Release Day, Kickstarter, and DRM

Release Day!

Monday Dec 15th was release day. Many people have downloaded the digital version of Approaching Infinity, and the boxed version is traveling all over the world right now…including a few copies to me. I can’t wait to hold that in my hand! I keep saying I’m gonna wear it around my neck…we’ll see what I do.

I suppose if I had thought about it, I would have realized just how much work release day would be. Due to constraints by my publisher, Shrapnel Games, I wasn’t able to release the game to my kickstarter backers and early access folks until 6am Monday. So I didn’t *DO* anything about it until Monday morning. Big mistake. I could have been a lot better prepared. As it is, I am about 20% done with sending almost 500 emails with download links and serial numbers. Sorry everyone. When I’m done writing this, I’ll get right back to it.


Or “Digital Rights Management”, refers to steps taken with digital media to deter illegal re-distribution. DRM has been used for decades, and is a major component of Steam, the biggest on-line game thing ever. It is not unique to AI. I did not even consider DRM for Approaching Infinity until about two months before release, and that was at the publisher’s request. But why?

Approaching Infinity represents over a year of my blood, sweat, and tears (figuratively, of course, I’m a man, dammit!). It also represents my aching back and my failing eyes, as well as my personal triumphs in procedural generation and making something fun and engaging! Further, a publisher who has been in the business for 15 years, and released one of my favorite games, saw enough promise in MY GAME to commit a sizable financial investment into getting this game out there. Neither I nor Shrapnel Games sees one dime, except through sales. My dimes are significantly pie-charted until we cover costs. Finally, regardless of how awesome it is,  Approaching Infinity is a niche game; there is a limited market.

All of these factors led to the institution of a DRM system. It consists of a unique serial number and a one-time on-line connection. Once you register the game on your computer, you never have to do anything about it again. And you get multiple unique installs. But it’s not unlimited.

A free demo of AI is available. This is quite enough to decide whether the game is for you. If you like the demo, you’re going to love the full game. The demo exposes about 2% of the available content. Imagine that. There is about 50 times as much STUFF out there, that you haven’t seen yet. And that content is only going to grow, as the game will be updated multiple times in the future. And when the modding community gets going, we’re going to see stuff that even I never imagined!

I am going to leave you with something that I was only just made aware of: The art (by Aaron Wu) for the soundtrack to Approaching Infinity:



10 thoughts on “Release Day, Kickstarter, and DRM

  1. Yes, your concerns and arguments are understandable, but also hardly new. People have heard these from several sides for a long time, yet there seems to be no connection between DRM and higher sales/lower piracy. What there is, though, is disgruntled customers venting their anger on messageboards about DRM shenanigans. Especially when you are dealing with a niche market, you want your fans to be faithful and loyal – that happens via mutual goodwill and not by telling them that they have to take a backseat to pirates. Jeff Vogel, for example, changed his games from requiring registration for decades to DRM-free because of that.

    The fallacy behind everything is that pirates would buy the games, if they could not pirate them. This has never been proven, and for good reason: Pirates are often underage, with limited finances. Many pirates also hail from poorer countries (e.g., Brazil, Nigeria) and so on. Rarely is a pirate a grown person in a business suit sitting in front of their shiny PC and saying to themself “Hmm, I could well buy this but will not, since I feel particularly evil today” while twirling their mustache.

    Steam and AAA publishers should not be considered as a model for indies, simply because they deal with a different market and have – especially in the case of Steam – been able to build a monopoly. Their strategies are built on heavy marketing and impulse buying; returning customers and genre aficionados are only a fraction of the populace they cater to.

    Like I said – people are willing to support indies, support you with their money for a job well done. And Approaching Infinity is certainly a job well done. Knowing that the developer does not trust and inconveniences the customer up-front does nothing but destroy that goodwill, as it did in my case. This might be an important factor, it might also be not, depending on how numerous this particular niche is.

    If you have the time, consider reading the following short but informative piece from a fellow indie dev on the matter:

    I simply cannot see how draconian DRM can do anything but harm and have seen it do so numerous times in the past, yet rarely deter piracy and when it did, no considerable sale increase happened (Lords of the Fallen and the new Dragon Age are two recent examples – both financial flops).

    Still, I wish you the best and hope that this will also be a financial success for you.

    • The above comment is obviously well thought-out, so I approved it.
      Personally, I have never had a problem entering a serial number.
      I mostly buy boxed games, and that’s what you do…

      When the publisher said, “Hey, let’s get some copy protection on there”,
      I said “ok, I think I can do that.”
      I saw it as an interesting challenge.

