Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Don't blame pirates for PC game sales decline
Published on July 20, 2004 By Draginol In PC Gaming

This article from "Elf-Inside" about his experiences with games and with Stardock really underscores where the PC game industry needs to go. He has a really good analogy:

When I buy a pizza, I expect to get a pizza. I expect it with the toppings I order, and I expect it to be delivered promptly. By calling Domino's or Papa John's, I've contractually agreed to pay for a pizza when it arrives. But if the deliverman shows up 2 hours late, with cold pizza, with Anchovies instead of Peperoni, then, no, I'm not going to pay for that. The problem with typical game publishers, is they expect you to eat that pizza, and be happy for it. You paid for hot pepperoni, and got cold anchovies, but you have no recourse.

Which is so true. It is also one of the reasons why I think the console market is really starting to eat the PC's lunch. I've been outright hostile to consoles for years but even I find myself starting to buy console games. Why? Because they work out of the box. I don't have to "Wait for the first patch" to play the games.

And PC games have a perfect storm of bad habits:

  • First, I am expected to devote hundreds of megabytes to them. Okay, I can live with that.
  • But then they expect me to keep the CD in the drive.
  • And then I usually have to keep track of a little tiny paper serial number (usually taped to the back of the CD jacket).
  • And all that so that I can play a game that needs a couple of patches to play.

And when the PC sales go down, what's the reported reason? Piracy of course.  Yea, it's piracy. Sure. In my experience of writing games, it's not pirates ripping us off of our hard earned money, it's been publishers.  The tale of Galactic Civilizations is very similar to the tale of Swamp Castle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The other developers told me I was daft to write a space based strategy game for OS/2! So I wrote Galactic Civilizations for OS/2. I was a college student back then so I couldn't afford to get it into the stores. So a publisher called Advanced Idea Machines "published" it. They never paid us royalties and disappeared soon after. Since I had no money, I couldn't afford a lawyer at the time.

So I got smart. Stardock would publish the OS/2 sequel Galactic Civilizations II.  So we made the game, manufactured the boxes, took care of all the marketing and getting it into the stores.  And just to be safe, we had two distributors. One called Micro Central and the other one called Blue Orchards.  Both went went out of business owing us hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That particular incident nearly wiped out Stardock.

But no matter, we recovered. We clawed our way back up and made it into the Windows market.  We decided to make a Windows version and we decided to work with a well known publisher on it (Strategy First). This time everything would go perfectly...

Well, that was a year and a half ago and we're still waiting for royalty payments on most of their sales.  But this time, we had an out -- direct electronic sales. People were able to buy the game directly from us and download the game.

So don't talk to me about piracy. It's not the pirates that have ripped us off of hundreds of thousands in lost royalties. It's been "Real businesses" doing that thank you very much.  The position of royalty eating parasite has already been taken.

It's the demographic of people who allegedly do all this pirating that's been paying our bills. People with Internet connections who download games. They pay my salary. They are my overlord now.  So I hope you can excuse me if I don't lose sleep at night that some 15 year old might have downloaded my game while some executive at a company (or former company) is sailing on their boat paid for by my hard work.  The software pirate can go to jail on a felony, the business executive who doesn't pay royalties gets off the hook.

So yea, tell me again how I need to put some dongle or whatever on my game to keep 15 year olds from pirating? When our contract with publishers forces them to wear a shock collar that I can press a button to shock them if royalties aren't paid on time then we'll talk about forcing customers to deal with massive copy protection. But it's not the pirates I worry about.

I'm sure that Galactic Civilizations is pirated somewhere.  But I highly doubt it's pirated in significant quantities.  I know it sold over 100,000 copies out there. But people didn't pirate it much. Why? Because we didn't force them to pirate it.  We didn't make someone have to create a CD crack so that they could play it on their laptop on the plane where the CD drive is replaced with an extra battery.  We didn't make them have to download "patches" to get the game working.  The version of Galactic Civilizations that won Editor's Choice Awards from most of the major PC game publications was the 1.0 version out of the box.  And we encouraged people to pay their hard earned dollars for the game by giving them value by putting out updates after release. We put out a bunch of free updates that added tons of features. A BonusPak, a free expansion pack.  Heck, GalCiv 1.21 is due out this week!  You want to fight piracy, don't give people a reason to pirate.

