Yesterday we featured a story on Cliff Harris, owner of Positech Games, and how he decided to deal with the issue of video game piracy. Cliff wanted to find out why people who illegally download games do what they do. So he asked them, point blank. The responses he's received have been many and varied, proving to be one of the most insightful experiments into a phenomenon a lot of people clearly don't understand.
We got a chance to talk with Cliff recently, and ask him about this whole deal, and what can be done overall to help reduce piracy.
IGL: What kind of response were you expecting when you posted this call to pirates on your blog?
Cliff Harris: I was expecting a lot of semi-political arguments about not believeing in intellectual property, plus a lot of people saying they did it because they could get away with it, or they hated corporations. I thought I would get a lot of seemingly obvious responses like "because it's free".
IGL: At what point did you begin to notice a significant impact on your business because of piracy?
CH: It's very hard to tell the effects that piracy has, but often I'd get web hits from forums and websites where people mentioned the game, and they would always be followed by posts from people asking for a torrent or a rapidshare link. Some people even joined my forums and messaged other forum users asking for a free copy of the game, and as a result I had to turn off messaging between users on my forums. I even had one pirate email me with a bug saying he pirated the game but wanted some tech support. You only really notice piracy when it gets that bad, when someone casually interested in your product finds out about how to pirate it before they even find out where to buy it.
IGL: As an independent developer, someone who owns their own business, and generally sells games for relatively cheap compared to other mainstream titles, how does it feel to know people still go out and steal your games, even though it seems you're doing everything right in terms of being consumer friendly?
CH: It's very frustrating, because all the justifications I had heard for piracy were not even aimed at me. Complaints about a lack of demos, or disk-checks and rootkits are all very well, but none of them apply to me. I also get annoyed at the people who pirated because 'the artist doesn't get the money anyway'. I get 90% of the sale price of my games when sold direct, so the guy getting ripped off isn't some evil middle man, it's the game designer. It's very demoralizing. The worst thing is when you see your games pirated and the people who copied your game and stuck a screenshot on a forum go ballistic if people do not 'thank them for their work' in the forum thread. It never occurs to anyone to thank the guy who spent a year making the thing! I think pirates underestimate the demoralizing effect it has on the people making the game, you never really appreciate it until you have it happen to you.
IGL: You've obviously taken a very hands-on approach to dealing with piracy relating to your own games, what do you think the industry should be doing as a whole to combat piracy?
CH: They should ditch DRM entirely, It doesn't work, and they ruined it for themselevs by going too far with rootkits and similar silliness. They should also agree a reasonable code of conduct for how customers are treated. For example they need to ensure all games are available worldwide for purchase online on the same day, with fast no-hassle downloads. there has to be a demo on day one too. Also if I buy a game for PC, I should be able to format shift to Mac, and vice versa (and linux where available). Game EULAs need to be one page maximum. On the flipside, torrent sites that contain 90% pirated content need to be taken down. theres just no excuse for these sites to be so blatantly cashing in on other peoples work like that. The same goes for some of the free file storage hosts. Does anyone think that less than 99% of the content on those is copyrighted? Obviously the priority should be to stop the crackers and the uploaders, not some kid that downloads a game. I think slowly that's happening, Ubisoft recently prosecuted a disk duplicator for releasinga crack, and I think that's the best approach.
IGL: Is it realistic to believe piracy can be entirely eliminated?
CH: No. Never. But it can be vastly reduced, back to levels where the industry isn't losing out noticeably.
IGL: Of all of the comments and emails you've received, is there one in particular that stands out? What was the most encouraging? What was the most discouraging?
CH: The most discouraging are the long, and fairly arrogant rants about how I don't understand basic economics and scarcity. I did a degree in Economics at the London school of Economics. My most popular game is about Economics, and I run a business, yet I have some people lecturing me on how I don't understand any of that. It discourages me to see so many people swallow the 'all information should be free' line, when most of them will end up working for a company that produces nothing but information. Thats depressing. The encouraging ones are the people who have good reason to hate DRM, games companies, etc, but who are, at the core, passionate gamers and honest people. The ones who are driven to piracy by the insanity of the industry, but who still support the developers and are just looking for great games. Those are the best emails. The vast majority of people emailing me were like that, and I think the 'anti-copyright' fanatics are just a very very loud but very small minority of people.
IGL: As people who play a lot of video games, we're a bit embarrassed to say we've never played any of your games (we will in the future), but they all look remarkably interesting, in particular Kudos. As we understand it, you're working on a sequel to that game. Can you tell people a little about Kudos, and what updates and improvements to expect in Kudos 2?
CH: Kudos is a life-sim, which instantly makes people think of the Sims, but Kudos is very different. It's a 2D turn-based game where you live a characters life for ten years. In some ways, its a nicely presented 'graphical text adventure'. When you play a game like the Sims, it becomes a bit panicky and arcadey, because of the time pressures involved, but in Kudos, you get to analyze and think about every decision you make. It's hopefully a game that makes you think about all the consequences of what seem like trivial decisions, like what kind of TV you watch, or who you hang out with.
Kudos 2 is the same principle, but just vastly better in terms of scope, detail and presentation. The original game was a bit downbeat and experimental, whereas the sequel basically fixes everything I found to be wrong or not work that well with the original game. I think it will appeal both to people who like the Sims, and people who hate the Sims, but like simulation/strategy/rpg games. It's a tough game to categorize, and of course, I'm still working on it!
IGL: Thank you for your time, sir.