      I read the article that you linked (found a more detailed one from there),
      and the gist of it is: with “digital goods” there is “infinite inventory”,
      and you don’t lose anything quantifiable when someone pirates your game.
      I can understand the arguments in that article.
      I wish we had looked into the ramifications of DRM , instead of just
      treating it as “one more thing to get done.”.

      Still, it’s just a serial #, and a one-time internet connection.
      It was never meant to offend anyone.

      • I see where you come from, especially the “it’s just a serial” part.

        I read through my message again and realize that it might have read a bit confrontational. That was not my intent. I am disappointed in myself that I did not take my own advice re. preorders but I try to not get offended over the Internet. But I have been doing business and playing games for a long time now, so I thought I’d offer some (personally motivated, I admit) informed and well-intentioned advice on the matter.

        What I was also getting at was looking at it purely from a business perspective (cost vs. benefit):
        You want to fulfill publisher requirements, you want people to buy your games, and you do not want to deal with customer service issues unless you have to. In that situation, I would ask myself the following questions:
        -Do I want the average Joe to simply download my game and share it with everyone he wants to? No.
        -Do I want to deal with messages from customers who bought my game and might or might not have legitimate need for additional activations?
        Absolutely not.

        Your game has only been out for two days and there is already a post by someone who would have loved to install the game on all five of his machines. Sure, right now it is as easy as saying “Well, ok, I can make an exception for you”, but I would not want to deal with that on a regular basis. Because I then ask myself “What’s the gain?” – and I do not see any. Even AAA publishers, who have a lot more resources to strongarm their userbase, don’t do limited activations much anymore, because the potential payoff is simply not worth the hassle. Limited activations do the same as a one-time key with unlimited activations. They deter the average Joe from uploading your game somewhere and both won’t stop crackers from eventually circumventing your DRM. With limited activations, however, you have additional work with no perceived gain. I would not want to decide for everyone if they had valid reasons for additional activations, neither would I want to discuss with them why they cannot backup their legally bought copy. I simply see no gain in that, again, from a purely cost-gain-perspective. Plus, not explicitly or implicitly imposing restrictions on said customers is also a way of building good relations, trust, and loyalty. If I want my users to behave like adults (which implies, among other things, to not pirate my software) I try to treat them as such.

        Also: goodwill. I am not talking about kissing the customer’s feet and treating them like kings or anything. But goodwill benefits both sides. Sometimes (more often that we like) you get to the point in a software support cycle that one of your updated breaks something horribly, which wasn’t caught during testing. You will then get an inbox full of messages and an overworked helpdesk. The content of these messages, though, will depend on the built goodwill and be either a “I am disappointed but trust that this will be resolved soon” or a “Your software sucks, I demand a refund right now”. This is actually my take home message from the other article: Piracy will not automatically result in a lost sale but a refund will.

        For indies, word of mouth is important. You want your users to talk positively about your game, you want them to show it to others. They do that, if they have made positive experiences. These positive experiences can also come from a purely customer relations standpoint, i.e., simply how they feel they are treated. They might tell their friends about this cool space exploration roguelike that they should definitely try. Or they might tell them about that overpriced, DRM-ridden prospector-clone that they are super-angry about. Same game, two very different perspectives. This might sound silly on the surface, but GOG have built their whole business model on that principle and are quite successful with it, from what I can tell (though I am personally not a big fan of GOG, since their technical side is sorely lacking).

        When it comes to DRM and you absolutely must have it, then I think a minimalistic approach is a sound path to take. Personally, I have always been fond of on-/offline keys. These are unique, allow you to activate and fully use the product offline, while requiring online authentication for online-only features (leaderboards, etc.) or simply check for duplicate keys, once your machine connects to the Internet.

        That way you do not have to deal with activation requests, you fulfill the publisher’s requirements, people can back up their games and will not complain, and simply uploaded (but not cracked) games can be traced back to the person who initially bought them (since the keys are still unique). Best of both worlds, as I see it. Star Wraith Games have implemented that for Evochron Mercenary, and I have rarely seen complaints. I am sure, there are other examples, but this is the first that came to my mind.

        Bottom line: Please take this as the friendly piece of advice it is meant to be. I know that no one ever thinks of everything and piracy and DRM is unfortunately a delicate and not well-understood field, which is partially also due to DRM-companies benefitting from the unrealistic worldview they are propagating. But I’d recommend to at least consider implementing a slightly different authentication system down the line – it should still be possible to do so via updates and save everyone a lot of headaches. Thank you for reading and I genuinely wish you success with Approaching Infinity!

