The pirate in me

I’m ambivalent about the entire crusade against pirates thing. Every now and then it’s  it’s an issue that gets claimed by some publisher because of some new technology that gives them the illusion they’ll finally be able to stop it. Eventually it  boomerangs in their face, and they go hush about this issue. If they care, some poor community manager is then appointed to deal with the consumer backlash, and some other publisher pops on the scene, declaring the war on pirates, and the cycle starts all over.

These guys will find you if you copied a Divinity game !!!

And now we have CD Projekt  - first they make a lot of noise about the fact that their games are DRM  free and that publishers that enforce DRM are idiots ( DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, a fancy word for anti-piracy measures) Now the same CD Projekt makes it back into the press because they hired one of those one-stop-shop lawfirms that promise to use the full force of the law to hunt down  those that make illegal copies of their games, imposing a fine which from what I heard is approximately 40 times the revenue they’d get from an ordinary sale.

As an executive having to pay my employees every month, I understand the reasoning behind wanting to maximize revenue as it costs a lot to make these games. I also understand the business logic – if only 10% of those addressed by those lawyers pay out of fear for the court, the revenue multiplication factor of 40 makes it worthwhile. And it communicates the message to the public that is susceptible to these kinds of threats that pirating their products can bring them in trouble.

But that doesn’t mean I’m pro-DRM. You see, I wouldn’t be in this industry if it wouldn’t be for the abundance of copied games I played when I was a teenager. I built up most of my gameplay instincts playing those games, and being a slow learner, it took a lot of games, some of them being very bad.

I probably played a couple of thousands of games illegally, and so I’d be quite a hypocrite if I’d condemn something I’ve been doing myself for years. I now make enough money to buy all my games, but I didn’t back then. To be frank, I actually didn’t think about the developers and how they were affected by my piracy actions. I even cracked/fixed bad cracks when I discovered that my gameplay experience was being disturbed by some fancy copy protection. (edit: Obviously I know better now, and those were the days when copying music from radio to tape was a well-practiced art across all ages.)

The classic arguments pro-DRM are that it helps stop day 1 copying and prevents those not in the know from duplicating a game. DRM  prevents shady distributors from making their own versions of a game, and if there’s an online component,  helps track sales. According to the proponents, these are benefits that outweigh the discomfort caused for legitimate customers.

I don’t agree with that reasoning.

First of all, the discomfort argument is a very real argument which I experienced several times. Not so long  ago I threw a well known game I had just bought through the window, because the online activation didn’t work. It ruined my sunday and I swore  I’d never buy a game from these idiots again.

But secondly, I think the entire DRM argument is part of a dying model, at least in its current form. Traditionally we expect people to pay for the entire experience present in the box, even if the game doesn’t turn out to be as expected. Even a demo can be misleading, a lot of them are even made to be misleading. I have an entire collection of games that I bought but only spent a couple of hours with. If you have limited disposable income (as I did when I pirated), at the price games go, paying full price for only a couple of hours of entertainment is quite expensive. It’s also unfair, especially if 90% of the game doesn’t match what’s on the back of the box. Of those thousands of pirated games I played, there were only a few that I played through, with most of the games in my collection only receiving 5 minutes of my attention.

I did pay for the few games that I played over and over (some of them I even bought multiple times because I lost the activation codes ). But in some cases, I paid for crap, and then I felt cheated, because when I bought it, the box told me the game wasn’t crap.

The latter is argument most frequently used by pirates – we’ll buy the game if it’s good. Having been there, I actually follow that reasoning, even if I did sin against that rule from time to time.

That’s why I’m a believer in the pay as you go model. If I play for one hour, I’m happy to pay a reasonable price, reasonable being defined as being something in line with what is common for one hour of entertainment offered.

And if it’s a very good game, I’m willing to pay more than what I’d pay per hour for a mediocre game.

Such a model would’ve suited me well when I was discovering the world of games as a  teenager, a discovery that involved biking to the one place near my birthplace where you could get anything you wanted provided you brought enough floppy discs. It’s worth pointing out it was impossible to find a shop that sold games where I lived, it being a corner of Belgium.

In such a model, I’d expect the first hour or so to be free, and the rest payable. You’d get a lot less junk, the guys who make top games would get the most rewards and players wouldn’t be cheated.

The price should be capped  to a reasonable maximum that reflects the investment made to create the game. It’d be the type of DRM that would works and it’d probably also make the market at lot larger.

That’s why I’m a fan of the streaming model, even if there still are plenty of technical and business logic issues to be solved in this area. If these issues get solved, pirates who claim that they buy a game if it’s good don’t have an argument anymore: everybody can try out the game immediately, for free, and if if you like, you pay as you go, until a certain limit.

