Playing the Piracy Card – Game Dev Tycoon

Playing the Piracy Card – Game Dev Tycoon

Guten Tag, alle.

I won’t start off this article with a question related to the subjects of this piece, because I’m certain those of you reading this know what this will entail. And I’m also certain you’ve seen at least one version of the articles reporting on Greenheart Games’ Day-1 experiment with piracy as well. This article is not one of those, I assure you; I think this situation of marketing by piracy deserves a deeper look than what the media has given it, sans a couple of sites that have raised questions about it.

The anti-piracy trap message in Game Dev Tycoon.

The anti-piracy trap message in Game Dev Tycoon.

As amusing as it may have looked for these two brothers to pull this marketing stunt, using bugged copies of their game to “hold a mirror up to the pirates”, there are several fallacies related to its execution and the response to it that made me question the legitimacy of this scenario.

To start, this game was, up until mid April this year, only available on the Windows 8 App Store and on their website for the same storefront; the 29th was the release date of the Mac and Linux versions. The reason I knew about this game before then was thanks to my family purchasing a new computer with Windows 8, and then spending an hour after setting it up flipping through the App Store.

After poking around the game’s site, I saw no plans by the devs to post the game on Gamestop Impulse, Indie City, The Humble Store, Beamdog, GamersGate, or any other service that deals with indie titles. Only a few posts talking about getting the game onto Greenlight via Steam and a button to buy the game from their website. So right from the start, this game was not being advertised well, despite all the venues out there for distribution.

Desura, the king of indie game distributors

Desura, the king of indie game distributors

I left a post asking the devs if they had plans to use any other digital distribution system to get the word out about their game. Their answer? “We will look into other forms of distribution too.” This was back in late March I should point out. Since then, I have not seen it go up anywhere else. Not even on Desura, the largest indie distribution client in existence right now, and one which offers alpha funding pay options if the devs choose that.

And then on the 29th of April, the news broke about the 93.6% piracy rate of the game, the bugged copies on The Pirate Bay, and the expected storm of responses ranging all over the map about what this meant for indie developers. It means a lot of things, but a high rate of piracy of a single indie title it certainly doesn’t. Why? Because these two brothers willingly uploaded their game to The Pirate Bay, just with a few lines of code that make the game unwinnable as time passed. In essence, they gave away software that had a DRM system akin to FADE, a system that drew a number of folks into the limelight to be laughed at.

 The ironic thing is you CAN research DRM in this game. And sue thieves.


The ironic thing is you CAN research DRM in this game. And sue thieves.

So I have to ask: Why was this called ‘piracy’ by the Greenheart devs and those who have since reported on this news? It was offered willingly, albeit with faked posts saying the game wasn’t bugged, and rigged to be unwinnable if it was played long enough. I refer you also to the fact that these two brothers, despite admitting to having code in both versions that tracks the number of copies being played and distributed, have not released any new numbers or metrics to back up this 93.6% piracy number after the media frenzy last week. Ubisoft has done the same thing as well, claiming their games had a 95% piracy rate but not releasing any metrics to back up those claims after the media covered their story.

So, why was Greenheart’s case called “piracy?” It was called piracy because this experiment was not about teaching pirates a lesson, as the devs mentioned in their post-experiment press release. It was called piracy because that word sparks sympathy and drives belief that an act of theft was committed; in this case, the implied loss of over three thousands possible sales. If you see an article showing the word “piracy” and then read a number like 93.6% percent, that is going to catch your eyes first and influence you more than any details related to the experiment itself.

And then we have the article they wrote about the experiment itself. Keep in mind that they did not, and have not, offered the game to any distributors outside of the Windows 8 app store before going to The Pirate Bay, and the game has been available since December 2012. (August 2012 if you’re talking about the preview build.) In the article about the piracy experiment, Patrick Klug, after saying he wasn’t mad at the people who pirated the game, said this in relation to the folks who could have given them $8 for a working copy: “We are not wealthy and it’s unlikely that we will be any time soon, so stop pretending like we don’t need your 8 dollars!”

While this experiment may have shown a high “piracy” rate for one day, it does not give the Greenheart devs a right to act as though they are owed for their work. Or the right to strawman every person who torrented, and still is torrenting, the bugged version with a possible spare $8. If anything, they’ve angered the ‘pirate’ community by setting them up to be laughed at if they questioned the version they got.

If they chose to use pirates as their biggest marketing vehicle instead of submitting their work to more publishing clients, then as far as I’m concerned, they had no right to mention the 93.6% piracy rate of their game; it comes with the venue they chose to use. Trying to prop up the results as newsworthy is hypocritical, and should call into question if their experiment was actually for the purpose they stated.

Now, these two brothers are far from the first indie team to use The Pirate Bay as a way to promote their game. For those of you who do not recall this news from Feburary, the two person team behind Anodyne, a Zelda-styled adventure game, also put their game up on The Pirate Bay. It was part of a three day promotion linked to the Humble Store, which was a “pay what you want” promotion.

From Anodyne’s The Promo Bay post

From Anodyne’s The Promo Bay post

According to the sound programmer Sean Hogan, because of the Pirate Bay promotion, their site traffic skyrocketed into the hundred thousands, sales of the game reached around $12,000 during the PWYW Humble sale, and the torrenters on TPB, among many others, submitted bug reports and helped promote their game via Twitter, Reddit and many other social networks. Certainly not a bad outcome from a website that is perceived so negatively, and how the Anodyne devs responded to this was far more positive than Greenheart. They thanked the many people who played their game, whether they bought it or not, and the game is now on multiple distributors, including Good Old Games.

