May 1, 2013 at 12:55 PM ET
With just two employees, brothers Patrick and Daniel Klug, Greenheart Games is the spitting image of an independent game studio — passionate, frantically overworked and exceedingly vulnerable to online piracy. Lacking the funds to protect against intellectual property theft, the brothers came up with a unique way to teach pirates a lesson in its debut title, "Game Dev Tycoon."
Along with the $8 game's official release late last month, Greenheart also sent a "cracked" version of the game to sites frequented for illegal downloads. As the name "Game Dev Tycoon" implies, Greenheart's first title is a business simulator in the tradition of "SimCity" or "Rollercoaster Tycoon." Both versions of "Game Dev Tycoon" seemed identical, except for one key difference: People playing the pirated copy would eventually be onset by virtual pirates of their own.
"We are not wealthy and it's unlikely that we will be any time soon," wrote co-creator Patrick Klug in a blog post, "so stop pretending like we don't need your 8 dollars! We are just two guys working out butts off, trying to start our own game studio to create games which are fun to play."
In the cracked version, after a few hours of normal gameplay, players receive the following message, a dismal sales report:
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.
Pirate justice follows swiftly. Players's studios start to hemorrhage money, and any new games created become increasingly vulnerable to illegal downloading. Eventually, the entire game company goes bankrupt.
Klug wrote that he hoped the original take on anti-piracy measures would help show players who illegally downloaded games the personal and commercial toll that their actions take on the company. After all, as it turned out, the cracked version made up more than 93 percent of the game's downloads during its first few days on the market.
"Initially we thought about telling them their copy is an illegal copy," he wrote. "But instead we didn't want to pass up the unique opportunity of holding a mirror in front of them and showing them what piracy can do to game developers."
Some players didn't get the joke at first. Even though they'd illegally downloaded the game, they asked for help to fend off the pirates from the developer whose game they had stolen. Klug posted an irate "customer's" email on the company blog.
"Why are there so many people that pirate?" the pirate pleaded. "It ruins me!"
"As a gamer I laughed out loud: the IRONY!!!" Klug continued in the blog post. "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!"
Klug admitted that he was a frequent game pirate himself in the past, so he posted his rejoinder online as something of a personal plea to the thousands of people who downloaded his studio's game illegally. He said that he understood that certain people might not be able to afford the game or download it legally. But given the fact that he made his own game free of the pesky forms of digital rights management (DRM) that are usually justified by larger game publishers as anti-piracy measures, Klug didn't have much sympathy for pirates downloading the game simply for piracy's sake.
Klug told NBC News that since posting his rejoinder, he and his brother have received "a lot of positive responses" from players. Without going into specifics, he said that "quite a number of players who played the cracked version have bought our game now."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.