I also like the evolutionary pressure this puts on developers to make good games. Marketing can’t compensate for a bad game anymore, because people will quit playing rapidly if the game isn’t any good.

And good developers won’t have to go legal to earn some extra revenue by threatening their fan-base with fines.

So as far as I’m concerned, providers of cloud gaming are the future, both for players and developers, and it’s a future that can’t come fast enough. I just hope the cloud service providers that become dominant will offer fair deals, and not regress into using some of the practices their precursors employ.

Edit: Wow, I’ve seen some acid reactions to this post on some forums, so let me put some oil on the fire:

On me copying games: I copied games when I was a teenager and was ignorant of how that affected developers, I’m not ignorant about it now, so I’ve evolved. What’s right and what’s wrong is context sensitive and changes with time. When I was a kid, copying wasn’t considered a real wrong. Yes, I know I’ll still burn in hell, but that was already a done deal anyway.

About price sensitivity:  The average price for 1 game was 5% of an average salary over here.  Bundle deals on Steam nowadays allow you to get plenty of games for prices lower than what a pack of floppies cost at that time. I’ll write more about the consequences of that particular (bad) trend another time.

About comparing copying to stealing a car: If you buy a car, you get a chance to test drive it to see if it suits you. You also get something like a warranty if something’s broken. I’m not going to bother to state the rest of the argument here as I assume it’s obvious.

On cloud gaming as a future: It’s going to happen, eventually. One of the consequences will be that  piracy will be better contained. I also believe cloud services can be a boon to consumers if not abused. It’s not going to happen overnight, there’s too many problems still, but personally, I’ll also be quite happy the day we get rid of this antique concept of games being consumer hardware dependent. But I also don’t want to end up in the hands of one or two monopolistic portals.

Further on cloud gaming: The argument that developers will only make the first part of the game good and not the rest isn’t valid. Players will stop playing the moment the game isn’t fun anymore, preventing the developer from getting any extra revenue, and if they paid for the parts they had fun with, I consider that fair.

On piracy in general and the game’s industry hate of it: Greed on both sides has a lot to do with the issue.

On Larian having DRM on its products – not by our own choice, we got rid of it as fast as we could and released DRM free patches for all games we could.

  • Wotan Anubis

    Hmm. The immediate problems I see with paying as you go are that 1) will there be an upper limit on how much we have to pay (if not, games will eventually cost way more than the, say, 60 Euro we pay nowadays, leaving less cash to spend on other games. Though, I admit, on the other hand, there’s WoW) and 2) not everybody has a credit card or a Paypal account so you’ll be locking out potential customers.

    From a more business perspective, what kind of store would carry games if they can’t actually sell them? Will they get a cut of the profits for giving the games away? Yeah, yeah, digital gaming is the future and all that, but internet connections are not yet so fast and so reliable that downloading games or playing them exclusively through the internet is a preferable alternative to buying a physical copy and playing it on your own machine. Especially for consoles which have limited hard drive space.

    • Anonymous

      An upper limit should be present, yes, and I expect that the technical infrastructure problem is one which eventually gets solved. There’s also the possibility of transient models without immediately relying on full streaming, though that imho would be the most accessible as it requires zero install and maximum cross-platform compatibility. I also don’t think it’ll happen overnight. However I do think that’s it be beneficiary for both players and developers if this becomes the model of the future. 

      • Wotan Anubis

        Thinking some more on it, I suppose the method of payment could be solved with something like iDEAL. I don’t know if you’ve got something like it in Belgium, but it basically allows you to smoothly authorise a payment from your bank account to whatever store you’re buying from. This cuts out the credit card middleman and allows everybody to pay online with a certain amount of ease (since I’m assuming everybody with enough disposable income to buy stuff on the Internet will also have a bank account).

        The current problem with iDEAL is that it only works with Dutch banks and Dutch stores (or international stores with a presence in the Netherlands). But I suppose an international version may arrive onto the scene at some point.

        As for the games themselves… I think I’ll be a Luddite for a long time on this front. I prefer to have a physical copy (or, if I must, one downloaded to my harddrive) simply because I don’t like the idea of outsiders (especially corporate outsiders) having influence over when (and if) I can play the games I bought with my own money.

  • Alrik Fassbauer

    Isn’t that kind of “free-to-play” in some MMOs right now ?
    I think it works there quite good, imho.

    But still: I just want to have a book on my own – not needing to call anyone redeem the pages of the book pst the first chapter … i just want to sit there and read, on my own. No additional payment required.

    Personally, I think what woul work best would be “the best of both worlds” : F2P for everyone, Complete Editions for those who just want to be left alone – or play a co-op game with their spouse.

    Because I still believe that there are some things people would like to do alone and undisturbed – like reading a good book, for example.

