Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on two points:
- Your success - you’ve made a bunch of great games on your own and you should be damn proud of that.
- Listening to the pirates - That’s the only way things will ever get better for everyone involved.
For those of you that like short things to read I’m sorry but I have a lot to say.
Ok, here is my ‘piracy and me’ story. Before about 6 years ago I bought very few games. It was before I went to Uni and I had very little in the way of disposable income, basically pocket money from parents and money from various holidays. Money was tight, I genuinely could not afford to buy each game I wanted to play, and if piracy meant I could get a game for free, brilliant. I did not feel guilty because I wouldn’t have bought the game anyway. Unfortunately I didn’t have the internet back then either, so I normally got games from friends (who in turn got it from their friends…). Occasionally I did buy games, and to return the favour, I made my friends a copy also. Back then I had two choices, I could buy games, or I could save up over 3-4 years and upgrade my PC, buy books and go out places. Given I could get the games for free, I did.
When Uni came along I got actively involved in the computing society there, which regularly held LAN parties. Now the great thing about LAN parties is that they are always different. Different people, different games. And as such its impossible to plan ahead. Student loan in hand I had some spare money which I was willing to spend on games. Unfortunately, retail stocked games are expensive and the only places that stock games locally anyway are places like Tesco which have practically no range at all. So, come a LAN party you arrive and everybody is playing the one game you don’t have. It will take you 2 bus rides, with a 2-3 hour round trip if the shop is still open, or, more likely, a long wait until it does, by which point everyone is playing something else. Instead you borrow the disks, instant play. Convenient. A week later, you swear you’ll buy the game because you enjoyed it, but you know you’ll never play it on your own, and next time they will be playing something else, so you don’t bother.
In some instances there were times when there was a game which looked great, so I pre-ordered it. When it arrived on my doormat, I would however be thoroughly disappointed to find it was a buggy pile of steamy turd, that it was 20 minutes long, it wouldn’t run on my machine (for whatever reason) or that the ‘copy protection’ mechanism wouldn’t let me run the game even with the disk in the drive etc etc. I started to get really pissed off at the whole industry in general. I even began boycotting publishers (cough EA), because they were churning out games year after year which just got worse and worse.
Rolling on to the present, I now have a stable job working at a games company. I count on my shelf 104 retail boxed games. Note that does not include Steam, XBLA, PSN or WiiWare. After spending far far too much money on a kick ass PC (and keeping it kick ass) and every console going, I don’t mind spending the money for a game if its good. I’m not rich by any means, I just prioritise gaming. I don’t have a car (which saves 2-3 grand a year) as I walk to work and I don’t drink or smoke. Gaming is my addiction I guess! I haven’t pirated a game (although I have cracked countless for a variety of reasons) since I left Uni. I would feel rather hypocritical pirating a game now but the whole industry reeks and I understand why people are driven to piracy.
Here are the factors which personally have driven me to (or very close to) piracy in the past.
Money. Money IS tight for a lot of people, that’s unavoidable, you have two choices here. Either lower your prices and hope it comes into these peoples’ price ranges, or write these people off. They can’t buy your product anyway.
Convenience. Retail games are not convenient. If you read about a game at 10pm (or are unable to get to a shop at that time) and you think it looks interesting, you have to make a mental note to get the game later. In many cases I will make an impulse buy late at night if I read about something if I can get hold of it right there and then. If I wait until the next morning I normally don’t care any more.
Try before you buy. You can test drive a car, view a house, try on a pair of shoes and hear a song on the radio. People are used to being able to test things before they put money down. You might argue that games are cheap enough to mean this isn’t necessary, but games are NOT cheap. Let me put it in perspective, a console game costs more in the UK than a weeks worth of shopping for me and my girlfriend.
Demos. All demos suck. Really, they do. They are either too short - which gives the impression of a lack of depth to your game, too long - so there is no need to play the full game, or give you a really bad ‘snapshot’ of the game. Developers hate demos. I personally mastered 5 demos for 2 games and it was not pleasant. The publisher gives you a set of levels they think shows off the game and you hack together the code base in some horrible way to make it all fit while realising they only gave you 3 days to do it. They are nearly always an afterthought and it shows. Knowing this, I am often willing to give games which had poor demos a second chance, see 3.
