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Norman Barrows

How to time bomb a beta?

80 posts in this topic


as a side note, what we all really need to worry about is what we don't know how to do that will achieve somebody's hard earned dollars. that's the only thing you really need to worry about in game development, is what you don't know how to do. and there's tons! code, graphic, audio, design, writing, marketing, business, etc.

 

As I am learning smile.png

 

Sorry if I sounded snarky - I reread my posts and I could've worded them a lot better.

 

My strength is coding (math major - set theory / abstract side). Naturally when I went looking for a game engine I swore I'd only look at ones where I had source code access. Then I saw finished games being sold with more than a few good reviews in a genre of game I enjoy... So now I get to script in Ruby. But I think long-term it's probably the best choice I could have made because it's forcing me to spend my time on all the 'other stuff' that goes into a game.

 

I'm sure I'll see a thing or three differently once I'm on the other side of a successful release.

I do hope DRM isn't one of them though.

 

As an aside, somewhat ironically it's the 'bug-free' thing that is closing one of those portals: Big Fish tests the hell out of the games they sell, and RPG's just take too long comparatively for them to go through. Thankfully, Steam has opened up quite a bit since I started (that was before Greenlight). And if all game companies made their DRM as unobtrusive and easy to deal with as Big Fish I might think differently about it as well - crippleware and the assumption that I'm a criminal along with some not so nice side effects on my PC have really soured me to it, though.

 

Edit: As for game popularity - Torchlight sold over a million copies within four months of release. I would think that would make a large enough title to be 'on the radar'.

Edited by Mouser9169
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Did you consider asking a lawyer to write a NDA, snail mail 2 copies to each beta tester to verify where they are, wait until they mail one signed copy back, then mail them the CD including different hidden embedded unique id numbers? I would think people would be deterred from cracking it if they know they are known. Finding and removing the ids would probably need at least two people to collaborate then.

That could be combined with online password checking on update/game start and if you find it on a cracker site you can check the id, block the person and make them fear of being sued.

When the beta ends you can just take down the authentication server and it stops working (until its cracked).

 

That may be less work than coding the ultimate DRM yourself and you would never be safe from pirating anyways.

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I can certainly get where you're coming from Norman, I'm sure its quite the gut-shot to put so much time and effort into something only to have it essentially stolen and passed off freely. Even more if that act cost you what it has, or you rely on that income.

 

My own personal take is that the reality of that situation being what it is, you simply have to accept it to be in the business of making certain kinds of games today -- Essentially any one-time-purchase-game without an online component is highly susceptible to being cracked and becoming someone's warez; reason being that after the initial crack there's no community to interact with and no check-in points at which to catch them and deny them further play. I'm not saying to not make those kinds of games, but I am saying that you have to be aware of the fact that it really limits your options to "strongly encourage" your own remuneration.

 

To a certain extent, this actually affects the way I think about game design -- in as much as I don't particularly plan to make any games in which I can't have some kind of on-going engagement with my players, or any game in which the 'box price' is my only revenue; the catch, really, is to provide on-going, reciprocal value between yourself and players. There's a number of options here -- you can have some kind of in-game economy between yourself and players, or between players, and which might not have anything at all to do with them spending real money. Social-media integration, or player profiles/stats like Battlefield or Halo, leaderboards, friends, services around your game. Get them to engage you in an ongoing, connected basis opens up a lot more possibilities.

 

Indulging in an analogy, my approach to the problem is more like Aikido than say, Tae Kwon Do -- Instead of trying to defeat the attackers with direct counter-attacks, think about redirecting their natural energies and tendencies in a way that produces a victorious outcome for yourself. Sure, maybe it doesn't feel as good as simply dominating your opponent with your own might, but if a more-subtle approach produces effectively the same result, then its all the better in business.

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any protection will ultimately depend on 3 system calls: get system time, get file time, and read sector. if those calls can found relatively easily, then its the code that uses them that must be obfusticated.

Self modifying code can indeed obfuscate those calls.

