Before I start this essay, I have to place a disclaimer. The words of The Author are not in any case the official views of Something Wicked Games. While Jesse and Carson do give me free reign to say almost anything I want, (which is probably how I got away with calling Other M and Soul Calibur 2 matching piles of misogynist Bullymong droppings) I know that my words in this essay may lead to negative feedback from all 4 parts of the industry (the ‘real’ gaming industry, seed 1).
This essay was another one that I had trouble starting. I feel very strongly on the subject, and while I try to keep my tone equal parts objective and subjective, I don’t know if it’s possible to even begin to touch this subject in any meaningful way without injecting my politics. As I promised last week, this week is all about piracy. I will be talking about whom it really hurts, whom it really benefits, and why we need to stop, as well as why we absolutely must never stop.
“Do you even proofread your work? You just contradicted yourself and we aren’t even a page in!” Yes, Yes I did. If you continue to read my blog into the distant future then you will notice that I say exactly what I mean and that I aim, in all works, for accuracy over simplicity. It’s why I’m The Author and not The Professor. I will often obfuscate but I will absolutely never deceive. My words are always as accurate as I know how to make them.
Let us start at the beginning. Whom does piracy harm? Short answer : everyone, absolutely everyone. Every publisher on the planet knows the agony of waking up the morning before release day to find your game’s crack file already present on Pirate Bay (for the record, mom, “Pirate Bay” is where your youngest son gets everything he’s ever put on your computer). Also, we’ve all heard the (at times) dubious claims by big ticket publishers claiming that the reason they shut down your favourite studio or discontinued your favourite series is because “Too many people pirated the game and we couldn’t afford to make another”. We’ve even seen those claims made weeks before another multi-million dollar CoD clone came out. Those of us who watch Dan Brown (#pogobat) have seen Suffocation’s Suffocation, where the lead singer trawled around a walmart claiming that he would rather you not get exposed at all to his music if it was because you might have heard your first track on an unofficial YouTube channel. If you’re like The Author, you’ve even rolled your eyes at that video.
On the other hand, it is true that games and music today are expensive as all get-out to make. I want to reference Dan Brown again, he has said over a hundred times “Our current economic model states that the worth of a product is equal to supply over demand. As the supply grows the price must decline proportionately, and if the supply is infinite, that must mean that the worth of the product is zero”. While the math behind that is solid, the overall statement is false. Everything that has ever been created (even Big Rigs Offroad Racing and The War Z, appeasing your fans vs. pacifying them, take a drink) has a worth, even if the supply is theoretically infinite. Even in the case of a post-scarcity resource, (like data or creativity) that does not change the fact that the time and effort put into creating and implementing that product is not limitless. Someday we will reach the technological singularity and no human will ever have to expend months of their lives to make their creative works a reality, simply willing art into the world while they sleep and uploading it via cortical implant; but we aren’t at that point yet. Even this blog, which I’ve stated multiple times has no retail value, represents hours of Carson rigging this amazing machine up (that I still don’t really know how to use), weeks of philosophical debate with Ntacman, a proposal aired to Jesse and days of caffeine-fueled delirium, also, I still expect to get paid for it. In short, piracy hurts the creator, whom is unable to continue her work if she isn’t getting paid. This, in turn, hurts the end user, who eventually finds the quality of the finished project slipping downhill because the creator isn’t getting paid. Not to mention the publisher, who can no longer take a proper metric of how popular a product is because the numbers are thrown out of whack by those who don’t pay.
However, let me quote John Green when I say “The truth defies simplicity”. I stated earlier that there are people whom piracy helps. I would like to take this opportunity to list these parties. So whom does piracy help? In short : everyone. “Wait a second, Author, you just said that piracy hurts everyone! How does that make sense?” Well, this is a more deceptive issue. Let us do a mental exercise. Have you ever watched a letsplay or looked up the lyrics to a song? Congratulations! You are a pirate. By the definitions put forward by SOPA, ACTA and PIPA you have participated in the unregulated sharing of a product. Yet, what actually happened? You participated in a means of enriching your experience with a given piece of media. You may have “broken the law” but in reality you have expanded your scope of understanding concerning a piece of art (my mom spent 30 years thinking that Dream On by Aerosmith was a feminist masterpiece until I discovered AZ-lyrics). We all complain about the megacorps (learning from Shadowrun, I’ll bet that one will be more fun to write than this one) sending those DMCA orders to Lyrics.com because posting lyrics is somehow exactly the same as posting the song. The issue of why copyright claims are getting more tyrannical is a subject for another essay (which I will get to after I write some more enjoyable papers, I’ve been researching marketing strategies and DRM for 2 weeks and want to write about something fun like ultraviolence or the role of platformers) but one theory I have concerning the cause of Youtube’s letsplay crackdown (which might have blown over by the time this thing gets posted, keep in mind that I’m putting together a stockpile before my vacation to visit my mom in January (RELEASE DATE EDIT: vacation has been postponed until April)) is that publishers are conflating the ease of assimilation with the experience proper. Okay, that got verbose real fast, time to break it down.
