Noted Developer: Don't Blame Piracy for Poor PC Game Sales

March 24, 2008 -
Brad Wardell of Stardock (Sins of a Solar Empire) goes off the game industry reservation a bit in a refreshing rant on piracy and PC gaming.

Writing for his Opinionated techie blog, Wardell says that bad games and excessive hardware requirements - not piracy - are the primary villains in poor sales of PC titles:
Recently there has been a lot of talk about how piracy affects PC gaming. And if you listen to game developers, it apparently is a foregone conclusion - if a high quality PC game doesn't sell as many copies as it should, it must be because of piracy.

Now, I don't like piracy at all. It really bugs me when I see my game up on some torrent site.. And piracy certainly does cost sales.  But arguing that piracy is the primary factor in lower sales of well made games? I don't think so.

According to Wardell, most PC developers tend to create games not for the largest base of potential users, but for the hardcore crowd, the folks with $600 GPU's sitting inside their PC cases. Okay, I'll cop to being one of those... But Wardell makes sense when he writes:
PC game developers seem to focus more on the "cool" factor. What game can they make that will get them glory with the game magazines and gaming websites and hard core gamers? These days, it seems like game developers want to be like rock stars more than businessmen... 

Anyone who keeps track of how many PCs the "Gamer PC" vendors sell each year could tell you that it's insane to develop a game explicitly for hard core gamers.  Insane.  I think people would be shocked to find out how few hard core gamers there really are out there...

So why are companies making games that require them to sell to 15% of a given market to be profitable? In what other market do companies do that?

While Wardell's games don't include CD-based copy protection, he's certainly not advocating piracy:
The reason why we don't put copy protection on our games isn't because we're nice guys. We do it because the people who actually buy games don't like to mess with it... We know our customers could pirate our games if they want but choose to support our efforts. So we return the favor - we make the games they want and deliver them how they want it. This is also known as operating like every other industry outside the PC game industry.

When Sins [of a Solar Empire] popped up as the #1 best selling game at retail a couple weeks ago, a game that has no copy protect whatsoever, that should tell you that piracy is not the primary issue.

Comments

He's spot on about the copy protection thing, it'll get cracked anyway, so why punish your paying customers with it?

Barring WoW and games brought online via steam, EVERY game i own i've gone to the trouble of downloading no-cd cracks for.

It's not so bad on consoles, as the game loads of the CD instead, but on PC's the only reason you need the CD is to prove to the PC you didn't steal the game. guilty until proven innocent, every time you start the game :(

It's also a reasonable point about hardware requirements, but i's not so much a problem of games aiming too high, but more the fact that over the years a budget/mainstream PC from a vendor will have an absolutely shockingly bad graphics card.
The average self built PC will have better and better graphics compared to the 'average', whilst vendor PCs get relatively worse and worse as time goes on.
Particular blame needs to be pointed at intel's, very popular with vendors, integrated graphics chips... Which really are embarrissingly bad for anything other than 2D work or Vista's aero interface

This guy hit the nail on the head. So many reasons why games flop....Mostly because the gaming industry as a whole treats its consumer base horribly. Sure theres the high system requirements when its not needed, but theres far more wrong. Look at Homeworld 2...That game was completely dumbed down. Its like they decided "hey we have a hit here now lets just dumb it down so idiots can enjoy it and we should have more sales". Or games not getting proper support which simply drives me crazy. Heck one developer team that supported its products insanely well and came out with an amazing unique game(tribes series) got canned because management didn't agree with how they supported their product.

The list goes on and on, but its clear to all the consumers that the industry thinks they run the show and don't care what we think. Then they expect us to buy their product that didn't even have us in mind? I used to buy a lot of games back when the industry knew what it was doing, but these days I survive off a couple titles a year. There just aren't that many worth playing these days.

I've actually liked stardock though. Gal civ and sins of a solar empire have been examples of the industry really listening to their community. I mean heck when I wanted to buy sins of a solar empire I knew the stores around here wouldn't have it and I'd have to do digital download to play it. To my surprise they had an option to download AND have a copy sent for no additional cost! How sweet is that? Thats just one example of how they think of their customer too...Its no surprise they were best selling.

