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Innate to Pirate - the sequel

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This is a follow up to the post on piracy below. There were some good and interesting points made in the comments, and rather than confuse everything with lengthy posts within a threaded comment display I felt it was worth making another entry.

I mentioned this article in the original post, but it is worth recommending again: for an in-depth and insightful look at the problem, see TweakGuides: PC Game Piracy Examined by Koroush Ghazi. He covers the issue in far more depth that I will here, for example including discussion of intrusive DRM and the case of Spore. Plus he backed up his points with far more references and research than I will. [wink]

The most worrying thing I find with piracy today is not so much the rate of piracy (although that does disturb me). It's the attitude of the pirates themselves. Piracy is often seen not just as normal but a right, sometimes even noble. When called out on forums they get either aggressive or defensive about their piracy habit. Pirates even have the gall to call the developers and demand technical support for their problems (I mean, WTF?!).

To quote from the TweakGuides article (page 10):
Quote:
In researching this article I read literally hundreds of articles, studies, forum posts, blog posts and general comments from a wide range of people. What disturbed me more than the blatant misinformation and falsehoods regarding various aspects of the debate was the unashamed 'Culture of Piracy' which now appears to be prevalent around the Internet. Not only are the people who are pirating games openly bragging about it, they're flowering it up with a range of excuses, even suggesting that it's their right to do so. Back in the 1980s when my friends and I swapped copies of Amiga games, we didn't blame the copy protection for forcing us to do it, we didn't blame copyright laws, or assume it was our right to copy any game we want in the name of 'freedom', we didn't even make a point of openly advertising that we did it. We copied games for one simple reason: because we could.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and piracy has apparently somehow become a political struggle, a fight against greedy corporations and evil copy protection, and in some cases, I've even seen some people refer to the rise of piracy as a "revolution". What an absolute farce. Truth be told I have the greatest respect for the people who simply come out and just say that they pirate because they can, no more, no less. At least then I know I'm dealing with someone who's being honest and has got their head screwed on straight.


My situation is that I want to make a living as an indie game developer. It's a life goal of mine - or more accurately, I hope it satisfies two life goals of mine (one: to make a living doing something I enjoy; two: to create some great endeavour, preferably creative or intellectual, that at the end of my life I can proudly point to and say "I made that!"). Note that "make a living" isn't the same as "make a fortune"; I'm perfectly aware there's far better opportunities out there if I wanted to be wealthy, but I'd much rather have a job I love than a job I merely tolerate. However, I do need to make enough to survive, and at a sufficient level that I'm not constantly worrying about where my next meal will come from.

My intuitions based on what I have read and seen working suggest that this objective is achievable. However I will need to leverage the "indie advantage" in order to compete with the big boys in the entertainment stakes. There is no way I can compete on raw funds and manpower, but I can compete on handcrafted quality, going after niche audiences and providing a greater level of human contact with the customers. It is the last one of those that is pertinent to my worries about this type of piracy.

One of the best marketing tools an indie developer has is their own human face. It's a property that distinguishes themselves from the larger publisher funded studios. A big game studio is a somewhat impersonal faceless entity, which often prefers to put shutters over their interactions with customers. A small indie team, on the other hand, can be open. The person doing customer support is usually the programmer for the game. There's usually a blog on their website where the developers' personalities shine through. If you handle customer relations right, you can come across as someone they know: a friend. That's a great advantage.

However, friendship is a two-way relationship. In order for an indie to be truly open, you've got to think of your customers as good honest people. And of course, your paying customers generally are those kind of people. But you've also got the sort of customer who prefers to take your custom and give nothing in return. The danger is if you spent too long dealing with them, it can sour your disposition. Knowing and interacting with hordes of people who think your game is worth playing but not paying for is demoralising. It becomes infuriating if said hordes don't have a shred of guilt about what they are doing and believe they have some right to do so.

That's why the massive figures for piracy of indie games is so alarming. If games like World of Goo are being pirated to the same level as everyone else, it means the pirates don't give a damn about the little guy. Even if they have a personal presence on the internet, they don't bat an eyelid at ripping them off. If it truly is an epidemic, maybe I have misjudged my analysis of how to best market my future games.

