Talking to Pirates

 By Shamus Aug 20, 2008 35 comments

This link is long overdue. I intended to put it up last week, got distracted, and it slipped off my radar.

Cliff Harris is an indie game developer. A while back he asked on his blog for pirates to let him know why they pirate games. Now, we’ve had that conversation here many times, but this is the first time a game developer has begun such a dialog, and the results were pretty interesting. After being Slashdotted and linked all over the place, he had quite a stack of replies.

Harris then wrote this response. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the subject, as he outlines a lot of the reasoning and then goes on to talk about what he’ll be doing differently in the future based on this feedback.

I agree with Jay Barnson, in that you have to take a lot of the responses with a grain of salt. The most flagrant pirates aren’t going to openly admit, “I pirate software because it’s cheaper and I can.” Those people will either cultivate more nuanced justifications, or they will probably avoid taking part in the discussion.

But even allowing for that, it’s an interesting read. It also gives me hope that no matter how badly EA and 2kGames salt their own fields with DRM, indie developers will be there to provide for our gaming needs.

201535 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.


  1. folo4 says:

    great, more online distribution.

    soon, the gaming shops will only be called “console game stores”.

    this means that I can’t download by purchased PC games, given my internet’s love for disconnections.

    if only more indie devs provide resuming options…

  2. Rowan says:

    Ars Technica has a good analysis.

  3. @folo4 – I understand your concern, but online distribution is often the most cost-effective method to get your game out there if you are indy developer. Many idy’s do not have the resources to actually get their games onto shelves in big retail chains or video game shops. Their main distribution channels are mail order and online download.

  4. Oh, and Shamus – I was wondering when will you post this. I read it few days ago and I was like “I can’t believe Shamus missed this one… I should email him a link or something”.

    But then I got distracted.

  5. Factoid says:

    @folo4: Fortunately or unfortunately, online distribution is THE way for indies to get their game out. It takes a lot of time and ultimately money to get a game put onto store shelves. You have to have many conversations with each and every individual chain you want your game in. Many of them won’t accept it if you don’t have the backing of a major publisher, and if they do they’ll stock it at a very low threshold, meaning there will be few copies available for you to actually purchase.

    Never in my life have I seen a game that started out on store shelves on day 1 with a handful of copies actually GROW to take up additional space. It doesn’t matter if all 4 games were snatched up in 10 minutes…the stores just use an equation to determine your stock level.

    Week n Sales = Week n 1 Stock level

    So if you you start out on the shelf with 20 games on Week 1 and sell all 20 games, your stock level for week 2 remains at 20 games.

    If you sell 18 games, they’re only going to stock 18 games on the shelf the next week, including the 2 that were left over from the first week.

    Shelf space is valuable (and declining for PC games) so it’s rare to see any game except for a hotly anticipated new release get 20 boxes on a shelf.

    The Target by my house had less than 10 copies of Crysis the day it launched.

    More concisely: It’s very hard to get a game on store shelves and very easy to distribute online. Most indies are sensitive to people with bad connections though, and will often offer to sell physical media if you pay a bit extra and are OK with mail order.

  6. Kevin says:

    I only pirate blog comments

  7. Shamus says:

    I only pirate blog comments

  8. Dravis says:

    I only pirate blog comments

  9. Robert says:

    [Full Comment Thread Crack] 20-sided tale post 1832 – XXHAXXORXX [English]

  10. Factoid says:

    The equation in my previous post was supposed to read

    Week n Sales = Week n+1 Stock Level

  11. valnac says:

    what an innovative way to increase traffic to his site!

  12. Ingvar says:

    I wonder how sustainable it would be to provide an option to have the game shipped on (say) a CD, for a bit extra to cover P&P? I mean, yes, it’s mail order, but I suspect it would be quite possible to set up a fulfilment house with distribution centres in (say) UK, Netherlands (or Denmark), probably a few select places in eastern Asia and on the US east and west coasts, assisting indie developers with burning and shipping the CDs.

  13. Drew says:

    I think Cliff may have changed this message since I last read it. Either that, or I was thinking of something else. Either way, my original comment here was incongruent with the current message.

