With mass lay-offs, studios dropping like flies and mega-franchises imploding under our feet, it's tempting to declare that there's never been a worse time to get into video game development.
The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) fuelled further negativity back in January by estimating that software piracy – that old scourge of the computing biz – may have cost the industry as much as $1.5 billion in 2010, based on a sold-to-pirated ratio of 1:1.
While major publishers shout loudest over their hypothetical losses, common sense suggests that smaller independent studios suffer most from the explosion of piracy. These companies have no cash cushions to fall back on, no assets to sell off, no enormous legal teams to deploy in their defence.
What's more, they're often dependent on the internet to publicise and distribute their products, neck-deep in the very medium that gives copyright infringers their power.
But those vexing truths cut two ways: the indies are able to adapt swiftly to changing market conditions, and adopt strategies Activision or Ubisoft would deem unthinkable.
They have little to lose, but lots to gain. And their close relationship with the net may give them valuable insight into how to discourage, work around or even – whisper it – actually benefit from software piracy.
THE DANGERS OF DRM
Digital Rights Management software is the most common, and perhaps the most controversial, of anti-piracy measures. While most developers acknowledge the usefulness of such systems, few regard them as a credible long-term response to copyright theft.
DRM can be cracked like any piece of code, and are often too intrusive for many legitimate users, who resent the implication that they are guilty till proven innocent.
I've never felt that it's pragmatic to say ‘we're going to stop pirates by having this awesome DRM system', or by going after them specifically,” comments Joel DeYoung, director of game technology at Canadian studio Hothead Games. And that's not just about video games but music piracy and so forth. To me, any efforts along those lines seem to be futile.”
DeYoung's says DRM practitioners are simply putting off the inevitable: We're speaking in generalities, but I don't think that we'll ever stamp out piracy. Any time you're dealing with digital data, there's going to be a way for people to get access to it without paying.
To me it's just about accepting the reality of that fact, and adjusting your business to deal with it.”
DeYoung seeks less to wall out the pirates and more to rethink the nature of the problem. He says: What I'm interested in is creative ways to reduce the harm caused by it, or in some cases even turn it into a benefit for your games.”
He suggests, for example, the appearance of indie darling Minecraft on file-sharing sites may have helped expose the game to wider markets – something no developer would object to because of the value of the publicity you're getting”.
Swedish developer Frictional Interactive has had its run-ins with file-sharers. The firm's Amnesia: The Dark Descent was on torrent sites 24 hours before release in October 2010.
The studio's Jens Nilsson argues that piracy deserves analysis, rather than knee-jerk condemnation.
We think it is important to talk about piracy – not to complain, but more to discuss it,” he said. The option otherwise is to not say a thing and invest in DRM. Which so far always punishes the people buying the game.”
He suggests the old defence – that the industry provides a better service to the consumer than pirates may be wearing thin: It was the exact same thing with C64 games. Game cassettes bought in the store would take forever to load but pirated turbo games” gave you 20 games on a cassette, and loaded five times as fast.”
THE RETAILER'S TAKE
Many digital retailers insist that DRM is the best option available. But Paul Sulyok, managing director of Green Man Gaming, is open to DeYoung's suggestion that piracy can be to an IP owner's advantage:
You could allow a game to be torrented so long as you have some way of doing micro-transactions or in-game ads on the back of it.
In order to be able to properly leverage or harness piracy, you have to make sure that your business model caters to that. This is a day one decision.”
MEETING THE PIRATES HALFWAY
Nilsson points out that creating a friendly buying environment may persuade pirates to cough up.
It is important that we get as many of those that pirated our game as possible to buy it,” he says. They obviously liked the game, so then we feel that they are likely to pay for it under the right circumstances.
To achieve this, you need to plan long term, so that there are lot of different ways to buy the game: during sales, in bundles, pay-what-you-want, credit cards, mobile phones, real money, bank transfers, and so on.
We think the game is worth a certain sum but perhaps not everyone agrees – then it is our responsibility to make sure they can pay what they feel is right. At the same time it is their responsibility to pay an honest amount.”
Flexible payment structures have been experimented with before and to mixed effect. California-based Wolfire Games tried the pay-what-you-want approach with its Humble Indie Bundle in May 2010, offering a selection of high-quality titles for as little as one US cent. A week post-release, the publisher was dismayed to discover that 25 per cent of downloaders had obtained the bundle by hacking its website.
Ultimately, anti-piracy strategy may fall within the remit of that time-honoured marketing adage, start a conversation”, as facilitated by blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Pirates are unlikely to torrent a game as readily if they're engaged in dialogue by the creators, acquainted with them as individuals, and with the difficulties they've overcome in order to bring their work to market.
DeYoung touches on the idea at the close of our chat. One of the things that I've really appreciated is this whole change in the market has allowed us to directly connect with the people who play our games. And I like to tell people, ‘yeah, this is something we struggled with when we were making the game, and here's how we dealt with it'.”
Where savvy pricing initiatives, digital barbed wire and the threat of legal intervention fail, perhaps the best way to deter piracy is simply to be direct.
I think people appreciate that genuine access,” DeYoung muses. They don't feel like they're just getting a press release every time. So indies have to utilise that, because it's a strength. People aren't going to look at them like they're some big, monolithic corporation, pumping out games, they're going to look at them as passionate game creators.”