  2. Argh,

    You have made some good points here. But you are not exactly looking at it from our perspective as a publisher — and as the publisher of Approaching Infinity.

    We did not put in a activation process because we thought we would get the pirates to buy the game. We, at Shrapnel Games, know that pirates don’t buy their games. They are just like spammers; spammers do not pay for advertising. But, just because pirates are not going to buy your game if you stop them from pirating, that does not mean you should let them pirate it. Our feeling is that it is wrong and we should do what we can to stop the pirates, or at least slow them down. It is not their software to do with as they wish. It is more about ethics than money. And our developers should expect us to support their work product in every way possible.

    One of the reasons that got us thinking about the whole activation process, was when a friend of my family said he bought a game that he liked so much that he made a copy for a friend and another copy for his brother. I said, you really shouldn’t pirate software. His response was, oh, I didn’t pirate the game, I just made a copy for a couple of people, I didn’t post the game on the internet or anything. Some people are pirates and know it, while others are pirates and don’t even realize it.

    Another issue you raise where you are off base from Shrapnel Games reality is with support. You infer that DRM will increase your overall support, costing a publisher more money. We have found just the opposite. Our older titles are all activation free and we get many, many more support requests on these products than we got with Dominions, which had an activation process. We use support ticket software which allows us to track the support request, what they are about and who they come from and many more dynamics.

    Once we noticed that Dominions was getting far fewer support requests, we sat down and finally figured this out. When people would contact our support center we would just try to help the person. We didn’t vet them in any way. We started asking everyone for their order number. If they did not any longer have their order number, we would ask for other info that would allow us to look up their order. What we found was that over half of all support requests were coming from people who couldn’t verify their purchase of our game. Interesting. So, because Dominions had an activation key, we found a way to be more efficient with you support by not offering support to people who had pirated the game. Of course we still have to deal with these folks to vet them, but it is not quite as bad as offering them support. And by having an easy activation process we are assuming that we will not have to vet as many pirates. Time will tell, but that was what we found with Dominions.

    DRM is a sticky issue. We will monitor how things go and see how people react. What is in place is a very simple process that most people will only have to do once and then they can forget it. Hopefully people will understand.

    Thanks for your input. It is always nice to read peoples opinions of things that can be controversial.

    • Hi, everyone, I got my games in the mail today. Here is a link to my biased, unprofessional “unboxing” video:

      I thought it would be a cool event in my life to document. It’s a nice little video with a healthy dose of my sense of humor, as well as a special surprise guest 😉

    • Thanks for the reply – your explanations are much appreciated.

      I see your point, though do not quite see how the activation limit solves the tech support issue. I think there are more elegant ways to solve this, such as Matrix Games requiring registering for beta patches and tech support, but not for playing or stable patches. Or Paradox, where you register each individual game on the forums, thus granting you tech support for that particular title. These measures are different in that they do not impact the game itself – a user can choose to register or not but will always be able to fully play the game.

      At the end of the day, this is still telling the user a “Sorry, but we have to inconvenience you because pirates. And who knows, if we don’t nanny you, you might even become one of them.” This is hyperbole, of course, but it illustrates well that the user essentially gets an inferior product for reasons that they cannot control.

      That is a different issue than the private copies thing, though, and on that one I fully agree with you. That has always been a muddy issue, not helped by a sometimes inconsistent legal foundation. In Germany, for instance, giving private copies of entertainment media to family and close friends is perfectly legal – with the exception of software, i.e., movies: yes, games: no. Though I wonder if it is worth fighting these people, since they do generate positive word of mouth, at the very least. Plus, for each person making copies for friends, you might have one such friend who then decided to get his own copy because he liked the game so much. After all, the the whole argument only works, if all these people who would have otherwise gotten the game for free would buy it. How will they buy it if they don’t learn of its existence? What if the person who would otherwise have bought it and also given it to some of its friends does not buy it at all because of the DRM? Then you do not even get that one sale.

      I am not saying that this is the case, but there are many possible scenarios and we tend to see the one we want to see. At the end of the day one needs to make sure to offer a superior paid product to the one that would be gotten through illegitimate means. With this kind of DRM I do not think that is the case.

      Thanks for the responses and explanations, everyone – it was good to have an informed discussion on this topic and I think it will also help others to see and understand Shrapnel’s stance on the issue.