  14. Veloxyll says:

    I can definately agree on Price. I went to the Bioware site, clicked their BUY MASS EFFECT NOW BUTTON, saw the price was $50 US, did a little maths, thought “I can live with paying $60 for a game I can only install on 3 computers.” Tried to get it digital distribution but nooooo, apparently if I want it I have to pay $100 for it. No. Just. No. EA Australia. Die in a fire. Globalisation should be fore everyone, if you can print CDs in Asia because it’s cheaper, I should be able to buy your games from whichever store is cheaper. Especially for digital distribution. I was tempted to pirate it, but one of the torrents apparently had a virus in it and another one was being bombed with false data by EA (that’d be a fun one to see go to court – EA officials distributing a product by torrents) so I gave up. So Grats EA, you lost yourself $50 US in exchange for not getting $100 AU.

  15. Remember, Cliffski = Nice guy. CliffyB = Please put your pants on, Mr. Bleszinski.

    Ah, EDIT to match your edit: Yes. That it is, Drew.

    Another EDIT: Removed most of my above post, because keeping it would be silly.

  16. Zukhramm says:

    I’m surprised the “Money” group is so big, and “The semi-political ones” are so few. I’m glad to see the “DRM” group is bigger than I expected.

  17. Oleyo says:

    Cool, I have never seen this developer and a couple of the games intrigue me (democracy and the space trader one)

  18. July says:

    Interesting that some of them didn’t like DRM, and some of them didn’t like games that weren’t on Steam…

  19. Derek K. says:

    Ingvar: For the freelance rpg stuff I’ve done that’s exactly what we did. We did a print on demand thing with someone, then offered a pdf version online. It worked great.

  20. Mari says:

    Wow. I just dug through his site to find a game I could buy just to encourage the guy for putting the effort in. I like developers that treat me like a customer instead of a brainless bundle of walking cash.

  21. Steve C. says:

    Has Sean Sands posted a retraction yet over at escapistmagazine.com for “If you’re a pirate, no one cares what you think.”?

  22. Luvian says:

    You know what I think is funny? Some game companies seem to think their customers are their allies and are on their side in the fight against piracy. That we are willing to tolerate all these hassles in the spirit of fighting piracy.

    Well I’ve got some news for them. I don’t care about what the pirates do. I didn’t sign up to right society’s wrongs, I just want to have some painless fun with the product I bought.

    I’m a consumer, not an ally and not a sympathizer.

  23. JFargo says:

    I only pirate bolg cmoments.

    Damn it. Another busted copy that doesn’t work on my machine!

  24. Carra says:

    @Veloxyll
    Well, just checked the ea store. And yes, you apparently can choose to download a English UK, Spanish, French or German version… If your address is in the US or Canada. WTF?

    That being said, people just hate to see that cool item they just bought in another shop for half the price. Seeing how they rip you off by 35 dollars is just gonna anger your customers. And it makes no sense at all, I highly doubt your profit margins will rise by raising the price by that much.

  25. Don J says:

    I saw Harris’s Rock Legend game available on Game Giveaway of the Day on the weekend, and thought about getting it, but decided against it because the theme didn’t seem right for me, and GGOTD games are hit or miss anyway. It got great reviews, but that wasn’t enough to sway me.

    Reading this and the linked articles today made me regret the decision. I now wish I had downloaded the free game as a test to see if I liked the style enough to demo/buy some of his other games. I won’t be making that mistake again if he puts up another game at GGOTD.

    It’s cool to see him following through on his commitment to better customer relations so quickly. GGOTD is about a step away from piracy, with the difference being that the games are on there with the author’s permission — so it feels nothing like piracy at all, lets me play full games with no commitment, and gives me a strong sense of goodwill towards the author.

    EDIT: Cripes, Starship Tycoon was on GGOTD a while back too! Another that didn’t interest me enough to try. Oh, well.

    EDIT AGAIN: And Planetary Defense. I’m beginning to think that the games release by Positech just aren’t my cup of tea. I’d like to try Aveyond, but it’s an affiliate game.

    I still have the goodwill feeling, though!

  26. Matt says:

    @Luvian:
    I think that, regardless of whether you are their ally, the game companies think you should be. I think this comes from the attitude that, “Piracy costs us money, and we pass those costs directly on to you. If you want our games to be cheaper (or better for the same cost), you’ll want to fight piracy as much as possible.”

    I’m not saying that’s all true, mind you, but I imagine it’s where they’re coming from.

