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A Set of Observations on Video Game Piracy

April 11, 2012

Piracy is pretty much inevitable when it comes to video games. It’s a weird and odd thing to say, but it is. Most companies are trying to avoid the problem, thought, and that’s where we end up with a clash of the new generation and the old generation. One sees the “other” as a stodgy, old set of evil corporate executives and stockholders who are wringing out money of consumers (the common, prevalent idea that “corporations only exist to make money for their stockholders”). The other sees this little young miscreants who want to steal the products they worked so long and hard to present to the consumer in the first place! Both have valid, and interesting, grievances in this. But I think the answer can’t be one side winning over the other; it’s more understanding the ideologies of each other, and reaching some kind of compromise.

Hackers can easily get around DRM, methods to prevent additional installations punish the consumers rather than the pirates, etc. Once those kind of people can shut down the internet access of entire countries, it’s better off to allay their concerns rather than, for example, trying to pass bills like SOPA, which attempted to have DNS bans which the government can enact on people! Is that really the best solution? It’s easy to get around a DNS ban, honestly. “Computer experts” and “security experts” know substantially less about these workings than those who grew up culturally with this technology. Now we have The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, or CISPA, which is giving ISPs the ability to ban user’s access to certain website. Legislation, contrary to what people seem to think on the “older generation”, is not the answer. We do NOT need another Playstation Network situation; that will just exacerbate this inconspicuous conflict. No proposed solution has really done much of anything to allay the problem, nor to make it any more profitable for the company that actually made the game. Instead, they alienate consumers, and the pirates alienate the companies in a vicious cycle.

Let’s just accept, for a moment, that 90% of all PC gamers are just going to pirate a game, regardless of how good it is. It may be the result of an entitlement society that has developed over the past 50 years or so since the Great Society of the 60s, but there’s not much you can do to change public sentiment on this point. People feel, when they get something, that they deserve some freedom in how it’s used. This works, somehow, for pirates as well, who feel they have some tether to the use of the product. Companies need to accept this, and appeal to the customers who are, in fact, willing to buy games because they appreciate the craft, money, and creative thought that goes into the manufacture of interesting, unique, and interactive digital experience. The pirates have been here, and always WILL be here, so work around it.

That’s why GoG.com gets its right, I think. Why punish the many because of the one? Why limit the consumer who actually wants to purchase your game? You shouldn’t. Companies, honestly, need to get with the times in intellectual copyright and just appeal to the audience to whom you want to sell things. Collector’s Editions, for example, provide some extras you can’t get with the normal game; GoG provides soundtracks (which usually gets me to even re-buy games for such a cheap price) and other interesting extras you can’t just happen upon. Of course you can pirate much of this, but there’s a sense of ownership in having, for example, an artbook or something that a PDF scan isn’t going to recreate. Aesthetics goes a long way into making a product much more appealing to a mass audience, and giving actual consumers and buyers exclusive stuff goes a long way to improving relations.

Think of companies as sovereign nations, and I think you can see some of this. Scott Adams noted in When Companies Become Countries that the company still needs to appeal to its employees and consumers to survive, even as a country. So, like a political process, there needs to be a compromise that settles both sides on the debate.

Logistics, as well, also help. Steam is easy to use, for example. Yes, you can’t sell your account, and you are restricted to a specific service, but can you blame them? The closed system works, as long as the consumer earns respect, because you can’t pirate things! That’s important for a company that wants to sell a game without losing profit. Origin, and other like services, are a bit more difficult to justify because they seem like a problematic “competition” between digital game service providers. I’d say stick to Steam for most, even if you don’t want to – alternative services, again, confuse consumers as to how to access the products, and especially with Origin, make the simple act of playing a game much more complicated than it should be. EA shutting down internet services for its games with “online passes”, for example, is disrespect for the audience that plays your games. Blizzard has an interesting model as well, similar to Steam but also requiring internet access. Honestly, it works, but it means you don’t own the product but a service.

I’m not sure the implications of that, but seriously, we’re talking about games; it’s not like I’m signing my life away for drug tests or something. I think the problem has a solution, but people just want to win and believe they have the higher moral ground. The narrative of the entitled pirate meets the narrative of the corporations, and never the twain shall meet because either one frames the other as an oppressor, or “the one who has the power”. In reality, both are really just people, and both have certain interests in their respective communities. They need to understand each other to solve the problem.

Will that happen? Who knows. We can hope, though.

EDIT: Aha! Looks like I am very good at analyzing these things! Though I hadn’t thought of the Steam sales, I think there’s obvious cons (as in this Eurogamer article), but also pros, as you can buy games you more than likely would never have bought if they weren’t on sale (like the King Arthur games for me, for example).

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From → Life, Video Games

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