Illegal copying and online Piracy is nothing new and with us entering an age of increasingly digital distribution, piracy is, has been and likely increasingly will be an issue. While, I personally believe that there are plenty of other issues facing the games industry, I can’t deny a smile at seeing the brave boys at Greenheart showing people who download cracked versions of games the sort of damage they can do.
In a fable worthy of Aesop the plucky indie devs uploaded a version of their most recent title, ‘Game Dev Tycoon’, on to a set of popular file sharing sites. This version was advertised as a full version of the game, cracked and malware free. In terms of gameplay, you play a start up indie game dev company and you are creating games to get to market. The file sharing version of the game was specifically programmed not to let you win. Halfway through development piracy would gradually eat away at profits and capital leaving players bankrupt. The better the games you made, the better your reputation the worse the problem got. At this point honest gamers, hard working developers and publishers could be forgiven for giggling at the irony of players then e-mailing Greenheart to report the bug. Now while funny is this taste of their own medicine going to change people’s habits?
- Will the people playing the game get the lesson we’re hoping they’ll learn?
- Are Greenheart risking a backlash from gamers being punk’d?
- And most important of all does this solution actually address the true issues and threats at the heart of video games?
It’s a question that has been asked by the guys over at ars technica, and I have to say that I can’t help admire Greenheart admitting that because they posted the version of the game no offence had been committed, that players who then went on to purchase the real game would find none of their progress had been lost. It certainly hasn’t been the first time this sort of tactic has been used. Award winning Arkham Asylum punished illegal downloads with an issue that disabled certain moves mean that players could not complete the game. Reporting the issue, understandably, got fairly short shrift from Customer Support Teams & Community Managers.
Why do people pirate content? It’s worth remembering that most people are honest, and many of the people using torrenting & downloading sites to grab cracked versions of games, music & movies don’t see themselves as doing anything wrong. As Greenheart admit themselves, there are people out there who love games but, especially in times like these, can’t afford to. Plus with Open Source campaigns and community created software like FireFox, Thunderbird, Linux etc. there can be a sense of entitlement (“Hey, I can get whole operating systems for free, there are free game sites, why should I have to pay?”). This likely hasn’t been helped by the fact the games industry has a habit of acting like it constantly has something to apologise for. Many pay-per-view events on TV can demand payments in the hundreds for a couple hours of entertainment, when by comparison price a game over £20 and people will look at it in suspicion and ask what they get with it? This isn’t to deny that Boxed game price tags of £40/$60 have long put the fear of god into parents every Christmas & Birthday. At this point, some will argue where’s the harm? The news tells us that the gaming industry is bigger than music and movies and is full of huge companies like Sony, Microsoft, EA, Activision Blizzard and games like CoD & MoH make millions and have all star voice casts. People must be rolling in money right? Oh how I wish it was true.
If you’ve seen the ads on facebook telling you that you could be earning almost £50,000 a year by working in games as Quality Assurance Tester, you’re being lied to. Yes, just like you’ll see Tom Cruise, Daniel Craig, et al living in big houses you’ll see guys like Bobby Kotick in great suits, and the sleek corporate shots of the outsides of studios. The majority of people working in games can’t make that sort of boast or salary. Just as in acting and music there are armies of jobbing actors in off broadway plays, or bands working the pub circuit hoping to get signed, games churns through the dreams of the young while coders, QA teams, artists, sound guys and designers work long hours for an Okay living and pray that their game will make money. So getting money back in to support the people creating games is important.
But are the usual tactics of DRM, heavy fines, legal threats or morality lessons the best way forward? Are the steady bombardment of Anti-Piracy ads & copyright notices in cinemas and the DRM arms race doing any good? While I admire the guys at Greenheart, Game Development is hard at the best of times and kick starter is littered with the bodies of projects that didn’t get off the ground as proof, but I do believe that history is pointing us as a better path. Nearly 15 years ago the appearance of file sharing sites like Napster promised to bring the music industry to its knees, but rather than armageddon what we actually saw is a revolution.
