Can PC game piracy ever be beaten?

The answer is rather complicated, and contradictory, as it’s both a yes and no. In the short term piracy will be brought to an end through the use of always on DRM, StarCraft 2 and Diablo 3 proved that the system works. The recent SimCity proves that fans will still buy a game even knowing the limitations and restrictions of it’s DRM. The question, however, is whether fans will accept all games using the always on DRM system.

Again we have a contradictory answer, this time because gamers are essentially a bunch of hypocrites. They condemn always on DRM, yet use it frequently in the form of Steam, Origin, UPlay and others.

Over the past year several games have launched with some form of always on DRM. One of the most anticipated, yet one of the least raged about, was Torchlight 2. Given the way the game works, and the way it integrated into Steam it has a slew of network problems causing crashes and freezes when offline. The saving grace of this game, and probably the reason there was so little rage over it, was the fact that Trion included LAN and Mods, though the promised mod support tools and workshop integration are yet to appear.

Galaxy on Fire 2
“Galaxy on fire 2 for example, just wont launch if your offline”

Other games have similar undisclosed always on DRM, Galaxy on fire 2 for example, just wont launch if your offline.

Steam itself is an always on DRM, though you can go offline, you can not install new games or launch them for the first time without being online. Steam is also rather buggy with it’s offline mode with frequent issues arising  from it.

StarCraft 2 is a picture of how to do always on DRM, since it isn’t really always on. After you login the first time, you can go offline. However doing so disables multiplayer and achievements, it also has a 30 day time limit. You have to go online once every 30 days to renew your authentication. Failure to do this means the game resets to demo mode, and remains that way until you login again.

The problem here is the way games like Diablo 3 and SimCity work. These games rely on their servers for a lot of information. which essentially means that any sort of offline mode is impossible. Diablo 3 for example was cracked within hours, however due to the way the game handled encounters, pirated copies meant the player ran around an empty world. The only way these types of games can be truly pirated is through server emulation, much like the world of Warcraft emulators run on private servers.

Steam is also a bad way of doing online authentication, since it’s long been cracked and pretty much every game that requires Steam authentication has been pirated. The same applies to Origin and UPlay, which is why publishers take such extreme measures to protect their assets. Many fans seem to forget a key thing, publishers are not run by gamers for gamers, they’re run by businessmen for profit.

This style of always DRM will become the norm for a while, simply because fans keep buying games that have it. To really get change in the way DRM works, and the type of SRM used in games, fans need to talk with their wallet. We make a big fuss about the DRM, so publishers check their sales, and see that the sales don’t match the rage.

Take a look at SimCity, this game has been known for months that it would have always on DRM. Yet the pre-orders and sales of the game exceeded EA’s expectations leading to server overloads. So, what happened here is we (the fans) raged about how vile always on is, but then still went out and bought the game. Who are EA going to listen to, fans shouting about how their system sucks, or their bank balance? I know which I’d listen to.

The only way to tell a publisher you don’t like the systems they’re using is to STOP BUYING. You can not rage against them one minute, then throw money at them the next. Sure this means you’re going to have to sacrifice your love of games for a while, and we’re not talking about a few months here. To send an effective message you have to stop buying until they listen. Sadly this will never happen, because gamers have to have their next big game. they have to support the franchises they like.

Piracy has been around since games first came to PC. If you look at the history of games you’re also looking at the history of piracy. The first game I ever pirated was Freespace 1, that I ended up loving so much i went on to buy. Piracy has always been a part of PC gaming, but with the access to high speed internet it became more prevalent.

old school pirates had split screen too
old school pirates had split screen too

There were several other factors involved as well that led to a surge in piracy. Firstly game stores agreed with publishers to not sell second hand copies, the ‘official’ reason given was to prevent viruses spreading. However it was really a bid to increase sales and profits to the publishers. This was the first time publishers took a united stance and put an end to second hand sales of games. Some stores hung out for a while, but when publishers threatened to cut them off from new releases, and then followed through with it, they had no choice other than to comply.

This was followed by the slow withdrawal of demos on PC, these days demos are a very rare thing. So fans turned to piracy as a way of demoing the game they had an interest in, but then decided to stick with the pirated version. This is the old saying, why pay when you can have it for free, bearing fruit.

Finally we have a decline in the quality of games. This has to be one of the biggest contributing factor I think. Games have degenerated into iterations of each other with emphasis being on cinematic experience, rather than mechanics and game play. As a result of this the games we get these days are usually short, completable within 6 hours or so, and not really rememberable. We do get the occasional good game, such as Far Cry 3 and the recent Tomb Raider. However the vast majority of games these days are rehashes of others. Take a look of the MMS genre for example,  here we have a series of games that are so heavily scripted you can’t really do anything on your own. Exploring a building? Forget it, you have to follow the scripted route and the game won’t let you deviate from it. In fact it’s possible to break a game by doing something it doesn’t expect.

As a result of development like this people don’t feel the need to buy them, they just pirate them. This is made worse of course by the use of DLC to pad out the cost of a game. Black Ops 2 on launch was £45 and then you have DLC on top that costing a further £35. This wouldn’t be so bad if there was a decent amount of time between releases, however since they’re yearly releases people just don’t wont to spend that amount.

Finally we have the rising prices of games, which is a bit of a fallacy really. If games had gone up with the rate of inflation then games would easily be over £100 each by now. However the fact that games are now starting to rise in price, at a time when money is short, results in people turning to piracy. Collectors editions of games these days can easily cost £120, with normal ones being around the £40-50 mark, a significant jump over the past 2 years where the average game would have cost between £30-35 mark.

All of these, tied in with the fact that we essentially lease games these days, rather than buy them, leads to more people turning to piracy. The thought of these publishers being able to just turn off out games on a whim is truly a scary thought. this is especially true for the likes of Steam, where your average game library can be worth over £1000 easily.

witcher 2
The Witcher 2 downloaded more than 24k on one torrent

Many gamers seem to feel that publishers need to adopt the DRM free approach, and even point to the success of games like The Witcher 2. The issue here is that GoG really only carry older games that have finished their life cycle, so the publishers don’t really care if they’re pirated. They also do indie games, who use it as a distribution method that’s less intrusive than Steam. However every game you find on has been torrented at some point, and most of them have 1000’s of downloads. The Witcher 2 is a prime example, one torrent has a completed download of 24k. Now lets say that every one of those had bought the game, that would be a whopping £359760 in sales to GoG, and that was from just one torrent.

That’s why publishers will never adopt that style of DRM at the minute, it just loses them to much in sales.


So can piracy ever be beaten? In the short term i can see it slowing down, as the always on DRM starts to become common. However over time i can see gamers deciding to follow through with their threats and to stop buying the games. As publishers learn and start to look elsewhere piracy will pick up again.

However to limit piracy publishers need to do several things. Keep the rising cost of games under control is a good start, followed by releasing proper demos, not Aliens colonial marines demos though. Increase the time spent on development and story development, so as the games have a immersive cinematic feel. Get rid of scripting, allow for a more open world approach where the gamer is given an objective and then unleashed. Let them decide how they get the objective complete.

Adopt a DRM system similar to the StarCraft 2 system, as it’s a system that works.

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