Opinion: Embracing piracy

Instead of looking at software piracy as an evil act, Spry Fox's Daniel Cook looks at it as a cultural opportunity for video game developers to explore different ways to make money from games.
Instead of looking at software piracy as an evil act, Spry Fox's Daniel Cook looks at it as a cultural opportunity for video game developers to explore different ways to make money from games. Reprinted with permission. Last week, Ubisoft deigned to mention that it was seeing 90+ percent piracy rates and this was one reason that it was looking at F2P models. The gamer communities on the internet immediately erupted in a spasm of accumulated hate from years of DRM, poor customer service and that time they paid 60 bucks for a crap game. Over the years, I've realized that there are things called 'polarized topics'. As soon as you hit one of these, thinking stops. Instead, as with the case of piracy, you get this spew of rote arguments. The word 'piracy' becomes a trigger to regurgitate. There is a 99 percent chance this will happen with this article. Stop... think a little.

Piracy as a fun activity

I was a pirate in my youth. Many of my fondest memories involve sorting through a giant stack of 3.5" floppies searching for that one diamond in the rough. I'm not exactly ignorant of the practice. In fact, I partially credit my current design chops to playing through such a vast range of hundreds of wonky and experimental games. Being a 'pirate' was being part of a community. You and your friends shared games like social gaming gifts on Facebook. It didn't cost you anything to copy a game and give it to someone. A game was a social token to chat about, a gesture of kindness to reciprocate. A key takeaway from that time is that copying and sharing vast quantities of digital goods is a deeply fun, social and highly useful activity. This is a new thing, a new behavior in a post-scarcity world.

Hacking piracy for profit

As a young game developer, I believed that 'piracy' was the norm. The first game I worked on, Tyrian, used the shareware model. The essential assumption was that people love copying games for free, taking home a stack of 100 and then playing through them like it was Future Christmas. This behavior wasn't about ethics, morality, legality, etc. It was an observable cultural pattern of behavior that sprung quite naturally and innocently from technology and people mixing. If you put out a pool of water and people start merrily flopping around in it, you acknowledge that this thing called 'swimming' exists. You can ban it as immoral, but I'd rather invent a sexy sandy thing called a 'beach' and get 2 bucks a head for admission. With shareware, we hacked the copying behavior. People would play the random floppies and some of clever programs would say "Hey! Did you know that you can pay for this?" And a small portion of users did. 'Pirate' and 'consumer' are not mutually exclusive properties. In our capitalist society, almost everyone (with a few notable exceptions) is trained to buy stuff. People who like checking out new software for free are really just another audience of potential consumers.

Observing retail shenanigans from a distance

Now to the retail world, piracy is kind of philosophically shocking. For much of history, physical goods have featured an inherent production cost. I make stuff, I sell stuff and hopefully the resulting revenue pays for the cost of making all that stuff. This is ingrained... we don't even think about it. In fact in our specialist world, we've abstracted many of the roles and treat them as magical black boxes. Many engineers focus just on the 'making stuff' portions of the pipeline. "Oh, I don't sell stuff; I'm a maker" is the essence of their personal identity. When the rest of the black boxes don't magically perform 'selling' and 'making a profit', the world seems broken. Over the past 30-plus years, we've witnessed multiple generations of business owners coming to terms with this wild new copying behavior. And it is hard. EA used to think of themselves as a company that sold boxes. That is their culture. They hire people that love selling boxes in the same way that engineers like 'making stuff'. Then they find that 80-90% of the people playing their games didn't pay for them. In physical goods, that situation doesn't even compute. Identities are at stake. The closest analogues are terms like 'piracy', 'counterfeiting' or maybe 'intellectual property theft'. It has been a really confusing time for businesses. Some lashed out by labeling consumers as evil, some tried to protect the old ways with DRM. Relationships with customers...who see themselves as just having fun sharing cool stuff...became antagonistic. 30 years. When you raise kids in a warzone, they grow up parroting propaganda. No wonder the conversation is polarized.

Embracing the culture of free

I've never really cared much about piracy. Even the term itself is a construct of a retail mentality attempting to protect old business models. Those business models may fail in the long run. I have zero emotional attachment to buying games at retail, collecting cardboard boxes or even more radically, preserving the existing forms of games that thrived in the retail world. If all 'sequels' aka 'excuses to get you to buy another box' stopped tomorrow, I wouldn't be overly upset. Detach yourself from the emotions of history. Give up the past forms of what games were. Adapt to the current environment with one eye firmly fixed upon the future. People copying digital goods as an inherently joyful social activity is an opportunity. It is an artistic opportunity. It is a business opportunity. It is a cultural opportunity. Art wise What are new forms of games that thrive on free entrance and joyful social sharing? This means new genres, new styles of play all harnessed to our burning creative urge to forge meaning. Business wise What are new business models where we create a fair exchange of value so that players get to play and game developers can sustainably feed their family and keep making great games? This still means selling goods and services for money, but the range is vast. When I look at the bucket we call 'free to play', in reality what we are talking about are hundreds of possible business models all mixed together and overlapping in ways we are just starting to figure out. To keep it all straight, the exchange of value is important. What do we provide players? A willingness to pay flows quite strongly from delight and love. Culture wise What are our new social norms and values as a community. If beating boxes in order to buy new boxes no longer matters, what replaces this definition of being a gamer? Perhaps we have more groups that thrive on modding or building vast user-generated worlds. Perhaps we have intricate political systems. Humans are very capable of creating complex endogenous value systems independent of physical reality, yet still rich with meaning. Post-scarcity digital games are the new hyper-local hobbies, governments and religions of our time.

The drek

What about legacy retail-inspired distribution opportunities like consoles or single price downloads on digital storefronts? They still have issues with piracy and they still field the abusive customer-targeted weaponry of the past decades of war. Sell your games here if you must, but it is okay to feel a little dirty. For Steam, we launched a game as free-to-play. Players loved it. Valve does the same. Can you leverage the old to bring about the new? What about the anti-DRM disciples that promote the anti-DRM religion amongst the indies and open source gypsies? I do not see the point in reacting against something broken. To be 'anti-DRM' supports the broken boxed forms while taking a small half step towards acknowledging the systems of inter-dependency in modern digital economies. Instead, build a new structure of value exchange between players and developers. Build a city on a new mountain instead of waging an unwinnable pissing war against an entrenched, desperate and degenerate opponent. There is nothing dignified here and mountains are plentiful.

In the end

'Piracy' is a concept that only makes sense relative to old ways of thinking about games. We should all pursue better and bigger dreams. Let's not lose more life to this lame, propaganda-ridden discussion. Yes, players love sharing, playing and talking about free games. What a wonderful (and powerful) thing.

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