Piracy & PC gaming

Okay, the horse is almost dead but I think the coverage of the issue of PC game piracy has tended to be a bit one-sided.

The PC software market is comprised more than just PC games. And piracy is certainly not exclusive to PC gaming. But people don’t say that the PC software market is “d0med” every other week. Why is that?

In my opinion, it is because the PC game market (both developers and the enthusiast press) focus on making and covering things that are considered “cool” rather than on what the market is actually interested in buying.

I have seen (without naming names) 2 page spreads in PC game publications for game hardware from vendors who I know sell less than 10,000 machines annually (not just of the model being reviewed, but their entire product line). I see coverage for PC games for genres that historically don’t get great sales.

In terms of development resources for games, I see a huge percentage of PC game releases targeting relatively small markets. It is as if the games being made are focusing on the people who buy those mega gaming PCs that sell so few units.

My applications don’t require me to keep a CD in the drive or force me to go through obnoxious DRM to use. And yet they suffer piracy but are still very profitable.

When games come out that have hardware requirements that only a tiny % of users can make use of in genres with relatively small potential buyers we keep hearing that piracy is the cause.

Piracy is a serious problem on the PC. But not just for games. All PC software has to deal with it. But the general PC software industry deals with it by focusing on making software for people who buy stuff.

By contrast, the PC game industry continues to focus on making games that only a small % of PC gamers can actually play in genres that have amongst the lowest percentages of people who actually buy stuff.

I’ve written a lenghty (even lengthier than this) outline of this with more detail on the subject here:


My point is that while piracy is a significant issue for PC gaming, it is hardly the primary cause of PC games selling lower than they “should”.

The PC game industry has generally made the choice of glory versus profit. And that is certainly their choice. As a nerdy kind of guy, I’d like to be a “gaming rockstar” too so I can appreciate the desire to make the “coolest stuff”. But there are economic consequences to that choice.

Anyway, just my 2 cents on the matter. Cheers.

What non entertainment software types that sell retail directly to individual users and doesn’t have some sort of DRM built in are profitable?

That’s a serious question, I can’t think of any but don’t follow this space too closely.

I agree with everything you wrote…


Games with low system specs in traditional genres are released all the time and tank. Is it possible that Stardock, because of its fan based, is the exception that could not be duplicated?

Have you installed an Adobe product lately? Windows XP or Vista? None require a CD, but all have DRM/validation.

Then again, Stardock doesn’t just sell PC games either.

— Alan

I wonder how much of Stardock’s focus on low end systems is only possible due to the drive in cutting edge videocards.

Edit: Plus I think the post can be summarized as “Don’t make FPS or RTS games on PC” which I think is a little unfair.

Excellent article Brad.

There’s been a massive disconnect for years in this industry between the market and the media. That’s one of the reasons I got into casual.

I will seek out any game, even if five years gone on the used market at Half Priced Books, and pay the proper price for it. But for players like my twin brother, who I identified at college as the mainstream gamer, the only effective anti-pirating systems are any deterrant againt them. They love games, they even play maintream genres primarily on the PC, but will only play for a game if there is a service like Steam that prevents them from actively playing it online otherwise.

The “PC” is a varied machine with several developmental paths available to it. As opposed to most gaming platforms. Developers, as I feel, only use its diversity out of desperation or lack of connection to the actual industry.

WindowBlinds generates millions of dollars annually to name one.

I said most of what I think about this topic in one of the other threads.
Just want to add that piracy was always a huge thing on computers back to the Commodore computer era and yet only recently it became the “reason” PC gaming is dying.

Hell back then I had maybe 2-3 originals with hundreds of copied games.
We copied tapes with a dual tape ghettoblaster back then as children and “XCopy” was the only applications I used on the Amiga 500.
No one told us that it’s illegal not even the shop owners while we copied games using their displayed Commodores.

At school all PCs were full of Sierra adventures (QfG, KG, SG etc.) as well as Doom and Tetris among others. No teacher gave a f…
In fact we got copies of “LOGO” (some very basic language for taking the first programing steps) from them and I’m sure there was no school license for that.

In university once I was introduced to IRC I had everything on my fingertips and I was not the only one by far that used a Iomega ZIP drive with DOS drivers to get shit off the computer pool machines.

The only thing that prevents me from copying today is
a) time
b) the liberty to vote with my wallet and support games / genres I want to play in the future
c) the means to buy every game I want

I would quibble that product activation is different from having to have a CD in the drive or game-like DRM where it’s calling home whenever you use it. And activation is pretty easy to break. I don’t think anyone’s arguing that Photoshop isn’t massively pirated too right?

I guess what I should say is that generally speaking, software applications have less copy protection than PC games. I’m all for any type of DRM, copy protection, whatever as long as it doesn’t inconvenience the people who actually buy my stuff.