But most DRM approaches focuses on looking if the exe binary has been tampered. Multiple checksums at random events to verify that the exe is still intact to the one you sent (and these are much harder to spot because reading a file is alsoto read game data).
If the checksum fails, the exe has been tampered, possibly to circumvent the timebomb. Just, don't pop up a message saying "THIEF!". The checksum could also fail because the legit user has a virus that infected your binary.
Just stop the gameplay and display a courtesy pop up that this copy is from a beta and that he is playing past the expiration date, and may contain bugs, etc; with a link to buy the final version.

An innocent user may unknowingly get a circumvented version of your game, and a system like this can help you convert him into a paying customer.
A guilty user will just look for a more recent crack fixed (where all your DRM schemes have already been broken).
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Why do people still buy CD's when they could download the music for free?
 

 

because by and large you can't DL cd quality audio, just tinny lossy mp3's. if you want the real McCoy, you gotta ante up the bucks.

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and if I see Origen or Steam I put it back.

 

I heard that!

 

i used to have a very poor internet connection. the steam client update was an 87 meg un-resumable DL that timed out after about 15 seconds. i had to change ISPs before i could DL skyrim or simcity4. and the SIMs is 1.5 MONTHS of bandwidth! ive done about 1 gig so far.

 

i also hate the way steam goes into an update DL  when i try to launch skyrim sometimes if i'm connected. "i dont want to update steam! i want to play skyrim godammit!". just makes me want to shoot the monitor! <g>.

 

experiences like these are what have soured me on the whole e-delivery promise, and "ET phone home" DRM.

 

and what really sucks is that the internet is still too fricking slow to run a real god damned simulation. so server side solutions are out if you want to play something more than a mere game.

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I'm sure I'll see a thing or three differently once I'm on the other side of a successful release.
I do hope DRM isn't one of them though.

 

don't count on it!   its more difficult for games to provide continuous significant content and gameplay improvements, than it is for apps to provide significant new features to prompt users to buy the new version once the old one is cracked/hacked. and with game development success will come copy protection issues if the game size / game price / and or glory of cracking the game warrants cracker attention. IE the more expensive, bigger, and popular the game, the more likely it is to be a target.

 

probably the only way to make money in games without worrying about drm is to sell really cheap games in really mass volumes. or games for markets where piracy is harder due to the market's limited size.

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Edit: As for game popularity - Torchlight sold over a million copies within four months of release. I would think that would make a large enough title to be 'on the radar'.

 

there are two formulas at work:

 

1. the cracker's formula:

"how much glory is there? they only charge $15, can't be much of  a game. and they don't even bother with drm. probably so shitty there'd be no glory even if it had drm at twice the popularity and price point. zero points for cracking uncool games. lots of points for cracking cool games that everyone wants that aren't cracked. (think nba2K or tiger woods cool and popular)."

 

2. the end user's formula:

"how much more do i get, and for how many dollars, than i already have now with this cool file i just downloaded for FREE!"

 

as i said before, small cheap games are a dime a dozen these days. you have to try to build something big like skyrim before you stand out from the crowd.

 

i've personally never heard of torchlight, although i have heard of games like skyrim, call of duty (what is it  version 27 now?), black ops, etc. THATS where the glory is for crackers, with big games like that, not one of the 10,000+ sub $20 games you find on steam. and yes, Caveman will definitely cost more than $20. price will most likely start at $30.  The previous versions 1.0 thru 1.3, released between 2000 and 2003 were priced between $30 and $35 for a single user license.

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I would think people would be deterred from cracking it if they know they are known.

 

haven't you ever burned a copy of a registered program for  friend or relative that had your registration info in it?

 

i don't think any testers will try to crack the beta expiration date.  but its possible that the beta might get out on the web. 

 


That could be combined with online password checking on update/game start

 

no "ET phone home " solutions allowed. too intrusive. too exclusionary. not everyone had unlimited broadband.  "no internet connection required" is a design constraint of the software's specification.

 

definitely doesn't make my job any easier!

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My own personal take is that the reality of that situation being what it is, you simply have to accept it to be in the business of making certain kinds of games today -- Essentially any one-time-purchase-game without an online component is highly susceptible to being cracked and becoming someone's warez

 

i have a saying:

 

"I'm not in the business of selling games, I'm in the business of selling keydiscs!"

