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Monday, February 23, 2009

Adventures In Pirating Part 2

In Friday's post, I talked about reasons that normal, law-abiding people will pirate. In this installment, I'll be discussing ways that the gaming industry can win wayward customers like myself back.

1) Become more active in the community. Yes, corporations are nameless, faceless, soulless entities, existing solely to make a profit. However, Ken Levine is not a corporation. Sid Meier is not a corporation. Help us to see you companies as groups of people and communities, not corporations. And for the love of God, whatever you do, do not throw the developers to the wolves only after you've angered the community, like you did to poor Ken Levine.

I hold up as a great example GoodOldGames.com. They've put faces on their community. Even though it's a company, and yes, the bottom line is to make money, they've found that the best way to do so is through fomenting the idea of a group of people who just want what everyone else wants: They want to make money doing what they love and being fair. Sounds good to me, and it's harder to pirate from a person than a corporation. This dovetails with the next point...

2) Get rid of excessive DRM. I'm not talking about removing CD checks or product keys, or going back to the wild, woolly days of software swapping. I have no problem with CD checks or product keys. It's when you start getting out of hand that you hand the high ground over to pirates.

Once again, GoodOldGames seems to be prospering with this idea. We have no solid numbers to back it up yet, but since developers are constantly jumping on board with it, I think we can safely say that it's a success. Since there's no DRM, there's no moral justification to pirate. Therefore, people like us who only pirate when they can justify it to ourselves have no recourse.

3) Remember you're not going to stop everyone. I say that there's two groups of pirates: casual pirates and hardcore pirates. Casual pirates are people like myself. We pirate not because we get any thrill out of it, but as a practical matter. It's easy and cheap. I'm able to play all the latest games for free. I don't pirate to stick it to any mythical "man." I pirate because I like to play games and it's the easiest way to get them. Especially in a down economy, it's going to be hard for a lot of pirates to give up their habits.

The Rubicon between casual and hardcore pirates in my mind seems to be modchipping. When you open your console, you've crossed the line from casual to hardcore. People who willingly open their systems and void their warranties just to get free content are on a different level. The majority of hardcore pirates won't stop. You can try and make the systems harder and harder to hack, but then you're adding layers of complexity for your developers. You still won't stop the pirates either, because the harder it is to hack, the more of a personal challenge it becomes.

In other words, don't try stopping EVERYONE, because you won't. Instead, do this...

4) Give bonuses to people who buy your games at retail. Atlus has started doing this. When they release a game, like Ys Books I&II for the DS, they include a bonus, like a soundtrack CD. Other games will include tchotchkes like figurines or a cloth map. Are these huge presents? No. They're not. The soundtrack will probably be on the torrent sites within minutes of release. The figurine will probably end up buried in a toybox somewhere.

Still, it's not what you give, it's that you give at all. Remember, your living is based on goodwill and warm, fuzzy feelings with your clientele. Making sure they're appreciated goes a long way toward building brand loyalty. Remember, you don't have to do this for every release. It's just that every once in a while, you should get us something nice. Make us feel pretty.

5) Allow us to return games again. This is a bigger bone of contention with publishers, but it would go a long way to reducing piracy. Now, I know Gamestop and others are scared of being considered in league with piracy, as they should be. So, here's a really easy way to handle this that doesn't cost them a penny more.

You know those Edge Cards people sign up for at Gamestop? Let us return games with them too. If we have an Edge Card, allow us to return 1 out of every 10 games we buy. There. Now we're not buying games to pirate them, and now we're able to return purchases that aren't good. Problem solved.

Oh, that's right. I forgot that Gamestop doesn't want to let people return games because they prefer to run their business as an upscale pawn shop. My mistake.

6) Give us more demos. When a movie is good, they let critics screen it ahead of time to provide early reviews and build positive buzz about it. When a movie isn't good, no one gets any pre-screenings because the studio is ashamed of it and wants to limit negative buzz. Let's do that with game demos. Let us see what you're working on before you release it, and don't just let the same purveyors of "exclusive" content in the gaming industry get their hands on it. We don't trust them anymore, so it's not helping.