There's also the matter of income from sales. Indie economics means you can make a living off a small number of sales, at least by game industry standards. If you only need to pay one or two developers, then ten thousand sales a year gives you a nice healthy income. The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of indie games don't make anywhere near that. The median is pretty close to zero. Of course, most indie games don't put any effort into marketing, but I doubt I'll be making a mint on my first few titles. In this industry, a small uptick in sales can make a big difference for an indie. And it's a bit of a blow if you know that nine tenths of your players are free loading.

So, what's the solution? I'm not sure, but there's a few strategies I could try.
  • Play the indie card to the hilt. Present a friendly face to the customers and make them know they're doing you a favour by buying your game. Put a thank you message within the game itself for people who bought your game.
  • Give things away; people who get gifts are more likely to want to give in return. Anything counts: free games, tutorials, articles, code snippets. Be generally helpful.
  • Ignore the pirates as much as possible. The more time you spend thinking about or dealing with pirates, the more jaded you will get. I'm not sure if this also means avoiding DRM; I'm uncertain as to its value for indie games.
  • Target domains with more customers, less pirates. This could be either channels with less piracy rates (like consoles), or genres that are less in tune with pirate tastes.
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You forgot one:

- Remove the piracy issue by creating games you play on the web. The income is through advertising or sponsorship from a third party e.g. Google AdSense, Mochi, Kongregate. The player pays nothing to play, but you still get an income.

I know there are downsides to this method including competition and forcing you to develop in Flash, but it may be a good starting point to develop a relationship with games players while protecting your games from the piracy issue.

If you have several popular Flash games and a blog, then players will likely consider a boxed (digital) game they pay for more readily in the future as you have proven your games are fun and they recognize you because of them.

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I'm in two minds about advertising supported Flash games. I know they can earn money, especially if you've got a lot of them. However I'm not certain if it will earn enough on its own, and I am worried advertising might dilute the goodwill of the connection between creator and player. My fear is that too much advertising support will make players jaded about wanting to support any other revenue sources, like pay-for downloadable games.

But it is an option, and I am virtually assured to be using Flash games somewhere, even if they are not ad-supported and merely there for prototypes or just as freebies. I just have to figure out if ad support really fits into my overall marketing image. I think it would be fine if they were ads for other indie games...

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Some platforms for games might be easier to keep piracy down to a minimum. For example, having your games as primarily online multiplayer games which require connection to your server for matchups. This way you can control who can log onto your server and thus who can play.

Of course, this is overkill and a lot of effort to go to for a simple casual game. Plus, it's not entirely unbreakable. There's people who have reverse-engineered WOW servers and run them for free. Matchups would be trvial by comparison. However, it would up the complexity from just downloading a cracked game. You'd also have to be finding pirated servers to play on.

Considering that indies rely on the good-will of their customers so much more, abandoning DRM and appealing to the customer's sense of morality may give better results. For example, putting sections in your demos and purchase-portals that talk about how supporting your games will allow you to spend more time on them, thus increasing their quality, etc. Link their paying for your game to direct future benefits (besides them getting the game, which they can do through piracy).

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Original post by LachlanL
Some platforms for games might be easier to keep piracy down to a minimum. For example, having your games as primarily online multiplayer games which require connection to your server for matchups. This way you can control who can log onto your server and thus who can play.

That's a good way to stop piracy - online MMOs these days count for a massive chunk of the gaming income pie (heck, WoW alone counts as a massive chunk!). Unfortunately I just don't see myself as a creator being best suited to make online multiplayer match up games. I'd prefer to make single player games, and I think I'd be better at it.

Quote:
Considering that indies rely on the good-will of their customers so much more, abandoning DRM and appealing to the customer's sense of morality may give better results. For example, putting sections in your demos and purchase-portals that talk about how supporting your games will allow you to spend more time on them, thus increasing their quality, etc. Link their paying for your game to direct future benefits (besides them getting the game, which they can do through piracy).

