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RPG Anvil: SPORPG?

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So I was thinking about piracy and DRM the other day, valid concerns for any indie PC developer. Piracy of straight-up PC games is rampant nowadays, even more so than when I was a kid copying games from my friends. Indie developers in particular don't have the resources to implement complex DRM schemes, patrol the Internet looking for readily available pirated versions, or sue anyone who does pirate the games.

Now, I won't get into the morality of piracy or anything along those lines, but I will say that, as a developer, I want people who play my games to pay for them. So, I had the brainstorm: MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs) eliminate the piracy problem by moving all game logic onto _their_ servers. Why not do the same thing for a single-player game, and introduce the SPORPG (Single Player Online RPG)?

Now, there are various levels to which one could take this (hairbrained?) scheme. I could keep all game logic, levels, and everything on my server, and implement the client as just a dumb rendering client. This approach would virtually eliminate piracy; only someone who duplicates (or actually breaks into my server and steals) my logic code, levels, etc, can pirate the game. But, now I've got to deal with a lot of the MMORPG issues, like network lag, synchronization, etc.

A simpler design would be to treat my server as something like a secure file server. The game logic is run on the client, but whenever the player enters a new area, or perhaps even when he encounters a new type of creature (or whatever), the client goes to the server and asks for the level file and any associated assets (like graphics). Naturally the server would require a valid login, and could perform security checks like making sure a bunch of people aren't using the same login.

I like this simpler design, because it really wouldn't be too tough to implement. Piracy would be possible; if the pirate retrieves all of the levels and assets from the server, he could then hack the client code to have a non-online version of the game. However, if he missed some parts of the game (in a non-linear RPG, this is entirely possible), his hacked version would be gimpy; a player exploring parts of the game that he missed would get a broken experience.

So, from the player's point of view, positives:

  • The game has basically implemented auto-patching of game content; the client would just grab new level and asset files as needed. Bugs in the client executable would still need some sort of patch program to run, though.

  • The player's games can get saved online; no worry of lost files or whatever. In fact, as long as the player can remember his account, he can switch between computers, with seamless game saves.

  • The demo version of the game would be the same as the full version; all the player needs to do is create (and pay for) an account and he can access the full content, right from within the game.

  • I could easily implement community features, like online, player-generated hints, online high-score lists, chat, whatever. Since we're online, it's just a matter of how much code to I want to write.


Negatives:

  • The player has to be online to play. In some ways, this really sucks. But maybe in this day and age, it doesn't suck too much; isn't anyone who is going to pay money for an indie-RPG likely to have a decent Internet connection?

  • Level loading could be pretty slow if the game is trying to send a bunch of content. We can keep the files pretty small, and be careful about not re-sending files, but there is an issue here.


Oh well, just a brainstorm I had. Not sure if I'll do anything with it or not.
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From the point of view of the consumer, the big negative is that their ability to play the game depends on the operation of your server. If your server is down, or worse, shut down for good, then they can't play their single player game.

There's also the question of trust. If you're a paying customer, you don't want to be treated like a criminal. There's a certian amount of DRM you're willing to tolerate, but past a point it becomes too much of a hassle. I'd be really wary about buying a single player game like this, much like the whole kefuffle over the Spore and Mass Effect DRM.

If you were going to go down this path, you'd really need to play up some benefits that you just can't get in a regular single player game, such as constantly changing content.

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Also, what about those without internet connections, it would suck if you couldnt play your single player game because you didnt have an internet connection.

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Please also remember that even something as complicated as WOW can be reverse-engineered (google "WOW public server" if you don't believe me). However, an indie game is less likely to suffer from this, just through obscurity.

Also, a good question to ask might be: is entering the (massively complicated & expensive) realm of MMOs worth the payoff of reducing piracy?

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Another thing to think about: As an indie developer, would you even want to fight piracy? Of course the ideal case would be if every player paid for their copy but even so you can't count every pirated copy as a lost sale. The way I see it the major difficulty for an indie game to bring in sales is getting exposure. You don't have the big publishers' marketing machines at your disposal so you'll have to rely on players talking about your game. Pirates may not be paying but they spread the word as any other player. Even if only a fraction of your player base are paying customers you might very well end up with more sold copies than if you had managed to shut pirates out.

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Original post by Trapper Zoid
From the point of view of the consumer, the big negative is that their ability to play the game depends on the operation of your server. If your server is down, or worse, shut down for good, then they can't play their single player game.