Suggestion services have opened up new genres, artists and songs to groups who would never have heard of them, and the ability to purchase individual songs rather than whole albums has not only meant artists improving the quality of their content, but importantly the ability to self publish has provided an invaluable route to market for artists who would otherwise be ignored. Access to music has never been easier, and while file sharing and piracy are still an issue paying 79p a song means that fans don’t mind paying. Music hasn’t disappeared it is around us more than ever, to the point where the threat is perhaps not from piracy but from the devaluing of an art form which can be accessed almost anywhere.
If we turn out attention to the games industry there are easy parallels that can be drawn. The key growth area in games would appear to be Microtransaction or Mobile games. In this sort of area indie developers thrive whereas it’s the big traditional boxed titles and DRM heavy distribution from companies like EA & Ubisoft look slow, and out of touch. Could embracing the opportunities here be a better answer? Could Piracy & Cheating be a sign that games designers, developers and publishers are missing something, an opinion that has been put forward by industry figures such as Sid Meier. In my opinion, yes and I think the best answers may be in embracing an opportunity rather than banning a problem.
By way of a couple examples let’s look first at Microsoft’s Xbox & the Kinect modding community vs Sony’s legal moves against moders like George Hotz (aka GeoHots). In XBox’s case, fairly soon after the release of Kinect a range of makers and hakers were pulling this new toy apart to see what it could do. They created gadgets, motion capture systems and more. On finding out that the code for the Kinect had been hacked Microsoft, not known for their legal generosity in the past, released the official Kinect HDK and told the makers to have fun, creating a classic homebrew community driving the development of the new control system. While we can’t make straight comparisons as this effects a more central IP protection & copyright issue, when Sony went to court to make an example of a maker showing PS3 fans how to mod their boxes, the result was Hacker Collective LuLzSec taking PSN offline in perhaps one of the most widely reported and damaging hacks in the last few years. PSN was offline for 3 months and it could be argued that while many PS3 fans don’t blame Sony, the company’s reputation took a sound kicking, and the resultant loss in revenue hit a lot of small a medium sized developers producing content for PSN and PlayStation home.
Okay, not exactly an apples for apples comparison, so let’s look at the microtransction, free to play (F2P) business model. I’ll admit to possibly being a little biased as this is a business model I have worked with and is currently seeing a lot of popularity (why not check out my blog about F2P?). For this particular article we’ll look at F2P as a way of battling cheats, goldfarmers etc. Anyone working in or around MMORPGs will be able to tell you about the anguish and pain caused by goldfarmers and power levelling services. Game economies being unbalanced, players losing their accounts to hackers, legitimate users being harassed by people earning money for virtual currency, and importantly potential revenue being siphoned away from the developers and publishers meaning that liquid assets needed to pay support staff, fund additional content or the maintenance of servers etc. just isn’t there. From a player point of view those service allowed players with jobs, families and lives to compete with the hardcore of dedicated fans who essentially lived in the game space. The illicit services were actively supplying a demand within the community, not from people actively looking to cheat, but active gamers who had serious problems competing and enjoying the game. In development terms we have seem similar trends in most titles, with a move to regenerating health over health packs in FPS, the change in spawn & save points in games, infinite continues and an arguable drop in challenge level over the past 15 years as games are seen more as entertainment & story telling so people want to see end game content.
By embracing an F2P model many games have turned sites like Pirate Bay, Megaupload & Bit Torrent from the enemy into active parts of their distribution network, reaching out to hundreds of thousands of dedicated and active gamers. By using an F2P model, the players then feel that they’re only paying for the content they’re actually using, rather than the feeling of taking a risk when a new game comes out.
For Greenheart, moving online to combat piracy has resulted in a drop in single player games, and here I cannot agree. The move online has little to do with piracy and much more to do with gaming trends and the regular success of multiplayer games, the use of community marketing and the rapid growth of access to faster and faster internet speeds. That and knowing where to look for good single player titles, but that is a longer blog for another time.
In conclusion, I have to admire Greenheart for doing something positive, but I doubt whether this will do much to change the culture of piracy, though it is likely to have a more positive affect than various legal cases and threats of legak action. Just like with movies and music, there will always be big flashing lights, but the games you play are only made possible by people often working long hours for average pay, so if you like something don’t pirate, pay for it. For the industry the future may well be in more innovative design rather than greater regulation. If you want something to change contact the publisher or developer. And hey, if you want to learn more about games and how they are made be sure to check out the team at GameCity and the GameCity Festival.