Piracy itself is a topic for another blog entirely, so tonight we're just going to focus on Titan Quest itself and showcase a small sample of what happens when you take anti-piracy schemes to the next level.
You remember Titan Quest, don't you? Of course you don't. It was developed by the now-defunct Iron Lore Entertainment, and published by THQ, Inc, and it was targeted at the market of people who were waiting for Blizzard to get around to releasing Diablo III. And like most every other PC game out there, it was pirated out the wazoo. Now, while this is clearly a bad thing, the designers of the game managed to shoot themselves in the foot via their own anti-piracy security checks.
It doesn't seem like such a bad idea: you implement security checks for your software during the gameplay itself, and if the game determines that you are, in fact, playing a pirated copy of the game, it shuts itself down and you lose whatever you had been doing since your last save. In Titan Quest's terms, this meant that there would be certain milestones for playing that you absolutely could not get past if you were not playing the full retail version, including the very first cave that you explore. Step outside, security check, and BAM: you were at the Windows desktop with nary an error message or pop-up to tell you why the game had suddenly shut down. So pirates cannot play your game, period. What could go wrong?
Simple: word of mouth. Titan Quest was cracked by software pirates very quickly. In fact, it was cracked a little TOO quickly, and our eyepatch-wearing software hackers missed a number of the security checks in the game code during their quick and dirty patching effort. This led to a game that was, naturally, impossible to play. The natural software pirate response? Accuse the developers of creating an amazingly shoddy product. And before long, the reviews of Titan Quest were coming out of the woodwork, promoting the game as a bug-ladden, impossible-to-play piece of garbage. This meme was even picked up by mainstream reviewers with legitimate copies of the game, and was often mentioned in their write-ups (ex.: "While this reviewer had no problems playing Titan Quest, it should be noted that numerous people have complained of game-breaking bugs that corrupt save files and make progression impossible. Make of that what you will.").
Naturally, the company had to respond, and Iron Lore and THQ quickly began trying to perform damage control by not only releasing patches for the retail version, but also reporting that people who were experiencing such bugs were obviously playing illegally downloaded copies of the game and should really switch over to a legal copy to avoid such problems in the future. But the damage had already been done: in the mainstream press and gaming websites across the Internet, Titan Quest had already acquired a very bad reputation, and no amount of spin, damage control, or press releases and patches could possibly fix the situation.
Titan Quest was, according to the publisher, moderately successful. An expansion pack was released in 2007 along with a Gold edition that included both the normal game and the expansion in one box. It made money. But it didn't make enough, and in 2008, THQ bid farewell to Iron Lore Entertainment, costing dozens of artists, programmers, sound technicians, managers and designers their jobs. It's a sad story, made all the more unfortunate by the fact that there was no way for someone who had pirated the game to understand that it was the third-party rush crack-job that was rendering the game unplayable and not a bug inherent in the software itself. Word of mouth on the Internet spreads faster than it can possibly be contained, and what seemed like a good idea in development wound up turning into a fiasco that ultimately worked at the forefront, with a few other factors, to cripple Titan Quest and prevent it from being seen as the game it was instead of the game people perceived it to be. You never, as they say, get a second chance to make a first impression, and nowhere is this more apparent in the gaming industry than the case of Titan Quest.