In fairness, the retail version of The Political Machine will have a CD check. However, the electronic version from TotalGaming.net will not and users of the boxed version will be able to forgo the CD check after January 1, 2005 as part of our compromise with our publisher. A win-win since the main problem with CD checks is losing the CD or damaging it in the long term and it satisfies the publisher's concern over "0 day warez" sites (though it'll still get pirated I'm sure).

I think that's a major reason consoles are starting to really crush the PC game market.  People are getting fed up. They're getting a cold pizza and being told to lump it. It doesn't have to bet that way.

For example, The Political Machine comes out in August.  We plan to have a free update available for it on the first week that adds some new features and extra goodies. There will be "bug" fixes but they'll likely be bugs no one would run into. And we'll put out updates as regularly as Ubi Soft will let us (unlike with GalCiv, The Political Machine updates have to go through Ubi Soft's outstanding QA department).

We don't do this because we're nice. We do it because it is good business.  If the competing technology (consoles) can't be updated with new stuff after release, then you should exploit that advantage.  And that means add new features, not use the Internet to supply updates that finish the game!

I'm not against copy protection schemes on the PC because I'm some sort of flower child developer. I'm against them because they're bad business. They discourage people from buying PC games in the first place.  Once you make someone have to hunt down a CD crack, you've set them on the path of pirating the whole game and future games.

That's what I hope to see TotalGaming.net prevent.  Make it a no-brainer for someone to purchase games electronically by keeping costs reasonable and make using the games they've purchased easy and convenient.  After all, it's their pizza, deliver it to them as they want and they'll support you with future orders.


Comments (Page 1)
on Jul 20, 2004
You want to fight piracy, don't give people a reason to pirate.

Thank God there's someone out there who realizes this. I can't tell you the number of times that I have downloaded a piece of software that I saw on sale in the stores for $60, to find out that it's crap. Even with the demos that publishers put out these days, you can't always tell what the quality of a product is by a demo alone.

I have always been a firm believer of giving my money to companies that have made an honest effort to put out quality products. Of the games that I download, I end up buying the quality pieces of software, and deleting the crap (usually about 80-90%).

Copy protection is such a sham that it's preposterous. Those 0-day warez kiddiez usually have the game cracked before it's even released to retail, so what does that tell you about the effectiveness of copy-protection. I agree that it's sad that I have to go and look for a No-CD crack for my games when I have shelled out between $30-$60 for a game.

-- B
on Jul 20, 2004
All I can say is: Amen
on Jul 20, 2004
Pc games are just to demanding these days for somethings it just so much easier to get console

also a lot of the modern games coming out probably wont run on a lot of the pcs out there

take doom3 thats probably going to run slow on my 256mb fx 5600 graphics card so people out there with onboard intel extreme
or whatever their shopbought pc has in arnt gonna stand a hope in hell.

So in order to sell more games i think the publishers and developers need to take note of a few things


1) dont charge to much, people dont like spending lots of money if they dont think its worth it they wont pay it.

take me for example i dont usally buy a £45 game unless its really good i wait a bit and pick it up for £10 or £20

2) get the specs right , dont make a game that requires the latest and greatest hardware to run or most people wont be able to play it anyway.

3) dont bother with this complicated cd protection rubbish it just causes problems and it doesnt stop copying anyway it WILL get cracked.

4) Dont release a game before its ready people dont want to have to download a 300mb bugfix to be able to play the game.