The copy protection issue is secondary to the main issue that non-game software suffers from piracy as well but it’s not considered “domed”. In the non game market, if a program is made and it doesn’t sell enough products, additional programs aren’t made for that particular niche.

But in the game industry, certain genres of games have been classified as “cool” resulting in lots of games being made for those “cool” genres despite the well established history of having a relatively smaller number of actual buyers in the market.

I wouldn’t say that. Call of Duty 4 and The Orange Box have been tremendous successes.

What I would say is that when making a product, you need to look at the size of the market in terms of actual potential buyers. Then you should look at how many competitors you have in that market. That may seem straight forward but that’s not how it works in the PC game industry in general.

Also, these games are usually cross platform and are more suited to console gaming. This means that the console versions are competing directly with their PC counterparts with predictable results.

The d0med-ness of PC gaming is such a broad topic, and every aspect has been severely beaten to death.

[li]Piracy is bad, yes. However 1 download /= 1 lost sale. What % of pirated downloads, if prevented, really would have translated to a sale. Is there any data on this?
[/li][li]Anti-piracy/DRM - Absolutely necessary, but it harms legit customers with CD/DVD drive compatibility, slows game performance, won’t work if there are online connectivity problems. It’s just plain inconvenient to dig up an old CD to pop in the drive.
[/li][li]PC hardware: Mainstream PC’s ($500-$700) sport terrible onboard graphics.
[/li][li]PC diversity is its strength (niche hardcore & casual audiences, varied control schemes, multitasking, freely available community resources, free/self-hosted online play). Also it’s weakness: High cost of customer support for users w/ wide variety of hardware, and tech knowledge for troubleshooting.

Going to console solves a lot of these problems for devs, but there’s no doubt that PC gaming can allow for more complicated, varied, and demanding games. A closed platform ‘just works’ Apple does it, the consoles do it, but does openness have to be sacrificed? Isn’t there room for everyone?

I’m a bit of an unabashed fanboy, but I think Steamworks solves a lot of piracy, patching and distribution problems. Even the Splash Damage (Quake Wars) guys called Steam a 3rd platform, along with the 360 & PS3 in a recent RPS interview. If Valve were to integrate some sort of system benchmarking utility ala the Vista System Experience score, it would go a long way towards letting people gauge if a game can run on their rig. Think of the immense wealth of information also, to Steamworks partners, if they can see what the System power scores are for the folks that buy their games? The whole Steam community aspect also value-adds what devs can integrate into their games, much like Xbox Live.

There’s a lot to be said for leveraging creative art styles and gameplay innovations to push less demanding, but more compelling games. Also, empowering customers to understand, in a simple fashion, the capabilities of their PC’s, raising the minimum graphics specs in mainstream computers, and offering a seamless, standardized, client that allows gamers to buy, patch, and play games is a big step in the right direction.

As stated in the other thread non-gaming software might profit from those copies in the long run in 2 ways:

  1. People that are used to these products might nudge companies into buying the apps stating that they can do the job based on their personal experience. (Adobe products I look at you).

  2. Companies get people that are already familiar with the software that is used in it. Therefore further link the company to the software product.

Therefore I think the crying of the non-game software producers is not that loud.

I’m not 100% sure but I would hazard a guess that mIRC does OK. Possibly also WinZip and CuteFTP.

Also, pre-XP versions of Windows were still very profitable despite not having DRM (just a simple CD key input).

You still have to make a good game.

  1. Identify market for product.
  2. Determine size of market for product
  3. Make good product for market
  4. Market and distribute product effectively
  5. Profit.

Stardock’s not unique really. Paradox has done pretty well. I would even say that Valve deserves a lot of credit.

Valve doesn’t get enough kudos for the fact that their engine scales better than most games. A normal gamer can buy The Orange Box and play it on their machine even if their machine isn’t state of the art. The same is true of Call of Duty 4.

It’s not about low hardware requirements, it’s about having the lowest hardware requirements you can have to still make the game you want to make.

The Orange Box because it’s tied to steam. Call of Duty 4 hasn’t been a tremendous success on the PC – the developers haven’t been quiet about the disparity of sales between the PC and the consoles. My numbers show only 350k units sold on PC in North America. That’s compared to four million on 360+PS3 combined.

I have a feeling that EA/DICE are going to make out like bandits with Battlefield Heroes.

Do you think there may be more weariness on the PC front what with users having to endure iteration after iteration of FPS games? I mean I would guess that UT3 tanked on the PC as well. Orange Box did well because not only do you get a high quality story-telling experience with Half-Life 2, but you also get Episode One and Two (value), Portal (GOTY) and TF2 (hardcore multiplayer) in the bundle. All of which, as Brad points out, scales very well on hardware of all types.

I think Stardock is indeed an exception, but for different reasons. Frankly, it’s one of the few game companies that doesn’t treat prospective customers like thieves or idiots the moment they meet. People always respond well to that.