I was debating making this part an essay in itself but then I realized that I could sum it in a paragraph or so. When I say “ease of assimilation” (Carson hates that word, he watched too much Star Trek as a kid and still has nightmares of the Borg) I refer to merely understanding the concept of a piece. To use an example from a far more popular medium, everyone who grew up in the 70s has seen the original version of Star Wars. “What do you mean, original? You can get that in any store that sells movies!” Well, I’ve heard many a voice on the internet claim that the later edits and cuts of the movie, altered for screen size and content, (Han shot first) while adequate for seeing the story and the characters, fails utterly in capturing the sheer tension of the Trench Run, the majesty of the exposition crawl or the horror of Luke’s encounter with the Shade of Vader on Dagobah. Hell, I’ve heard art critics say that the super sized jumbo-print of Starry Night that Carson and Jesse keep on their wall pales in comparison to seeing it in the controlled environment of an art museum. This also holds true for video games. No matter how well I rig my Xbox remote, it will never have the clunky feel of the classic Nintendo remote. I could spend the next 5 years tinkering with my Bluetooth drivers and handbuild a custom wiimote accessory, I will never recreate the buffet of emotions and sensations involved in playing Time Crisis in a dark, crowded arcade that reeks of beer and nachos with my brother from the ‘comfort’ of my office (this chair needs more lumbar support). I could assimilate the information easily enough, learn the levels, tactics and mechanics of Time Crisis with a mouse on an emulator during my lunch break, but I would never actually do it because Time Crisis just isn’t as fun alone. The missing orgy of light and sound from the other arcade machines would likely serve only to illuminate the horrible writing and sub-par voice acting. Once you strip away the experience of Time Crisis in an arcade (that is to say, the smell of greasy food, the feel of the plastic gun, sticky with spilled soda, and the desperation of scraping up one more quarter) you are left with a mediocre, poorly tuned railshooter with a plotline on par with the cheesiest of pornography.
What does this have to do with piracy’s benefit to the producer. Ready for a logical leap? Okay, think on this. How much Pokemon merchandise do you see out there? Really think about it, t-shirts, plushies, a tv-show, a host of movies, pokeball belts, stickers, every single one of Ash’s hats is out there to buy, pokemon figurines (I want one of each: Ponyta, Rapidash, Blitzle and Zebstrika), holiday and trading cards, dozens of spinoff games including Mystery Dungeon and Poke’mon Stadium. There’s even a Pokemon pedometer out there! This list is far from exhaustive, I’ve been out of the game for 10 years, just picking back up with X and Y after not playing since Generation 1 (my favourite pokemon were Gyrados and Venasaur). Now think, how many people got introduced to pokemon via watching a friend play? Full disclosure, my wife may only be into pokemon because someone in Something Wicked Games, who may or may not be me, “aquired” Pokemon White (to quote Carson), and, big surprise, now the only reason we have a his and her pair of 3DS (3DSs?) is because she thought Tepig was the cutest thing in the history of ever and she wanted to be able to trade and battle with her favorite Poke-palls. For the record, that’s 2 more paying customers that Nintendo have for their new system because of piracy.
So, why do they freak out over piracy. This brings me back to the ease of assimilation vs. the full experience of a piece of media. My wife got Pokemon White via piracy, this allowed her to start her own pokemon collection and get a full grasp of how amazing pokemon (and to a lesser extent, Animal Crossing) is. Well, assuming my wife and I didn’t each buy a DS, that’s over 300 dollars in merchandise that we didn’t pay for. Multiply that by the thousands of pokemon fans that for one reason or another also pirated and that quickly becomes millions of dollars. Also, as much as I love nerds, not all of them subscribe to my particular brand of piracy.
