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Happy pirates, wider audience: Why making sure a pirated game works is good business

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"It really felt like a punch in the gut." Sanatana Mishra

The problem of how to introduce players to your game has become as tricky, if not more so, than the creation of the game itself.

Witch Beam software sent out an early build of their game Assault Android Cactus to a number of people in the press and gaming community, with the idea that people who knew how games were made would understand the problems that are inherent to an unfinished version of the game.

So of course that’s the build of the game that leaked, and now they're stuck with a community of pirates who are spreading the word that the game is buggy, unfun and not worth the money. There may be only one solution: Provide the pirates with a better version of the game.

Fixing the pirates

Assault Android Cactus is a three-dimensional twin-stick shooter where you control a selection of female cyborgs who have to blow away every damned thing they see while the levels often shift and swell around them, and the music adjusting to the on-screen action.

It’s a fun game, well-designed and colorful, but it’s being released into a crowded marketplace. Getting people excited would prove difficult in the early days, even the name is hard to parse. The word "cactus" is Australian slang for something being broken.

"The thing is we don't see piracy itself as a problem for us specifically since our biggest adversary is exposure, and not any perceived market saturation, but leaking a preview build really hurt us," Sanatana Mishra, designer of Assault Android Cactus, told Polygon.

"It was simply not ready for public consumption, as it was full of bugs with tutorial/difficulty curve issues, things that we know a previewer can understand while still seeing the core of the game."

There were also personal considerations that made the leaked version so hard to deal with for the designer.

"It really felt like a punch in the gut that someone in the indie coverage scene would do this, and the timing was beyond awful for me as it shortly after my mum passed away; a one-two punch that makes you feel like your world is collapsing. In retrospect the piracy wasn't exactly a big hit to our project but that's not how it felt at the time." Mishra said. "Something I highly doubt the person leaking it would have thought about."

They didn’t want to discuss the issue as that would simply advertise the pirated version, and at the time they didn’t have another version of the game to share. It was important to put together an early access version of the game or a demo so they had something to point pirates and legitimate customers towards while explaining the version that was widely available was unpolished and not indicative of the quality of the game.

"We had a Steam forum user start talking about not liking mechanics in the game and he casually mentioned recently upgrading from the 'alpha,' the title text of our preview builds included that word, which got me thinking about how frustrating it is to have that version out in the open giving a negative impression," Mishra explained.

Even pirates needs the best experience for the game to grow

Which is why they’re now considering uploading the early access version of the game directly to the sites that are providing the pirated early version of Assault Android Cactus, along with a complete description of why they should download the newer build, versus the already popular "alpha" version of the game.

There’s no way to stop the game from being pirated, so if people are going to take it without paying the only way to "win" for the developer is to give the pirates the best possible version, and hope to pick up sales based on word of mouth.

"It really felt like a punch in the gut."

"Ideally we would like everyone to buy the game, but if they don't buy the game the next best thing is they play the game, and if they are going to play the game I really want them to get have the best experience they possibly can," Mishra said.

"We're pretty committed to making it easy for people to play our game, there's a free demo featuring a ton of content and our Steam and Humble versions have no DRM aside from the steam versions leader boards, so putting up the latest version for download almost seems like the next logical step, at least then we'd know for sure the people who hate it played the best possible version," he continued.

They’re waiting until the latest build is finished before making a final call on released an "official" pirated version of the game, but Mishra said that it’s likely to happen; most of the decisions that have proved helpful to the game have been made mostly by the seat of their pants.

Assault Android Cactus ended up at PAX Australia due to asking a friend who manages a pro gaming team if they could put the game on a few laptops in their stand. Less than two weeks later they were demoing Assault Android Cactus to the press. The early access version of Assault Android Cactus is available now through Steam, and there is also a free demo.

"Almost everything good that has happened to us over the last year has been from a random whim we decided to act on," Mishra said, "with much of our in-depth planning resulting in very little return."