Whee, hornet's nests are fun!
Given a few days to re-gather my own thoughts, and consider some of the great comments from my last rant, I've decided that I'm not done yet. It's not so much that I have more of the same to say; more precisely, I have a clearer idea of what I wanted to say in the first place, and that's been focused in part by some of the feedback I got last time around.
I'm a big fan of thinking iteratively: try something, see how well it works out as a thought process, get some alternative options; keep what works, chuck the rest, and try it again. So in that spirit, here's "Piracy Redux." I have another interest to serve, namely the interest that it's 4 AM and I'm kind of tired, so I'll drop this into a bullet-point format for convenience and brevity. (Heh, me being succint. Yeah right.)
- I'm just venting here. I don't honestly believe I have a solution - yet.
I've brought most of this up just to lament. It's self-indulgent, angsty, and more than a bit frivolous. But it's my opinion, and I feel like getting it out into the open. I don't pretend to know how to resolve this situation, although I'd like to believe that a solution exists, and I'd definitely love to be a part of the solution if one ever becomes apparent. For now, though, I'm not looking to lay blame, assign targets, draw lines in the sand, or rally the troops for the final battle - I'm just bitching [grin]
Rightly or not, I feel like an innocent victim here. I feel like a kid who just wanted to go out and play Frisbee, and accidentally found a land mine. I shouldn't have to get caught up in this at all. Yeah, complaining about it is rather pointless, but I still feel like I should get to say my piece.
- I absolutely support the customer's right to avoid crappy copy protection.
Heck, as far as I'm concerned, the consumer doesn't get near enough respect these days. The DRM craze is just plain idiotic at this stage. Game copy protection is, if anything, even worse. The Sony music-CD rootkit fiasco was old hat to those of us who have been dealing with the likes of StarForce for years already in the PC gaming realm.
When I complain about consumers excercising their rights, I don't mean to suggest that they shouldn't be allowed to boycott or even avoid that which they find distasteful. Avoiding things we don't like and don't agree with is a fundamental freedom that I fully support. However, I think it is important that, in all things, we understand the consequences of that avoidance.
Say I dislike the fact that I cannot fly, and thus choose to avoid the reality of gravity. It's an extreme analogy, to be sure, but that's the point - ignoring gravity is not going to let me fly, it's going to make me a grease spot on the sidewalk.
Boycotting evil copy-protection systems is not just going to change the copy-protection arena. It's going to encourage these companies to produce ever more restrictive systems - the arms-race escalation I mentioned before. More importantly, it's going to cause collateral damage.
- Yes, it's the publisher's fault. No, that doesn't mean I can fix it.
At my place of employment, we develop a niche game. We're all acutely aware of that fact. Sometimes we've had to settle for suboptimal publishing deals just because that's the only way we can get anything published at all. Changing publishers is not really an option; getting the ones we have was hard enough. Anyone with real experience trying to publish a niche game knows the realities of this. We either accept publishers with controversial and arguably "poor" choices in copy-protection, or we work at McDonald's. Considering that I haven't spent 90% of my life dreaming about flipping burgers, the only real option here is Door Number One.
I don't speak much for groups like Stardock that can manage to wrangle CP-free publishing arrangements. I speak for those of us (in the minority as we may be) that don't have the luxury of telling our publishers they're making bad decisions. As much as I wish it could be different, that's the reality of the situation, and that's part of what makes this so annoying.
Publishers are, by and large, ignorant of or unwilling to face the fact that bad copy-protection costs sales. The only reason such systems are used at all is because publishers still believe they help sales in the long run by preventing piracy. For niche games, this is just plain moronic. The number of sales lost to piracy will never, by sheer virtue of the game's obscure nature, outweigh the sales lost to savvy consumers who are avoiding bad copy protection.
Net result: we, the small-time game developer, lose. We become collateral damage. We have no bargaining power: our niche game is a small part of the publisher's own bottom line, and losing us over a copy-protection fight only kills us, not them. We have none of this supposed leverage to force a change.
- Changing the publishers is not easy, and never will be.
First and most importantly, there's a little thing called a contract. Leaving a contract agreement with a publisher is a Huge Deal, and has drastic financial consequences. So in a lot of cases, it isn't that there's no alternative publisher out there - it's that we literally can't change at this point. But there's also more than just that to consider.
It's a pretty well-documented phenomenon that people will go to great things to bend reality to fit what they want to believe. Let's look at this from the publisher's perspective:
- I want to make money selling games
- Piracy undercuts sales
- I can invest a lot of money into anti-piracy systems
If sales go down, I'm going to think of it in a certain way. I don't want to believe that I made a dumb decision; in all likelihood, I believe that copy protection was a good decision. So if sales go down, I am naturally left to one of two conclusions: either the game sucks, or piracy is still running wild. If I conclude the second, I'll probably go looking for stronger copy protection - and you better believe that the CP industry is just going to love that. They're going to want to encourage that conclusion in my mind, because it means I buy more CP software.
I don't want to paint publishers as The Evil Empire here. I appreciate the real necessity of the publishing industry. Hell, one of our publishing partners is absolutely superb in what they've done for us as a small-name niche group. I don't believe that publishers are unintelligent, foolish, or naive. They just see things differently, and that's natural - that's a side effect of the business they are in.
Put yourself in the publisher's shoes: you've made a huge investment into supporting Copy Protection Scheme Foo. Now your customers and developers tell you it sucks. Are you going to sacrifice your credibility by renouncing Scheme Foo? (Yes, I know that 99% of us would love it for Foo to go away. That's not the point. The publishers do not see it that way, and fairly so.) You don't want to give up copy protection in general - your numbers seem to show that it helps sales overall - so what else do you turn to? Say Scheme Baz exists, but Baz sucks much harder than Foo, and is cracked five thousand times faster. Does it even remotely make business sense to use Baz over Foo? Not on paper, no.
You have to remember that publishing is a business, too. They've got their numbers and figures, and it's going to take a lot more than "people think you suck because you use Scheme Foo" to get them to see things differently. Actually, a few people in the publishing biz already see it that way - but lack the clout to do anything, either.
Change is not easy. Big change is especially hard. There is a lot of inertia to fight here, and historically, you don't beat corporate inertia by steering the boat. You blow the boat up and build a new one, and hope it sails in the right direction.
Want to know why GalCivII is such a big deal? Because breaking the publisher's iron grip on the business is not that easy. I think GalCivII is a ray of hope that the publisher can eventually be put back in their rightful place (as an enabler of creative media rather than a controller), but that happy time has not yet come. And not all of us are capable of wielding the weapons that it will take to accomplish that victory.
Yes, the cycle can be broken. Yes, there is hope. I just don't want to lose my dream job because my home town got pillaged by the raging armies.