  3. Well Argh,

    We will just have to agree to disagree.

    I won’t even go into using your forums to run a business. Forums should be for the fans to discuss things.

    How is entering a one time code an inconvenience. You can even copy and paste it! I would think opening the package or unzipping the files would be more of an inconvenience. An inferior product because of a one-time code? That is an interesting way of looking at things. But based on that thought process, only games freely distributed to everyone are superior?

    The private copies thing is still pirating. We make a demo and it is free. If you can’t say to your friend, “I just bought this game and it is awesome. Head over to this website and download the demo. See if you like it.” No? The only way to generate a new sale is to allow them to freely pirate the game? That is a old take on a marketing strategy – it is called DRM free. We’ve tried that one, and it really isn’t that good at generating new sales.

    Your comment, “At the end of the day one needs to make sure to offer a superior paid product to the one that would be gotten through illegitimate means.” Isn’t that what we are doing with Approaching Infinity. Pirate it and we will make playing it difficult. Buy it and life is good.

    These types of discussions are always interesting. The reality is that pirating is illegal. Defending your investment in a game, both from the publisher’s and developer’s perspective, should not be considered as not trusting your fans. Any more than a retail clothing store’s use of anti-theft tags should not be considered as not trusting your loyal customers.

    • Well I think you are very off key in many things. I’m someone who has worked in the gaming industry a long time like you and have been in contact with many retailers over the years due to the nature of my work in the industry. Today was the first time in a long while where I wanted to buy a game and just couldn’t justify doing so due to how you present purchase options on your site which actively stopped me at every turn.

      Let me explain. I am someone who plays games similar to AI and have really wanted this game for a while. I have both a Mac laptop as well as assorted windows based things where I play games like Dwarf Fortress and ToME almost 50-50 on those two platforms. Today I was in the purchase process for AI and noticed I would not get both Mac and PC versions for the one price, which is both unique and unheard off in today’s digital environment, but also a dealbreaker for me since I do not want to buy the game for 80 dollars. But wait! You also sell a physical copy. While I don’t use physical copies of games anymore I thought what the heck and decided to check out that option….but that carries a whopping 26.50$ shipping charge to Sweden, which feels quite high. So my options are 1) get it on only one of my platforms 2) pay double the amount or 80$ 3) Pay 68$ for a physical copy which I don’t want nor need 4) Opting out and just not buy the game / wait for it to come out on a more sensible modern retail platform.

      As you’ve guessed I opted for 4, which saddens me because I really want to support the developer and not to mention that I really wanted to play the game.

      And this is outside any of you DRM scheme things which I frankly think are dated and not something I can support either. Data has clearly shown that DRM schemes didn’t work and nearly all publishers have long since steered away from them…plus they create a relationship of mistrust and unnecessary overhead between the retailer and the consumer. Sorry but this feels like purchasing something on the internet in 2002. E-commerce has moved a lot since then in the gaming industry and your site actively stopped me at every turn to get the game I wanted. I hope you change your platform to be more reasonable and in line with what consumers have come to expect.

      Best Regards,

      • Hello Binni,

        I was in the exact same position as you were ( PC/Mac user residing outside of the United States – I even contacted Shrapnel about the Mac/PC issue). I have also a lot of expenses and too few income, so far as I spent as far as 20 bucks for a game a single time in the past 15 years. Suffice to say I was hesitating to purchase Approaching Infinity, even after playing extensively the demo. It is after I read some very sensitive words about the game from someone (Waltorious, to not name him) on his blog that I made up my mind.
        Although I cherish my principles and hate to think sending my money this way might comfort a publisher in its (wrong, in my personal opinion) ways, this game’s purchase has been to me the best, single purchase in a very, very, very long time.
        I am actually sad I hesitated so long because of logical reasons and my principles, and also, in my case, because of my fear and despise of DRM and limited activations. If the demo resonated with you, I think you owe it to yourself to play the full game.

        I decided to pick the Windows version and install it on my PC laptop and on my Mac under Wine. As feared by most in this thread, I somehow managed to bust all of my 3 activations in the process – but it works fine under emulation (excepting for the music cutting off after a single track, but there are alternatives).

        Anyhow, this wall of text to just state that, even if I cannot tell anyone what 35 euros might be worth to them (to me, at least, it represented a lot), if you think this game is for you, I would suggest that you do consider it again, even beyond all the hassle. It is truly something special – as you can tell from my poorly assembled words, Approaching Infinity might have been reaching for the stars but it surely reached to my heart 😉


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