Copy protection. I’ve had games refuse to play on my PC. STALKER would not play on either my work PC or my PC at home. They are completely different setups. I complained on the forums (along with half the internet) and got called a pirate. I even bought the f**king deluxe steel tin edition. What I got was not deluxe in any sense of the word. I needed a crack to play it, it crashed all the time and I got insulted for trying to make my purchase work. And for the love of god please stop using CD keys. C&C The First Decade had SIX CD keys that you had to type in to play the game. It also required the CD in the drive. So I need to lug the manual AND CD around with me now. Oh, and I’ve since lost the manual, so I have to rely on CD keys on the internet to play my legitimately purchased copy of the game.
Value. I have a short attention span. If a game costs £40 and it will keep me entertained for a week, that’s a good investment in my opinion. If I will play if for an evening, its not.
Staggered release dates. Releasing a game in the US a month early than Europe is NOT fair. It’s unfair to those of us left waiting while all the Americans go on about how great the game is and it just invites piracy. Half of Europe downloaded Doom 3 on release day, not because they wanted to pirate it, but so they could play it early. I did, I then went out and bought the game on release day in the UK.
Sticking it to the publisher (aka EA syndrome). EA has made and published some brilliant games, but they have also destroyed countless studios and franchises. Nothing fears a gamer more than the fear that EA might buy their favorite franchise out. Maybe if they don’t have any money they will stop buying out studios and concentrate on new games instead of publishing Madden 2099. On this note, we also wish companies would stop lying through their back teeth about how much piracy hurts their sales. The RIAA is particularly notorious for this, and gamers have come to accept that games publishers do it too.
Clones. Sorry, I saw this mentioned in another post. All games are the same! I will never buy another FPS game. They are all just Doom 3 with some different monsters.
So, what can be done:
a. Reduce your prices - more units at lower value
b. Provide after sales support - downloadable content, patches, support
c. Microtransactions - make the cost of the game lower and recoup the cost through DLC
d. Ad supported - obtrusive ads suck, unobtrusive ads that lower the cost of the game don’t.
a. Steam - make your game downloadable instantly for LESS than the retail box cost. Age of Conan is a completely online subscription game, yet it require a retail game to play it. The downloadable version of the game is nearly twice the cost, requires you to jump through countless hoops (they text you a code to redeem your CD key with) and you don’t even get a printed manual for the trouble. Steam does it right. Instant purchase and your download starts immediately. The servers are fast and I can have the game in 10 minutes in some cases. In fact, I can even pre-order the game and have it sit on my hard disk ready to play on release day. No CD keys, no hassle.
3 and 4. Try before you buy and demos
a. Make your demo longer but not too long. Give a WIDE range of content, do not just use the tutorial level, and definitely do not pick a random level in the middle that requires you to understand what’s going on to pick it up. The Burnout Paradise demo was genius. The demo kept me entertained for hours, when I realised this and that there was yet more I could explore, I ordered the game.
a. Ditch it. Seriously. It doesn’t work and inconveniences the legitimate customers only. Hear me? The LEGITIMATE customers are the ones that get the short stick. Copy protection gives you no advantage at all.
b. Get rid of the CD in the drive requirement - My DVD drive failed while I was at a LAN once. I couldn’t play any games at all (except my Steam games), so I cracked them all instead. Hard drives are huge, it doesn’t stop piracy.
c. It actually HURTS sales as people who DO try before they buy by pirating the game hit the ‘tripwires’ which make the game appear buggy. Of course they don’t publish details of these tripwires, so people just assume the game is buggy and don’t bother.
d. Mass Effect PC is the ultimate example of the criminalisation of PC gamers. This game lets you install the game three times. Thats it. No exceptions, no buts. I format my PC on average once every 9 months to keep it in good shape. I probably won’t be able to play the game in a years time.
e. I once had to ring EA to get them to give me a new CD key because the one printed on the manual didn’t work. This required me to take a photo of the receipt, manual and all CDs as proof of purchase.
a. Provide value added content - free DLC, cheap DLC and patches!!! Don’t publish and forget. This is critical. EA is only just learning the errors of its ways. Everyone should learn from Criterion, they just keep adding free content and game modes to Burnout Paradise, now THAT is value.
b. Give me something worth keeping in the box. A making of DVD, a nodding figurine of the main character. A ‘commemorative sleave’ is not an extra.
