"Game Dev Tycoon" from Greenheart Games is an unassuming little indie title that casts the player as an up-and-coming game developer, just like the two designers who made it. Yes, it's a video game about making video games. It's very meta.
But one day after its release, only 6 percent of players had bought the game through legitimate means: The rest had pirated it.
In order to give players a taste of how piracy really works, the developers uploaded their own " pirated " version as a torrent (a common way of sharing large files among many users) for illegal download. In the torrent version of "Game Dev Tycoon," no matter how much critical acclaim a new video game garnered, piracy would bankrupt the nascent company and cause the player to lose.
The market for video game consoles is in turmoil, but thanks to cheap downloadable titles and social games, the PC market has never been stronger. That isn't to say that PC gaming is some kind of idyllic paradise, though: Piracy rates are through the roof, especially for cheap, indie titles that players feel are a riskier investment than games from established franchises.
"How does piracy feel?" asked Patrick Klug, one of the two men behind Greenheart Games, in a blog post explaining the situation. "We didn't want to pass up the unique opportunity of holding a mirror in front [of pirates] and showing them what piracy can do to game developers." Rather than try to guilt players right away, the game allows pirates to sink a few hours of hard work into "Game Dev Tycoon" before it crushes their hopes and dreams.
"It seems that while many players play our new game, they steal it by downloading a [pirated] version rather than buying it legally," reads an in-game message, right after a player crafts a fan-favorite title that, by rights, should sell like hotcakes. "If players don't buy the games they like, we will sooner or later go bankrupt."
The joke was lost on many Internet scalawags. Many of the estimated 3104 illicit players quickly took to message boards to bemoan the fact that they could no longer make progress in "Game Dev Tycoon." In what can only be described as an astonishing lack of appreciation for irony, one poster commented: "Why are there so many people that pirate [my "Game Dev Tycoon" game]? It ruins me! … Not fair."
Not fair, indeed. [See also: 5 Hit Games Made on a Shoestring ]
"As a gamer [reading that post], I laughed out loud," wrote Klug. "However, as the developer, who spent over a year creating this game and hasn't drawn a salary yet, I wanted to cry."
The game costs $7.99, and is available on Windows, Mac and Linux. Greenheart Games even released a demo, so those on the fence could download and decide. In spite of its modest cost and accessible trial, the vast majority of players still decided that Greenheart's effort merited no money whatsoever.
"To the players who played the cracked version," Klug continued, "I'm not mad at you … To be fair, there are still individuals who either can't make a legal purchase because of payment issues or who genuinely cannot afford the game. I don't have a quarrel with you." Like many modern core gamers, Klug hates the trends towards shallow social games, free-to-play games with hidden costs and restrictive digital rights management on major titles. Pirating indie games, he argues, only makes those alternatives more appealing to developers.
Klug's story, however, may finish with a happy ending: Thanks to his novel method of combating piracy and an erudite blog post, so many gamers want to buy legitimate copies of the game that Greenheart's servers have temporarily gone down. Even so, other indie studios are rarely so lucky. If core gamers hate trends in mainstream gaming as much as they claim, maybe they should begin hating piracy as well.
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