Of course, what I’ve said so far is only half of the story regarding Game Dev Tycoon. After the news broke, I noticed a trend in the comments section of every website that was reporting the news: People were talking about the similarities between it and Game Dev Story. A title that, up until then, I didn’t know existed. I should point out however that, even before this piracy news broke, players of Game Dev Story who then played Game Dev Tycoon were drawing comparisons between the two and questioning how similar they were to each other.

Game Dev Story, as it appeared on PCs in Japan.

Game Dev Story, as it appeared on PCs in Japan.

Released 16 years ago on the PC in Japan, Game Dev Story was ported to the iOS and Android in 2010 by Kairosoft, a company that specializes in strategy and management games and has almost two dozen titles on both portable OS’s. From what I’ve played of both titles, Game Dev Tycoon is close enough in mechanical design to be called a rip-off, though not so much to be called a clone. While it does change a few things, those changes are not enough to call it a new product. In fact, they draw attention to the rest of the game and how much this title took from its inspiration.

While the Greenheart devs have admitted GDS did heavily influence GDT, as they are quick to remind those who draw criticism to their design decision, “the game was built from scratch.

I beg to differ in this regard. The HD looking character and environment graphics may indeed be new, and the code for the game may be new, but this is hardly enough to qualify for “from scratch.” Those words in conjunction mean you have put something together with little or no blueprint from which to follow, meaning the game should not look nor function so similarly to the title it was influenced by.

In fact, what wasn’t made from scratch are the things listed below that I’ve observed from my time playing these two games.

I’m aware of the argument that GDT is an iteration of this kind of sim rather than a rip-off, but that argument is not valid in this case. Although Game Dev Tycoon offers more options of customization than Game Dev Story does in some ways, it is working from the same design principle, shares many of the same formulas of judging and progression, and shares a lot of aesthetic similarities with Game Dev Story.

To further illustrate my point here, and because we’re talking about tycoon games, I’d like to take a minute to bring up some older management games for comparison: Chris Sawyer’s Rollercoaster Tycoon, Bullfrog’s Theme Park, and VelosiGames GameBiz series.

Bullfrog’s Theme Park

Bullfrog’s Theme Park

Let’s start with RCT and Theme Park first. You can easily glance at both of these games and notice immediate similarities. They both have you operating and managing an amusement park, they both let you design your park layout, certain rides, and set the prices of condiments/games, and they both involve the hiring of workers to maintain your park.

Chris Sawyer's Rollercoaster Tycoon

Chris Sawyer’s Rollercoaster Tycoon

However, what sets Rollercoaster Tycoon apart from Theme Park was RCT had a more robust rollercoaster designer system, and removed many of the systems related to finance in the game. The latter was a large part of the capitalist and world economies Bullfrog had set up to give players the ability to make money outside of running the park alone; your Theme Park would only generate revenue for you from entrance ticket sales, games of chance/skill, and food/drink vendors.

As such, in RCT you didn’t have to worry about the inflation rates and land taxes of the nations you built in, you had no options to buy and sell the stock of your company or others, you had no competitors to encourage competitive pricing or to buy-out, your workers would not go on strike if their pay wasn’t properly negotiated, and your food stall stocks would never run dry and make you buy more.

If RCT had been Theme Park 2, it would have been a clear case of bad streamlining; it would be too different from the original game and too many steps backwards in terms of what was offered to you. Because this was Chris Sawyer’s take on the park management idea however, it was working from a new standard; what he took away from Bullfrog’s game design in terms of playing the bank was replaced by a tighter focus on managing a single park and its immediate finances and concerns. This left you more time to watch your park as a functioning system and more time to create interesting rollercoasters.

This is not what Game Dev Tycoon does. It does not remove or replace the systems from GDS to form its own identity. It simply offers more options to play around with on top of ones that Game Dev Story created and adds a new coat of paint to the mix. As such, how you go about running a game studio, building these games, and managing your staff and finances does not vary much from what Game Dev Story offered.

GameBiz 2 - Main Management Screen

GameBiz 2 – Main Management Screen

Now I’d like to mention the GameBiz series from VelosiGames. If you have not heard of this series before, I don’t blame you. I didn’t either until a poster over on Ars Technica mentioned the name, although it is well worth a look. However, what I found when I looked on the website and played the first game was a development sim with so many numbers and figures to watch that, for a moment, you could suspend disbelief and believe you were in charge of a development firm for games that was working in the real world. This was helped by the lists of actual consoles, major game releases, and companies in the game. The option to play in real-time or by turns was another nice touch.

In the case of GameBiz, the first two games came out in 2004 and 2008, long before Kairosoft made Game Dev Story available for English speakers. If you compare these three games side-by-side, it becomes clear that while all they all have the same idea, and unfold in much the same way, only one of them is copying so wholly from another.

If Tycoon was built from scratch, why do two of these look so similar?

If Tycoon was built from scratch, why do two of these look so similar?

This is why a segment of gamers are suspicious of the design of Greenheart’s title; I do not blame them for thinking this way either. As far as I’m concerned, their criticisms are valid given the lack of real changes to the Game Dev Story design.

To those of you who have criticisms along these lines, I will leave you with this: Do not listen to the people who suggest playing GDT before expressing your opinions, or those who simply state that Game Dev Tycoon is the better or more involved game. It sounds obvious, I understand, but keep in mind that both of those statements are meant to distract from criticisms being raised or raise false doubt about dissent.

Instead, ask those people to back up their opinions and elaborate on them. If they truly believe that Game Dev Tycoon is not a rip-off of Game Dev Story then, like any college English or Business professor will tell you, they should be able to explain why and how.

I however will remain one of those people who, having collected my own thoughts on this subject, feel this game was a rip-off. One which I don’t intend to support.



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