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 3)
on Mar 11, 2008
here is an article on ign about the problems with pc gaming.
http://pc.ign.com/articles/858/858259p1.html


Wow, I disagree with the president of Epic. You don't need to find a way to force the market to come to your games, you need to build games that cater to the market. If most machines can't run the games you design properly... its YOUR job as a developer to compensate. If you just make the game anyway and then point fingers at "stupid" customers and hardware manufacturers you are really deluding yourself. The problem is what you developed, not the consumer and not the hardware.

I've posted on this topic several times before, as it seems a recurring theme on these boards. I agree with Draginol's original post. WoW and Sims are such huge financial successes largely because they DO scale back their requirements to the point where most "in circulation" machines can run them. I can't express in words how pleased I am in seeing Stardock also understand and embrace this approach. Stardock has made me a loyal customer, and I will continue to buy their products using my purchasing dollar to vote for their business practices.

You know, as more and more previews of StarcraftII show up around the internet, you get more people complaining about the look of the graphics. I'd bet anyone right now that game will make 9 figures at LEAST. Watch the Blizzard employee interview at this years DICE Blizzard at DICE

Start watching that at about 36 minutes in. When they say that they aren't going to be the company that "pushes people to buy new hardware" that is one of the lynchpins of their whole success.

Pirates are a scourge, and are engaged in immoral and (more importantly) illegal activity (yeah.... that's the lawyer in me). But pirates are NOT the reason for the decline in the PC sales market.

You need to design for who your customer base IS, not what you think your customer base SHOULD be. Right now I think most game developers are failing to meet projections because there is a disconnect between what developers WISH their customers were and what the market actually consists of (Brad's Rockstar observation).

~ Wyndstar
on Mar 11, 2008
[edit, i missed that this was already posted a little bit up there. sorry heh]

thank you! I came across this post while reading a thread about this interview with Tim Sweeney a choice titbit being

TG Daily: What are your thoughts on the future of the PC as a gaming platform? Is scalability the future – we hear AMD talking about Spider and Nvidia is selling Triple SLI that will keep us upgrading over the next several years. Or did the industry lose its focus?

Sweeney: PC gaming is in a weird position right now. Now, 60% of PCs on the market don't have a workable graphics processor at all. All the Intel integrated graphics are still incapable of running any modern games. So you really have to buy a PC knowing that you're going to play games in order to avoid being stuck with integrated graphics. This is unfortunate, and this is one of main reasons behind the decline of the PC as a gaming platform. That really has endangered high-end PC game sales. In the past, if you bought a game, it would at least work. It might not have been a great experience, but it would always work.


Your post as it is is a wonderful almost faultless response to yet more baseless whinning by Epic in regards to the fact there last game failed on PC. They have blamed everything from piracy to lack of gaming PC and you have all but responded to each of those baseless excuses in a perfectly logical way.

It astounds me that epic are complaining about the lack of gaming PC on the market when of the 40% that there are they are targeting maybe at best 15%... a tiny number... i could maybe understand the argument that there are not enough PCs that can play a game at an xbox level but that not what they are talking about and i'm almost positive that the PC copy of UT3 needs a more powerful PC than the hardware in the 360 but i wouldn't put money on it.

Anyway in the end Epic simply need to man up and say that they are making easier money on the consoles beacuse they are a dev house that is big and established enough to do so and that they are dropping PC gaming or doing prots as an after thought beacuse they can't be bothered any more. That i could at lest respect instead of them making excuse after excuse for why the PC market is dying when start dock and sins are doing so well where if epic was right they should have died.

Fantastic post as ever. Thank god for logical sane people.
on Mar 11, 2008
I just about agree with all that was said with one exception. Star dock does have copy protect and the worst type that I like. Activation. Lets be honest you have to have the patches so the games have to be activated full stop.

But this has not stopped me from purchasing Star Dock titles. I just take the risk that I am at the mercy of one day not being able to play because I can no longer activate the patches. I still play a lot of my older titles and are very glad there is no activation for them all.

