In an ironic twist last week, a moderator on the forums for copy protection software StarForce made it easier for people to pirate a game, posting a link directing users to a site from which they could download illegal "warez" copies of Stardock Systems' PC strategy game Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords.
In response to a user's remark that Dread Lords has been experiencing strong sales despite a lack of copy protection (other than a serial number used to download updates), StarForce forum moderator JM posted a link to a Web site and a message saying that several thousand people were downloading the game illegally. He suggested that the game's success was despite the lack of copy protection, and not because of it.
The offending link has since been removed, and yesterday another StarForce forum moderator offered an apology for the situation.
"In the end, on behalf of the whole StarForce I would like to tender our apologies to all people who have been working on creation of the game Galactic Civilizations II," wrote a moderator using the handle "SF shum." The moderator continued, "We have to officially claim that what has happened is just a mistake of our employee that was boosted into 'our planned PR action' by the people who hate StarForce."
The mod also said it would be the last time a staff member would post a link to a site hosting illegal content, and indicated that the site would be revising its rules and policies in order to prevent such an occurrence from happening again in the future.
Stardock Systems expressed its obvious displeasure with the link to pirate its game on the official Dread Lords Web site, but the game's lead designer and Stardock head Brad Wardell took the time to tackle a few questions about the incident and copy protection in general for GameSpot.
GameSpot: There was a public apology made on behalf of StarForce by one of their mods on their forums. Have they contacted you to apologize directly?
Brad Wardell: I did receive today correspondence from Alan Gasanov of StarForce with an apology over the incident. We appreciate that. I don't think there was any sort of malicious intent. I've been in my share of forum "flame wars" over the years and it's easy to make a mistake. Obviously we were pretty unhappy about them linking to a list of warez torrents but we don't plan to pursue the matter.
GS: Why did Stardock opt not to use traditional industry-accepted forms of copy protection?
BW: It's only industry-accepted in the PC game industry--the industry that people are regularly saying is "doomed." Most of our business is in the application software market (the market that no one argues is "doomed"), and such copy protection measures are not used. I don't have to keep my Adobe Photoshop CD in the drive to use it.
We simply applied the PC application software model of IP protection to our games--release the game with no CD-based copy protection and include a unique serial number that they need to use in order to obtain updates.
What we do is take feedback from our customers and release free updates to our games. Since we have a database of every serial number that's been issued, we can control who has access to those updates. By releasing frequent, convenient, free updates, we reward people for buying the game.
GS: Have you had any positive or negative experience using programs like StarForce in your games?
BW: I don't really have any experience with StarForce. I have read about people having problems with such things but I suspect those problems have been exaggerated.
What other publishers do to protect their intellectual property is up to them. I simply don't [think] CD-based protection is particularly effective. Any copy protection system, in my opinion, should be focused on trying to increase sales--not stop piracy. The two aren't the same. Most people who pirate a software product would never have purchased it. It's pointless to waste time on those people. The people to focus on are the ones who might have bought your product or service but chose not to because it was easier to pirate it.
Most serious PC gamers have had cases where they've lost a CD or damaged it. They resent not being able to play the game because on top of the game using gigabytes of disk space...it's also treating their CD-ROM drive as an expensive dongle key.
As a result, the question is, how many legitimate gamers choose not to buy a game that has CD protection because they're on the fence and know that sooner or later, they'll probably lose that CD? For us, that's the underlying question--do we gain more sales from gamers who were on the fence but decided to buy the game because they didn't have to worry about losing/damaging a CD than we lost through piracy?
GS: Will this change your approach to copy protection in the future?
BW: Not at all. As I type this, EBGames has released their top-selling PC games from last week. Galactic Civilizations II was number one. So if piracy is such a menace, it's not apparently affecting us to the degree that some say it should.