Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Published on March 10, 2008 By Draginol In GalCiv Journals

Recently there has been a lot of talk about how piracy affects PC gaming. And if you listen to game developers, it apparently is a foregone conclusion - if a high quality PC game doesn't sell as many copies as it should, it must be because of piracy.

Now, I don't like piracy at all. It really bugs me when I see my game up on some torrent site just on the principle of the matter. And piracy certainly does cost sales.  But arguing that piracy is the primary factor in lower sales of well made games? I don't think so. People who never buy software aren't lost sales.

Is it about business or glory?

Most people who know of Stardock in the gaming world think of it as a tiny indie shop. And we certainly are tiny in terms of game development. But in the desktop enhancement market, Stardock owns that market and it's a market with many millions of users. According to CNET, 6 of the top 10 most popular desktop enhancements are developed by Stardock.  Our most popular desktop enhancement, WindowBlinds, has almost 14 million downloads just on Download.com. We have over a million registered users.

If you want to talk about piracy, talk about desktop enhancements. The piracy on that is huge.  But the question isn't about piracy. It's about sales

So here is the deal: When you develop for a market, you don't go by the user base. You go by the potential customer base.  That's what most software companies do. They base what they want to create on the size of the market they're developing for. But not PC game developers.

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".

Making games for customers versus making games for users

So even though Galactic Civilizations II sold 300,000 copies making 8 digits in revenue on a budget of less than $1 million, it's still largely off the radar. I practically have to agree to mow editors lawns to get coverage. And you should see Jeff Green's (Games for Windows) yard. I still can't find my hedge trimmers.

Another game that has been off the radar until recently was Sins of a Solar Empire. With a small budget, it has already sold about 200,000 copies in the first month of release. It's the highest rated PC game of 2008 and probably the best selling 2008 PC title.  Neither of these titles have CD copy protection.

And yet we don't get nearly the attention of other PC games. Lack of marketing on our part? We bang on the doors for coverage as next as the next shop. Lack of advertising? Open up your favorite PC game publication for the past few months and take note of all the 2 page spreads for Sins of a Solar Empire. So we certainly try. 

But we still don't get the editorial buzz that some of the big name titles do because our genre isn't considered as "cool" as other genres.  Imagine what our sales would be if our games had gotten game magazine covers and just massive editorial coverage like some of the big name games get.  I don't want to suggest we get treated poorly by game magazine and web sites (not just because I fear them -- which I do), we got good preview coverage on Sins, just not the same level as one of the "mega" titles would get. Hard core gamers have different tastes in games than the mainstream PC gaming market of game buyers. Remember Roller Coaster Tycoon? Heck, how much buzz does The Sims get in terms of editorial when compared to its popularity. Those things just aren't that cool to the hard core gaming crowd that everything seems geared toward despite the fact that they're not the ones buying most of the games.

I won't even mention some of the big name PC titles that GalCiv and Sins have outsold.  There's plenty of PC games that have gotten dedicated covers that haven't sold as well.  So why is that?

Our games sell well for three reasons.  First, they're good games which is a pre-requisite. But there's lots of great games that don't sell well.

The other two reasons are:

  • Our games work on a very wide variety of hardware configurations.
  • Our games target genres with the largest customer bases per cost to produce for.

 

We also don't make games targeting the Chinese market

When you make a game for a target market, you have to look at how many people will actually buy your game combined with how much it will cost to make a game for that target market. What good is a large number of users if they're not going to buy your game? And what good is a market where the minimal commitment to make a game for it is $10 million if the target audience isn't likely to pay for the game?

If the target demographic for your game is full of pirates who won't buy your game, then why support them? That's one of the things I have a hard time understanding.  It's irrelevant how many people will play your game (if you're in the business of selling games that is). It's only relevant how many people are likely to buy your game.

Stardock doesn't make games targeting the Chinese market. If we spent $10 million on a PC game explicitly for the Chinese market and we lost our shirts, would you really feel that much sympathy for us? Or would you think "Duh."

 

You need a machine how fast?