5) Make a decent savegame system (ok some people may not agree with this one but i find it extremely irratating to go and have to redo the previous 30mins of game becuase i had to go out and didnt get to a 'save point')
on Jul 20, 2004
Here's the *real* reason people are leaving gaming: The games can't keep germers excited long enough. 99% of today's games are rehashes of older ones + Better graphics and expanded multiplayer support.

Half Life 2 = Half-Life 1 + nicer graphics
DOOM 3 = DOOM 1 + nicer graphics
Sim City 4 = Sim City 1 + nicer graphics
Ninja Gaiden (XBox) = Ninja Gaiden (NES) + nicer graphics

The last innovations were FPS (Wolf3D) and RTS (Dune2) games and online gaming. It's been a while since something new and exciting happened.

Let's face it, the Gaming industry is failing miserably at keeping it's customers happy. So the customers leave.

See rest of my comment at Neowin.net
on Jul 20, 2004
There is some truth to the fact that the ideas have stagnated into "safe bet" games that are just iterative improvements on a proven design, but that same problem plagues the consoles too. I haven't seen a really innovative game for any platform in a while now. No publisher is willing to risk a large chunk of cash on something that isn't guaranteed. Between overused ideas, the fact that 90% of the PC games released are in beta form and the steep upgrade curve, consoles are winning the day just on basic economics.

I can go out, for $40 get a game for my GameCube that I know will do the following:
1) Work out of the box... no major bugs, no show-stopping crashes
2) Will look like the screenshots I've seen on gaming sites
3) Have a resale value

I'm a PC gamer, always have been and always will be, but lately I've started to lose faith, started to stray from the path of true gaming enlightenment and am playing consoles more and more. For $200 I can go out and buy a console that I KNOW will play ALL games released for it without a major upgrade (not counting FFXI for the PS2 with it's drive and network card adapter). With my PC, I'm looking at $200 a year EASY just to keep me running fast enough for the next years games. In years with a major release like Doom 3, I'm probably looking at more than $200. And if I ever reach the point where small upgrades won't do the trick, I'm looking to shell out $1-2k for a new PC altogether. Add to that the fact that PC games are more expensive than their console counterparts by at least $10 when they're first released, and we're seeing a HUGE difference in cost between a console and a PC.

And after spending all that money, there is no guarantee that the games I buy will actually work out of the box. I spent $2200 on my most recent rig... for that money I could have bought a console and at least FIFTY games. All of those games would have worked too.

On top of the cost of being a PC gamer, there's the uphill battle we're constantly fighting against the companies we buy games from. From CD protection schemes that don't work, to publishers simply refusing to support a title if it didn't meet some magic number for sales, we are treated like the enemy. If you make a game that is a flop at first due to bugs and some bad design choices (like Master of Orion 3), you CAN still salvage your investment by putting out further patches and try and fix the problems that were there. In the case of MoO3, we got ONE patch and then the publisher and developer vanished off into the mist, refusing to even acknowledge the game they put out. And they honestly wonder why it didn't sell. Bad Game + 0 post-launch support = no sales. They tossed us a cold moldy pizza that should have been delivered a few years ago, and then they told us to get lost.

These companies are shooting themselves in the foot. Now I'm much more warry of any game published by Atari (Infogrames at the time of MoO3). In general unless a game is coming from a developer I trust a great deal, I am very careful about it because I know most publishers will railroad a game out the door and then abandon it. Blaming the gamer of course for the bad sales.
on Jul 20, 2004

I think Rollercoaster Tycoon was pretty innovative.  I think the Simms is pretty innovative.  Heck, The Political Machine is pretty innovative.

