In the universe of the free (“free” as in beer), getting ripped off is the norm. Yes, many products and services are deliberately priced at zero these days, but a significant portion of consumers will gravitate to illegitimate free versions of not-free stuff. Free versions of pricey digital products are not hard to find on underground file trading sites, or in bits and pieces on above ground aggregators like YouTube. Most high-priced wares like expensive commercial software can be had for literally nothing. But very cheap things are widely pirated for free as well.
Why do people pirate inexpensive digital goods? Why steal candy? This was the question game developer Cliff Harris asked the online world. His games were priced at what he thought was a very reasonable $20. Yet, his games were being pirated constantly. Why? He really wanted to know if he needed to alter his business practices so he simply asked the Great Hive, “Why do people pirate my games?” No judgement — just asking. His query was replicated deep into the blogosphere making it to Slashdot, Digg, Arstechnica, and so on. He got hundreds and hundreds of replies, none of them shorter than 100 words. “It was,” he said, “as if a lot of people have waited a long time to tell a game developer the answer to this question.”
He found patterns in the replies that surprised him. Chief among them was the common feeling that his games (and games in general) were overpriced for what buyers got — even at $20. Secondly, anything that made purchasing and starting to play difficult — like copy protection, DRM, two-step online purchasing routines — anything at all standing between the impulse to play and playing in the game itself was seen as a legitimate signal to take the free route. Harris also noted that ideological reasons (rants against capitalism, intellectual property, the man, or wanting to be outlaw) were a decided minority.
Much to his credit, the sincere responses to his question changed Harris’s mind. He decided to alter his business model. He reduced the price of his games in half (to $10), he removed the little DRM copy protection he had, he promised to make his web store easier to use, maybe even with one-click checkout, he decided to increase the length of his free demos, and most importantly, he had the revelation that he needed to increase the quality of his games — even though they were only going for 20 bucks. He wrote:
My games aren’t as good as they could be. Ironically, one of the things that reduces your enthusiasm to really go the extra mile in making games is the thought that thousands of ungrateful gits will swipe the whole thing on day one for nothing. It’s very demoralizing. But actually talking to the pirates has revealed a huge group of people who really appreciate genuinely good games. Some of the criticisms of my games hit home. I get the impression that if I make Kudos 2 not just lots better than the original, but hugely, overwhelmingly, massively better, well polished, designed and balanced, that a lot of would-be pirates will actually buy it. I’ve gone from being demoralized by pirates to actually inspired by them, and I’m working harder than ever before on making my games fun and polished.
A final note is trying to make it easier for people to buy my games. I’m really hassling my payment provider to support amazons one-click method. For me, I think that’s even more convenient than Steam. I’m always doing what I can to make buying them as quick and easy as possible.
Harris’s article “Talking to Pirates” is only one page long, and worth reading. It will be most interesting to see if his modifications actually help his sales. I hope he follows through on this most excellent exercise by posting next year what happened.
(Thanks, Rebecca Blood.)