I must be dreaming, someone pinch me! :p

Gift.

He's quite right, my PC can't run a lot of new games coming out or are out.

However I can play Sins of a Solar Empire quite fine, if only more games out now could work on my PC without me having to spend over $100 on upgrades :/.

Stardock rocks. Galactic Civilizations 2 and Sins of a Solar Empire are both very good games. It's awesome that they don't treat their customers like criminals.

"We know our customers could pirate our games if they want"

This is another great point. Regardless of what copy protection you put on there, it WILL be cracked, and it WILL be pirated, but there's NO reason to punish those of us who buy the games by making us jump through hoops just to be able to play the purchased product. DRM kills customer relations, and does little to nothing to prevent piracy.

Nice.

Reminds me of the MPAA's ranting about piracy and how it was destroying their business. And then they had their most profitable year ever...
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

"We know our customers could pirate our games if they want"

Not that I'd know about stuff like that, but there are dedicated groups with lots of resources out there who crack these copy protections before it gets put on the 'net. And these guys can sometimes release multiple cracks to deal with new patches the company puts out. So the copy protection really only serves to annoy the legitimate user, who has to jump through 20 hoops just to get their game to run.

Laptop users I find take advantage of "No CD" cracks a lot for purely legitimate reasons, especially if the game likes to access the CD drive frequently for no good reason (which can kill your battery life).
-- If your wiimote goes snicker-snack, check your wrist-strap...

WORD

I'd definitely agree with him on the hardware point. I couldn't buy any new games for about a year before I sucked it up and plunked down $800 on a system overhaul.

It's nice to see a company that doesn't use this annoying-ass, draconian copy protection. At first, I couldn't even play Neverwinter Nights 2 until I went and downloaded a No-CD crack. Not being able to play a game I've paid good money for because of its "protection" is infuriating. And that's certainly not the first time I've had to do that just to make a game playable. As a legitimate, paying customer, that's unacceptable.

/sighed!

I love gaming. When buy a game I want it to be something a dev could be proud of when it shipped. I dont want it to be crap like a lot of the stuff that is shipped out for PC or even Console

This guy makes some excellent points. At one point I was buying a pc game a week before I bought my 360. When I got frustrated as hell with the system requirements I sucked it up and quit pc gaming. Sadly that means my favorite pc game genre the "RTS" is lost until something like Endwar comes out but I'll deal. There are far better things to pirate anyway. Heh.

So what? Is he implying that the developers of Titan Quest went out of business because they had copy protection?

This is why I don't own Crysis. Even though I own a new computer (new as in got it in Nov. 2007) I will not go out and purchase a copy of Crysis because of issues of it running properly. I think that the argument needs to be expanded a little though. I don't play as many PC games as I used to because of all the errors and crashes that come along with it.

My computer won't run most of the new software coming out, so I typically don't purchase PC games. And if my computer can't run it, I'm not purchasing. If I want high end games, that's what my XBox 360 is for.

I didn't realize Sins of a Solar Empire was made by the same people who made Galactic Civ II. I may have to check it out.

I fully agree with the guy, one of the reasons I am no longer really into PC gaming is that the developers pander to the Hardware companies.

Developers need to take a long hard look at what really makes WoW as strong as it is.. one of the biggest games ever and it easily runs on my four year old machine. A vast majority of the gaming market does not want to be upgrading their computer every year, let alone every six months which is what the PC developers seem to think they should be doing.

On a side note, I own a copy of Titan Quest, but only got to the Egyptian level because of heat issues on my old computer.

I am glad to see that someone actually cares about the paying customer.

The entertainment industry is so obsessed with pirates that they overlook those who actually pay money for the stuff even though it is free somewhere out there.

I really like his thoughts. I have heard other game developers say pretty much the same thing. I have also heard developers say the exact opposite.

The truth of the matter is that piracy is a fact of life and there is not much you can do to stop it.

