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):
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.