On top of that, it helps get rid of another excuse that I forgot to mention: The system requirements boondoggle. Years ago, PC Gamer included a demo of Deus Ex with one of their magazines. I really wanted to play it, but I had doubts that it would work on my system. I installed the demo, and it didn't work. I'm so glad I had a demo, because otherwise I would have found out the hard way.

This would also take care of another justification that Shamus Young points out in his "Excuses on the High Seas" article: Now you know whether or not the game will work on your system. You know whether or not it will be good. You don't have to take blind, shot-in-the-dark guesses based on a byzantine list of system requirements and the cryptic reviews of sycophantic game reviewers.

7) Reviewers need to be detached from the industry. Imagine if Roger Ebert worked for Entertainment Weekly. What if, on the cover of every copy of EW for the last six months, they were hyping a new movie. Now, the movie comes out and Roger Ebert hates it. What pressure would he feel to give the movie a better review than normal? I mean, EW survives because it has access, not in spite of it. Ebert might do the right thing because he seems to be an upstanding guy, but it might bring him some flak from the suits higher up.

Now, remember the Jeff Gerstmann incident? Where Gerstmann seemingly left Gamespot over a bad review of Kane & Lynch? Imagine having to do that every single day: Toe the line between hyping up new releases and giving honest opinions. That's where game reviewers are when they work for a company that relies on access.

Getting detached from the industry at large serves another major purpose as well: It slows down the hype machine. Now, instead of fifty different sites all jostling for "Exclusive Access" that will inevitably be parroted on every site as soon as it's released, they're able to concentrate on the games in front of them. This builds value into the product, meaning that pirates are more willing to see the benefit of actually purchasing the game, rather than just consuming it and throwing it aside.

7) Give us more specials. As Valve just proved with Steam, not only do sales go up with lower prices, so do profits. I know it's common to see a AAA title for $50 and a budget title for $20. Ask yourself: Is that really fair pricing? If you're losing customers by the handfuls, are we really making the situation better by keeping the prices so high, especially in a bad worldwide economy? Hopefully we see a dialogue about pricing, and hopefully one that doesn't sound like a preschool fight.

8) Add complexity to pirating. We talked about how simple it is to pirate PC and DS games, and how complicated it is to pirate PS3, 360 and Wii games. Nintendo is taking the next step in anti-piracy with the DSi, which should lock out most major flash cards and also allow for firmware upgrades. It's about time.

The PC is more difficult to lock down. They're on to something with online distribution like Steam, but the PC market is dying. It might be time to abandon it as a single-player platform in favor of more multi-player experiences. I could live with that: My PC as my multiplayer machine, and my consoles as single-player machines. Even fiascos like Spore had a healthy online component that will keep sales going for a long time.

Let's also have CD-key checks for online servers. If I want to play Call of Duty 4 online, double-check my CD-key. Make sure it's legit. The only people who will complain are the pirates. In other words, tell the pirates, "Go ahead. Pirate the single-player experience. You're not getting into multiplayer, though." I guarantee that once the word gets out, you'll limit the amount of pirated copies being distributed. They might set up their own servers, but those servers won't be as well-run as yours are, with online leaderboards.

9) Lastly, it's on us, the pirates. We have to stop. Let's not pretend that we're helplessly being borne along by the waves of technology. We've made the decision to buy the flash card or search for the torrent. We're not helpless victims. We're people who are trying to take content from others.

I take issue with people who say that pirates are killing the industry, but there is a kernel of truth to it. If a popular game doesn't sell, it doesn't matter how many people are playing it. They're not going to make another one.

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There it is: a list of several solutions to the piracy crisis. Companies usually focus on only two: Making it harder to pirate and telling us to stop pirating. It's not that simple. There are economic considerations and broken trust on both sides. In order to fix a problem that runs this deep, there needs to be a long two-sided dialogue. Your move, game companies.