5 Piracy-Fighting Lessons From Steam for All Content Creators

With Steam, which is owned by game maker Valve, recently launching its “Perils of Summer” sale series, countless gamers have downloaded new and old favorites at steep discounts, even overloading Steam’s servers in many areas (including mine).

For game makers, Steam has been a boon. Though Valve keeps its sales figures closely guarded, anecdotal evidence has been strong that Steam has been successful at turning would-be pirates and downloaders into legitimate customers. Though piracy is still a problem in the PC gaming world, Steam has helped spearhead a renaissance of PC game development, especially among indie developers.

But while Steam has been great for game makers, what about other kinds of content creators? Is there anything that Steam can teach others who sell content, or even just distribute it for free?

There are five easy lessons that I see that s team can show all of us. if we are willing to listen.

1. DRM Can Work

Though DRM is the whipping boy of tech circles, one thing that often gets overlooked is that Steam is a form of DRM in its own right. One has to be logged into their Steam accounts to play their games and it certainly places restrictions on how one can copy/play purchased games in a bid to prevent piracy.

However, people don’t notice Steam’s DRM because it doesn’t prevent people from doing things that they want to do with their legally purchased content. For example, you can install steam and all purchased games on more than one computer, though you can only be logged in on one at a time. This is something you often can’t do with physical games.

Since Steam doesn’t actually prevent people from doing the things they want to do, most don’t even notice that the DRM component is there. In fact, the DRM of Steam actually adds features, including the ability to store saved games in the cloud and earn achievements, things that wouldn’t be available without some control over who is playing the game.

In short, DRM can work, but only if it is a net positive for the consumer, not just the creator. This is something that all content creators need to realize, that the consumer’s experience has to come first, the anti-piracy functionality second.

2. Convenience is Key

One of the great things about Steam is how convenient it is. In fact, buying a game off of Steam is almost always easier, faster and more reliable than trying to pirate it elsewhere.

Steam works very much like iTunes does for music, making it easy to browse, buy, download and play content, all within a single interface. This reaches out directly to those who pirate content to avoid the hassle of driving to the store or re-entering all of their information on another shopping site.

While this does mean anti-piracy work is important because it is part of the reason pirating content is more difficult than buying it legally, it also means it isn’t crucial to eliminate every available copy of a work, just increase the effort required to pirate content until it is higher than the effort required to buy it legitimately.

3. The Power of Sales

Steam sales are the stuff of legends and they work. According to Steam’s own numbers, a 10% sale on a game increases the sales of the game (in real dollars) by 35%. Likewise, a 75% sale increases game sales by a whopping 1470%.

Sales are powerful tools in marketing and are especially useful at swaying consumers away from free but less-desirable alternatives.

This is not to say that game prices or other content prices should be set to a fraction of what they are, that defeats the purpose of having a sale, but it does show that content creators need to open up to offering special deals and experimenting with price to compete with illegal-but-free copies.

4. The Importance of Bonus Features

To touch back on the Steam-only features such as saving games in the cloud, leaderboards and achievements, it is important to note that these are features pirates of the game don’t have access to.

Compare this to DVD and CD pirates who often feel they get a better experience, video game pirates, at least those who pirate Steam games, get a clearly inferior one.

This can be easily worked into just about any kind of content for sale, by providing support or other services only to legitimate customers or access to resources only available to purchasers.

Simply put, if pirates get a better experience, more people will pirate, rightly or wrongly. Every content creator needs to realize that.

5. Community, Marketing and Support

Finally, in an area that is much harder to nail down than the others, one thing Steam has done increidbly well is market itself and build a strong community around its product.

On Steam’s forums they have thousands of members discussing nearly every single game available on the service. Furthermore, it’s the go-to place to find and actually talk with members of Steam’s staff and to get both community and official support for various issues related with the service.

But the community goes far beyond that as Steam’s loyal customers have been aggressive, almost evangelical at times, about promoting Steam elsewhere on the Web, including their blogs and on social neworking/news sites. For example, Steam has some 170,000 people liking it on Facebook and social news sites such as Reddit are almost always inundated with submissions regarding Steam, especially during Steam sales.

This has helped Steam grow and build a good reputation for itself and that, in turn, has made it easier to turn pirates who often use the “sticking it to the man” excuse when downloading content illegally.

This is something any site can and should do as a focus on community and social networking is almost never a bad thing. Though it might seem odd to be in a reputation battle with pirate sites, it is important to remember that they are seen by many as giving their visitors what they want, at any price, making them a “robin hood” that can be very hard, but not impossible, to compete with.

Bottom Line

To be clear, Steam isn’t the single answer for all content creators nor is it a perfect solution that is going to bring about a magical end to piracy. As mentioned in my previous post about the Humble Indie Bundle, fighting piracy is less about eliminating it and more about reducing it so that it doesn’t create a drain on the business.

It is a tough balance and PC gaming firms still have it far from perfect. In fact, in December 2009 alone, an estimated 10 million illegal copies of PC games were downloaded, and that was only tracking some 200 games on popular file sharing networks.

PC gaming certainly has not reached any kind of anti-piracy nirvana but it is almost certainly significantly closer than it was thanks to Steam.

The progress may not be great, but it is progress nonetheless and, when such headway can be found, it is crucial for other content creators to take a look at it and see what can be gleaned from it.