Day: July 22, 2009

Thoughts on Piracy and DRM

First, DRM Stinks
I try to make it known that AI War doesn’t contain any DRM — there’s a license key to transform the demo version into the full version, and that’s it. No phoning home, no usage tracking, no limited numbers of installs, no crazy drivers that take over your system. DRM sucks, in so many ways, and I’ve always hated it. When I buy music, I use Amazon MP3 because it’s DRM-free. When I have music, I want to be able to use it on any device I have, or any computer — I use a laptop as well as a desktop, and switch back and forth between both.

With games, it’s much the same thing. I want to own the game, whether I got it through an online distribution service or from a brick and mortar store. I want to be able to play that game ten years from now. I still pull out my original cartridge of Mario 2 every few years, or Quake II, or Half-Life, or Silent Hill, or The Ocarina of Time, or Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, or a dozen others. With some sort of crazy DRM with those titles, I’d probably have to resort to piracy just to play them at all at this late stage. Thankfully, none of those titles have more than a CD check and license key (and obviously the console titles don’t have even that).

For all of the above reasons, plus many others — such as the fact that most DRM gets immediately cracked anyway — I don’t support DRM.

But, Piracy Also Stinks
Today Google Alerts notified me of a page on NowTorrents, which informed me that over 40,000 people have been tracked downloading illegal copies of AI War. Is that number accurate? Who the heck knows, but it sure outpaces the number of sales we’ve had so far. I’ve read all sorts of articles by other developers who fall on various sides of this debate, and from what I can tell a piracy rate of 90% or more is very common. Depending on how many sites people are pirating AI War through, and how accurate tracker numbers are, we’re probably at that number or even well above it. It’s hard to say, because there’s no one central reliable source that tallies pirate downloads.

So, I should spring right into action, right? Start adding DRM to my games, or… or… or something, right? Despite the fact that this will alienate my existing and potential good customers, if I can convert even a few of the pirates to paying customers, that might pay off pretty well, right? I seem to recall some other articles talking about the conversion rate of pirates to paying customers being something like 1 in 1,000 pirates can be converted. That’s just 40 sales from all those NowTorrents pirates. That’s pretty sobering, isn’t it?

Even if it was 400 sales, I don’t think the negative consequences from adding DRM would be worth it. Goodwill is worth more. So, for all intents and purposes, this is a non-event for me. People are pirating my game, like I knew they would if it ever became popular. I didn’t try very hard to stop them, because I knew I couldn’t. No one ever has, and I’m against DRM anyway. But it’s still kind of a kick to the nuts to see this sort of thing.

So, How To Stop Piracy?
I have never seen a stronger argument for console development than this sort of thing. Pirating of console games is very hard because of all the specialized hardware — sure you get a lot of knock-off discs in China and so forth, but not so much over here. I have nothing against consoles, but I’m frankly a PC developer at heart. I love the platform, and I don’t really want to switch. I imagine I’ll port some titles to consoles in the future at some point, but I can’t imagine a time when they are my primary focus.

Well, okay, so what can we do to shore up the PC? The reason that piracy is harder on consoles is because of all the specialized, non-cross-compatible, vendor-locked, or otherwise proprietary hardware. So that’s what we need with the PC, right? Some sort of crazy anti-piracy stuff built right into our hardware, or maybe we should have specialized hardware dongles like high-end software packages sometimes do. Wait a minute, though — isn’t the awesome thing about PCs how configurable and open they are? I really don’t want to change that — my biggest gripe with Apple is how closed all their hardware is, after all. I’d probably use OSX if it could run on my PC hardware, but I refuse to buy proprietary hardware from a single vendor for a computer. Any sort of changes in that direction are not a positive step forward for the PC, and I think that myself and most other PC enthusiasts do not want to live in a future where that is the norm.

Okay, so that leaves some sort of central server authentication — well, but wait, that can be hacked out, it’s basically just DRM. Well, if people have to be logged in at all times, like with an MMO, then that’s pretty hard to hack. Actually, that seems like a pretty darn good way to stop piracy to me, but usually that is paired with a subscription fee, which seems unfair to customers except in the MMO context (and I don’t even play those, because I don’t want to be saddled with a subscription where I feel like I have to play a game a certain amount each month to feel like I’m retaining the value of my money). And anyway, there are a lot of people who have a lot of issues with the MMO model, and I’d be alienating all of them if I switched to any sort of online-only model. Look at all of the (largely well deserved) flak that Starcraft II is getting for the removal of LAN play.

Uh… okay, so what does this leave? Basically I think that rules out everything. I can’t stop piracy without doing something quasi-nefarious myself, and that wouldn’t really even fully stop the piracy, anyway. So I guess that puts us in sociological territory, where I need to make people not want to pirate the game. If price is the barrier, then maybe setting a lower price would convert some people — but wait, AI War is already 1/3 the price of its competitors. Even less expensive games, like World of Goo, have been pirated more than mine. So price doesn’t seem to affect this.

What else makes people want to pirate? The inclusion of nasty DRM is an often-cited example — but I already avoided that. Once again, I’m out of ideas.

Sticking it to the Man
Price, DRM… those are the two biggest-cited reasons for excusing piracy. Stick it to the man, and all that (but if a tiny indie developer has become “the man” then I don’t know what to say to that). In the end, people pirate because they want to. They either don’t have any money, or don’t have enough to spend on all the entertainment they want. So they buy some entertainment, and then steal whatever overflow they can’t afford. Or maybe it’s just that they are in the habit of piracy, and hardly even think about it because it is, essentially, a victimless crime against rich fat cats and celebrities who don’t really need the money, anyway. Or maybe it’s just because piracy is so easy.

Who the heck knows — I certainly don’t. I don’t think there’s any one reason. People have been violating copyright and pirating and plagiarizing since long before the modern era. There’s just something, deep down, that makes people believe that these sorts of ethereal products, or knowledge, can’t or shouldn’t be protected. In a lot of senses, when it comes to things like patents, I agree that the current laws are ridiculous. We definitely give too much protection to patent holders (or grant too many frivolous patents, one way or the other). But when it comes to products, items that most people would never dream of stealing off the shelves of a retail store, I take issue with the attitude that it’s okay to steal it if it’s digital.

The Only Solution Is Not Really A Solution At All
The value of a product, be it a CD, a book, a movie, or a game, is not in the plastic and cardboard of the item sitting on store shelves. It’s in the product itself. As we move ever more towards a digital-only or digital-primarily age of distribution for these sorts of products, that’s something that people need to remember. That’s the only solution to piracy that I can see. In real life, we depend on people doing the right thing even when there are no authority figures or policemen present. Our society would collapse if people committed crimes every time big brother wasn’t watching. Without being too melodramatic, I think it’s reasonable to say that there are similar ethical issues at stake with online/digital societies. If we can’t trust each other, at least to some degree, then there isn’t much of a society there.

I’m not big brother, I’m not “the man,” I’m not a rich fat cat that won’t notice a few missed sales. Any indie developer, and frankly most developers period except maybe those at the very top of the sales charts, need all the sales they can get. I’m not an authority figure, I’m not watching you, and I’m not pointing a bunch of nasty DRM weapons at you or your computer. Please don’t steal from me if you like the products I create. And if you don’t like the products I create, why are you downloading it from a torrent? Either way, pirates or no, life goes on. There’s nothing content providers can really do about it except appeal to people’s better nature, but so far that hasn’t really seemed to make much of a difference. That’s rather sad.

If you took the time to read an article on this subject, chances are that you’re not part of the problem, anyway.