    • Anonymous

      Well, most free to play games have adjusted their format to fit the formula i.e. there’s heavy emphasis on encouraging micro-transactions. That’s not necessarily a good thing imho. I’d like to have something that works for all types of games, without the games themselves having to adapt. What I have in mind is: You pay for the experience as long as you like the experience and not a penny more.  

  • Oldtimer

    At first I was thinking not another blog or comment about how cloud and streaming is the future. The points he makes make sense but I fear this wont happen to at least 10–20 years from now if at all. Most internet services I used to use offered unlimited broadand but most cap themselves now thus limiting how much you can play.

    Onlive is one good example. Playing three games for a week around 6-8 hrs a day quickly ate up my bandwidth. There are many hurdles to overcome and its not happening soon. In the meantime I will be a Luddite and buy physical or a digital download. Then again I’m biased as I don’t play f2p or mmo’s. Never have and never will.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Dragonseekers Sergei Klimov

      A friend of mine works for Gaikai.

      I went to check the site, wanted to play The Witcher 2 from there, and they lost me in the process.

      First, the web site was taking ages to load. Second, they wanted to run an app on my App, and third, my Mac was missing something that they wanted me to install.

      It pretty much goes (for now) against the promised “no drivers, no install hassle” motto. But one day, I believe, they will solve it, and then I’d be happy to playtest a lot of new games without having to download them fully, sure. I like Spotify, I may like Gaikai or whatever makes it happen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Dragonseekers Sergei Klimov

    Giving that the price of a book goes up (I paid over $10 for one of the Game of Thrones volumes, digitally) and the price of a game goes down (Machinarium was recently Euro 1.25 on Steam’s sale), I wonder what does the book industry think of a piracy they must be facing with the digital editions.

    I don’t recall anyone saying that they first pirate a book, see if they like it, and then buy if they do – which is a standard argument for the games crowd. I suppose this is partly due to the fact that if you pirate a book, and it’s good, you’ll finish reading it before you get the chance to buy it. And partly this is due to the fact that with the game, you have patches (bad) and DLCs (good) whereas a book is a book.

    Of course, cloud reading would be just as appealing to the book industry as it is to the games industry. To have a subscription to the library, and to be able to go and read your Asimov whenever you want it, that is convenient and that is also anti-piracy. 

    What I meant to say is that, piracy must be a much bigger issue for the books than it is for the games, and yet they are still doing well out there, which means that the content market is really quite rich, and allows for many eco niches to exist. 

    I’m buying Botanicula because so many people around me have pirated Samorost that Amanita (the developer) was established as prime indie talent. In this way, the piracy of others made me contribute the money. Same thing with books.I think that we should not think as “pirated vs. licensed”, we should rather think as “pirated AND licensed”, as they co-exist.

    • DraQ

      I don’t know about pirating books, but if you buy them personally, via being physically present in a bookstore, you can’t really avoid demoing them. You pick up a book, read some text from the beginning, possibly some snippets here and there, and generally try to get a feel of the book and decide if it’s worth the money.

      Plus, it’s much easier to find a honest review of a book than it is to find a honest review of a game due to numerous factors.

  • Alrik Fassbauer

    Personally, I expect digital book DRM to be similar to games DRM at one point in the future.

    I wonder, however, if they’ll dare to expand E-Book – DRM on older works like works from the Project Gutenberg, too ?
    And that I say this is a symptome of the “E-Industry” as well. Greed, after all, always deserves a chance (great sentence, by the way: This could become a new ironically meant proverb !).

  • melianos

    You don’t talk much about DLC. Why ? That would be a good way to launch a game (finished but quite empty), and keep making DLC, or something like it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Dragonseekers Sergei Klimov

      Civ V – 17 DLCs and counting – worth more than the main game, and customers are happy, too.

    • Lar

      It’s an intermediate step, but I’d rather focus on making the experience I want to give than on having to artificially split up the game in micro-pieces for the sake of the business model. Of course, at present that’s utopia but idealism drives this industry ;)

    • Alrik Fassbauer

      If I buy a game and afterwards I find out there will be DLCs, then I’d feel kind of cheated as well – because this would evoke in me the feeling as if I had bought something incomplete.
      In fact, I do have this feeling nowadays that that’s my prmary reason why I keep away from games with DLCs – I’m only interested in something complete.

    • http://www.facebook.com/armbrust11 Thane Armbruster

      The original Deus Ex is considered one of the great games for the influence it had on later works and the amount it accomplished given the limitations of the time.

      However, there was a lot more content for the game that was cut or shortened*. I like to give this as an example because nobody could argue that DLC created for it would have been a money grab considering the game’s length and depth, but yet some people like myself wish there was more to see and do with our favorite characters. Thus Deus Ex is an excellent example of a game that could have used some DLC (but DLC wasn’t really feasible in 2000).