I think that's a good idea, and was planning on doing this. It would backfire if you got too preachy, but if you are open about what you are doing and your motivations then I think it will strongly help. It certainly won't hurt to mention that you are tracking sales figures for all your games and you're more likely to make sequels of the titles that sell!

Regarding DRM, I'm not sure whether it is best to have no DRM (as it isn't much use in preventing piracy, saves you development time, no compatibility problems and gives you extra brownie points). Or have very simple DRM to stop casual copying - easy to break if someone really tried, but should "keep honest people honest".

An alternative I've heard about on the Indiegamer Developer Boards that I really like is to encode personal information within the game: i.e. a screen saying "This game is registered to Joe Bloggs, email address: joebloggs888@genericemail.com". That way the game is free for Joe to copy on whatever computers he wishes, but he won't want the game to be copied to all and sundry with his name and contact details in it. Of course that still will be cracked, but it should help with casual copying and stating that the game actually is registered to someone. It should also make pirated copies pretty obviously in-your-face pirated when you play them.

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Original post by Trapper Zoid
That's a good way to stop piracy - online MMOs these days count for a massive chunk of the gaming income pie (heck, WoW alone counts as a massive chunk!). Unfortunately I just don't see myself as a creator being best suited to make online multiplayer match up games. I'd prefer to make single player games, and I think I'd be better at it.

Yeah, it's only really useful if you're looking to make a game where multiplayer play features highly. It doesn't need to be "massive" in order to work, but it certainly makes the protection harder to bypass as in MMOs, the game-state is maintained on the server and thus is harder to mess with (and easier to validate and find hackers/cheats).

Quote:
Original post by Trapper Zoid
Quote:
Considering that indies rely on the good-will of their customers so much more, abandoning DRM and appealing to the customer's sense of morality may give better results. For example, putting sections in your demos and purchase-portals that talk about how supporting your games will allow you to spend more time on them, thus increasing their quality, etc. Link their paying for your game to direct future benefits (besides them getting the game, which they can do through piracy).

I think that's a good idea, and was planning on doing this. It would backfire if you got too preachy, but if you are open about what you are doing and your motivations then I think it will strongly help. It certainly won't hurt to mention that you are tracking sales figures for all your games and you're more likely to make sequels of the titles that sell!

Regarding DRM, I'm not sure whether it is best to have no DRM (as it isn't much use in preventing piracy, saves you development time, no compatibility problems and gives you extra brownie points). Or have very simple DRM to stop casual copying - easy to break if someone really tried, but should "keep honest people honest".

An alternative I've heard about on the Indiegamer Developer Boards that I really like is to encode personal information within the game: i.e. a screen saying "This game is registered to Joe Bloggs, email address: joebloggs888@genericemail.com". That way the game is free for Joe to copy on whatever computers he wishes, but he won't want the game to be copied to all and sundry with his name and contact details in it. Of course that still will be cracked, but it should help with casual copying and stating that the game actually is registered to someone. It should also make pirated copies pretty obviously in-your-face pirated when you play them.

That's a pretty cool method. It may also give players a more "personal" touch as they see their name immortalised in their copy of the game (give a more "hand-rolled" feel to it).

Elementary DRM will only ever stop the most tech-naive people. The ease of finding torrents or other file-distribution networks ensures that cracked software is pretty easy to come by. However, if your intended market contains a significant percentage of people who fall into that category, it may be worth your while.

I think the solution with playing the "needy indie guy" card is to not play on pity or sympathy too much, nor get too righteous either. The former sounds whiny and unprofessional, the later is not likely to win over any fence-sitting pirates (IMHO). Like I said, I think people would support a project if they think their support will result in a better product for them.

If you take Toady's Dwarf Fortress, for example; he has moved away from the "develop, then release ... profit!" model (only showing the customer the finished, or very near to finished product). He got to a playable state and released what he had and people supported him financially, both in order to repay his work, and to support his future work on the project. His development site contains an impressive map of what he intends for the project, so people can really see where their money will go. Personally, I don't think I'd set myself up for such a massively long development cycle as he has (some of his goals seem very much in the distant future), but the concept is there anyway.

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