Stormworks, and declaring war on piracy

With the invention of video games came the invention of video game piracy. In 1988, Carrier Command asked you to enter a specific word from a random position in its 70-page manual, when first starting the game. This wasn’t the first attempt at copy protection, though, and today, if a game doesn’t have some essential online component, it has probably been pirated.

Many argue that piracy isn’t even a bad thing for game makers. Some people are never going to part with their hard-earned cash, but piracy allows your game to reach this audience. This is an organic type of growth that promotes discoverability.

Other content creators just feel robbed. The movie and music industries have copyright lobbying bodies, campaigning to change the law, blocking content, and creating advertising campaigns designed to intimidate consumers.

And then there’s the group I’m in. We accept piracy as part of the industry, but we think we can convert pirates into paying customers. If someone has taken the trouble to find an illegal download of our game, risked infection from a virus, then proceeded to invest their time into playing this game, they probably want the game very much.

In 2013, Game Dev Tycoon’s developers famously uploaded their own game to piracy websites with the launch of their paid version. However, this edition had one extra feature: piracy. When players released a game (within the game), sales would be tragic, and they were told why. When the less-bright pirates took to the games forum, complaining that piracy was ruining the game, the irony was not lost on Redditors and others, creating viral promotion of the game’s launch.

Launched in 2018, Stormworks offers a physics-based sandbox of vehicle-building and rescue missions.

Our approach, in Stormworks, is to detect if the game has been pirated, and treat the player’s session as a demo. The game will play as normal for somewhere between 20 minutes to an hour, as players invest their time in creating vehicles, or building up cash and stock. When you author a vehicle design yourself, there’s a real sense of ownership and belonging that bonds you to your creation, your world.

Enter the fish

When our algorithm decides it’s time for the demo session to end, a shoal of flying fish will begin chasing the player, and if they hit, they will stick to a vehicle, weighing it down while flapping their little tails. Players can run, and for some time can stay ahead, but eventually, the player will need to stop, and as long as piracy exists, the fish will just keep on attacking.

Years ago, when working for a free-to-play studio, I learned that it was far more effective to monetise a user by giving them something and then taking it away again, than if you had simply offered the item as a purchase in the first place. The psychology of loss is one of the most powerful motivators we have to convince players to spend. The technique works, and a lot of pirates are deciding it is worth buying Stormworks.

And then there’s the joy of defeating a pirate. It feels a lot like seeing cheaters in a first-person shooter getting banned. You play by the rules, but they don’t, to your expense. Seeing the rules being enforced has a certain gratification.

Pirate Stormworks, and sooner or later those pesky fish will show up to sink your ship.

We know this is not a war we can win. There is no detection algorithm we can make that cannot be defeated, but that’s not a reason to surrender, and right now, we’re winning the battles.

Our system is built from two components, the first being piracy detection. Most piracy involves modifying the game or running it in an altered environment. With Steam games, many generic solutions exist that can plug into any game with no technical skill. Within moments of examining a pirated version of your game, you should be able to see what component has changed. All that remains is simple code that looks for features of the hacked environment, or an absence of a legitimate one. We currently have eight checks, and occasionally add new ones as new cracks show up.

The second component is a delayed response. A delay has the advantage of allowing the player to demo your game, but also hides your detection from any person creating an illegal version. It is incredibly frustrating to make a change to software, only to have to wait an unknown amount of time to know if your change was successful. It makes the process very high effort and much less viable. And don’t forget to have some fun with the way you terminate the player’s session at the end of the delay.

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