I prefer Matrix Games cop protection where (I am told, can't confirm this) that if you use a pirate copy the serial gets black banned in future patches since you need to enter the serial for every patch.

This is a much better system. Look at all the activation problems some Sins purchers had. I would be more happy if Star dock had a policy of say in 5 to 10 years after release a patch that had the activation content removed. Maybe they have if so I will admit I am wrong.

I am not trying to knock Star Dock, I just have a different view on the copy protection statement.

Cheers MarkL
on Mar 11, 2008

 

Star dock does have copy protect and the worst type that I like. Activation. Lets be honest you have to have the patches so the games have to be activated full stop.

I think you need to activate only once per windows installation. And it is completly hidden if you install the game true Stardock Central.

I prefer Matrix Games cop protection where (I am told, can't confirm this) that if you use a pirate copy the serial gets black banned in future patches since you need to enter the serial for every patch.

Well don't forget that with Stardock the serial Id can only be linked with a single e-mail.

 

on Mar 11, 2008

Well don't forget that with Stardock the serial Id can only be linked with a single e-mail.
 


In that case I hope it is an email address I still have access to and not the university address I lost when I graduated.
on Mar 11, 2008
Sins of a pirate

While i can to some extent agree that piracy hurts gaming, i feel that many of the pirates out there are kidz and geeks (with low income) who cant afford to get all the best games out there.
I used to pirate games when i was young (im sorry) not becaus i was a bastard but becaus i really wanted to play the games..
And if i really loved the game i would save up my allowance for 3-4weeks and go buy it.

Good games deserve support, crappy ones do not..
Many games i pirated in the past i never payed a dime for (becaus they were eye candy with no substance, or other varieties)
Every game i love, i own legaly... To say all pirates are greedy bastards out to destroy the world is wrong

Many pirates wouldent be able to buy the game if piracy never existed. They would get the 1game at christmas evry year and thats it (if u come from a low income family)

I reallt miss the balanced discussion about piracy and the reasons behind it (most of my pirate friends that have now grown up, got jobs of their own, buy the games they want instead of pirate them)

By all means im no expert in the field and dont actually know how mutch real loss is incurred on the game devs by pirates but if they think that all the ppl out there who are dl`ing games would buy them if no other choice was awaileble they are just plain wrong.

Last game i pirated was rome totalwar, i used the pirated versjon to see how good the game was compared to the prev games (wich i all own) When the game then was avail in my local shop i bought it! (Wouldent have if i hadent liked it) Does this make me a bastard?
on Mar 11, 2008
Genius article!

Keep it up

on Mar 11, 2008
It is an interesting point that some types of games might be pirated more than others, but is there any hard evidence on which genres are pirated more? My completely unsubstantiated guess is that games aimed at a more mature audience probably have a smaller user base, but are pirated by a lower proportion of the people who play them. Students are probably the biggest pirates, simply because they have no income, but they're also the target audience for most of the games being made today.

As for Stardock's lack of DVD copy protection, that was one of the things that compelled me to buy this game (well that and the glowing reviews). Copy protection has always seemed completely absurd and self-defeating to me. It doesn't pose any obstacle whatsoever for someone with the will to pirate a game. It's like punishing the innocent while the guilty sneak around back and steal from you.
on Mar 11, 2008
I write for NAG magazine South Africa. We'd be happy to review the game, we even keep listing it in the "What we're playing" notes. But we don't officially have it. It's not sold here. We can't get it. Which is why we haven't reviewed it yet. It's currently being sold as "import only" but seems perpetually out of stock: http://www.take2.co.za/product.php?id=3160274

I know it's sold online, but that's not really practical here where the majority don't have broadband and even those that do pay about $25 per GB of traffic. Downloading a couple gigs of game doubles its cost versus buying it in the store.

