Digital piracy, DRM, and some general thoughts on buying PC games

The games industry has changed radically over the last decade in terms of how developers and publishers monetize games and how players prefer to purchase or obtain these games. I’m going to be doing a few posts on this in the coming weeks. In this post, I’d like to talk about the negative effects piracy and digital rights management (DRM) have on the games industry.

Piracy and DRM

For as long as I can remember, piracy has been a problem in the games industry. It is the topic of many heated debates. I can understand the concerns of publishers and developers with regard to piracy, because I am convinced that piracy must decrease the maximum number of sales that a publisher can get from a game. However, it must also be said that not every pirated game should be counted as a lost sale. Gamers have finite resources, and it would be wrong to assume that if piracy was stopped completely all of those pirated copied would suddenly be translated into sales.

Publishers have tried so many different ways of preventing their games from being pirated, and in almost all cases, they fail miserably. As you probably already know, in recent years this has been done through digital rights management (DRM), a term which may as well be a swear word in the gaming community. The problem is that these attempts to control piracy, is ultimately to the detriment of those legally purchasing the game. I’ve bought a few games that required me to maintain a constant internet connection, even though these games were primarily aimed at single player offline play. I’m not ashamed to admin that I’ve downloaded cracks for these games in order to play them offline. In other words, I had to go onto a pirate sharing website to download something that would make my legally purchased copy work as well as the pirated ones. The ridiculous part is that in most cases DRM doesn’t seem to prevent piracy in any way, and even games with very invasive DRM are usually pirated within days if not hours following release.

What this means is that those pirating the game are getting a superior product to those legally buying it, and I cannot believe that something that is so unfair and undermines the consumer in such a fundamental way is even allowed. It discourages those willing to legally buy games from doing so, damages the reputation of the developer and publisher, and ultimately damages the games industry. It is like punished a well behaved child for the bad behavior of another completely unrelated child, when you know full well who the culprit is.

The bad pirates

I can understand that people choose to pirate games. Perhaps they didn’t have the money to buy it, perhaps they aren’t really interested in it but wanted to see what the fuss was about, or perhaps they would like to try out the game before committing to buying it. I won’t claim that any of these are right or wrong, because the point of this post is not to discuss ethics or morality. Let’s get one thing straight though, pirating is not necessarily exactly the same as stealing, especially if the person pirating the game was never going to buy the game in the first place. However, what I will say is that when these gamers do have the means to buy the game, enjoys the game, and they are going to commit serious time to playing it, they should buy it. It becomes problematic if players are pirating games they love not because it is too expensive, but simply because they can, and because they have no respect for the time, money, and effort that went into creating these games.

The price that games pay

The games industry would probably be better off if piracy did not exist, but it does, and it is here to stay. If publishers want to stop piracy, they should find a way of addressing the problem without compromising the product offered to the consumers. Unfortunately, it seems that certain publishers (cough cough, EA games, cough) are hell bent on screwing over the consumer while making futile attempts to stop piracy. I can give several examples of games that could have been better were it not for DRM, but the best example is the Simcity reboot from 2013 (I’ll call it Simcity 5 to avoid confusion). The very structure of the game and the gameplay itself was designed to ensure that it would have to be always online. The always online requirement was the very reason I did not buy it. I don’t care what any representative from EA or Maxis says, the decision to make this an online multiplayer focused game was a profit driven business decision, and not a creative one.

Was it a good business decision? Well, not really. EA games might tell you that they sold over 2 million copies, but what you also need to keep in mind is that Simcity 3000 which was released in 1999 sold over 5 million copies. The sad thing is, that Simcity 5 had the potential to be a huge hit, but we will never know because they allowed important design decisions to be made by accountants and businessmen, instead of people who actually know about games. To be fair, Maxis did bring out an offline single player update for Simcity 5 this year, but it might be a case of too little too late. Their fan base has already been alienated, and all but the most hardcore Simcity fans will likely wait for the next title to come out. There is nothing wrong with trying to make money, but trying to do it at all costs usually doesn’t end well for anyone.

The light at the end of the tunnel

Despite the fact that some publishers are screwing gamers over with DRM, other publishers and developers do still design games with the main focus on the quality of the product. Some developers are still making games simply because they believe these games are interesting or fun to play. It is up to you to do your research about upcoming games to be released, and to ensure that you are not buying games that are simply designed to obtain money from consumers without offering worthwhile experiences.

I would rank Gunpoint, an indie game that was released last year, as one of my top 10 all time favorite games. The developer, Tom Francis, did not make the game with the sole purpose of making money. In fact, he did not plan on charging money for the game at all. He did a post on his blog asking people whether he should charge for it, and the majority of people indicated that he should. It was a game he made simply because he wanted to make something fun and interesting. He did decide to sell it on Steam, without any form of DRM. So was the game a failure from a financial point of view? No. The game was a commercial success, especially considering that for the most part it was made by one person in his free time. In fact, it was so successful that Tom Francis was able to quit his day job and start indie development full time.

Gunpoint is one example, but there are countless other games out there, both indie and mainstream, that are achieving great success relative to the monetary and time investments it took the develop these games, without making use of invasive DRM. That is not to say that DRM is fundamentally flawed, only that the publishers and developers using it should implement it in a way that doesn’t compromise the experience of the players buying it. Even though DRM might be here to stay, we don’t necessarily have to deal with it, provided that we keep voting with our wallets.

 

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