Anyone who keeps track of how many PCs the "Gamer PC" vendors sell each year could tell you that it's insane to develop a game explicitly for hard core gamers.  Insane.  I think people would be shocked to find out how few hard core gamers there really are out there. This data is available. The number of high end graphics cards sold each year isn't a trade secret (in some cases you may have to get an NDA but if you're a partner you can find out). So why are companies making games that require them to sell to 15% of a given market to be profitable? In what other market do companies do that? In other software markets, getting 1% of the target market is considered good.  If you need to sell 500,000 of your game to break even and your game requires Pixel Shader 3 to not look like crap or play like crap, do you you really think that there are 50 MILLION PC users with Pixel Shader 3 capable machines who a) play games and will actually buy your game if a pirated version is available?

In our case, we make games that target the widest possible audience as long as as we can still deliver the gaming experience we set out to.  Anyone who's looked at the graphics in Sins of a Solar Empire would, I think, agree that the graphics are pretty phenomenal (particularly space battles).  But could they be even fancier? Sure. But only if we degraded the gaming experience for the largest chunk of people who buy games.

 

The problem with blaming piracy

I don't want anyone to walk away from this article thinking I am poo-pooing the effect of piracy.  I'm not.  I definitely feel for game developers who want to make kick ass PC games who see their efforts diminished by a bunch of greedy pirates.  I just don't count pirates in the first place.  If you're a pirate, you don't get a vote on what gets made -- or you shouldn't if the company in question is trying to make a profit. 

The reason why we don't put CD copy protection on our games isn't because we're nice guys. We do it because the people who actually buy games don't like to mess with it. Our customers make the rules, not the pirates. Pirates don't count. We know our customers could pirate our games if they want but choose to support our efforts. So we return the favor - we make the games they want and deliver them how they want it. This is also known as operating like every other industry outside the PC game industry.

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.

When you blame piracy for disappointing sales, you tend to tar the entire market with a broad brush.  Piracy isn't evenly distributed in the PC gaming market. And there are far more effective ways of getting people who might buy your product to buy it without inconveniencing them.

Blaming piracy is easy. But it hides other underlying causes.  When Sins popped up as the #1 best selling game at retail a couple weeks ago, a game that has no copy protect whatsoever, that should tell you that piracy is not the primary issue.

In the end, the pirates hurt themselves. PC game developers will either slowly migrate to making games that cater to the people who buy PC games or they'll move to platforms where people are more inclined to buy games.

In the meantime, if you want to make profitable PC games, I'd recommend focusing more effort on satisfying the people willing to spend money on your product and less effort on making what others perceive as hot.  But then again, I don't romanticize PC game development. I just want to play cool games and make a profit on games that I work on.


Comments (Page 12)
on Mar 19, 2008

Dear Brad Wardell,

I totally agree with everything you have just said in your editorial.  I have purchased and enjoy Galactic Civilizations II and will 100% definitely purchase Sins of a Solar Empire soon.  I do not have the time or inclination to be a software pirate.  Your games are excellent.

However, I DO have ONE COMPLAINT.  I went to your official Stardock website to try to find out how I could possibly purchase the Dark Avatar expansion for my Galactic Civilizations II Collectors Edition (which I already own and which came with the physical box and CD) without either downloading it (which I do not really trust 100% and which takes a very long time on my slow connection speed) or entirely repurchasing the whole Galactic Civilizations II again in the form of the Galactic Civilizations II Gold Edition (physical box and CDs).  Since I already own Galactic Civilizations II Collectors Edition and was very hesitant to purchase again something which I already own, I was very pleased to read at your website that the Galactic Civilizations II Gold Edition available at retailers contained a $10 rebate form which was targeted towards customers like me who already own Galactic Civilizations II.  This notice totally removed all my hesitations so I immediately purchased the Gold Edition, opened it and there was no $10 rebate form of any type inside.  Since time is valuable, I decided to just forget about this slightly annoying situation but reading your editorial made me decide to use this opportunity to request that you contact me at your convenience and make arrangements to send to me the proper $10 rebate form.  If you never read this comment and therefore never have an opportunity to correct this situation, I will, of course, understand and will continue to purchase your excellent games (I just recently also purchased the Altarian Prophecy expansion for Galactic Civilizations II).  Anyway, keep up the good work and please continue to take the lead in the PC software game industry in the excellent types of games which your company so far has so far focused on.  Thank you.