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display a courtesy pop up that this copy is from a beta and that he is playing past the expiration date, and may contain bugs, etc; with a link to buy the final version.

 

yes, something like that is the plan.  the program will need to be clearly marked as beta with info on how to get the full game.

 

as for the DRM methods, its occured to me that i may not want to go into too many details. if i were a cracker, say a year from now, thinking about taking a stab at this new game Caveman, the first thing i'd do would be a google search to find out what i could about it.  and low and behold! what do i find? all these posts on gamedev about building the game! including threads related to DRM!

 

otoh, i would very much like to discuss the design with known members (such as yourself) in a more private and secure forum. 

 

i HAVE figured out that its the exe, moreso than the memory image, whose integrity i need to worry about. if the exe is ok, the memory should be too - barring realtime tampering. but its mods to the exe that circumvent the beta expiration that i'm concerend with now. later i'll be concerned with mods that circumvent the keycd check.

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Here's a list of DRM-free games. Take a gander through there and consider how many of them you recognize, how many of them have been profitable.

 

and consider how many aren't big or aren't new, or don't have that large a market.

 

there's not a single current AAA pc title there. assasin's creed 1 was about it. if they can get a few bucks for the old version on a "marginal goods" sale, great. its called milking the release for all its worth. no drm makes e-delievry easier. probably had to strip it out for e-delivery, and the game wasn't worth an alternative solution. its so old its no competition to the current version, and works as a "free demo" instead if redistributed.

 

in the wikipedia article on DRM, they point out that big pc games released in 2008 with good drm were conspicuously absent from torrent freak's list of top 10  most popular cracked games for 2008.  their point was that drm doesn't therefore seem to encourage cracking.  well of course not silly! you think the cracker  does it so all those legit users dont have to put a cd in their drive to play? you think they're some kind of gaming good Samaritan? Nonsense! They want bragging rights within their community - plain and simple, its all about prestige amongst one's fellow crackers. unfortunately (for gamedevs) the only way to gain such notoriety is by releasing cracks. 

 

most of the examples of games held up as "drm free and it works" simply wouldn't be worth cracking even if they had the easiest to break drm ever. they're just not cool enough, big  enough, expensive enough, popular enough, etc.

 

.

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AAA programs (not just games) are funded by massive investor-supported companies; those on the board of directors tend not to be developers, not even *users* of the software they peddle. Their only interest is profit and maximizing the bottom line, so they're not above pouring tens of thousands of dollars into their DRM schemes. (Sometimes a LOT more.) Frankly, they would still be profitable without DRM...but, it's not just about "being profitable." It's about showing investors that your value is constantly increasing, thus you need to tighten every single nut and bolt you can. It's not just about profit: it's about absolute maximization of profit, to the dollar. Most of those games on that list I linked were profitable; games need not be AAA to be profitable.

If you really feel very strongly that you need DRM for your game to be profitable, you want to outsource for it OR sell to a AAA firm and have them do it for you.

 

ADDENDUM: It goes without saying, of course, that people will still pirate your game.

 

Also, are we still talking about "timebombing a beta"? If you're so worried about it, don't ship it; bring people on site to test your game and don't let them plug in any flash drives. Who's going to pirate a beta?

Edited by thade
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games need not be AAA to be profitable.

 

quite true. Rockland is proof of that.

 


If you really feel very strongly that you need DRM for your game to be profitable, you want to outsource for it OR sell to a AAA firm and have them do it for you.

 

the game has been and will continue to be profitable. drm simply helps ensure i actually see some of those profits.

 

unfortunately, the company is being re-started on a shoestring budget, so outsourcing or bringing testers onsite is not an option. all you get to work with is a $400 baseline pc (on-board graphics chip only), and internet access. everything else must be free.

 

The game type itself is not sufficiently mass market to warrant AAA publisher attention.

 

the idea of an expiration date for the beta is:

 

if a copy leaks out onto the web, it will not still be floating around out there once the game has been released. 

 

expiration dates for beta versions is S.O.P. in "REAL" software development.  you know how we gamedev types "can't get no respect!" <g>.

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the game has been and will continue to be profitable. drm simply helps ensure i actually see some of those profits.