@ Zerodash

I don't think that is what he is saying. He is saying that PC games fail because they are too focussed on the "cool" factor of the hard core gamer. He suggests trying to develop for a much larger audience. Very few PCs on the market (when taking the whole pc market in the equation) can run Crysis 2. So how do they expect to sell the millions needed to turn a profit?

I am not sure about why the Titan Quest dev went out of business, but there are several factors and bad copy protection could have been a contributing factor.

No, Zerodash. They went out of business because they were offering a half-baked Diablo clone. I bought, installed, played, and got bored with the original within a day. The only game I've ever bought that was worse was a bargain bin game.

@Zerodash

No, he is saying that pirating is not the main reason why gaming sells are down. Piracy is an easy scapegoat to go to when really it's a lot of different factors.

Much like the movie industry and music, the main reason is something completely different from piracy. Movies and music is mostly horrible releases. For music this is why iTunes is doing so well because you can spend 99 cents on one song instead of 14.99 for one song. This year in movies had a lot of really good movies being released, thus, people went out and saw them.

With PC gaming, it's mostly the DMCA and system requirements is what's stopping sells. Sins of the Empire, but it is no powerhouse in terms of requirements like Crysis. Crysis requires stupidly silly requirements just to run it, while Sins practically any machine bought in the last 2 or 3 years can run it just fine, maybe a minimum upgrade will be required. Think about, a lot more people will have a machine that will run Sins than those that will run Crysis. I don't care how good a game is, I cannot justify shelling out $500+ bucks just to run ONE $50 game.

Wardell has it exactly right. There's a good reason why the only PC game that I play regularly is CounterStrike 1.6—my crumby, old computer just can't run newer games (at an acceptable framerate, etc).

I have high hopes for EA and their new Battlefield Heroes game; maybe it will breathe some life into my old PC.

Cool of you to post that Wardell blog entry here on Game Politics, i read it a few weeks ago when he posted it on the GalCiv2 forums. He certainly makes sense, i just wish more developers would listen to him, considering the succes of the software Stardock produces (its not just games, far from it) he must be doing something right.

To contribute to the thread here, i'll quote my own post on the matter.

I wouldn't call a drop in PC game sales so much the problem but a result of the problem. PCs are in pretty much every home these days, they're just not set up to run the latest in games because the game designers simply expect the consumer to completely rebuild their rigs every 6 months by bringing out games with more and more insane hardware requirements. Not many people can afford that.

You can make games as good looking and awesome in terms of content as you like, but if the average joe potential customer sees the system requirements and thinks "hey, i need to spend $300,- to even run this thing" he will give up.
Now those vocal "hardcore" gamers seem to enjoy this, and scorn people seeking advice left and right whenever they get the chance, which doesn't help either.
Add to that, that PC games expect quite a bit of technical knowledge of their users (graphics settings, internet ports, driver versions, you name it) and you're essentially presenting your potential customers with a vertical cliff with gaming enjoyment at the top and them at the bottom.

That's why consoles are currently on the rise, because those are
a) cheaper to buy, and don't need frequent costly upgrades to their hardware.
b) when you buy a game you can expect it to run right away, which is something PC games aren't exactly known for.
c) you don't need intricate technical knowledge of the device you're using to maximise your enjoyment of the product.

I also wouldn't consider piracy something that threatens PC gaming, it happens on all other formats too. (perhaps even more)
there are a number of types of pirates in gaming.
1) the explorer, the usually curious type that pirates a game to see if it works on his rig and if the game appeals to him. Usually if it does he will purchase it and enjoy his legal game.
2) the malevolent, pirates games for the heck of it and never intends to purchase the game, these don't cost revenue because they'd never have given you any in the first place, don't add them in your profit margins!
3) the frustrated, sick of the developers copy-protection schemes messing up his computer with legally purchased games he now pirates to not have to deal with that crap. They will often buy a game if its DRM free (SSE, the game i mentioned earlier is an example of this)

(because the honest customers suffer more from DRM than the pirates, for them breaking DRM is a hobby afteral)

The first group is the largest of the three, so if you produce a good game you can expect it to sell well, even if it is pirated. The second shouldn't be counted, ever. They never intended to buy your game, and nothing you do will change that. The third won't buy it because they don't want their PCs screwed up again by overzealous DRM software.

