Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fighting piracy on the app store

It is hard to gauge the exact amount of piracy on the App Store and how it will affect your business model. Some companies have reported an 80-90% piracy rate on their titles, while others have claimed to have a much lower rate. Is there a viable way to deal with this issue? I believe there is within reason.

My company has categorized three types of potential players of our games:

User A
This user legally purchases their games directly from the App Store. They use the App Store featured and top listings to find games they would like, and possibly reading gaming sites such as touchArcade.

User B
This user will pirate some or most of their games from various sources, but they may also purchase titles if they are given further reason. A few of these users may be compelled to purchase your game if they really enjoy it, but you shouldn't count on any substantial revenue from that source. The majority of these users will only make a purchase in two cases:

  1. If it is the only possible way to play (i.e. server based games such as MMOs where you control the environment).
  2. If purchasing the game gives them an added benefit over playing a pirated copy.

User C

This user pirates all of their games and applications and refuses to make any purchases. The chance of this user purchasing your game is likely zero and is purely a lost cause.

So what can we do to lower piracy based on these user categories? Well both User A and User C have an easily defined course of action.

User A
In order to have this user purchase your game you need to make a high quality and polished title that appeals to them. Easier said than done! But at least you can rest assured that if you create an appealing game with high production value, this user will make a purchase. Keep in mind that the user needs to find your game somehow, which again is no easy task, but that is a subject for another post and has no direct relation to piracy.

User C
As I stated earlier this user will never purchase your game and therefore you should not concern yourself with them. If they want to pirate your game they will and there is literally nothing you can do about it. Focusing time on this user not only takes resources away from your key focus, but has always proved to be quite fruitless.

Ok. That sounds easy enough, but what about User B?

User B
For now let us assume that your game is not an MMO game, therefore you have no way of completely restricting piracy. It is a single or multi player game that sells on the App Store. How is it possible to convince User B to purchase your game rather than pirate?

What have people done in the past?

  1. Detecting whether the game has been pirated (there are numerous methods, all of which can easily be tampered with) and then either exiting the game, disabling features, or popping a message box telling the user this is an illegal copy. This can deter some piracy but for the most part has only resulted in bad press for the game as the user tells their friends "Don't download game X because all it does is crash!". Also the IPA is normally hacked and those checks disabled unless you have littered your codebase with inline calls, etc.

  2. Implemented "call home" functionality so the game needs to connect to a central server in order to authenticate. So you mean I can't play this game on the subway? (which is where most of my time playing iPhone games is spent) What if my internet connection goes out? What if your server goes down? I have yet to see a good system implemented based on this other than Steam and that system has fallbacks and a full support department.

Neither of these solutions appealed to me, so the two games my company currently has in production are based on the "value added" model. These were the criteria that I required:

  1. The ability to play the single player version of the game wherever you are and at any time. This means a fully featured version with no "call home" functionality, no crashing, and the user experience is not changed by nagging dialogs. Honestly this was our first priority as we want the best experience for User A and we also don't want User C running to the blogs and forums (which happen to be the same sites that User A & B read to find their next purchases!) claiming that the game is buggy or broken.

  2. Create an online aspect for the games that are restricted to legally purchased titles. When a user tries to use an online component our server checks for a valid receipt from Apple. At this point we display a message to the user explaining why they are restricted from using this functionality. Since this component is online we have complete control and it isn't something local that could be cracked.

The first point is pretty straight forward. For the single player mode of the games we do absolutely nothing to combat piracy, not even displaying a message box warning the user that we know their little secret. But what about the second point? Sure it sounds great but what could you possibly do? Restricting leaderboards and small features really haven't proven effective in the past.

Our idea was to create a fully integrated online experience rather than just tack on a few small features once the game was completed. My company hasn't yet announced or shown our games, so let's envision a hypothetical game in order to describe our system. As stated above any user (both legally purchased copies as well as pirated) can play the single player version of the game unhindered. One key reason for this is not only to avoid the bad reviews, but the thought that if User B really enjoys the game there is a good chance they will purchase it in order to access the "value added" components.

So what are these magical "value added" components I keep talking about? Here are a few of the things the system provides our games:

  1. Online gameplay is either completely run on the server, or works peer to peer with the server acting as the man in the middle.

  2. The game could have items and equipment that is only available in online play. This also opened up the ability to play the single player game in "online mode" with your items.

  3. Each player can create an optional account that works across all of our games. This provides features such as leaderboards, statistics, achievements, friend lists, private messaging, forums, access to tournaments, etc.

  4. The game could have specific online "extras" available to user accounts. Using our hypothetical game a user could upload their 3 hero party to the server and then access it from any device (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Mac, PC). They could also decide to share their party layout with their friends, or even with the entire player base.

  5. Game specific web presence and community. In our example we could have a user gallery where you can see your current party, any parties you have previously saved, and also look at the other player's configurations. People can show off their special items earned in online play, achievements, statistics, etc.

There are a lot more points that I will talk about in detail in the future, but currently some are a competitive advantage for us. We realized up front that the majority of these systems were generic enough and if we built them now we could use them in all of our future titles, whether they are App Store games, selling on Steam, or using any other digital distribution method. The cost of hosting the online components is unbelievably cheap these days by using services like Amazon EC2 and Windows Azure. Not to mention the cost scales based on the amount of users who have actually purchased the game.

In conclusion we decided to build a much better user experience for our paying customers where it was possible for us to control access. Even if every one of my assumptions turn out to be incorrect and we don't see an increase in sales from User B, I believe our time was spent wisely. Not only were we able to avoid wasting our time trying to forcefully fight piracy, but we ended up creating a really great online experience for the User A's of the world who have obtained the game legally. We also get the added value that our solution brings to the marketing campaigns and word of mouth.

Of course this model does not fit every single game type, and is most definitely the wrong solution for many different types of games. Although for many of the larger games implementing a model like this will not only increase your chances of higher revenue, but you end up with a much better overall user experience.

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