      *source: http://www.deusex-machina.com/articles/makingofdeusex.asp

  • Gamenerd

    if cloud streaming is the way Swen, then it’s the end of the line for many players, I’m sure of that.
    Internet speeds are not ready for cloud in many countries (and still will not be for some more years to come), technology wise Onlive and such services are rather on the beginning, because the streamed content is just not smooth enough

    • Lar

      You’re right of course which is why I mentioned that there were still quite some issues that need to be solved, but eventually those issues will get solved and I think it’ll be good for gaming. A fair DRM system is but one of the advantages and tbh not really my primary interest in the thing. What gets me going is the promise of hardware independence and the possibilities that opens up. For instance, we could be doing 500×500 km2 terrains at very high detail with the technology we have now, but we wouldn’t be able to distribute it, not through physical and not through digital distribution.

  • Gamenerd

    in fact, we might sooner see Crysis in flash engine rather than perfectly smooth cloud..

    • Lar

      Yes, probably, but just think of the time & effort that is lost in doing ports whereas in my ideal future you’d just make the game once and it’d be available to all. A lot of resources would be freed up by that which can be used for actual content creation rather than porting work.

  • http://rudolphthesnowdeer.myopenid.com/ Rudolf

    I don’t like the idea of paying for the time I spend playing. That would actively discourage me from taking my sweet time with games I enjoy. It would cause me to zoom through the questlines of, say, Skyrim, instead of taking in the beautiful world and having fun just being there.

    Also, I pretty much hate everything about the cloud concept. I want to own my games, not rent the ability to play them. What happens if I decide another cloud provider has a better selection and I decide to stop my subscription to the first one? Well, most likely I’ll lose access to everything I’ve “bought” and all my save games et.c. Honestly, I’d rather have a game that’s Starforced up the Wazoo, needs Steam and must be activated online every day than play on the cloud. At least then I can probably crack it if things go wrong.

    Though it’s a moot point, because I can only barely use youtube on my connection and it won’t get better anytime soon either.

    • http://www.lar.net/ Swen Vincke

      Assuming the bandwidth is available (and pricing is low) – what’s wrong with:

      1) Try a game on a cloud provider
      2) If you want the full game – buy and download
      3) If you’re unsure, pay for the part you play and when you hit the full price of the game, get access to the download ?

      If you ever get the chance, you need to try onlive and just browse through the games there (used the free play option). I checked out 6 games in the space of 15 minutes, without having to install, and getting a good feel for whether or not I’d like them. If the service would be working here and the resolution would be ok, I’d probably continue playing via the service once I found something I liked.

  • Derick

    Cloud Gaming as the future will ONLY work if it is allowed as an additional option. I should always be allowed to install my game on my own hard drive – especially if it’s a Single Player game. When I cannot do so, I am basically just renting a product. When servers are out or lagging, clients are down, and I can’t access my game or the game just won’t play properly – b/c of these problems, then forget about Cloud Gaming. This just is even sillier of a problem, if I’m playing a Single Player game and am stuck w/ Cloud Gaming.

  • Martin K.

    First of all, thank you for writing this blog. I kind of lost track on your forum posts so this makes it a lot easier. Lot of interesting stuff in here..

    On piracy, I will just say that no DRM will ever stop pirates. People who are pirating everything they see will stay that way until they eventually grow up and abandon gaming (they get replaced with younger pirates and cycle is closed). 
    Rather than focusing on preventing pirates it’s better to focus on people who actually buy games. Pirates after all are just a free marketing. The more pirates one game has, more known game becomes, and more known game is, more people who have a habit of buying games will buy it. Quite simple.

    Cloud gaming won’t be possible on a large scale (at least not in few years)  for a simple reason that it requires credit card or PayPal and a high speed connection.

    (I actually wrote a quite long comment but got lost in my thoughts, so this one will have to do)

  • Ethan Sherr-Ziarko

    This is an interesting post, thanks for writing.

    I just wanted to note that the ‘first hour of the game free’ idea you’re describing is basically the shareware model, which was big in the early 90s. I assume you’re familiar with it. A lot of (at the time) smaller companies used it as a method of self-publishing before the concept largely died out as the industry was taken over by big publishing giants. It would be interesting to see if such a system could make a comeback these days.

  • DraQ

    Well, the problem with cloud, streaming and all similar solutions is that they are dependent on external providers and prevent the customer from being in charge of their purchase.

    The advantages of possessing a physical copy is that if you have it and a computer, you will be able to play it whenever and wherever you want, even if the company has long since gone under (and good games are fun to return to even after many years), civilization is no more or planet got destroyed. If you have a computer, game and a power source, you can play it.

    Now, a solution that could allow trial, hassle free gradual payments until full price, while also allowing full freedom of use independent of external factors would be a holy grail, but cloud based gaming isn’t such a solution, neither is streaming.