(Credit: Greenheart Games)
When Greenheart Games released game dev sim Game Dev Tycoon, it simultaneously released its very own pirated version — with an extra feature to expose the pirates.
At the same time as the official game's release, though, the developer decided to get the jump on its pirates. It released a cracked copy of the game to "the number one torrent-sharing site" itself — a copy of the game with a special Easter egg just for the illegal downloaders.
As players make their way through the game, they are tasked with thinking around common issues that come up during the games development process. An additional one was added for the "illegal" copy of the game: after a few hours of gameplay, working hard to try and make their development studio successful, pirates received the following message:
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.
After this, their money would slowly bleed out, any new games created would have a high chance of being pirates, and eventually, the studio would go bankrupt. Strangely, though, the irony seemed a little lost on some of the pirates.
"Guys, I reached some point where if I make a decent game with a score 9-10, it gets pirated and I can't make any profit ... is there some way to avoid that? ... There's no point inventing a new engine because the revolutionary game made out of it will get pirated and I will not be able to cover my expenses," wrote one.
Another said: "Why are there so many people that pirate? It ruins me! ... not fair."
"As a gamer, I laughed out loud: the irony!" wrote Greenheart Games' Patrick Klug. "However, as the developer who spent over a year creating this game and hasn't drawn a salary yet, I wanted to cry. Surely, for most of these players, the $8 wouldn't hurt them, but it makes a huge difference to our future!"
And well might he despair. Just one day after release, 93.6 per cent of the game's downloads had come from pirates: 3104 pirated downloads compared to just 214 sales, based on information collected via an in-game code that sends anonymous usage data to Greenheart Games.
And by now, the proper game without the added piracy problem will have made its way to the torrent websites, since Greenheart Games chose to release the game DRM-free so as not to inconvenience customers.
Of course, developers have been using similar techniques to discourage pirates for decades. For example, Eidos nerfed Batman for illegal copies of Arkham Asylum in 2009. EA's Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 in 2000 would spontaneously blow up all your assets. And then there was EarthBound. You don't even want to know about EarthBound. However, Greenheart Games had a fantastic opportunity to slyly let pirates feel the effects of their own actions.
"This was a unique opportunity. You need a game development simulation game to make this particular joke work. The more general idea/experiment to release a cracked version which inconveniences and counts pirates can probably work for any game and might work in the long run," Klug wrote. "If pirates are put through more trouble than genuine customers, maybe more will buy the real game. Sadly, for AAA games, it is currently the other way. Customers get the trouble with always-on requirements and intrusive DRM, while pirates can just download and enjoy. A twisted world."