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Swashbuckling for Landlubbers: Why you may already be encouraging piracy!

Yo-ho, a pirates' life for all your customers! Why you may already be encouraging piracy with your business practices!
Yo-ho, a pirates' life for all your customers!
Here come the disclaimers now, cause they need to happen.  I intend to bridge the gaming co. exec vs gamer gap since I am currently both (albeit at a small start up for the exec thing).  I'll start by saying I do not pirate games.  I even look for ways like Steam to buy games at the price I want (if I want to be cheap about it) that still gives money to the developer, unlike buying used.  I do not condone piracy generally speaking (you'll see why I've qualified this soon enough).  My intent of this article is to shed light on something that you may not already see and help our industry to make smart decisions about piracy/anti-piracy measures.

So why is all this important in the first place?  Well, I know that talking to the business folks in our industry makes anyone concerned about piracy.  Sure, they want to cover their behind to get the most ROI as possible.  Unfortunately, they often decrease their ROI without knowing it.  

For whatever reason, I have recently started receiving Rolling Stone magazine in the mail.  It is a well written and exciting magazine to read.  I wish they'd cover games more (or at all, really), but that's not what I'm interested in talking about.  Rolling Stone recently had some good recaps of the past year and past decade.  I want to highlight the report on the music industry in record sales.  It is dismal at best.  Apparently vinyl sales have gone up, which is a phenomenon that has a similarity in the game industry (the 'retro-fetish' or buying old games on a new system or for the dusted off old console).  In the music industry, this is the only sales figure reporting growth.  Everything else has rapidly shrunk with figures so low I'm starting to worry about the RIAA moguls' ability to continue affording to gold plate their toilets(sarcasm here).  Why have I already wasted so much time talking about the Recording Music industry if my point is about piracy in the game industry?  Well, here's why: it is the single biggest warning flag we could have.

Ever since Napster came on the scene at the tail end of the 90's the RIAA has been acting like idiots and not adapting to the changing market place.  The music industry has even done things as dastardly as taking their fans to court and suing them for incredible and unpractical fines.  What has all this done?  Killed the industry.  Make no mistake.  People will continue to make music, people will continue to make money making music.  But the industry is by and large dead now.

I don't always want to point up and say the sky is falling, but when it's moments from impact I at least want to be kind enough to say duck and cover.  Let's be fair to ourselves and say that the game industry isn't quite dooming itself like the recording music industry has...yet.  But we are doing some key things that wave the black with white skull flag of piracy if not the white flag of surrender.

Let's take a look at those contributing factors to piracy:

Abandonware.  I can't begin to count how many insanely awesome games were made in the past and for whatever reason have no feasible legal way to purchase and play now.  An example: I have played many games in the Suikoden series and generally really enjoy it.  I have heard from many people that Suikoden II is the best.  I missed out on it while it was in retail for whatever reason and now the only officially sanctioned way for me to play it is to track it down on ebay and pay an absurd price tag that exceeds $100 for a used game that will give no extra pennies or yen to the developers.  Sony and Konami, you can thank me for restraining the irresistible urge to pirate that game.  I wish that was the only game that was like that, but sadly there are many out there.  And with great services like, VirtualConsole for Wii, (Virtual Console that should be on)DSiware, PSN store (Psone games can be played on both PS3 and PSP!), XBLA, Steam, D2D, Impulse and others there is no excuse.  So many great old games can be run on almost all or any current hardware.  Even the DS or iDevice (which, correct me if I'm wrong represent the lower end of hardware power) can run games that were on the NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, etc.  So, I'm missing the reason why we don't have a full back catalog on one of those platforms (I can cut a company, let's say Nintendo, some slack for not wanting it's games on Apple/Sony products, but why not on the Wii/DS?)  Again, this frustrates me, but any logical sane human would just go directly to pirating.  