Sincerely,

Daniel M. Lefler

3290 N. Cedar Springs Lane

Prescott Valley, Arizona  86314 

 

 

on Mar 19, 2008
I bought the original Dread Lords "gold edition" from Walmart. I subsequently bought the expansion deal online (DA + TA) and switched to using Stardock Central. No problem getting things installed/activated through SDC and I saved a few bucks with the online deal. I now use SDC exclusively (that's how I bought Sins of a Solar Empire) and have since discarded the original GC2 box and CD. Sounds like you went about things the wrong way and it cost some money. Sorry to hear that.
on Mar 20, 2008
I must admit, I have not been the most legitimate of pc users at times. But for the most part it's only to see if something is worth buying. I wouldn't have known otherwise that Civ 4 was great, nor that my old video card was bugged in such a way that the game would crash every 10 minutes. But when I replaced it I bought my own copy and played it proudly.

But I have never thought of pirating anything from stardock. it's not worth it and it's a bit dishonorable.
In addition to feeling bad about doing such to them, I think one of the greatest anti-piracy tools that stardock uses is, as they said, "we make the games they want and deliver them how they want it". I was amazed when I bought that first copy of GC2. Amazed not only at the quality of the game, but at the quality of the developers. In how many other game companies do the developers stay involved in patching and fixing up the game long after it came out? How many other companies treat their games with intrest rather then just dump a buggy but shiny cold fish on the market? How often do others put out more than one patch to fix some of the things that they should have gotten in the BETA!?
And how often do the developers release a patch that completely revamps the graphics engine for the game "just because it'd look nicer"? What I've seen from Stardock is a consideration about gamers and software that treats us in a way we gamers rarely are treated, as paying costumers. But even more, they show a level of quality and dedication that frankly has bought my loyalty allready.

I knew less about Sins than I normally would have before buying a game, but it looked interesting, and I knew that since it was comming out of Stardock, I could expect a game of quality.

I must say, good show all. In this time of iffy PC games (I swear, sometimes its like a sine wave or the tide you know?) it makes me happy to see that there are some developers out there with some common sense. People who understand that when you make a sequel, yes you add stuff and change otherthings, but you don't completely revamp the core game in order to make it look all cool and high techy *coughfallout3cough*.

Anyway, to all those at Stardock, I say. Thank you.
on Mar 20, 2008
I was very pleased to read at your website that the Galactic Civilizations II Gold Edition available at retailers contained a $10 rebate form which was targeted towards customers like me who already own Galactic Civilizations II.  This notice totally removed all my hesitations so I immediately purchased the Gold Edition, opened it and there was no $10 rebate form of any type inside.


Where did you read about the rebate? That deal was only available for a couple of months after DA was released--it's now long since expired.
on Mar 20, 2008
Great post.

I don't have as much to say about this as most others in this thread, but there's one thing that really bugs me: copy-protection. I absolutely HATE having to rummage through a pile of several hundreds of CD's just so that I can start a game, it's ridiculous. And furthermore, the copy-protection is, more often than not, badly coded and reduces the performance of the game (and you have to listen to that blasted CD drive spin its ass off). And when has copy-protection actually stopped piracy? Well, I'm sure I could count those cases on my fingers after having them chopped of.
on Mar 20, 2008

Absolutely fanstastic post and dead on target. I don't support piracy at all--I develop software for a living--but to be honest I'm sometimes forced to download cracks or cracked copies of games I've legally purchased simply because crappy DRM won't let me play them! The fact that Stardock games are fun is only one of the reasons I buy them; I also buy them because I'm voting with my dollars. To wit, I'm tired of game companies treating the paying customer like a criminal when their pathetically bad DRM doesn't do a bloody thing to stop the real criminals. I applaud your position, Mr. Wardell. May other game developers/publishers hear and heed your words.

on Mar 20, 2008

Well said Brad, and what a nice surprise it was to see your name pop up on my digg feed today. It's a small world after all.