There is innovation out there, but it's often being done by smaller shops.

on Jul 20, 2004
I've been watching the GarageGames site lately and I've seen some really neat and fun games and ideas come out of there. Innovation will have to come from the little guy now because they don't have the huge budget concerns and marketing crap hovering over them that anyone working under a major publisher does.
on Jul 20, 2004
I admit I'm not the most talented gamer around, but part of that is due to the fact that I don't wish to devote enough time and money to learn how to improve. However, one reason I don't bother is because the problems inherent in trying to run a PC game. First off its always having to try to remember your exact specs so you are sure it will run, even then it isn't always a guarantee. Then spend time loading it up and running it only to find out you need a patch. My biggest problem though is in the controls. I guess having done most of my gaming on consoles is part of the reason, but its more than that. I learned to type, but I don't have time to learn what each damn key does in a game. There is no way to properly mark them, and even if there were it would take some time to learn the locations. Some games do offer mouse or joystick control, but there are almost always many options that still can come only from the keyboard.
I know most die hard gamers wouldn't have it any other way. But for casual gamers its a huge turn-off. I want a game I can pick up and play for a bit, that doesn't need the latest hardware. In trying to push the envelope the developers leave a good portion of us in the dust.
It is my belief that eventually PC's will not play games, or at least they will not be a primary tool for gaming. Consoles will rule, especially once broadband is available to all.
on Jul 21, 2004
The constant demand that you patch the game just to get it runing is what is killing pc-gaming for me.
on Jul 21, 2004
Mate, you put words to what I've been thinking for years.
Very good article.
on Jul 21, 2004
Wonderful article!

You put a lot of the problems with PC gaming into clearly understood words.

I just bought a brand new computer ($2500), and with all the waiting for a new one, not one game within the last two years has caught my eye enough to buy it and play it. I'm playing stuff 3, 4, and even 6 years old... Why? Because, as was said, all the new games seem to be rehashes with flashier graphics.

About the only company I truly trust anymore is Blizzard. I still play Brood Wars and Diablo II, and I play Warcraft III and love them because they were done, and done well. I am awaiting World of Warcraft, but am even hesitant about that in fear that it just might be a rehash, though a really well done rehash. The latest game to even garner my interest is City of Heroes, which sounds very interesting to me. If only I didn't have to pay the monthly fee...

$60 for a game
$60 for broadband internet
$2500 for computer
$10 monthly fee...

Or

$50 for game
$60 for broadband
$200 for console.

It's pretty easy to see why who's winning, especially in good ol' Oregon where I reside. I can't get anything above $7.75/hr (minimum wage being $7.05), and with college costs continuing to rise, I might be at that level for an additional year or two.

I want my pizza gol-darnit! If I pay a chunk of my paycheck for it, it better get rid of my worries for at least a while...
on Jul 21, 2004
An excellent article underlying some of the problems in the PC gaming industry today! Companies need to focus more on the core in games; story and depth instead of graphics. Why do people get tired of the blockbuster Hollywood movies? Because there is no depth; eventually you get tired of action, explosions and macho characters à la Rock or Vin Diesel.

There is an aesthetic value that can still be accomplished with 2d graphics, no need for fancy engines all the time. Maybe, game companies need to stop doing the safe bets, they need to try gambling a little (see Angrybrit's post). The only companies willing to do that are often new to the scene... Naturally, nice graphics that are there to support an already well made core story is something nobody minds, as long as the product works. And there we go back to the issue of patches and cd-keys.
on Jul 21, 2004
*claps* This article puts into words what every serious (and most casual) gamer thinks everytime they get a patch or load up a game and finish it with in a day. I admit that i have only ever payed for 3 games but this isnt because im a pirating theif. Its because i cant afford to buy games. The "lost profits" that publishers talk about arn't going to turn up if i dont pirate a game cause im not handing cash over anyway. Why dont i just save up for games u say??? I dont for the same reason i dont go and buy movie tickets to movies that i have heard are crap. But when Half Life 2 comes out i will save up and buy it because the only way we can get developers to produce decent games is by putting the money into the games that are fresh and innovative.
on Jul 21, 2004
While I agree about the article's PC sentiments, the console world sentiments expressed here may somewhat be a "grass is greener" illusion. As well, with console hardware and games becoming closer to PC versions, the PC issues may show up more often in console games.