(which is what cost Crysis in the end i think, it was such a system hog that many of the #1-pirates didn't bother buying as they knew it would run like crap or even not at all essentially wasting their money)

@Koichan

very true about the graphics chips in todays desktops. Although, while saying that, i have to note that in the netherlands (which is i live) the quality of the graphics cards included in even low-to-midrange desktops available from vendors is going up in leaps and bounds. Sure they're not great, but atleast 75% of those adverts from companies i see on a regular basis now include either the nVidia 8400 or the ATI HD2400 card as standard. And while these aren't top end gaming cards by any stretch they are considerably more able to handle newer games than integrated solutions would.

"Which is where i live" my appologies, silly typo. >.

I actually bought gal civ 2 without any intention of playing it, just to support products with no DRM. This was right after a Ubisoft game infected my system with Starforce.

There is a mindset with vendors and box stores here in the states, that a person who wants a PC wants a 'business' model, basically a simple box with an integrated graphics chip that can operate a word processor and a browser, but that's about it. It might even choke on movies (possible exaggeration, but only a slight one). That's a large part of the problem with the PC market. The devs remember that once upon a time the PC market was only hardcore users. You had to be to run anything on DOS. Now you've got a gigantic market, but most of the users aren't power users, many probably won't be able to play anything more sophisticated than Freecell. As I said earlier that's a vendor issue, I can imagine how much soap I'd have to go through if I had to sell games at the local Best Buy.

What most game devs forget is that there are still a lot of people with solid machines that are a few years old. Mine for example. It's a 2 year old machine, I've made some upgrades along the line, but I've hit the upper limit. I know that I can't play the newest games, so I don't even try. And I'm a PC gamer to the core. The newest game that I play is Half-Life 2.

On another note, Stardock are great. They know that they average consumer doesn't have these blazing fast system. And they take the time and effort to make the game a lean as possible and it still looks stunning. It won't be as sexy as Crysis, if one can run it at full power without a meltdown, but it will still look great and be a lot of fun.

I think that today's Devs have lost their way, it used to be about making a product that you loved and cared about. Now it seems to be about making a product which will make the publisher happy, whether that means making a crap game and pushing it out the door too early or by making a game which gets monster review scores, but no one can play.

Question: Why did I stop buying PC games?
Answer: When I was expected to make a $2000 investment every two years for the privilege of playing a game that looks just as good on a console.

My current desktop was state of the art in 2004, now it can't play any games that aren't flash based.

I found this to be a great roadblock in my days of video game journalism. I still have yet to play the Battlefield: 2142 and Expansion games I was given as part of the beta test from Electronic Arts sent out to 15 select journalist because I don't have hardware necessary to play it.

Sony didn't make it any easier either... Sony Online Entertainment and Sony Computer Entertainment America must not be working to well toghether because T'Rod over at SOE was more than willing to cough up a couple of copies of their PS3 games for review along with full review packages... 'Tis funny however because since November 2006, I still have yet to see my debug, demo, or retail PS3 unit....

Of course that's entirely irrelevant. Guess I was just looking for a place to vent on how large corporations repeatedly screw over smaller media outlets.

----
Papa Midnight

And this is why I love Stardock.

Wish I had the money for Sins... *checks the screenshots for it once again and drools*

My boss was talking to me about the stiff requirements for the Conan MMORPG (3GB of memory? holy crap!), and my first reply was "Yeah, only hardcore guys are going to play it. All 10 of them". Top-of-the-line hardware is not the way to go, developers, especially when you can make games that look incredible on 5 year old hardware.

As much as I hate to admit this, I cruise The Pirate Bay every now and again for pdf books, but I also remember when Galactic Civilizations 2 came out out and I saw all the comments from everyone downloading the game there and how they said if you enjoyed the game you should buy it due to no anti-piracy software. I believe in doing the exact same thing and will never put any kind of antio-piracy measures on my software.