I think the worst offenders here are companies like Starforce who make a living out of ruining the user experience. If I want to play Worms 4 (and I often do), why should I have to hunt around for the game CD when everything's installed on my machine anyway? At most run one check on whether I'm installing from a genuine disk, but don't install system-destroying device drivers on my machine without telling me and slow down every drive on my system in the guise of protecting the rights of the developer... That's not going to make me buy more games.

on Mar 21, 2008
I read your post Mr Wardell. I'm 34 and father of three under the age of ten. I've been playing games since the ATARI came out.

Since i've been able to afford a computer I have been changing mine every three years or so. I can never afford the top of the line. So when I read your post it really touched me. I passed lots of games because my computer could not run it. I for one don't really care about hi end graphics. Hell I own a WII and it is fun!

I have to admit when I first tried your game it was a pirated copy, however when I saw the quality of the game I went right out and bought it. Any game that gives me this kind of fun always gets bought by me.

All this to say that I agree with you. Your philosophy is the way of the future.

on Mar 21, 2008
The GeForce 9600 GT costs like 150 bucks. With that card every medium-fast PC sold in the last 2 years can play Crysis at medium details at least and all other available games on high details.
Yes, it costs a little but its just as expensive as 3 games. So if there are like 5-6 games using this kind of graphics I'd upgrade.

Yes, the available hardware sure is something to think about. But the cheap versions of the high end cards are more then good enough to play everything and they are cheap enough to be affordable.

I don't see the promlem mainly on the hardware end (e.g. not with integrated chipsets).
Developers treating their customers as criminals is the real problem.
I haven't bought any game that requires me to keep a CD in the drive for years. Lucky for me, Linux versions of ID games don't need a CD
The CD alone is a giant hassle and I don't pay money for a crippled product that, to be usable, requires me to download an illegal crack to play my legal game version without the stupid and pointless CD in the drive.
Not to mention all that other DRM / rootkit stuff that is even worse ...
on Mar 21, 2008
 

I'm a working game developer and I totally agree with what Brad said about how to deal with piracy. I sort of cheat by dealing with MMO's, but the basic principle is the same: Who gives a shit how many users you have? Our job as game developers is to make money (and also feel fulfilled artistically, they're not incompatible), so we need to focus on paying customers. Pirates are just a force of nature, and we need to manage them correctly (that thing that Titan Quest did where it crashed for pirates is just plain idiotic) instead of fighting a self-destructive war against them.

I ranted a bit more about this on my blog, if people are bored. 

on Mar 21, 2008

I do not usually post comments on random blogs, but this time I just have to. I'm here via Slashdot, and I am a Hardcore PC gamer and a computer scientist. I spend a lot of money on my hardware, (Q6600@3.4Ghz, 2x 8800GTX, Dell WFP3007 30" TFT). I also pend a lot of money on games. I own GalCiv II and SoaSE, for example. I equally own Crysis and CoD4.

I just wanted to say this: You are completely correct. No amount of money you spend on copy protection mechanisms will ever work. People will crack them. They will only make it more difficult for you real users to use the software properly. (I refuse to buy any game using Starforce, for example, due to the security risks posed.) I had an episode with Star Wars: Empire at War where I could not use it untill they patched problems with the copy protection.

The people who pirate the games will not buy them anyway. Any money you spend on excluding them is wasted money. I have been saying this for years. Just ignore them. Some might even buy your game at some point, but really, they don't matter. Copy protection on the PC is a myth, and you could spend the licencing fees on another coder / artist / whatever.

Kudos to you, finally someone in the industry gets it!

on Mar 21, 2008

Reading this, it feels like you are on the right track. Many of those, who download games would never buy them. I would for example never buy the game
"The Club" - it's very different from my taste. But I can decide to try it. The DEMOs are thing of the past. Now, if you want to try something out, why not to try the whole thing? I tried out Oblivion before it came out, because it came out on torrents more than a month before it came out in this country. Did I buy the game afterwards? Yes. For several reasons, but mainly because I wanted to support the developers (as a big fan of Fallout I originally spent a lot of time trying to support their development of Fallout3 - I was disappointed in the end, but that's another story). Similar thing happened with other games - it's all about support. I bought Fallout, my idea of an almost perfect game, so many times I lost count. I have like 4 different copies of both Fallout 1 and Fallout 2. I downloaded them from a torrent several times too, though

But there are games which I just don't feel like supporting. I can still play them, but even if I had A LOT of money (which as a student I really don't), I don't think I would buy - I want to support things I feel are worth supporting. Just as I bought NIN's Year Zero album, but I never listened to it. Why? I had mp3 of all those songs in similar quality already for some time...


