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The salty sea of software

Law | Tuesday, May 9th, 2006 | 11 years, 0 months ago

I’ve been reading a lot lately about digital entertainment piracy, and I have some insights to share. A wake-up call to the games industry is overdue.

I read a poignant response by law professor Michael Geist on a CRIA (Canadian RIAA) study identifying the demographics of the the worst offenders of music piracy. Geist notes that the group that pirates the most music (18-24) also purchases the second-largest quantity (after 13-17 year-olds). He subsequently postulates that music “piracy” is in fact an effective, free marketing tool – send a song to a friend and she is that much more likely to buy it.

Of course, there are technological differences between music and game piracy:
– Music is downgraded in quality to make it more easily downloadable, while games are usually duplicated bit-for-bit.
– You can download any song from an album but you can’t download any level of a game.

Then again, thanks to copy protection measures, pirated products are far more versatile than storebought originals:
– You can make as many copies on whatever format you wish.
– You don’t need to keep the original medium in the drive.

And due to the marketplace, games are particularly attractive targets for piracy:
– Software refunds are rare, so if an intense level not featured in the demo runs slowly on your PC you’re not out $60.
– Game demos often use the same copy protection as the final version to thwart crackers.
– Game prices are initially inflated.

That last point is one that is very important to me. I admit I downloaded a cracked copy of Half Life 2 after hearing many tumultuous tales of woe about Steam. Half the reason I play single-player games is because my internet connection is unstable, so the hassle of remote authentication before each session wasn’t worth $70 (Canadian) to me. I adored the game and played it over and over, feeling a little twinge of guilt about my crime. I bought the game when the price came down, as I’ve done with Dungeon Siege and its sequel, Unreal 2, NHL 2006, and countless other titles.

I often wait months to play (or pay for) anticipated titles until the second-hand price is palatable. Is it so wrong to pay a lower price later on, “retroactively”? I want to vote with my pocketbook on what I feel is a fair price, at the risk of breaking the law in the interim.

And even when I buy games nowadays I usually don’t get the sense of value that I used to. My old Wing Commander box came with a clever manual designed like a space-naval (ships, not bellybuttons) magazine as well as huge detailed blueprint posters of allied starships. The old Infocom text adventure Wishbringer came with a glow-in-the-dark rock, a creepy tattered envelope (the protagonist is a postal worker) containing a letter from one of the game characters, and a rudamentary map. Half Life 2 came with 6 CDs in paper sleeves and a quick reference card, and my friend’s Civ 4 manual is a PDF (I hear only a limited number of first edition copies had no printed manual, but more compete packages cost the same).

I think pirates would feel worse about their crimes if they felt better about their legal purchases. Prices have barely changed in 15 years even though boxes are smaller and media are lighter and cheaper to duplicate. Boxed bonuses and even printed manuals are almost extinct. Publishers punish their paying customers more than thieves with crippling copy protection.

To combat rampant movie piracy in China, publishers have begun selling “light” versions of DVDs (with no extras) for about 20% of their former cost. Games have started doing something similar with various collectors editions, but an extra-expensive alternative won’t coerce many to buy the regular priced version any faster. If physically owning a game was more meaningful to the consumer, more consumers would consume!

Conversely, I just preordered and downloaded Half Life 2: Episode 1. This expansion is only $20 but it’s about the same price per entertainment hour as the boxed copy of the original. I can’t really feel cheated before playing the game (especially considering the 10% preorder discount) but I simply don’t understand why they price isn’t lower. There’s no box, discs, manuals, or shipping.

PC games will evolve somewhere along the chain or die. The industry needs better packaged products and\or cheaper digital distribution, and more respect for its paying customers. I can’t really supply solutions, only symptoms. I hope the up-and-ups of PC gaming take note from larger industries that you can only pump your lifeblood so hard until an artery bursts.

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