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basically the success story behind photoshop, valve, etc.
Yep. Microsoft and Adobe (and to an extent Netflix) worked to allow payment workaround versions of their software, and Valve had good enough integration that most pirates gave up. Compared to a million failed examples, it’s easy to see why a small dev studio like us would pick the right track.
you could play up to 10 people online on a single won key; there was no cracking required of hl, and won keys were easy to swap in the registry (manually or with script) if too many already used it. not only did friends share their keys, there were tons of won lists floating around the internet. and the goldsrc engine was incredibly easy to mod - opening the flood gates of gaming.
valve got big by having a great game; with tons of amazing free games built on top of it by a huge and idealistic community. and super easy access to online servers long before f2p models.
not to mention the early days of steam was buggy and gave you the entire hl1 collection including team-fortress, day of defeat, riccochet and counter-strike as a free registered user with no won key (i made multiple free accounts to get the games for free just in case my friends missed the opportunity since we were all obsessing over hl1 mods back then).
the anti-piracy was never really a thing, valve even tried to re-vitalize the modding community by releasing alien swarm for free and bundle the sdk. sadly it was too late for any momentum (plus the proprietary issues with parts of the source code getting in the way of the cultural shift where people want some money for their efforts).
ahh, the good old days.