humbled. "I thought it was a really cool way to go, dealing with the piracy thing", they wrote to Rosser. "It definitely did its job making me feel bad. Hopefully it has the same effect on others".

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