Something I find amusing about many PC game developers.

You will watch the same developers gloat making uber-games for expensive gaming rigs that make up a tiny percentage of the market also rant and rave about how it isn't worth it to make OSX games because the market is too small.

The thing about game development,.. it's hard work, low pay, insane hours. If any other software development discipline treated it's developers like that it would collapse. People develop games because they have a passion for it and thus they want to do cool stuff with cool hardware and lots of bragging rights. Take away those aspects of the job and you will have a crash in the number of developers (or at least how long they will stay in the industry) or pay rates will have to go way up... considering outside companies that pay 'rockstar' salary, you have to compete for developers against things like financial services companies that pay twice as much.

PC gaming isn't going to disappear...

Time and time again I hear some hardcore gamers saying "PC gaming is dead/dying" but it's the same old swan song in different timeframes.

It's good to know that there are some developers out there who get this. It's quite disheartening to read discussions by developers on topics like this where, rather than admit that they could possibly be alienating their customer base by creating nearly impossible to run games, with frustratingly stupid DRM software that will prevent the game from running half the time, that they don't support after release even if there are rampant bugs and errors, instead blame everything on consumers (even legitimate ones who just don't register) and come up with fucking stupid ideas like a fucking PAY PER MINUTE PLAN to solve the problem.

Exactly. I used to be a hardcore PC Gamer. I got tired of spending the money on hardware. It's impossible to keep up with. Now my PC is pretty much just for email and reading GamePolitics. Oh, I am still a hardcore gamer, just a hardcore console gamer.

@ Zerodash

If he's not saying it, then I'd gladly say that the makers of Titan Quest went out of business because of their copy protection. They fully acknowledge that they received many negative reviews about a "buggy, crash-prone" product from people playing a pirated copy that crashed no them at a disc check point. Had it not been for that copy protection, they would have had better word of mouth, which would have carried over to people who actually pay for them.

The failure to account for the fact that pirates still talk on message boards ended up costing them more money than the actual act of piracy. Now, this doesn't excuse the pirates. But they are an unfortunate aspect of the business right now, and you need to introduce smarter protection techniques than just crashing the software on them in the middle of the game.

@someguy

Or like when developers try to make nitch games in general more like 'popular' games. Look at how WoW like the new FF games have become, or how much closer Civ is to a RTS in interface now.

The siren call of 'larger user base' causing nitch games to go mainstream has killed many franchises and probably just as many small companies. Game companies need some serious MBAs to come in and slap them around a bit (ok, GOOD MBAs since there are plenty of lousy ones)

And wow, I fail at grammar this morning.

@Neeneko

Yeah thats what happened with homeworld 2 and the Tribes series. They tried to bring it out of niche market it was doing well in and go mainstream with them. This killed both of them if you ask me. Have you played tribes vengeance especially? They missed the mark completely and without its previous fans it just flat out flopped. Though that was sort of expected since they fired the Dev team that came up with the idea and hired a new dev team to try and make it go mainstream.

He's right about the insanity of keeping up with the "hardcore" system specs. I used to try, but now I simply keep my PC running with a moderate power. I'm generally a year or two behind the curve, but I'm still enjoying these games. So what if it'll be 2009 before I play Bioshock? 2010 for Crysis? They'll still be awesome games then. Right now I'm rocking to Half Life 2 and Oblivion.

I love awesome graphics as much as the next guy, but developers need to stop pushing games that cannot be played by most gamers. Want to make money? Sell games to the average gamer. Look at World of Warcraft. A good part of their success was making a fun game. But a significant part of their success is due to making a game that almost any computer can play. My grandmother's computer can play WoW! And thanks to a wonderful artistic design and visual style, it still is a beautiful game. Games like Everquest II and Vanguard have graphical muscle, but only a few computers can actually flex it. How many non-XBoxers are going to be able to play Age of Conan on thier current systems???

