Category Archives: Piracy

Steam’s doing refunds!

Ayup. Steam is now providing refunds for pretty much any reason. There are only two restrictions: you have to have bought it in the last two weeks, and you can’t have played more than two hours.

So, what’s my Hot Take? Largely positive! The biggest issue with game consumers is that they’re practically forced to be very conservative by the nature of the medium. With the demise of rental as an option and the decline of both demos and shareware, players are forced to make $60 decisions on little more than reputation and trailers.

(Sure, they can go check out the reviews. But for a variety of reasons, that may not be a great option. Let’s Play videos are helping to fill the gap a bit, but your experience ain’t going to match the Pewd’s. That Toast game is way more fun to watch than to play.)

With refund as a possibility, players will be more willing to take a chance. They aren’t really risking their money, just a bit of time and hassle. If they like it? Great! If they don’t? Great! Either way, they’re coming out ahead! As a consumer, hooray for this!

For creators, well…it’s a bit more complicated.

Make no mistake: this conservatism has really hobbled publishers and developers alike. Gaming is a tremendously fear-averse and risk-shy industry. Consumers mostly go with what they already know and trust. This has led to almost every annoying thing about modern gaming:

  • Publishers obsess over brand equity, and jealously guard their precious “IPs” like dragons brooding over their hoarded gold.
  • Sequels are routinely more successful than the first, since consumers take success as a sign of quality, so games end up becoming massive yearly franchises even when they really shouldn’t be. Series, and whole genres, burn out very, very quickly. Look at Guitar Hero.
  • Marketing budgets skyrocket, as publishers do everything in their power to overcome consumers’ conservatism, and those without a AAA marketing spend get left out. Mid-tier publishers are basically extinct.
  • Adventurous creators are forced to either downscale to “indie” level, or to embrace the industry’s conservatism, and either way their creations will end up compromised.
  • And free-to-play has rampaged its way across the landscape, even though so many F2P games are exploitative dreck, since lying to consumers about a game being “free” has been one of the only ways to get past this problem that doesn’t involve billion-dollar marketing spends.

Having more adventurous consumers is a good thing: it’ll give us more adventurous creations. Current creators can become more adventurous, and more adventurous creators will have an easier time bringing both consumers and publishers on board. PC has always been the platform for creativity. Valve is reinforcing that.

But, yes, there are some issues.

(Besides “can’t make bank from a bad game with a deceptive trailer”. That’s the whole point of this exercise. That’s practically a scam and should be wiped out.) 

First, if your game is less than two hours long and has no appreciable replay value, you’re in trouble. Despite the endless complaints and whinging from some game journos—the sort that unironically use the phrase “entitled consumer”—people still really don’t like paying full price for short games. Nothing’s going to change that. There will be people who play a game, finish it, and demand their money back if it’s too short. Valve may rebuff them, but I certainly wouldn’t count on it. Portal aside, Valve may well sympathize.

Second, games that are “slow burns” are also in a bit of trouble. Some games do take a while to get good. Many classic RPGs, like SMT: Persona and Dragon Quest 7, take hours and hours before they hit their stride. They demand patience, and while they do eventually reward it, it’s a long time coming. But with this refund system, consumers are always going to be watching the clock, as they’ll know that their window for evaluation closes after a few hours. If they aren’t drawn in early and hooked well, they’ll bail.

Finally, if your game is DRM-free, it’s possible that consumers might scam you out of money by “buying” the game, installing it, switching the directory, then getting a “refund” and happily playing away. John Walker worried over it on RPS, but I’m not actually that concerned. If consumers are that intent on getting a DRM-free game for free, they’ll just pirate the thing. That’d actually be easier than scamming Steam, and if there’s one thing we know about prospective downloaders, it’s that they’ll take the path of least resistance.

(Easier-than-piracy is a big reason why Steam blew up in the first place! And Netflix! And Spotify! And Hulu! Heck, laziness-trumps-greed is half the reason capitalism itself exists!)

So, yeah. Steam’s giving you more room to bring people in—but you’ve still got a short window to prove yourself. And if your game ends within that window, you have to really justify it, in a way that makes them want to support you despite the opportunity to get their money back.  I think it’s doable, but it won’t be easy.

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Games are Political. Sorry.

Had a fascinating exchange on Twitter with Dan Amrich, Community Manager for Activision. We were talking about the anti-used game stuff on the XBOX One (or XBone, if you prefer), and after I rebutted his point that people shouldn’t be haters by saying that it’s okay to hate terrible ideas, and gave the admittedly-hyperbolic example of dumping PCBs into public pools as a terrible idea that I feel free to hate,  he busted out the “it’s only games” thing, quickly following it up by an exit featuring the  “you’re mixing up games and politics. Good day sir.”

Mixing up games and politics.

Hah.

Dan, do you even know what politics IS?

Politics, dear Sir, is about the exercise of power. When I studied political science, that was pretty much the entire curriculum. What power is, who has it, how it’s used, where it’s used,  and how it should be used. An entire field based on one concept.