c. Get rid of ‘Microsoft’ points. If a game costs 1000 points, how the hell do I work out how much that costs? In the level of indirection between points and pounds my credit card gets put away. The fact that you also have to buy points in blocks means you often end up paying over double for something short term. Thats false economy. Let us pay the amount in our local currency and only that amount. Sony is just as bad, but at least they are explicit about how much something costs.
d. Stop giving us joke DLC. ‘Horse armor’ for Oblivion is taking the p*ss. A new character for a quid, thats a joke. 3 random songs for £3.99. Get real. A whole new set of quests and cities to explore, heres my credit card.
Staggered release dates
a. Don’t. If you can’t publish all at the same time, delay the publish date. Seriously. It will reduce piracy and stop the cross continental bitching. This thing called the Internet, it lets us all talk to each other you know.
Sticking it to the publisher
a. Learn the error of your ways. Stop buying out companies only to shut them down or fire all their staff. Patch your games and listen to your customers.
a. Be original. Don’t immitate, innovate.
Gaming is changing
Gaming as a whole is changing. With the introduction of the Wii, more and more casual gamers are on the scene and they just don’t go for the whole long game, big spend mentality. Make your games shorter with episodic content - Half Life 2 is a perfect example of this. Not only that but you can make MORE money. People will pay less money at a time but will keep coming back for more. If its cheaper more people will buy the games and you can charge more for each part than the sum of its parts. People will feel they are getting better value as they can choose how long they want to play the game for with their wallet. Development costs will also cheaper and you will be less likely to make a loss. TV series make Pilots to get a feel for the target audience size. Why can’t games follow suit? Of course this doesn’t suit every game type.
Subscriptions and online games
Gaming is moving more and more online. MMOs are becoming increasingly popular. Age of Conan had a sizable amount of single player content. There is no reason why eventually all games couldn’t take this form. Now that pretty much every PC has an internet connection, or at least access to one, you can provide new things to your players and also gain a way to verify the game has been purchased. Here are some reasons that you can legitimately require an internet connection while verifying the game is legit:
a. Checking for updates - let the game patch itself, its easier for most users.
b. Contact with their friends. Heres a novel idea, let people chat to their friends on MSN inside the game. Now THATS a reason to play the game online. Can you imagine what would happen if Spore had MSN built into it? Teens would never leave it.
c. Integrated online play with the single player, such as co-op.
d. Don’t FORCE players to be online however, let them go offline and play the game on the train. Just disable all of the above until they are online again.
e. Use the CD key to register a username and thats it. Once you’ve registered your user account you don’t need the CD key again. From that point on they log in with that to the game and play online with that account. The keys won’t get shared and people won’t be able to lose the CD keys.
Advice for you in particular Cliff:
a. Make your demos a bit longer. I tried Democracy 2 and its quite a complex game, but I was starting to get into it. By the time I had got the hang of it the demo had run out. No sale (yet). Maybe at some point I’ll give it another go and buy it, especially as I can tell how much effort went into it.
b. Try and get your games on Steam. You will get tons more publicity, I often just go on there looking for cheap interesting looking games.
c. Experiement with pricing, do a week long half price ‘sale’, or ‘buy one get one free’ on your games for a limited time and then advertise it on sites like Digg and Reddit. Bargain hunters and the keen eyed will spread the word and by the time the word gets out the offer will have expired and you will have masses of traffic on your door.
d. Friend codes. Let friends tell their friends and get rewarded for it. For each friend that buys the game they BOTH get 20% off. So if they recommend 5 friends and they all buy it, they can get a free game from your site.
e. Keep being creative. Don’t make Democracy 3. Do something completely different. The more esoteric the better, as long as its fun and looks pretty. People are drawn to pretty things. My girlfriend loves Geometry Wars and Peggle. They are simple, esoteric and visually appealing.
f. Stay independent. As soon as you get bought out you lose your creative freedom and that is what makes smaller developers powerful.
g. Don’t understate the value of your product. If your price is low people often assume the quality is low as well. Developers are good at developing products not selling them, after slaving on your game you quickly learn that selling it and getting the price right is just as hard.
Hope this helps!
I’ll go back to writing my own games now too.
(Edited to add another idea I had)