Wow, this essay is wandering a lot, I need to reel it in, I was on ‘different brands of piracy’. Okay, this part of the essay is largely for people like The Author’s mom, skip ahead if you want, I just want to get everyone on the same page because this stuff is going to be integral to the rest of the essay. Mainstream media would have you believe that every pirate out there is playing free cracked versions of Halo 4 on their super-powered liquid-cooled gaming rig supplied free of charge by their hookup at Newegg while listening to pirated Skrillex and eating ramen noodles that they stole directly off the back of a cargo truck that was boiled in baby’s tears. While I could honestly claim that not all pirates are elite hackers printing the words “Crash + Burn” using office lights in New York, it would be a bold faced lie to claim that the pirate “community” is completely free of miscreants that simply refuse to pay for anything in life. What I will say, however, is that pirates are humans, and just like everyone else we have a wide variety of justifications, some of which are more reasonable than others.
Most pirates are like me, they’ve simply grown sick of the hoops one has to jump through to get the media they love. So what does “jumping through hoops” mean? In October I bought Arkham Asylum for my wife. I went onto Steam (for my mom, that’s a catalogue of games you can buy and download directly to your computer, no disk required, get a hankering for DOTA 2? just download and go, even at 3 in the morning) forked up something in the area of $30, downloaded the game, went to launch it and was immediately asked for a CD key. No issue, go into my library, get the key, enter it into the field, no problem. Except there was an issue. My steam account never received a CD key, so I figured “probably in my email”, logged into my associated address, no key. Wanting to give the benefit of the doubt, I waited 24 hours, still no key. So I emailed the publishers, who told me it was an issue with the security firm that made their DRM (For the record, mom, DRM is a type of software included in most games, movies and music nowadays that renders the files associated with a piece of media unreadable if you don’t get an unlock code from the publisher, it mostly succeeds in making life hard for legitimate users while your other son skirts around it like it’s his job, remember how he cracked open dad’s old password-protected computer with a USB stick in 5 minutes? He learned that from years of working around DRM). So I emailed the firm, 5 un-answered emails later I lost my patience and popped over to Pirate Bay. At the time of writing it is Dec. 20th, I’ve beaten Arkham Asylum twice and I still don’t have that key.
Another example of hoop jumping, I’m sure this goes without saying, but in order to get such an encyclopedic understanding of video game memes and tropes you need to play video games, a lot of them. Problem is, our medium is generational in nature. You can’t get your hands on Xenosaga anymore, hell, I couldn’t even find a copy of The World Ends With You locally and that game is less than 4 years old. These along with examples like Mother 2, Chrono Trigger and Rachet and Clank (classic) are important parts of our medium that you simply can’t get legitimately anymore. Lets face it, anyone who’s half decent with code can make a pixel move in accordance with keyboard or joystick commands, just as any idiot with 2 braincells and a basic understanding of sentence structure can write an essay on scary stuff in video games. However, anyone who wants to take a swing at making the Casablanca or Gatsby of video games is going to have to be able to talk intelligently about our Beowulf and our Steamboat Willy. That means getting your hands on Illusions of Gaia or Adventure! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the title). Also, I’d like to add, the youngest of those 2 games went out of print nearly 20 years ago. Good luck getting them without an emulator.
Would you like a third example? Lets go back to demos (demos, this essay was pretty sparse on seeds). Before I start, however, I want to respond to a comment made by Daniel Floyd. He once said that demos are bad for sales, then proceeded to go into detail as to why, ranging from how unless every single title you crank out is the next Bioshock, Final Fantasy 6 or Fallout 3, people will, in general, pick up the demo, play through it, then decide they got everything they needed from that and forget your game exists. I have 2 responses to this, the first one is “you could use a structure that I put forward in my monetization essay”. The second is that if this still leads to people not buying your game then maybe you’re doing it wrong. Microtransactions such as those found in Rift or randomized packages such as those found in Magic : The Gathering prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that most people will pay for the same exact game 100 times (literally, Jim could fill a storehouse with his stockpile of chump commons) if you make it look like a small enough investment with a big enough variance in possibility-space (The Universal Rules of MMOs, one seed, and negative possibility space, makes 2 in one sentence). That being said, that’s the very last reason why I’ll pirate a game. We don’t get demos anymore, which means that people like me, who rarely eat more than a chicken patty or two a day, need some pretty solid quality assurance before we go and blow $60 bucks on something we might forget exists after session 1 or 2. This brings me back to Pokemon, my wife and I would have found no reason to buy a pair of 3DS if I wasn’t already dead certain that we would get a kick out of at least 1 title there. Carson will pirate a game so long as he isn’t recording it, rationalizing that if he isn’t profiting off it then no harm seeing as how he pays full price for any of the games he covers. As for me? I would rather not broadcast my personal philosophy on the matter of pirated content as demo, as it’s easily corrupted and stands clearly on a very slippery slope, I don’t know many who could show the discipline required to enforce my rules.
