The salty sea of software

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.


Happy Star Wars day!

May the 4th be with you!


D0n’7 ph34r 7h3 phr34k3r

You know you’re a nerd when…
aka 19 reasons why you’re cooler than me (and 1 reason why you’re cooler than my girlfriend)

  1. You remember your favourite IP address. (
  2. You remember the phone number of your favourite dialup BBS. (xxx-253-5558 – Edge of Eternity BBS, Toronto, circa 1994)
  3. You know which modem is faster – 9600 baud Hayes or 9600 baud courier.
  4. You know what D&D character you would be IRL. (Chaotic Good Elf Bard Mage)
  5. You feel the impulse to “save your game” after accomplishing something IRL. (like Ai – “F5!”)
  6. You use the term IRL IRL.
  7. You have a folder of Windows desktop screenshots.
  8. You hear a “ding” somewhere and you look down to see who’s PMing you. (a la Guild Wars)
  9. You size up everyday objects and consider how big your katamari needs to be.
  10. You’ve met internet friends for the first time and were asked to match faces to aliases.
  11. You continued to call those people by their alias to their faces.
  12. You say “SYN” and your friend says “ACK”.
  13. You think video games are superior to real life in every way but in load times.
  14. You occasionally get the Tetris or Kirby’s Dream Land themes stuck in your head.
  15. You want to smash others with your car after playing Need for Speed.
  16. You nitpick minute technical inaccuracies in a movie with space monsters.
  17. You trade an ISA sound card for an Atari-style serial joystick at a 2600 swap meet.
  18. You go camping for the weekend and come home with second hand CDs and videos.
  19. You tell people to RTFM without doing so yourself.
  20. j00 5p311 f4573r 1n numb3r5 7h4n y0ur fr13nd5 d0 1n l3773r5.

G33ky Gr4ph1c5

Self-scanned image of The 7th Guest, Disc 2 (with 45-minutes of Redbook audio)

Self-scanned image of a real life Infocom text adventure

Sierpinski triangles

Graphical bandwidth monitor showing a CD burn of a network resource

Screenshot of my Windows properties when I installed my Athlon 64 (note the Wargames reference in the registered name)

MSDOS Winamp skin