Console games have glitches, bugs and time-constrained shortcomings. Rarely problems are bad enough to force a recall, but often are just left to be accepted. Sometimes these are minor issues, and sometimes they are potentially major (like losing game data). From a console gamer perspective, PC gamers have the advantage in that their games can actually be patched. Console gamers generally at best can hope for a re-release that fixes some of the glitches, or at worst can just wait for a sequel.

The Gamecube's Super Smash Bros Melee has had three versions in the US, each with some minor prior problems fixed (moves tweaked, HRC max score extended, etc). If it were a PC game, anyone could likely easily and freely upgrade to version 1.2 though.

True Crime has the "no name" bug, which leads to glitches and can cause lockups. Timesplitters 2's US GC version has a mapmaker bug that causes certain map designs to freeze, and has a sustained sound glitch that causes certain sounds to continue playing until they reach an annoying level. Worms 3D has multiple glitches and freezing problems, but cannot be patched even if Team17 wanted to do so. The US release of Persona (PSOne) had the entire Snow Queen quest (effectively a second path of the game) cut in order to make the ship date. Enter the Matrix is just a mess on any platform. Thief 3 apparently shipped with the AI bug in both the Xbox and PC versions, but the Xbox version might not be patchable. I believe it was No Mercy (N64) that underwent a recall for a game save loss issue, but even the replacements sometimes suffered the same problem.

And the console gamer doesn't really have any recourse for a faulty game, other than selling the game back for a reduced value. Recalls only happen for major game breaking situations, and sometimes not even then. And patches generally aren't an option, though developers are starting to consider and release downloadable patches with the Xbox and PS2 harddrives.

And companies will take advantage of the no-patch nature of consoles similar to how they take advantage of the heavily patched nature of PC releases. The idea for consoles though is that a consumer may be willing to pay full price again for what are ultimately minor upgrades. Japan sees perhaps the most visible example with "International" releases, which are re-releases of a game with any extra content that was added for the US release. Square started with that approach with Final Fantasy 7. Sometimes it is even an enhancement specifically for the re-release, such as the Japanese re-release of Viewtiful Joe. But the sentiment can been seen in various releases, things that a good PC designer might offer as extra patch benefits to drive popularity for a single title instead become a second title on a console.
on Jul 21, 2004
I must say I haven't thought of that angle. I always knew publishers were scum. You look at the developers eaten up by EA over the years, for instance, and the developers are being paid a base wage to make clones of the game that got them big enough to warrant EA's attention in the first place. Westwood is a perfect example. Dune 2 was comparable to Warcraft, C&C was comparable to Warcraft 2, but then EA buys them out and suddenly whilst starcraft and warcraft 3 are made, Westwood pump out 5 games and an average of almost 2 expansion packs for each.
Publishers don't just kill games by placing deadlines on release dates either, forcing the game to be released un-finished. I know I got into programming because I want to make some great games, but publishers aren't interested in anything but money, so they contract someone who has 1 good idea, then hook them into making 3 games out of it in 5 years. Any new ideas? Not interested, because that involves risk. By lowering the standard with a glut of average games, people just buy it because there's nothing better, and by paying wages to the developers rather than percentage cuts, they get loads of cash for each game and can afford to buy out another developer who's had one success and probably finds it hard to take the risk of independant development again. Of course, once your contract's up, you're still at the same spot you were before you took the contract, and suddenly you have to bargain your way into staying in the industry?
I totally agree that with high speed internet becoming the standard, publishing will not be such a vital part of making a successful game. If I make something worthy of being sold over the net, I'd gladly sign up to something like TotalGaming.net. It totally bypasses all the shifty things publishers try to pull. If they had they're way they'd be making everyone pre-order their copies of each game so they didn't have to waste any of the money they were stealing from developers printing copies that weren't going to be purchased.
The saddest thing is that some of the big name publishers actually started as a few guys who were sick of the publishers ripping them off and decided to go independant. Activision is a good example.
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