 

And yet, free copies of your final game will still be floating around the Intartubez after you launch the final game. You've said it yourself, your game is small enough to be put into a zip file and hosted on mediafire. Putting in a bunch of DRM will do what? Delay that from happening for a week or two? Once it's cracled. and it will be cracked, it doesn't matter how much DRM you HAD because all of it will be GONE.

 

I've mentioned Torchlight, The Witcher, and The Witcher 2 [somehow I don't think Caveman is quite on the scale of those three, at least not that I've heard - googling 'Caveman game' takes me to a free platformer] and another poster put up the list of DRM free games available from Steam (some pretty big names on that list). People who buy software will buy it regardless, so you'll see those profits no matter what. People who pirate software don't buy it, so those are 'profits' that you won't see under any circumstances. There are 'fence-sitters' who SOMETIMES buy software and sometimes pirate it. DRM may help you get some of those profits, provided it doesn't tic off an equivalent number of people from the first category (those who would have bought it if it weren't so locked down).

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a bug free skyrim with no audio and no addons, 10 minute free download. that's the kind of thing i'm talking about here.  a far cry from an unfinished buggy game.
 
set your warning to level to max, suppress inline warning,  and halt on all warnings or errors. modular design, unit testing. write one thing, do it very well, test it completely, then move on: "ok that works, that's done, whats next?" . develop in release mode only. and if you need it, stuff like LINT and BoundsChecker. bug free is NOT a dream. the only bugs in software are ones we put in by typing, or choosing to use a buggy library or tool. Caveman v1.0 had ONE bug in it. and it wasn't even a show stopper or anything like that. needless to say, v1.1 was 100% bug free. And that was in a game with about say 50,000 lines of source code. v3.0 currently tips the scales at about 90,000 lines of code.


It sounds to me like you can skip the beta and get straight to work on the key check DRM, because you're not going to have any bugs for your testers to find anyway.
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Just a thought, but if you think that Torchlight isn't getting hacked because of it's price point, why not just use a similar price point?

 

a too low price on a game infers lack of quality. especially when balanced against how much you get for the low price. a game that's priced to provide a gaming value too good to be true looks suspicious. say someone released a call of duty 5 clone for $5 tomorrow, you'd say, "whats the catch?" (or, at least i would...). 

 

i price my games from a gamer's point of view: "how much is it worth, assuming they'd buy it? how much gaming value does it provide to the user?

 

for Caveman, the minimum answer would probably be $20. the max, perhaps $35 once i get all the features and options in there. once all the features are in, the minimum might be $25.

 

this isn't really hard to do. you can usually look at a piece of software  you wrote with a critical independent eye, and pretty much say how much functionality and value it provides the target user at a minimum. IE:  "oh dude! this game is worth at least $5!" (or 10, 15, 20, whatever). 

 


 As I see it, either your game wont' be as popular as Torchlight,

 

my lack of familiarity with torchlight makes it difficult to respond.  can you think of a different example? perhaps something more akin to skyrim and the sims?  (both of which are similar to Caveman in some respects).  we may be talking apples and oranges here vis a vis Caveman and Torchlight.

 

but really, all of this is off topic.

 

the question is how to do it, not whether to do it.

 

same thing happened in the related thread about checksums in ram - many of the responses were not about how to do it, but whether to do it.

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It sounds to me like you can skip the beta and get straight to work on the key check DRM, because you're not going to have any bugs for your testers to find anyway.

 

finding bugs is the coders job. they should not be allowed to sign off on a section of code until it has been thoroughly tested and debugged BY THEM! Then others can have at it.  And there's always integration errors possible, even if each module is bug-free.  Late changes that don't get thorough integration testing are another one that can slip through.  here are the known bugs at the moment:

1. action area for selecting swamp terrain is too big

2. cross country movement supports toggle run (it really should be walk speed only - we hiked across the world, we didn't run across like marathon runners! <g>)

3. need to increase clip radius of short faced bear - think i did this already

 

the idea is to get the game into the user's hands and get the feedback that can make a good game great: "it would be cool if....".   most of the time, the feedback i typically from long term beta testers on my games is "works great!, no problems! cool game!".  as long as i keep hearing that, i figure i'm doing my job correctly. sometimes they'll have a suggestion.  user feedback is vital to the iterative design "design, implement, test, get feedback"  loop, which an excellent way to "evolve" one's software products.