  27. Hal says:

    I’ve gotta say, I still have ZERO sympathy for people who use the money argument. You paid how much for your PC? Even if that’s not a factor, you are not entitled to play these games. You can’t afford $20-$50 for a game? Get a cheaper hobby.

  28. July says:

    Hal: That actually strikes on a good point.

    I think that this is the game companies shooting themselves in the foot. If they were willing to scale back the graphics, the price would drop, and they would also be able to widen their customer base to people who aren’t running crazy future-machines. Speaking as a primarily console gamer, at the local electronics store, used console games (and good ones, as well) can be found for as low as around $8.00 a pop, and you never have to upgrade a graphics card. Compare that to the price of PC games, and you’ll see most of the “computer gaming is dying” problem.

  29. Matt' says:

    Interesting that some of them didn’t like DRM, and some of them didn’t like games that weren’t on Steam…

    I’d fall into that category – intrusive DRM is bad, but Steam knows how to stay out of my face and just let me play my games.

    Thus making it my preferred means of buying, downloading and playing games, all without leaving my chair

  30. Miral says:

    Same. I dislike DRM intensely, but Steam’s version of it is at least tolerable (as were the CD-check DRMs before they started checking for running processes).

    (In particular Steam supports archiving and removing games to free up disk space, and still putting them back on again without needing re-activation — which is miles better than any other online activation system I’ve seen.)

  31. Daemian Lucifer says:

    @Hal

    Dont lump all of them into a single pile.True,there are those that just dont want to pay for the game,but what about people like Veloxyll?Why would you want to pay double the price of someone living in a different country knowing that the developer would still get the same ammount of money from both of you,and the cost difference goes to the pocet of some greedy politician/retailer in your country?

  32. Luvian says:

    @Matt

    Personally I think they should stop thinking so and instead focus on pleasing us real customers. Why would any customers in any field willingly inconvenience themselves just so the seller can make more profit? Do we look like we’re their pals?

  33. anonymouse says:

    You’ve got to hand it to Mr. Harris: He did the impossible and made everyone happy. Pirates feel taken seriously and get to present their diverse cases. Regular customers profit from the improvements made in response to the pirate’s comments. The web site gets a lot more traffic, and many more people feel inclined to buy these games (see comments 17 and 20). And even I am happy, although I’m not a PC gamer: I got to read a very interesting and well-reasoned argument :-)!

  34. July wrote: I think that this is the game companies shooting themselves in the foot. If they were willing to scale back the graphics, the price would drop, and they would also be able to widen their customer base to people who aren’t running crazy future-machines.

    There are plenty of independent developers releasing non-cutting edge games all the time. Plus, on top of that, there’s an extant market of games which were cutting edge 3-6 years ago that usually sell in the $10-20 range depending on where you go shopping for them.

    So the market you’re talking about already exists. If that market isn’t larger, it’s because people aren’t particularly interested in it.

    July wrote: Speaking as a primarily console gamer, at the local electronics store, used console games (and good ones, as well) can be found for as low as around $8.00 a pop, and you never have to upgrade a graphics card.

    Both of these are apples-and-oranges comparisons: There’s a market for used PC games, too, and the prices are pretty comparable to the used market for console games.

    And, personally, I get a new graphics card about as often as I update to a new console. If you’re choosing to upgrade your graphics card more frequently than that, it’s because you’re choosing to pursue the bleeding edge of quality.

    To me you sound like somebody who can’t afford more than a Camry but would really like a Lamborghini. Instead of coming to terms with the fact that all you can afford is a Camry, you want everyone else to stop driving their Lamborghinis.

    Long story short: There are already several tiers in the gaming marketplace. Personally, I tend to buy games that are a couple years old. I get the games cheaper, I get the hardware cheaper, and the long-term customer reaction gives me a better ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  35. Jeysie says:

    I only pirate something if I can’t find it without going to a lot of trouble and/or paying an arm and a leg. Which in practice means I only pirate stuff that’s out-of-print and going for $50 for a jewelcase on eBay. (But then, “abandonware” is its own debate entirely, I think.)

    Chalk me up as another person who just waits until new games hit the bargain bin or GameStop’s used games bin. Or at least until the price drops to something much more reasonable than $60 and/or I have the money to bother upgrading my computer again so I can actually play said game. And then I usually realize there’s still a ton of retro games on my list to play and end up spending the time/money on those instead anyway.

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