The main thing you are forgeting about is popularity. Information must spread - that's partly why promotions are here. A person who never buys the game, but downloads it and likes it is going to spready the word about the game just as well as a person who bought it. Now some people that hear about this must be "customers" who would buy it - it's statistically probable. And very often this spread of ideas can even outweigh the damages. Just consider this: a person who downloads a lot of games, even if just to try, is likely to have a reputation of a person who knows what is good and what isn't. That's how ideas spread in the first place. You go to someone who you think understands the thing and you ask: "What book do you think I should read?" or in this case: "What game should I try/buy?"


Open source movement is here based on similar principles. It bets on the fact that a free (not only free of charge, but truly FREE) product is likely to spread much faster than any non-free produc, no matter what the price is. Often they benefit from this fan base through services (look at Oracle!)...


I definitely agree that the war on piracy went too far and more money will be saved if no high-tech security measure is integrated, but then again, think about this - won't some small (obviously easy to crack) protection already discourage the masses which are not really skilled with using cracks to download it? Wouldn't it already encourage them to just buy and forget about it? It's the equilibrium that must be found, but as written here, the equlibirium is very close to ignoring the issue over all.


A though for the end. Was piracy ultimately responsible for the failure of titles like Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3? Or was like lack of innovation and over-the-top focus on the graphics rather than gameplay and resulting hardware requirements?


on Mar 21, 2008
For PC gaming and how to do it right, I point to Blizzard.

Like a lot of people have stated, a lot of publishes vastly overestimate everyone's system specs. Blizzard games are designed to run on practically anything (one of their stated goals of Warcraft 3 was to make it run on a 400 mhz processor, granted, they didn't meet their goal, but they also published it a while after that statement). Compare WoW to a lot of MMOs out there and you'll find WoW probably runs better on lower end computers than most MMOs out there, aside from maybe Ultima Online. Blizzard makes an effort to keep the graphics in their game functional and useful and easy on the eyes. Not something that magazines can't get enough screenshots of.

The second recipe for Blizard's success is that of a finished product. You can take version 1.0 of any of their games and it runs very well. Sure, there are the occasional bugs, but nothing huge. But not only that, they game itself looks and feels polished. Everything plays and interconnects smoothly and the gameplay is pretty balanced. Sure, they can never meet a release date, but when looking at their sales, does that matter?

The third is Blizzard's reputation. This ties in heavily with the previous point. When a game comes out by Blizzard, the crowd knows it's going to be great and that they can play it on their computer. Enough publishers put some crap out there and people are wary of their games on general principle. People do remember this kind of stuff!

I don't even like Blizzard's latest games (Warcraft 3 does have a very nice map editor, though), but there's a lot one could learn from their success.
on Mar 24, 2008
The GeForce 9600 GT costs like 150 bucks. With that card every medium-fast PC sold in the last 2 years can play Crysis at medium details at least and all other available games on high details.
Yes, it costs a little but its just as expensive as 3 games. So if there are like 5-6 games using this kind of graphics I'd upgrade.


The Crysis demo actually defaults to the high settings on my 9600, and I haven't had any problems with it. The framerate is acceptable for my taste, but people who are pickier than I will probably want to turn it down to medium.

But then again, I have some sort of "superclocked edition," so it's probably overclocked, and I'll play anything that has 20+ fps, so my tolerance of framerates is quite low.

In any case, it's a great card - a lot of bang for the buck. So far, I'm loving it .
on Mar 24, 2008
The main thing I don't get is why, when people talk about pirating, they only talk about the pc. Xbox's can be chipped/flashed to play games without discs and so can Play Stations, don't know about the wii but you will be able to eventualy it's also possible to play game boy games on the pc so everything can, and will be pirated
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