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Wardell: "Piracy is not the primary issue"

I was planning on working this into the Sunday Papers, but because I got distracted by staring forlornly at Romanian girls and didn't do it, I think it's worth getting out there to stand alone. Brad Wardell, Stardock CEO, has posted a short essay about Piracy and the PC which comes at it from a completely different angle. I interviewed Stardock CEO Brad Wardell for a forthcoming issue of Gamer, where he talks about some of the issues he repeats here, but I'm glad to see him put it in a single document. To paraphrase brutally, Piracy doesn't matter. Only sales matter.

Here's a typical quote:

"PC game developers seem to focus more on the "cool" factor. What game can they make that will get them glory with the game magazines and gaming websites and hard core gamers? These days, it seems like game developers want to be like rock stars more than businessmen. I've never considered myself a real game developer. I'm a gamer who happens to know how to code and also happens to be reasonably good at business.

So when I make a game, I focus on making games that I think will be the most profitable. As a gamer, I like most games. I love Bioshock. I think the Orange Box is one of the best gaming deals ever. I love Company of Heroes and Oblivion was captivating. My two favorite games of all time are Civilization (I, II, III, and IV) and Total Annihilation. And I won't even get into the hours lost in WoW. Heck, I even like The Sims.

So when it comes time to make a game, I don't have a hard time thinking of a game I'd like to play. The hard part is coming up with a game that we can actually make that will be profitable. And that means looking at the market as a business not about trying to be "cool"."

By following this, he reaches Stardock's position of trying to be as convenient to those who'll buy their games by avoiding DRM and similar approaches rather than trying to stop the people who pirate the game. Because the Pirates don't count. They have no direct financial impact. There's a second side of this too, however.

It's the "cool" factor he describes. That is, what gets hardcore gamers and journalists excited, and they give coverage to. With magazines and websites, I don't think it's actually anything to do with "cool" - it's about what's perceived as cool by the people who read them. As in, what will make them read. Regarding websites, there's a nasty truth which no-one really has spoke aloud: Pirate's clicks are as good as anyone else's. Websites earn money from people who have no interest in paying for the game. If there's several million pirate-only FPS fans, they'll swell the page-impression count too. If there's four million people who want to read about Call of Duty 4, even if only 400,000 want to pay for it, a website will earn more money by writing about it, rather than trying to do something for the 400,000 people who actually want to read about Sins of the Solar Empire, even if every single one of them buy the game. Until web advertising becomes less about pure number of page impressions, this is going to be an issue.

(That's putting aside the equivalent of piracy for websites, of course: the sizeable proportion of people who run ad-blocking software. Which makes us a little sad on a place like RPS which doesn't do the pop-up hell thing, but we're all living in the shadow of the intrusiveness of some of the major sites so we can see why people feel driven to it. Still: Makes us a bit sad, especially when we see journalists do it. We'll work out a way to encourage people to turn 'em off for us eventually, I'm sure.)

Anyway - Brad's position is correct. You're better off making games for people who actually buy games. You earn no money by making a game everyone plays but no-one buys. It's a business. To be sustainable, it has to be a business. As Brad says about Stardock's desktop software...

"One of the jokes I've seen in the desktop enhancement market is how "ugly" WindowBlinds skins are (though there are plenty of awesome ones too). But the thing is, the people who buy WindowBlinds tend to like a different style of skin than the people who would never buy it in the first place. Natural selection, so to speak, over many years has created a number of styles that seem to be unique to people who actually buy WindowBlinds. That's the problem with piracy. What gets made targets people who buy it, not the people who would never buy it in the first place. When someone complains about "fat borders" on some popular WindowBlinds skin my question is always "Would you buy WindowBlinds even if there was a perfect skin for you?" and the answer is inevitably "Probably not". That's how it works in every market -- the people who buy stuff call the shots. Only in the PC game market are the people who pirate stuff still getting the overwhelming percentage of development resources and editorial support."

As much that's sensible in Brad's position, I also suspect it's a future than many RPS readers would be a little nervous of. Do you just want the equivalent of "ugly" WindowBlinds, forever? Until someone gets some more alternative business models working - and I'm looking at you, Battlefield Heroes - it's a future which seems all too credible.

Brad Wardell's debating the issues of his post over on Qt3. Interesting to see him go head to head with Charles, who's part of the Assassin's Creed team.

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.