Troubled Waters

21 08 2008

A furious commotion has developed in the past few days over game piracy. Since I posted about an indie developer’s efforts to talk to pirates, a file sharer has been ordered to pay £16,000 in damages and costs, and five publishers have announced combined legal action against 25,000 people.

It’s unlikely that many of these will lead to damages, as proving infringement is fraught with difficulties and unset precedents. As a result, the approach taken with Dream Pinball was apparently to pursue the people who wouldn’t show up in court; the merest hint of resistance was enough to make the firm give up and chase easier targets.

ELSPA have distanced themselves somewhat from this kind of activity:

“ELSPA does not condone this activity in any way, however, due to the civil nature of the offences, this is a matter for each of our members to tackle in a way that they feel is appropriate for their individual businesses”

Peter Moore has also jumped in, stating “It didn’t work for the music industry”. He continues:

“I’m not a huge fan of trying to punish your consumer. Albeit these people have clearly stolen intellectual property, I think there are better ways of resolving this within our power as developers and publishers.”

Indeed. Spamming customers en masse with McLawsuits only works against companies in the long run. Some read that as apologist rhetoric for pirates, but it’s not. The example of the record industry is plain for all to see, and there are many things a developer can do and create to mitigate piracy, such as using ad-supported models, subscription models, and online components that are an integral part of the game.

It struck me on reading the batch of stories linked above just how much flux and uncertainty there is in the games industry, and how studios seem to respond to it. What games are becomes increasingly blurry as they merge with digital networks. Additionally, all forms of media face similar issues. On top of that, we’re going through the first truly global financial crisis. After years of strained relationships between studios and publishers, management crises, new technology and increasingly difficult retail conditions, these are hardly reassuring times for the industry despite the recent boom of games.

I suspect as a result of all this that some developers are looking for a straightforward antagonist. Universities that fall short on industry skills, governments that fail to help out with tax breaks, consumers that pirate games. All of these are genuine problems, but the arguments made are similar to “publishers are evil”. It may seem that way, but it’s business and once you understand it you can negotiate. Of the antagonists currently lined up on the firing range, it’s pirates that the industry feels most able to viciously attack. Noone really sympathises with them, or can be seen to in public.

Nonetheless, consumers, educators, policy makers: all three groups are comprised of people the industry needs onside. Not one of them is the kind of simple antagonist portrayed by the rhetoric currently flying about, and won’t be won over through attacks. These are very complex problems that require adaptive action and negotiation, not guns.

(CC image by peasap)

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Indie Developer Talks To Pirates

18 08 2008

Indie developer Cliff Harris posted a request for comments on his blog last week: “I want to know why people pirate my games. I honestly do.”, and the response is both fascinating and important. He’s collated the responses and his conclusions here. The whole thing is worth reading, but one of the most important things he found is that only a minority of those who pirate games (and bothered to respond to him) do it for dyed in the wool ideological reasons. The rest seem to be acting under various constraints, many of which are actually under the control of the developer.

So it was all very worthwhile, for me. I don’t think the whole exercise will have much effect on the wider industry. Doubtless there will be more FPS games requiring mainframes to run them, more games with securom, games with no demos, or games with all glitz and no gameplay. I wish this wasn’t the case, and that the devs could listen more to their potential customers, and that the pirates could listen more to the devs rather than abusing them. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
But I gave it a go, and I know my games will be better as a result. I’ll never make millions from them, but I think now I know more about why pirates do what they do, I’ll be in a better position to keep doing what I wanted, which is making games for the PC.

Cost is one dimension of this, and this developer is as a result of the feedback he got experimenting with lower game prices.

The first transatlantic telegraph cable operated at a very high cost per word, and every time they dropped it, their business expanded dramatically. The same could surely happen with games now they’re being driven into wider cultural foundations. Setting the right price point for something is difficult of course, because you don’t really get to experiment with different ones around the same marketing campaign.

As tinkering and open source technology become more commonplace, people will increasingly redefine what they do with things. Approach them on terms they like, and they won’t be incentivised to pirate your stuff. Approach them on terms they don’t like, and they’ll redefine the way they acquire things they want, i.e. by using modchips, flashcarts, cracks, P2P, etc.

The space between those extremes, in which a business can be profitable and popular, or in respect of a product, where a low enough price generates a high enough sales volume to create maximum revenue, is still difficult to find, but it will happen, especially with dialogues like this driving things forward.

(via Wonderland, and CC image of piracy rosette by Sarodeo)