Although, lower spec games are also more often pirated than the high end games (since more people's computers can handle them). But at least the companies make more legitimate sales.

"If he’s not saying it, then I’d gladly say that the makers of Titan Quest went out of business because of their copy protection."

And not just that I'll wager considering how choppy the patched game runs on my brand spanking new super teh awesome rig.

Unless I turn the resolution back down to 1024x768, turn every effect off, and dial model/texture detail back to medium that is.

(kinda' similar to Hellgate: London, save that TQ doesn't have the excuse of using the hyper inefficient DX10)

Seems to be Stardock's method is

1) Make a game that appeals to a broad range of gamers (that might be neglected, such as strategy gamers)

2) Make the game compatible with a wide variety of hardware.

3) Provide content and upgrades for free to those who bought and register the software

4) Don't treat your customers like thieves.

5) Profit and reap the rewards of good word of mouth.


Stunning actually. Being treated like an adult as a gamer.

Though these were not the reasons I bought Gal Civ 2, it is the reason I bought Sins of a Solar Empire (besides the fact that it is fun) and why I will continue to view any of Stardock's future games with a positive eye. Now, if I can just figure out what their mysterious Fantasy Based Strategy Game is going to be...

You forgot not spending a nearly impossible to recoup amount of money developing the game.

We need more games like Spore that isn't about the prettiest graphics. It's all about the gameplay and innovation.

WoW was never needed a powerhouse to run, even when it first came out. The games that try to be the bleeding edge of graphics seems to age the fastest. WoW went with a cartoon look, and it still looks good. F.E.A.R. went with the bleed edge and it looks old already.

As for the copy protection, I find that VALVe's Steam is a great form of copy protection, and I think ever PC game should use it. I think Steam is a win-win for both Developers, and consumers.

The developers don't have to worry about copy protection so much, and the consumer just download the steam client, download the game with no need of a CD, serial code only once if you bought the CD version, and you have all the Xbox Live like community stuff.

Steam has its problems, there is no denying that, however, all things considered Steam is probably the best solution to the piracy issue. A simple quick internet check to make sure that a certain account has the ability to run a particular game.

It's not perfect by any means, but it works, and it's allowing a lot of small dev companies to more or less self-publish and get their game out to a large audience. Just look at audiosurf.

Also I'll add that I've been dithering for a while as to whether to buy this game; Brad Wardell's interview has just tipped the balance. I've not played an RTS in some time, it's got good reviews and now I hear the developers don't want to treat me as a criminal... How could I not give the game a chance?!

Gift.

@Kaylel

And that also pretty much sums up what Stardock uses for their digital distribution system StarDock Central, you buy the game (usually digital download only, or with disc sent after) register the code sent to you by e-mail in SDC and the program will download, patch and otherwise arrange everything for you. Next step is to hit the run button and play away. :)
Next time you want to play, you use the normal desktop or start menu shortcut and presto DRM free game.

Best option in SDC in my opinion is actually the backup function.
Using that you can simply burn the entire game, along with a SDC installer onto a disc and install it anywhere, you don't even need an internet connection or phone call to activate it, because the SDC installer on the disc knows its valid.

@Gift

i'm pretty sure you'll enjoy Sins of a Solar Empire :) The combination of RTS and 4X elements can seem a little daunting, but its so much fun. Count on loosing a good number of hours playing. ;)

Hehehe, I still remember when I downloaded the expansions to civ 4 (i bought the game but refused to pay for the expansions), and there was an extremely complex system in place to stop piracy which included blackballing daemon tools so you couldn't have it running, or so they thought, a 52 kb .exe came with my torrent with specific instructions stating "turn this on, then daemon, then civ 4" only needed to be done once and Daemon never had a problem again.

Game developers have to realize, NOTHING they do will ever stop people from cracking their games. The same goes for companies like microsoft, word 2000 even had a cd key and it wasn't a program that used the internet, I lost the CD case ages ago and for the longest time would just google word CD key to reinstall it, now I use openoffice and will not purchase another word product again.
 
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