There's also the question of trust. If you're a paying customer, you don't want to be treated like a criminal. There's a certian amount of DRM you're willing to tolerate, but past a point it becomes too much of a hassle. I'd be really wary about buying a single player game like this, much like the whole kefuffle over the Spore and Mass Effect DRM.

If you were going to go down this path, you'd really need to play up some benefits that you just can't get in a regular single player game, such as constantly changing content.


Yeah, I totally agree; I (or whoever) would have to make sure that the online-only aspect had significant benefits, and very importantly, that the players (and potential players) were well aware of these benefits. This can't be presented as a DRM solution; instead, it needs to be presented as an integrated online-only game. As you say, constant (free) updates to the content would be a reasonably compelling benefit.

As for your comment on trust, that is a huge idea, especially for an indie. It's hard to have the credibility that your game server is going to be around for years for people to play, if no-one has heard of you.

Anyways, good points, all.

Thanks,
Geoff

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Original post by Swattkidd
Also, what about those without internet connections, it would suck if you couldnt play your single player game because you didnt have an internet connection.


I'll answer this in two parts. First, anyone who is going be savvy enough to find an indie RPG, and then pay $30 for it, is probably someone who also has a decent Internet connection. I don't think you're giving away much of the market by requiring the player to have access to the Internet.

But then there's the corresponding point. What if the player wants to play without using his dial-up connection? Or play in an airplane, or on a bus? He's screwed. So that's a definite negative. The devil's advocate might argue that how often does someone want to play a game on the bus anyways? But I don't really have an answer as to how realistic that argument is.

Thanks,
Geoff

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It would be a lot easier to accept the online aspect if it had a definite "online game" vibe to it. How can you do this without changing fundamental gameplay concepts?

How about this: new content is downloaded from server, and while in the main game world and cities, you get to see and chat with other players. No actual interaction though; no collision detection, no PvP, nothing. It's a little more than a glorified chat room. Then in actual adventure areas the players would be alone. For the players it would still look like an online game, so no objections to server-based DRM; but for you it would still mean the minimal amount of effort on online features.

Also, about the downloadable content: maybe have an ID or checksum system in place so that the client can keep content on cache and only download content that has changed? (To reduce traffic.) Or would this make hacking the client that much easier?

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Original post by LachlanL
Please also remember that even something as complicated as WOW can be reverse-engineered (google "WOW public server" if you don't believe me). However, an indie game is less likely to suffer from this, just through obscurity.


Interesting. Are the WOW public servers running the actual Blizzard areas, or do people have to author their own stuff? If it's the second, I dunno, that's probably not so bad; presumably Blizzard's highly paid professional designers make better levels and areas than Joe Random Internet Guy. As an indie, if someone authors really cool levels that work with my game, heck, I could probably just buy the levels from the guy and sell them as an expansion or something. :-)

Quote:
Also, a good question to ask might be: is entering the (massively complicated & expensive) realm of MMOs worth the payoff of reducing piracy?


As I outlined in my post, you can avoid _some_ of the complexity by running most of the game logic on the client, and by not supporting multi-player. But you're right, there is definitely added complexity; it better be there for a good reason!

Thanks,
Geoff

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Quote:
Original post by staaf
Another thing to think about: As an indie developer, would you even want to fight piracy? Of course the ideal case would be if every player paid for their copy but even so you can't count every pirated copy as a lost sale. The way I see it the major difficulty for an indie game to bring in sales is getting exposure. You don't have the big publishers' marketing machines at your disposal so you'll have to rely on players talking about your game. Pirates may not be paying but they spread the word as any other player. Even if only a fraction of your player base are paying customers you might very well end up with more sold copies than if you had managed to shut pirates out.


I totally see your point. I'd rather address this issue by offering a generous demo; for a 40-hour RPG, maybe 5 or 10 hours of the content for free. Enough to stand on its own as a game, but leave enough out for the hard-code players to buy the full version. But I think there's a definite argument that your method might work even better.

Thanks,
Geoff

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Great idea! But you're too late i'm afraid. Steam from Valve is just like what your describing. :)

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It's suing time!! [embarrass]

Nah just kidding. So there ya have it, proof of concept! It might be a good model after all. [smile]

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Original post by Vimy
Great idea! But you're too late i'm afraid. Steam from Valve is just like what your describing. :)


How about that? I didn't know Steam required you to be online all the time, but that's a good datapoint, that users actually will put up with it.

Geoff

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