So why is it an entire field of study that goes back thousands of years? Because power is everywhere. It’s all around us. Every day, in every way, in every action we take and every action we don’t take, we are exercising power and being subject to power. It can be as obvious as not taking a candy bar from a store out of the desire not to be punished by the state, or as subtle as the language we use in a casual conversation with friends. Sure, power affects who you vote for, but it also goes into the things you buy and sell and, yes, the enterrtainments you enjoy.

(Hence that whole “the personal is political” line. It’s not that everything reduces to power. It’s that power  suffuses everything.)

Gaming is no exception to that. The entire field is rife with issues of power. The gender issues that everybody’s worrying over right now? Power. The all-consuming discourse over freedom of expression? Power. The concentration of economic power in the hands of a small number of publishing houses? Power. The move of the industry to the locations with the best subsidies for development? Power. The rise of free-to-play on mobile devices? Power.

But the whole resale thing on the XBOX One? The one that we were talking about? It’s more of a power issue than almost ANY of these, barring the gender and identity questions. It pits the power of the publisher and manufacturer against the power of consumers. It pits the publisher’s power of copyright ownership and the manufacturer’s powers of patent ownership against the consumers’ power of media ownership, as embodied in the first sale doctrine. Whoever has the least power may face bankruptcy, fines or even imprisonment.

(Yeah, that’s the thing about power. It’s entirely relative. It’s a zero-sum game.)

Yes, most of these issues are discussed in terms of “rights”. Rights are about POWER. They’re recognized and endorsed entitlements, backed up by the state’s power to punish and the moral power granted to rights-holders in our society. You have rights? You have power. It may not be much, and it may not be enough, but it’s there.

So, no, Dan, there’s no distinction. Everything is political, and this is VERY political, because it’s a move by powerful publishers and distributors to curtail the (very small) amount of power still enjoyed by consumers.

Now, you could theoretically argue that it isn’t important. People do. Dan did, if unwittingly. But I think that you have to be consistent on that. If games don’t matter, if they aren’t important, then, yes, there’s no point granting consumers these powers. But that opens the question of whether and why their creators should enjoy the powers granted by copyright and patent laws, as well as freedom-of-expression laws like the Americans’ First Amendment.

If they DO matter–and this is where I stand–then their creators do deserve the power that come from the recognition of their rights, but consumers deserve the same thing. That includes resale, borrowing, rental, and all the rest.

And, yes, that includes the ones yelling on Twitter.

(Oh, one last thing. Power isn’t always gained or granted at the point of a gun. Moral power matters. Convincing people that you have a just cause in order to convince them to go along with what you want is often far easier and more effective than trying to use the state as a blunt instrument to punish the hell out of them. 

(If you want people to  respect your rights as a copyright holder, the first step is recognizing their rights in turn. That’s why resale isn’t “piracy”. Resale prevents piracy. Something to keep in mind.)

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Gamasutra: “3DS piracy is a problem – because publishers say so”

I wish I were making that up. I’m not.

No, according to Epic Mickey developer Peter Ong, apparently the very fact that publishers believe that there might be piracy on a platform will drive them away from it. It’ll mean that publishers will force developers to put out naught but casual-focused games, since casuals don’t pirate, and avoid regions (read: Eastern Europe) that are more piracy-heavy.

You may ask “um…PC? Hasn’t Steam meant that Gabe Newell is swimming in money despite PC piracy being omnipresent? He’s even put Steam in Eastern Europe!” You’d have a good point. Gabe’s building his third money bin, last I checked. The indie scene on PC is also so healthy that it’s become cliched to mention it.

It wasn’t addressed.

You may also ask “wait…casuals don’t pirate? Haven’t I seen a flood of people ‘jailbreak’ their iPhones who aren’t exactly the nerdly type?” You’d have a good point there, too. Breaking DRM on cell phones is so common that people stopped referring to it as “piracy” because the association was kinda inconvenient. (Also, Android.) It’s a cottage industry that the Library of Congress made exceptions for even while DS piracy chips have been made nearly universally illegal.

It wasn’t addressed.

You may also ask “who the hell cares? The real threat to the 3DS isn’t the marginal number of people who pirate but the vast hordes that have smartphones and don’t see the point of a separate handheld game device! Or the fact that 3DS games are tenfold more costly than iOS/Android stuff!” Good point! You’re pretty smart!

It wasn’t addressed.

You may finish by saying:

“desperate publishers and their financial backers are looking for any lame excuse to chase after mythical mobile riches, and ‘piracy’ is as good an excuse as any. Developers always have the option of going independent, though, and taking a bit of a swim in Gabe’s money bin, unless and until Nintendo makes it viable to do independent digital distro on the 3DS. You’d be better placed to jump on the mobile train than they are anyway, if it comes to that.”

You’d be right!

It wasn’t addressed.

No, none of the enormous problems with this argument were addressed. The interviewer, Mike Rose, didn’t follow up on any of these things at all. The comments thread on Gamasutra is an absolute riot of people calling “BS” on Ong’s reasoning. So why didn’t Rose? I checked to see if maybe he was just reporting on someone else’s story, but that didn’t seem to be the case. It seems like he interviewed Ong personally (or at least by email.) So where was the follow-up here?

