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GOG's Two Cents On Retro Mania, DRM's Demise

Kind Of Like Benjamin Button

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It was a dark and stormy evening when I recently spoke with GOG‘s Trevor Longino. We met in a Japanese hotel in San Francisco, him proudly carrying some manner of whooping cough from Poland, and me trying to keep pace with this year’s Canadian model (it’s a long story). It was, in other words, quite a momentous meeting of virus cultures – not to mention fever-addled minds. But really, this does seem to be quite a pivotal moment for the storefront formerly known as Good Old Games. The industry’s slowly but surely conforming to its philosophies, with numerous indie games embracing nostalgia wholeheartedly and DRM’s grip loosening on even the likes of big, bad Ubisoft. So where exactly does that leave GOG? Longino and I tackled that topic and many more – including Steam Greenlight and GOG’s apparent flip-flop on steep discounts being bad for the industry.

Trevor Longino wants his product’s main selling point to dry up. He’s probably a crazy person, but he might also just really like videogames.

“It’s great to see companies like Ubisoft rein in their DRM policies,” he begins excitedly, completely unprompted. “When ‘DRM-free’ as a sales point for GOG isn’t special anymore, it’ll actually be really awesome. It’ll make my job harder, but it would be really awesome to just have gamers assume, ‘If I have this game, I own it.’”

Currently, “DRM-free” is a cornerstone of GOG’s identity – especially with the recent move away from peddling retro games exclusively – but that willingness to roll with the punches characterizes GOG’s entire operation. The service may have been founded on old-school values, but that doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past. That said, when its main interests collide with major industry trends, well, Longino certainly can’t complain.

“[The recent resurgence in retro-style games] does work out well for us,” he says with a laugh. “Not just Kickstarter, but also people who are self-funding their indie projects. It’s a very cool time to be selling games like we do and to have the audience we do.”

“Indie games are important to us. Back when a lot of the classics we have were being made, you could argue they were all pretty much of the size and scope indie games are now. They were hundred-thousand or quarter million dollar investments. That sounds like a lot, but you look at something like Skyrim – which probably cost $60 million – and it’s much more modest. So seeing people who are able to take those risks on game development because it’s less of an investment is definitely exciting for us. Some of the best games ever made were risky gambles. Things like Thief and System Shock. And if you look at the things we’re bringing onto GOG, they all have something unique about them. We’re not really interested in World War II Shooter 6.”

That careful selection process, too, gives GOG a stronger feeling of direction and consistency than many other services, but obviously, it’s an ever-evolving process. Longino goes onto explain that there are two sides to it: formal and informal. The business folks and the audience – or at least, a sample of the audience. A core team of testers, Longino notes, leverage decades of gaming experience and pull no punches in their feedback. “You know, right away, they say, ‘I played this game, and it was garbage. I played this game, and it was awesome.’ And the ones they really like, we definitely have more interest in. I mean, on Legend of Grimrock, they were like, ‘This is amazing. Sign away whatever organs you have to. Just get it.’”

It is, however, still a far more directed process than, say, Steam Greenlight or other similarly crowd-dependent processes, which Longino admits definitely have their  flaws.

“Greenlight falls to that problem of which games are best marketed by developers and sound most appealing to the mainstream voters – such as they are – who shop there. But, as a result, people miss the chance to play gems.”

“There’s a great quote by the CEO of Porsche who says, ‘If we listen to our customers, all of our Porsches will have a little more legroom, a little more head room, a little more trunk room, a little slower acceleration. Essentially, our customers all want BMWs. But they buy Porsche because we give them what they really want. When you ask them, they want something else.’ Minecraft, I’m sure if you described it to someone… ‘Oh, you punch things and then you use the things you punch to build things. You build stuff!’ ‘But where’s the game?’ ‘That is the game.’ I bet, hearing that, people would’ve been like, ‘Well that sounds boring.’ But then you play it and get six million customers.”

Striking a balance between keeping an ear to the ground and your head above misguided chatter, then, is key, according to Longino. GOG, he says, walks a fine line between level-headed business and rabid fandom, and it’s definitely no walk in the park. Ultimately, though, it’s about sticking to a core set of unflinching principles.

Except, well, when it isn’t. Or at least, when it certainly seems that way. Earlier this year, managing director Guillaume Rambourg and Longino both contended that ultra-steep sales (ala Steam’s seasonals) were hurting the industry by devaluing games and producing a fire-sale-only mentality. Flash forward just a few months, though, and GOG’s slashing price tags by 50 and 60 percent. So what, exactly, provoked such a rapid about-face?

“I’d say we still kind of agree that this isn’t good for the industry,” Longino replies, resolute. “But also, our users made it very clear that they’d rather have the choice. And at GOG, we want to give them that choice. So we got a lot of feedback, and we said, ‘OK, but this still reaches a point where people don’t buy games unless they’re on steep discount.’”

“That’s not good for the industry. But users want the option because they never would’ve bought it otherwise. So our stance was, ‘If you’re buying a game you wouldn’t have bought otherwise unless it was 80 percent off, what are the odds you’re going to play it?’ And our users said, ‘We don’t care. Sometimes we like to collect games, or maybe we’ll play them later. That’s not your concern. Just let us buy the games we want.’”

Which naturally casts some doubt on GOG’s other equally principled stances (for instance, DRM-free and careful game selection), but maybe that’s just part of changing with the times. Because the ways people buy and pre-purchase and even fund games are evolving rapidly, and it’d be utterly foolish to root yourself in one place and ignore that. For now, though, Longino promises that good things are on the horizon. Notably, he claims that GOG’s a few pen strokes away from signing the formidable back catalog of either Microsoft, Take-Two, or LucasArts, which would give its stable of classics quite the injection of fresh blood. There are also more “unique” sales – ala the recent pay-what-you-want Interplay bundle – on the way, with one that Longino “doesn’t think anyone else has tried before” en route to November. And beyond that? Well, Longino can’t delve into specifics, but apparently, some pretty important doors are starting to open.

“We’ve learned that ‘No’ usually means ‘Not yet.’ Maybe people don’t want to be part of your crazy experiment. Some guys still aren’t sold on DRM-free, some don’t want to go through all the trouble. And some don’t even know who owns their IPs. That’s particularly embarrassing. But once you’ve proven it can make money, they might be willing to come back and talk about it more.”

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Nathan Grayson

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