So, why must we not stop pirating games, especially if they hurt the industry? Well, if we’re being as responsible as we expect our devs to be, then piracy can serve as an excellent incentive to improve production and disincentivize our current economic model. Wow, I got really verbose there again. Let me do (yet another) break down.
What do I mean by “improve production”? Well, if we are being responsible in our acquisition (and not, say, pirating everything under the sun then wondering why dev firms are dying) then we could start saying “Well, I might have bought your game if you didn’t lose me 15 minutes in with your exposition dump,” or we could say “Well, I tried your game, kept getting stuck on invisible geometry, decided it wasn’t worth stumbling around for 20 hours in a game where only half of the glowing yellow ledges were grip-able and half of grip-able ledges were unmarked, so I didn’t bother”. Unfortunately, then we run headlong into the Tragedy of the Commons. Quick breakdown of that term. Have you ever shown up in a message board, seen someone who was spouting complete trash, suppose they wrote 10 pages on piracy and you agreed with none of it so you politely respond “you have no f-cking idea what you’re talking about” then you proceed to complain to your friends about how your fellow webizens have absolutely no sense of modesty and decline into profanity and racial slurs over the simplest thing? How about the shock and revulsion you experience when your friend says “hey, didn’t I see you online yesterday calling some guy a ‘f-cking moron’ because he couldn’t find you on top of the bank in Orgrimmar?” (that’s how long it’s been since I’ve played Horde) and you respond with “well that’s not nearly as bad as some of the people out there, and even if I stopped there are still thousands of others who do it”. That’s the Tragedy, nobody taking individual responsibility for the misdeeds of the collective. I’m sure you can see how easily this applies to pirating, even if it’s only for a demo before you buy, it’s easy to say “Ill buy it tomorrow” until one day you realize you’ve completed a 40 hour campaign and paid nary a cent for the lot of it. Multiply that by the thousands of people who “just wanted to try” Gears of War and we start to see a serious shot to sales. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever pirate media, only in the most extreme cases is it tantamount to theft, while in most cases its a work around for system that has made itself intentionally convoluted in an attempt to work around you (punishing players vs. punishing retailers, don’t think I’ve mentioned that seed yet).
I believe now you are starting to see why I chose to write this essay and the monetization essay back to back. I feel in my heart that each essay is the perfect answer to the issues presented in the other. I know that doesn’t make much sense, but to horribly butcher the quote of a far greater man than I, “I have a dream where the children of publishers and the children of pirates sit together at the table of brotherhood” (I can hear my dad voicing his grievances from his urn, wherever it’s being kept). There is absolutely no reason that we all can’t just get along. Yes, there will always be extreme elements on both sides of the argument claiming that the other stands as the absolute antithesis of freedom, justice, and the expansion of the medium. Carson was once an ‘any time, any where, why pay for the cow’ person (Jesse beat some sense into him, wonderful woman) and I have stood firmly on the “absolutely never” side of the argument, a small part of me always will. However, I hope that sooner than later pirates and publishers make an unspoken truce, a promise of honor whereas a pirate agrees to not ‘acquire’ media so long as publishers agree to make their monetization scheme less exploitative and wheel back DRM to the days of Mother 2 (okay, mom, in Mother 2, there was a little trick put into the code by the developer, whereas if the game detected a cracked file it would say at the beginning ‘pirating is wrong’ followed by doubling the encounter rate and health of every mob in the game, and if you managed to get through the super hard version of the game, then your save file deleted itself right before the final boss and the game initiated a reboot, genius, It was either my brother or one of his friends who made it through the game 4 times before learning it was because he pirated it. I suggest every single person out there considering DRM in their game play through the cracked version of Mother 2, or, as it’s known in the states, Earthbound).
Well, there goes my collective 19 pages concerning monetization and piracy. I was originally debating making them 1 essay but there was no way in Mundus’s Palace I was compressing that all into 10 pages. I could write a whole other essay on DRM, but I would like a little break to write about fun stuff. Sorry about the fact that this essay is only 9 pages long, I wanted to talk about my personal strategy for pirating but I didn’t want to encourage such behavior (as if I didn’t do that enough with what got left in the final version of this paper). I promise this won’t become a pattern, but I’m leaving in a week and a half and still have a few more papers to crank out.