Aaargh….

Back at the beginning of August, a small game developer based in the UK asked for honest feedback on a fairly straightforward question, “Why do people pirate my games?” I can only imagine how many emails he received in response. So, he read each one and compiled his thoughts in a well-written response. And, to top it off, he’s changing the way he does business in an attempt to make some of those pirates honest.

Cliff Harris, the game developer, received the typical pirating reasons. These include cost, ease of access, and DRM. A few surprising reasons included the “I don’t believe in intellectual property” response and complaints about current generation game quality. And, of course, there were also responses about pirating because they could.

Cost was somewhat surprising because he mentioned that while there were the normal complaints about the high cost of current games, there were also complaints about the price of his games, which ran in the $19-23 range. In some ways, I can agree with this. Games you buy at a retail chain generally run $50-60 when they are first released. Over time, depending on the platform, prices will drop. Ultimately, it takes years for most titles to drop into the sub-$20 range. One argument against price was the thought of impulse buying. I know, for myself, that impulse buying is a big one. I spend a great deal of time determining what the next console game I get will be due to their high cost. On the other hand, sites like Big Fish Games allow for quick impulse buys.

Quality is another interesting reason. When a new games comes out, there’s generally a lot of hype. Unfortunately, and probably as expected, most games don’t live up to the hype. The major letdown in most new games seems to be the gameplay or lack of content. The game is too short, or difficult to play due to poor control schemes. Game demos often don’t show the full game, giving false impressions. In the end, you pay a good deal of money for a game you don’t enjoy. And to top it off, there’s no way to get your money back. So many people opt to pirate the game instead of paying money for something they might not like. Of course, more often than not, they still don’t pay for the game, even if they do like it.

For myself, I don’t really have any interest in pirating games these days. While I would love to have the latest and greatest games (Bioshock and Mass Effect come to mind), pirating often means that you lose some of the features. You almost always lose the online portion of the game, since most online games use some form of DRM to ensure authenticity. Growing up, getting a job, and having little time to play might be a reason too… ;)

Of course, there is one particular reason to pirate games that seems to come to the forefront of my mind these days. DRM. Let’s say I can only get a few games a year. And let’s say I put off getting something like Bioshock or Spore, opting to get it later when it hits the bargain bin. The problem is, these games may never hit the bargain bin. Or, when they do, they won’t work anymore. Why? Because in order for the games to work, the activation servers for these games must be up and running. Good business sense dictates that most times, when a service costs more to run than the revenue it brings in, it’s time to discontinue that service. So when it becomes more costly to run the authentication servers as compared to the revenue the game is bringing in, they’ll get turned off. Or, worst case, the company maintaining those servers dissolves and the servers get deactivated because there’s no-one to run them anymore. The effect, in the end, is the same. The game I purchased is unusable. I recently saw it phrased another way, “you can’t buy new games anymore, you only rent them.”

The sole purpose of DRM, of course, is to prevent piracy. And is it working? Well, sure it is. It prevents casual pirating, such as making a copy for your friend down the street. With DRM, casual pirating becomes more difficult, often out of the reach of typical users. So in this way, DRM is a win. On the other hand, the advent of the Internet has made it extremely easy to find and download copies of games and other programs that have been altered to remove the need for activation. In other words, the DRM was cracked. Casual pirating becomes easier again.

And let’s face facts, DRM is not nearly as hard to crack as you may think. Let’s take a look at the latest “state-of-the-art” DRM as applied to the new game, Spore. Spore was already on the torrent sites, with a full workaround for the DRM, 3 days PRIOR to its release in the US! The game hadn’t even been released yet, and it was already pirated! Great job, DRM.

Of course, pirating is illegal, and there are no real excuses for it. But publishers should learn the reasons behind pirating. Why has it become so big? Is it purely because pirated versions are readily available via the Internet? What makes a pirate start pirating? Is there anything that can be done to reduce pirating, without alienating the legitimate user? Surely the draconian DRM schemes we use today aren’t working well. In fact, there are some games that won’t work unless they can re-activate every few days! And if you can’t get a connection to re-activate, you can’t play! But, dammit, I bought this game!

I have to applaud Cliff on his response to all of this, though. He has decided, through all of this, to not only reduce the price of his games, but to give up DRM completely (even though his DRM was a one-time lookup thing and almost completely non-intrusive) and lengthen his game demos. That takes a lot of courage to do, especially since his livelihood is riding on this. Hell, his willingness to do this has even intrigued me to the point where I may just have to buy one of his games, just to support his decision! I suppose I’ll have to check out his selection and see what’s there to play…

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