High Prices.  Really guys, really?  I mean do I even need to beat this dead horse again? Yep, I do.  And it has a lot to do with money I shell out for games.  And every other gamer out there.  And how upper management at the bigs rewards themselves handsomely for learning how to mark up stuff and make people just angry enough that they don't care to do anything.  Let's not get this wrong, overcompensating won't help either.  99 Cents games just don't cut it either.  There's a middle ground where you can afford to pay your workers a reasonable living wage and not rip off the consumer.  If a gamer must spend his hard earned cash on gas/transportation expenses just to see that the local Gamestop wants too much for a game, he's not going to bother.  Piracy it is!  Why does any sane person pay $60+transportation+taxes+fees to get something in an inconvenient way when he could just kickback, relax and pirate it for free?  But if the marginal benefit outweighs the marginal cost, we can convince him to come to the store and give us his hard earned cash to become our hard earned cash.  Wouldn't that be better?

DRM.  Not every case is as bad as the Spore fiasco.  Almost all cases are bad though.  The only decent DRM I've ever seen/used is Valve's Steam DRM.  It allows you to own your game, back it up, copy it, play it on a different machine (or the same machine after a wipe/reinstall of OS), re-download your game, and keep your game indefinitely.  But you can't pirate it.  Any other way of doing DRM is basically like yelling “Pirates, you just hit the mother-load of buried treasure, c'mon and get it!”  Why?  Well, let's briefly go back to the music industry.  Apple doesn't think that I can handle music data I purchase, so they reserve the rights to limit my use of my stuff with their DRM.  When it comes to buying music on iTunes, I simply think “Why?”  I'm old enough to be legally punished for my mis-use of my possesions, so why am I not also entitled to use them how ever I want to within the law?  I'd rather buy a CD (like I still live in the 90's) cause I can rip it and back it up for when something happens to that CD, or digital file.  Media are volatile.  All of them.  There will exist a time when I will no longer be able to use CDs, game cartridges, game discs, digital media, etc. because they exist physically in some form and nothing physical lasts forever.  I should be legally and digitally allowed to back things up.  DRM is like selling a car to someone with a 'boot' that towing companies use as standard equipment.  Sure, you won't be able to do bad things with the car, like perhaps vehicular manslaughter, but then again, what the heck can you do with it?  Not much.  Again, any sane person buys the car that doesn't come with the boot, or in our case the game without DRM.  DRM encourages piracy.

Generally stupid marketing moves.  This is a bit of a catch all category since it's hard to spell out all of these.  Basically, gamers that I know tend to be people of decent intelligence at least and can sniff out something fishy if it's there.  And what other reaction should they have than to pirate or boycott the game?  Things like milking gamers for money, withholding games due to stupid financial reasons (this is a grey area, but if it benefits you as a producer way more than the gamer, you are generally in the wrong), bad PR, and other things along these lines.  

Quick recap:  This isn't one of those OJ's book situations.  I'm not writing “If I did” like how I actually did it.  I don't like piracy and I do not practice it with games, no matter how much you make me want to.  I'm writing this because you make me want to be a pirate.  YAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRR!  It's hard to resist, but I will, and I trust that you will examine your own company for these bad practices and work to amend them so that not only I am swayed from the temptation, but others out there are too. Here's the best part: you get more money and more loyal customers!  Take a serious look at your price tag on games.  Just cause there's a de facto standard doesn't mean you have to, or should follow it.  Has your company been at it a while in the industry?  Chances are that's so because you've got a great back-catalog of games in your portfolio.  Chances are also good that gamers still want access to them and could compensate your porting/localizing efforts even on a small end user price tab.  DRM is evil.  Treat your customers like pirates and pirates they will be.  Be shrewd with your business and marketing practices.  Gamers will see through your BS if you throw it at them.  Be warned: they throw back and have great aim due to all the FPS's we have been feeding them.

Piracy is impossible to stop altogether, but please don't encourage it!  You've been warned and now know better, there's no reason to not expect a negligible piracy rate when you factor in what I've said and keep your ears to the ground.

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