I wrote an article a few weeks back on the conflicting claims about the effects of piracy on the PC games market. A friend then recommended to me a very interesting article by Tadhg Kelly in GameSetWatch, arguing that piracy itself can be a beneficial marketing technique and that building relationships with gamers is more profitable in the long term than viewing games development as what he calls a “content business” where the game’s content has value.
My intent here is to show several reasons to view his arguments with suspicion. I think that a certain model of game does lend itself to his view of piracy and that this model (the free-to-play model) has produced some excellent games (League of Legends and Bloodline Champions are two shining examples), some enjoyable, but ultimately more average, games (Champions Online or Dreamlords: Resurrection) as well as some really bland stuff that is often fairly ruthless in getting your money (a lot of Facebook games belong here). While I believe that the gems that this model produced has clearly justifies its existence (the majority of the non-World of Warcraft MMO market runs on this model), it should not ever become the sole gaming market model and that’s one part of what Kelly seems to be saying.
Before he talks about this though, he makes several assumptions to which I take objection and are contentious. He writes:
“[Most game developers are] seeing their business as a content business, where the content is the thing that has value. This is not the case.
The games industry, like all the arts, is about finding and interacting with fans, so that value comes from a relationship. As we slowly move into the post-platform, single-franchise future, understanding the difference between the two is crucial.”
His emphasis on content business and relationship are the crux here. He describes most developers as belonging to the former view, that they create a certain piece of content that has value and attempt to sell it whereas the ideal is the latter. I think there is both an overt and a tacit assumption here that I want to knock out.
First, the overt assumption is that games development is like creating a piece of art. While a lot of ardent games are art types will treat this idea as sacrosanct and often not even debate any of its critics properly, their belief extends exactly zero metres beyond the borders of people already keeping the faith. I would not defend the idea of games as art, even as I ardently defend their value and worth, because even if games could be art (which, in their thousands of years of existence, they still fail to be even as younger things like cinema and photography take up the mantle of art uncontroversially), I don’t want aesthetic concerns to ever override what I want from games: to be entertained and enjoy myself.
The more subtle assumption is that this view between games as a content business and games as creating relationships is presented as a dichotomy, that there is no ability to view games as a content business while building relationships with customers. I spoke in my last article on piracy of games like Gratuitous Space Battles and The Void where the designers did create an outreach to customers, but did not ever assume piracy to be a good thing. They did view their content as being stolen, but seized an opportunity to build relationships and encourage sales.
It’s clearly not the case that you need to abandon the view, as Kelly recommends, that there is value to your content. I find it borderline offensive, even, that a man whose work seems to consist largely in basic microtransaction-based Facebook games like Soccer Hero has the audacity to tell Ice-Pick Lodge or Positech Games that their work has no value.
Kelly goes on to make an analogy between the circulation and sale of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and sale of sequels in gaming. Piracy of originals, he argues, could raise awareness of potential sequels in which people are more likely to invest. He compares this to the higher success of the second part of Paine’s Rights of Man in terms of sales than the first part despite the necessity of familiarity with the first in order to understand the more successful second.
The problem I have with this analogy is that it simply doesn’t require piracy in the equation. Borrowing games, watching friends play games, playing them with your friends, these are what are needed and there is another strong argument against DRM within this, but not piracy. Paine’s first book was not widely known because of piracy of the text, but because people shared the physical medium of the text. Piracy never came into it.
Beyond this, he moves into another suspect analysis of the industry. He writes that the industry commits the “one shot fallacy” which is that developers seem to think of games in an atomistic sense. They don’t talk of games with sequel potential unless the game has been successful enough to merit sequels. My only response to this at what game industry is Kelly actually looking? Has he not looked at one of the overriding criticisms of Activision? Activision has long been criticised for only seeing games in terms of long-term exploitable intellectual property, it effectively tried to bury Brutal Legend because it didn’t think it would produce sequels, just compete with its own IP. This view of games in terms of sequel potential is simply not a healthy approach and Activision is the proof one needs of that.
Furthermore, let’s look at the sort of model he suggests, building social features into a game that requires purchasing features (such as support or extra content) after the game is already in the hands of the gamers. This is effectively the F2P model and that’s all well and good except the fact I don’t want every game having this model and neither do the majority of gamers. One of the key criticisms on Metacritic from users of Portal 2 was that it had an in-game store for a game that required a base payment.
I can take this further, one criticism a friend made of recent versions of Team Fortress 2 was that it now has boxes that contains items which you need to pay to unlock and get the contents. This is, in an otherwise great game, a rather awful feature. Even if this was a game where there was no initial payment, is that what we would would be happy with in every game?
Would we be happy where every game is freely distributed only to then get its money from you via social features and in-game quirks like the locked box idea of games such as Team Fortress 2 or Allods Online? It’s nice that the F2P model exists, but it occupies a niche, I simply don’t want every game to work on this model because the F2P model has produced a few gems and mounds of rubbish Facebook apps that I have to keep blocking.
Of course, the other part of this is that copying the raw install files for League of Legends or Bloodline Champions for a friend is not piracy, it’s legitimate distribution (unless I messed with the files somehow). What he describes as piracy is in fact, perfectly legal under the F2P model and not piracy in any sense of the word. Where it would be piracy is if I gave a friend an unlocked version of either game with all the characters unlocked already (apparently, with League of Legends, unlocking extra skins illegally was once possible). Something tells me that if I distributed genuinely pirated copies of Tadhg Kelly’s game, all the social features and extra content promised after the gamer started playing already unlocked, he might have a bit more of a problem with what I was doing than his article would suggest. That is piracy.