No one worries about pirated copies of World of Warcraft. The client is useless without the server, so you need only worry about pirate/private servers (I think this idea would effectively lead to licensed private servers). While EA is putting its customers through DRM hell (and itself through PR hell as a result), having an online component clearly helps you make sure that you the developer and you the publisher are getting your cut.
It need not be perfect. A dedicated and competent burglar will get into your house, but if you can deter the stupid and the lazy, you will have solved 90% of the problem. I am going to propose a hybrid online/offline publishing model that seeks to deter copyright infringement by using online content to encourage players to use verified-legitimate copies (by whatever means you verify).
This is mostly enshrining what is already the case for most PC games: have an explicit plan to finish developing content after the game goes gold.
The core game needs to be done when you ship CDs, and it should work, relatively bug-free, etc. Identify some bonus features or content, however, that will be finished later. Add a couple of units, a side-system, new dresses, pets, customizable interfaces, whatever. Save something that is not part of the core design.
You sell this to your customers by announcing up front that “development is not over just because the game shipped!” While you are committed to delivering a complete game, you think that is not enough in this day and age. You must continue to provide free updates to the game, and you are making this a company-wide policy. Present this as something extra, not shipping a game at 90% complete.
Identify a few features early on for that post-gold release. Advertise those on the web site and the box. Include a note on the box and in the manual to check the site for future development plans. Trumpet free updates. Solicit ideas for them on the forums.
The web site should have a list of features in three categories: definitely in, definitely update, and “we will try to get them before we go gold.” This gives you a new front-page update every time something moves off the “maybe” list, keeping blogs and news sites talking about you. There will be some negative hits as “maybe” moves to “later,” but you get larger positives from “maybe” moves to “definitely.” This also gives you a series of free advertisements post-release every time one of the “later” features moves to “download your free update now!”
Also, selling your customers on it should be easy. They already buy incomplete, buggy crap. Now you are at least being honest with them about it.
You sell this to your executives by explaining that you will be shipping a game at 90% complete and getting good PR for it. It will also deter piracy by making it less convenient to have a hacked or downloaded copy of the game. More money, free press, what is not to love?
Explain that you will need to have patches and such after release anyway, so you are already planning for downloads. The additional bandwidth costs are small, and they will be offset by having more legitimate copies being sold and by the free advertising of having people visit the official site frequently for downloads. Why let players buy the game and never speak to us again, when we could have them coming back every few weeks for a download and, oh yes, an advertisement for the next game we are publishing?
You plan for this by taking agile programming seriously. You have your index cards on the wall? Some of them are not going gold. Identify what is essential and what is optional. Get those time estimates going. Prioritize.
Tell your programmers that management is not going to demand the impossible, that you are serious about taking the necessary time for each feature. You might want to avoid using a phrase like “win-win for the programmer and the customer.” If your programmers are also your players, sell them the same line about continuing development. Maybe you can get them excited, too. If that does not work, point out that they get a “shipped” credit on their résumés sooner, and then they can add “live team” for continued development. “Hmm,” he thinks, “with that kind of résumé fodder, I might be able to get a job on the Starcraft MMO when they start hiring…”
You must have a game that can be updated easily. Plan from day one on having a game that will receive downloaded updates. How many games have problems because they somehow believed that they would not need major patches? How many had additional content as an afterthought with some horrid system for it? You are advertising it from day one, so build it into the system.
This may help or hurt micro-transactions. You already have a system in place if you want to keep selling things to players. New mission pack, extra island, extra campaign, whatever? You already have a way for it to be downloaded and added to the game. Just add a payment system (and you might want to plan for that in advance).
The downside is that you have trained your players to expect free updates. Will the PR from selling something like the last free update be too negative? Quite possibly. You may be able to inoculate against this by announcing micro-transactions in advance. Maybe have a fourth category for features. Maybe have five, with the fifth labeled “expansion pack.” Maybe have micro-transactions replace a full expansion pack. You have some options here, and this is beyond my initial notion.