Friday, August 29, 2008

The Path of Least Resistance

I can’t help smiling at the idea of wealthy leaders sitting at the top of their towers of glass, having the resources to buy your house ten times a week, and being convinced that only enough blunt force will curb the modest into behaving like a nice little sheep.

In a way, they are not imaginative. They’re lazy people, as they go for the easy route. They use hamfisted reprehension and are not short of applying the most absurd and over the top penalties to silence the guilty:

The game makers have appointed the law firm Davenport Lyons. This week Isabela Barwinska, an unemployed mother of two, became the first person in the UK to be ordered to pay damages to a manufacturer. She must pay more than £16,000 to Topware after downloading Dream Pinball through a file-sharing site.

I am in no way trying to condone piracy, but there are extremes at work there, and neither are correct.
I merely want to add more to my initial rant. I said I’d try to tackle some solutions. Surprisingly coming to their senses, EA heads now think in such ways as well (a rather dissenting song from what Peter Moore was trying to say in May, although we could sense a level of *cough* crypticism *cough*).

The point is that no matter our monetary resources, as a whole, we are like electricity: we always aim for the path of least resistance.
In this case, we should say we generally follow the principle of least effort.

People don’t want to bother with complicated verification systems. They don’t want to bother with drivers, guides, cables and what have you. They don’t want to have to subscribe and fiddle with internet formulas.

The trouble is that piracy makes acquiring illegal copies for nothing very easy (following a modicum of patience and efforts), and no one will ever beat that with the most restrictive Big Brotherish security system.
Even if your system is not of that vein, people see it as such.
Wasting millions in DRMs when most of them fail in the following week is equally absurd.

If you still wonder why DRMs suck, then pay a visit to Defective by Design. It is a down to earth documented and active community opposing the nonsense of DRMs, and they have a point.

So what do we do then? Well, we try to understand what the solutions against piracy could be.
Obviously, you have to make legally acquiring games an easy process, reassuring people by letting them acquire a legal copy without choosing between the last Rock Band and buying nice lumps of red meat, as it’s been two weeks since you’ve been able to afford more than pathetic sausages and water to your kids.

As such, I believe in lower prices. Entertainment for the masses? Oh… well… a double edged sword we have here.
But let’s be frank, shit has hit the planet worldwide, and I’m speaking about the rich countries here, not those where buying a game is not even present at the bottom of a tertiary list of low priorities for the next two decades.
That said, some people do their best to feed the idea that lower prices wouldn’t help. It’s rubbish. Although relative, they clearly would, but if only supported by other measures.
These same people are often heard saying that pirates (a broad term) wouldn’t buy your game no matter what. In other words, they never were customers, and never will.
That’s disputable. I think that if that lady, sentenced to pay £16,000 for downloading that extremely innovative pinball game, could have easily reached and bought it for a very few pennies, she’d have probably done so.

It should be as easy as making a phone call. You know that when you pick up your phone, in 99.99% of cases, you’ll be loosing money. Why not use that system to buy games? See a game you like in a catalog? Send a SMS or give a call, give your address, no useless talking, and voila, you receive your game in two days, on a small disc wrapped in cheap plastic. You don’t pay more, just the communication, which a percentage is distributed to the publisher and the developer. You may want to add a password at best, but that’s about how far it gets. Your phone number is, by default, made public and attached to your address. Therefore the operation to obtain a copy of a game should be devoid of any trouble.

It should be as simple as saying WANT on the phone.

On the other end of the stick, just keep that call short but make it a bit more expensive than usual for the customer, according to the price of the game (be sure to make it clear on the catalog) and that’s it. It works in very similar ways for mobile phones after all. Why not for households?

But maybe such an intuitive system already exists?

One of the issues these days is that to fight piracy, many are thinking that gaming, PC or not, should be dependent upon an Internet connection.
I totally reject this option (as per Stardock’s ninth rule --which itself is full of irony, considering the deal signed with Steam and its internet-dependent verification system). It is not a solution. You should be able to buy a game, then trek the mountains you and your laptop, sit somewhere in the wild and install the game.
It is rather obvious that such an idea has only gained popularity because of the thriving MMO business model (booby trapped games). It certainly does not mean it’s intelligent.

Ads and downloadable content have been mentioned as other solutions.

Advertising, either in game or orbiting the game’s core in a way or another, is a solution. Simply put, the powers that be keep telling us they have solid numbers about piracy. Therefore, they can obviously estimate how many people they can potentially reach with ads placed in all copies, including illegal ones.
A new aspect of the war would probably be making it sure that even an illegal copy comes with ads, but we never said it would be easy!
Of course, the idea of putting ads in games is also to reduce the price of them, even maybe make them almost free, but that’s stretching it quite a lot here. A reduction in prices would be a good thing, assuming sales would follow.

Downloadable content is also another solution, but we already were having glimpses of studios (Sony and their racing games) providing light weight versions which would only be completed with a proper amount of money.
In a way, it would be acceptable if the vanilla version of the game was cheap, and the price of extra content, from useful to mere goodies, was not abusive.

Of course, piracy wouldn’t be such a problem if production budgets were not so ridiculously high and if more people could buy the games. PGC may partially solve the former, while I foresee any daylight to cast upon the later.

We really need to sell more games and content, having as many games as possible reaching an equally vast amount of people. This is where smarter and more generous bundles would help.

Finally, here’s an interesting list of articles to read at Ars Technica:

You want to know why? Pirates give indie game dev an earful

PC game developer has radical message: ignore the pirates

Game developer wants to learn from pirates, asks them "why"

The Showdown: is SecuROM a deal-breaker for Mass Effect?

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