Can I just get a “HELL YEAH!”” here?
The games industry has been doing everything in its power to convince us that piracy is wrong – it is, it’s intellectual property theft, or in a more legal sense, counterfeiting – but they have used this angle to relentlessly push some of the most obscene and stringent security measures to date.
It is in this that the PC market has once again championed Steam – probably the easiest way to download games with regular offers, sales and built-in achievements. In 2011, sales on Valve’s little platform that can once again doubled; consistently growing year on year for the past seven years. Whilst Steam is a form of DRM, it’s a self-contained unit; a platform that makes the process easier and more user-friendly, rather than forcing players to jump through endless hoops to get to their games.
And in the middle of this growth, games piracy is down across the board. That isn’t to say it’s a drop the industry is going to be comfortable with, but the top five PC games being pirated down by an average of 430,000 units is at least a step that the industry should be happy with.
But before they jump up and down, this is NOT because of DRM. Because, as we note, outside Steam sales of DRM-locked games have tumbled dramatically; people are wising up to the realities of many of these failing and overly brutal security checks. Plus, with the likes of Steam, it’s easier and safer for them to centralise the whole exercise and make a single hub of content; the days of a cluttered desktop are a fast-fading memory.
No, I like to believe this is because, for the PC, 2011 was a good year. We had a variety of good, solid titles like Portal 2 and Skyrim, which sold super well. And then you had the likes of The Witcher 2; which dropped DRM on one version altogether, and still sold over a million copies. To me, people pay for a good, quality product.
Taking a look at much of what is pirated is sometimes a surprise.
Despite the additions of quality games being pirated, more people seem to pirate the games which get a rather average Metacritic score – games which rather divide opinion. The most pirated movies are mostly the ones critics have called the worst of the year, with The Hangover Part 2 heading the list. People, oddly, are pirating the good stuff less, and the average stuff more.
So, industry, what can you do about that?
Well, for one, average no longer sells. I’m sorry, but it’s go big, go bad or go home. People have been cruel about the likes of Daggerdale (me especially) and Duke Nukem Forever, but people bought them – just to see how bad they are. They left an impression, as much of an impression as any great game would. They stick in the memory, and a lot of people like to see things go very wrong – it’s schadenfreude, but that’s kind of the point.
Average doesn’t cut it. If a game is in any way “Erm…” then it’s not going to do well. And the piracy figures show that. Some of the worst games of 2011 – the fan backlash against Modern Warfare 3 is one to note – are being pirated, but to a lesser degree. I think people have figured this out – played one Call of Duty, played them all.
The industry does of course spend a lot of money making games, and of course for good ones they should make money. But I am constantly tired of hearing the likes of Capcom and UbiSoft – whose output has been steadily getting worse – complain about piracy, as if they can’t understand what it is that consumers are getting tired with.
And as I have already stated, the issue is no longer one of piracy figures going up. They’re going down. But so too are sales figures for some of these troubled games companies.
It’s up to Capcom and UbiSoft and EA and everyone in the industry to stop trying to pin the blame on the consumer and the pirates. People aren’t pirating as much, or buying as much, of your product if your output has been getting increasingly more average or worse. People will just go elsewhere and buy something else.
Capitalism is supply and demand. But you have to supply what people want for there to be demand. It is here that so many companies have been missing the point. They project figures and don’t take into consideration things like bugs (now rarely tested in-house due to the ease of patching games over the internet, it’s often cheaper to let consumers buy it and report the bugs than hire a quality team of Breakers) or whether there is even a market for their product. Another FPS? How quaint! Just throw it on the pile of the hundred or more the industry heaped on us last year.
The industry, sadly, is about imaginary numbers. Imagining how many pirated copies could have been legitimate consumers. Imagining how many units you will shift to justify that overdraft or loan. Imagining the review scores and reacting badly when people don’t end up seeing what you have seen. In this, the games industry has changed for the worse – the data they wheel out is often high fiction and based on nothing more than their own flight of fancy, what they want – not what the consumer wants.
For me, this is a depressing and dangerous angle to take, not least with E3 shaping up to showcase not only the Wii-U, but the next generation X-Box and the Playstation 4; a reminder a new generation is only a year or two away, and that to capitalise on that will take larger investment. These consoles are doing the same thing I find – the PS4 particularly so, at a time when Sony isn’t exactly flush with success to be investing so much money into a next-generation games console seems optimistic… and that’s me being nice.
It’s dangerous because the consumer now has many new ways of getting content; and of course, in these new and exciting times, there are reviews next to the games being bought, star ratings to signal user feedback on cloud gaming and Metacritic scores on Steam. Games on XBLA and PSN and even the 3DS e-Store are all rated by users on quality. People can see if others are enjoying – or not – the game in question. The power, once again, is back in the hands of the consumer who are picking and choosing with the kind of power that many in the industry are finding increasingly difficult to grasp onto.
So they cling onto older, more archaic structures where they once did have the power to dictate what we wanted and why. It’s creating a noticeable fracture not merely in public relations, but in the industry as a whole; a chasm of doom that is obviously there, but no-one wants to mention it for fear of the reality it may cost money to stabilise the foundations of their business and customer base.
And yet, the longer that crack is left, the wider it gets, and if it gets too large, it will be capable of not just swallowing developers whole, but even could swallow the likes of Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo as well. It’s the elephant in the room; creativity without a market isn’t always art. You can’t just make a game and expect it to sell – otherwise there would be no market failings.
It’s when companies start to listen to the customers and start looking at pleasing them, rather than fulfilling some internal fantasy number generator that probably should have been switched off years ago, that they will start to see piracy numbers tumble more dramatically – and see legitimate sales soar.
Piracy, as an entity, is hard to tackle. But the laws are there for it to be tackled. It doesn’t require punishing your good customers for the handful of bad seeds that crack it open for illegal use. Because they always WILL crack it. DRM is expensive and, ultimately, pointless. Any glance at a list of pirated games will tell you that.
No, the industry needs to stop treating piracy as its biggest threat, because in reality, it is far from their biggest problem. Consumer Apathy is their greatest enemy; people getting bored and just not buying your product.
Because if you can’t sell a game, you can’t make any money at all.
And then… then you’re really stuffed.