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most of the time, the feedback i typically from long term beta testers on my games is "works great!, no problems! cool game!". as long as i keep hearing that, i figure i'm doing my job correctly.

 

As long as you keep hearing that, you're using the wrong beta testers.

 

Long time beta testers (ie: fans) are not the people you really want testing your game - or at least not the main pool. You need to target people who you think would like your game, but haven't played it. You need to get some assholes in there who will try to figure out how to exploit the game before it goes live, especially if there is any multiplayer content.

 

If you want sim style games - X3: Terran Conflict, IIRC DRM was pulled after a few patches. X3: Albion Prelude (the expansion) is sold on Steam but you can download a 'no-steam' .exe from the official website. If it still requires Steam activation, then it still has some layer of DRM, though.  I don't play a lot of Sim style games, so I can't really run down titles in that genre.

 

@Ferrous - Torchlight isn't getting hacked because retail copies were DRM free to begin with. One million units sold in the first four months. It's a Diablo/Fate successor for those not familiar with it.

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You need to get some assholes in there who will try to figure out how to exploit the game before it goes live, especially if there is any multiplayer content.

 

single player, and the full version will include all testing cheats!

 

 

 

 


X3: Terran Conflict, IIRC DRM was pulled after a few patches.

 

 

 yes, i've seen this sort of thing before. i think its a sort of a thank you to loyal users who still play the game. the 4th patch for silent hunter 4 removed the keycd check. no biggie, 5 was already out, i believe.  

 

 

 

i googled x3, and yes, that's more like the size of game i'm talking about. i think you'd have to admit that selling x3 for less than $20 would be selling it too cheaply. note that i'm talking initial release price, not the current discounted price now that its 6 years old.

 

from what i understand of torchlight, its not quite x3, is it?

Edited by Norman Barrows
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X3:TC is an interesting game because it's a big universe without a lot of content in it. It's a sandbox game with a few storylines to follow. At its heart it's an economic sim (the vast, vast majority of space is perfectly peaceful, unless you make it not so).

 

If you're going by gameworld size, I believe Daggerfall is the largest commercial RPG ever produced (It would take real life weeks for a character to run from one side of the world to the other - they tested it). Morrowind was smaller in size, but larger in content. Oblivion followed the same pattern. So when you say your game is "as big as Skyrim", do you mean the game world is the same size, or does Caveman have as much content in it for the player to do as Skyrim does?

 

In any rate I can't find release numbers for the X series, so I don't know which was more popular. $20 would probably have been the lowest sale price for a game like X3, MSRP retail closer to 39.99 If I'm guessing. Torchlight started at $20. I think that's about the 'breakpoint' between 'casual' and 'serious' games. (Just my personal observation and guess, with no scientific data to back that up). Games like Nancy Drew may start at $19.99 but drop to 6.99 pretty quickly. Torchlight held it's price point for a long time, then dropped to $14.99 for quite a while.

 

Games like Torchlight also tend to have a very long 'tail'. Look at Diablo 2 - The "Battle Chest" is still sitting on store shelves, which means it's still selling new units every month.

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a too low price on a game infers lack of quality.

I suppose this is true to a point, but it's also true that people are more likely to impulse buy games that are in the $10 neighborhood...and there is some very good company down there. Just to name a few:

Magicka launched at like $15, I got it for $10 very early in its life.
Don't Starve cost me $10. I still love that game.
FTL cost $10 at launch...and shipped a large free DLC pack (by Chris 'freakin Avellone) just this week.
 

finding bugs is the coders job. they should not be allowed to sign off on a section of code until it has been thoroughly tested and debugged BY THEM! Then others can have at it.

"Testing can reveal the presence but never the absence of bugs." Even with 100% unit test coverage and round-the-clock QA with a full staff (2 testers to each 1 developer) you still want to plan on your beta testers finding bugs. <3 Because odds are very, very high that they'll hit something weird that you all haven't found yet. That's much of the value of beta testing: a larger volume of monkeys hittin' the keyboard. smile.png

Edited by thade
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