The whole thing reads less like an argument against piracy and more like an argument against publishers. It implies that we have a choice: either quake in fear at every dumb thing that a publisher may or may not do, or just ditch the whole “publisher” thing as a bad hangover from the days when distribution was an actual problem and sort out alternative solutions for financing and promotion. I’m pretty sure I know which option the market will pick.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that publishers can play a useful role. I think they do play a useful role. But it isn’t 1993, it’s 2013. Times have changed, and they have to accept that they need us far more than we need them.  Writers like Rose should recognize it, too, and for the love of God follow up a bit on such dubious answers.

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Bioware’s Bans and the Public’s “Pirate” Perception

I was reading a good piece on the whole “From Ashes” controversy on Gamasutra, and ran across a bit that I hadn’t really known about that I wanted to take a look at. Apparently, you’re all pirates. You just didn’t know it.

Read the text to get the info

"Wait...THIS is 'Piracy' now"?

In case you didn’t click through,EA/Bioware was apparently banning people from their forums for posting the .ini tweaks to open up the extra “From Ashes” character.  Last I checked, those bans were still complete bans, too: if you get banned from the site, you’re banned from your games. Yes, even the single-player ones.

That’s pretty bad.

What’s worse, though, is that we aren’t talking about any sort of real “crack” or “hack”. Tweaking a configuration file isn’t cracking or hacking a damned thing. Go read any given PC gaming site, and they’ll routinely give you instructions on how to tweak this, that, or the other thing in order to improve your performance or customize your experience.  Skyrim has loads of little tweaks that you can do to it, and nobody’s going to give you grief for it, or ban you from Steam for doing so. Heck, you can even patch the Skyrim executable if you want.

This little guy? He's a hack too. Just an official one.

So to call this “piracy” is just odious. Plain and simple. ODIOUS. I still like Bioware, somehow, and I understand why this would be a tough position to be in. But to call users “pirates” because they’re accessing material on disc that they have paid money for? Material that you have told them isn’t the “real” DLC? Material that can be accessed through a simple configuration tweak, the same kind that happens every hour, of every day, on practically every PC gamer’s computer? What’s next, labeling them “pirates” for reading multiplayer strategies on some Wikia? Condemning them for watching somebody’s “Let’s Play” on Vimeo?  Maybe you should go after people who look over somebody else’s shoulder…they haven’t paid to see that content! PIRATES!

“Worse” as that is, though, that isn’t the worst part. The worst part is that this sort of labeling only serves to make people believe that piracy is legitimate. If you’re labeling perfectly normal activity as “piracy”, then what are you going to do with the real ones? “Super-pirates”? “Ultrapirates?” No. You’ll call them “pirates” too. And when the harmless people see you lumping them in with the actual pirates, their reaction is going to be a combination of “well, screw you buddy!” and “fine, if I’m a pirate, then I’m a pirate. Off to the torrent sites, I have some downloading to do”.  Then you’ve lost them, probably for good.

That’s bad. That’s really, really bad. Ultimately, the fight against piracy has to be a moral and ethical one. You have to convince people that copyright infringement is wrong—not just because it’s illegal, but that it’s wrong, full stop. That isn’t the only way to get people to get stuff legitimately—Gabe Newell’s made nearly two billion dollars proving that convenience is a factor as well—but there still needs to be a certain basic level of empathy for your position.

That empathy is eroding. I’m seeing it every day. I’m seeing it in the harsh reaction to DRM, to DLC, and to SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. I’m seeing it in the rise of “pirate parties” across Europe, and of public officials willing to give them time and perception. I’m seeing it in the hardening of Internet opinions against publishers. I’m seeing it in the changing views of game critics like Jim Sterling, who went from being a savage critic of pirates to practically throwing up his hands and saying “go ahead”. And, honestly, I’m seeing it everywhere else as well. So can you, if you look around and pay attention to what people are saying when they don’t think they’ll get banned by some site administrator.

The pirates even have snazzy logos now

The producers do deserve that empathy. Our society and culture really do benefit from giving them their fair shot at making a decent return on the time and money they’ve risked on the enterprise. Even if their rights should never completely trump consumers’ rights, they DO have rights. That trend towards legitimizing piracy should be arrested. But the rise of the “Pirate Parties” shows that “arrests” won’t do it. If the law conflicts with peoples’ sense of morality, then it is the law may end up being changed.

That’s what Bioware’s risking here. That all-important goodwill and empathy towards producers is being shredded by their behavior. Arbitrary bans from single-player content, exploitative DLC, abusive labeling of ordinary behavior as “piracy” and what would appear to be outright lies about your DLC plans are not going to help producers convince the public that their copyrights are worth protecting.

Instead, it’ll help convince the public that there’s enough free stuff on the Internet that society doesn’t really need to protect and support companies like Bioware. Sure, it’ll suck not having things like SWTOR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, or the rest; but if the public decides that that’s a small enough price to pay, it’ll be near-impossible to convince them otherwise.

The masses will be flying their digital Jolly Rogers, and all the lawsuits in all the world won’t change their mind otherwise.

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