Sunday, August 17, 2008

Piracy, causality and PC gaming

Piracy is the result of an elite group of reverse engineers that mostly got bored with everything else and took upon themselves to face a greater challenge. Software (and games in particular) is not 'cracked' because it's a good for you. It's the way some talented people choose to deal with boredom. And in a sense combating piracy in the realm of software engineering through legal actions is like a Sisyphean challenge. There will always exist bored, beautifully talented people that will be able to circumvent the inner workings of whatever DRM software you imagine.

If you want to pickup and play a game, the time it takes to get from that feeling in your brain to actually playing, will probably end up determining if you're going to play at all. There's this notion of availability which I do believe that consoles have in advantage but it's not exclusive to consoles. Getting from the point at which you decide to play a game up to the moment where you've bought and installed the game is an important deciding factor when combating piracy. Which ties together accessibility and distribution, that is, the very core of information technology.

The following quote was taken from the Hanselminutes #89 podcast (the context is console security).

"You know, one of the things people don't understand is some of us have like scanning electron microscopes in our living room."

He puts up a slide that has a picture of his living room and darn if there isn't a scanning electron microscope next to his couch and he uses that. He sands off the epoxy on the top of the chips of the things he's trying to hack and he uses this electron microscope to read the internal circuitry to find out what it does.

Outsmarting an army of people with an endless amount of resources, is just silly i.e. ByteShield which have written a very interesting and probably plausible way of truly protecting software, is flawed in that it's a system that people will take great pride in circumventing.

But what about availability? I'm congratulating Valve for their premium free of charge service Steam. Because it's everything the industry needs to be. Almost $2 billion in sales was collected from Steam-like services in 2007 (that roughly 21% of the grand total according to the ESA).

Download services that won't cut it, will basically sell you a single download opportunity and once that window closes your purchased content is forfeit. One of the reasons I enjoy Steam so much is that I can bring my games with me, anywhere I go. I just install their bootstrapping software Steam and let the software prepare the games I wish to play. It's as simple as that.

I'm saying that it all comes down to this very moment, were the sheer number of clicks you'll have to make to get the game to your hard drive is a deciding factor whether you're going to buy that game or not. People that understand piracy will be able to grab a seemingly bug free copy of the game for no money at all and start playing without having to invest any time into the process of acquire the game itself. This is where you (as a business exec) will have to be smart and competitive.

Now, Steam is free of charge, no subscription required, it's not pay-per-view and that's important, because you cannot compete with people that crack software just for the kicks of it. Not by taking money for something they'll provide for free. This is all about value and aggressive pricing. Even though these talented reverse engineers are great at what they do, they make mistakes and the quality can vary a lot. Many cracked games bring about new bugs, bugs that otherwise would not occur and any non-engineer would presume the game is faulty and might end up NOT buying the game based on false grounds. But with cleaver marketing, you'll pay that extra money to get that full experience.

Peter Moore is a man I've come to respect. He said this in a response to some rather harsh legal actions taken by Atari, Codemasters, (Topware, Reality Pump and Techland).

[Suing consumers] didn't work for the music industry. 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.
Yes, we've got to find solutions. We absolutely should crack down on piracy. People put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into their content and deserve to get paid for it. It's absolutely wrong, it is stealing.
But at the same time I think there are better solutions than chasing people for money. I'm not sure what they are, other than to build game experiences that make it more difficult for there to be any value in pirating games.
If we learned anything from the music business, they just don't win any friends by suing their consumers. Speaking personally, I think our industry does not want to fall foul of what happened with music.

Now, if you want people to buy your software, you'll have to find value in the purchasing of your product as a full service package, not in the sequence of bytes alone that you'll end up shipping. For this, there's no single answer, instead there are numerous of carefully planned steps that need to take place.

Make a great game and if you think shipping NOW with what you got is the only way out, you're already fighting a losing battle. At this point you're better off saving what you can and starting over. It's hard yes but it is the right thing.

Michal Kicinski, co-founder of CD Projekt. Managed to sell 1 million units of The Witcher by sticking to a specific audience. You can read the rest here. What will you do to make sure your game sell?