My editor's more than willing to spend the pages for a feature, but if the people reading the magazine can't get the game it's a bit of a downer for them. So I'm not really sure what to do. Any suggestions?
on Mar 11, 2008
Some additional toughts.

Whant to sell more? Make demo versions. If I try it and like, I'll buy. I'm investing my time to learn your inteface, please help me with a demo. I'm not buying Sins because I don't know if I'll like it.

As you said, go for buyers. People with incomes do buy their stuffs. So 25 to 50 years old customers is a good target range as is young children 7-11. Teenies want to be smart and save money for something else.

Consoles: as I wrote on a different post, I bought a Wii because is different from a PC and I think that provides a compelling innovative user experience. I had my wife play with it even if she never played a single PC game in her life. The same is not true for PSx or XBox. I think that SD can think of innovative game designs for Wii. Also, Wii can remotely update your station, and I think that SD will manage to let user master their own games to be put on the Wii's CD-reader. Switching environments is a togh task for any SW House, but you should look into the profitability of it.
on Mar 11, 2008

Well don't forget that with Stardock the serial Id can only be linked with a single e-mail.
In that case I hope it is an email address I still have access to and not the university address I lost when I graduated.

In that case, I think that only support@stardock.com can help you.

on Mar 11, 2008
In that case I hope it is an email address I still have access to and not the university address I lost when I graduated.


If that happens all you need to do is log into the forum with your account and change the email address on it.
on Mar 11, 2008
Here's a consumer's point of view to this discussion.

Around 10 years ago I bought a lot of games, almost every game I thought would/could be good that came out. The prices were pretty steep, around $60 but of course in our local currency. After buying 10-15 games and disappointing almost every time I decided to quit it. No game seemed to be worth that money because they were buggy, poorly designed, unfun and of course terribly expensive.

Then I started copying my games illegally. At first I just said to myself that I wanted to see the game but actually never bought it afterwards. Eventually I was just copying games from the Internet and didn't even think about buying anything. When a cool looking game came out my first thought was where can I download it.

Nowadays I again buy all my games. Still many PC games seem unattractive because I know they aren't very polished or well designed. WoW must have been the last PC game I bought not counting Galactic Civilizations and its expansions.

On the other hand many console games and systems are attractive to me. When ever I buy a Nintendo game that has gotten good reviews I know I'm getting my money's worth of entertainment. I have paid 60e (with the current exchange rate that's $90) for a few games and they just were worth it. I don't mind paying that much for a game that will be really really good. These days only Blizzard seems to make "Nintendo quality" games for PC, tho we mustn't forget Stardock either.

Stardock has good production values and their goals are what I think are right. Still even if GalCiv series is good I would like to see it more fun to play. I don't mean it should be more casual (vs. hardcore) but just more fun, what ever that means. Like Blizzard makes pretty hardcore games that are fun to play. They also truly care about their games and games in general.

I have faith in Stardock and am looking forward to what ever you're making next. I'm secretly (and now even openly) hoping that they'll be a bit more innovative (more "surprise value") with easier interfaces so I can just concentrate on playing instead of figuring out what have I missed and how should I make this or that happen that I know is possible somehow.
on Mar 11, 2008
I think one of the reasons people are willing to buy more console games is the ability to try before you buy.

$40 or $50 is a lot of money to shell out for a game. Console or PC. But with the console you have the option of going to blockbuster and renting it for $4. See if its any good and if you like it go to the store and pay the money. I know some games have demo's but they are usually very limited and you dont get a true feel for the full game.

With a PC game you shell out the money to get it home to find it is either not a very good game or is a great game but the specs are overstated and it runs like crap on your computer. Then you are just stuck. There is no way to return an opened software title. So you shelf it with a bitter taste in your mouth. I have a TON of these i've collected over the years (MOO3 anyone?)

I personally think the upgrade model that stardock uses is the best copy protection. I dont know about everyone but I always need the latest and greatest feature or whatever. I always keep windows and games patched to the latest level. I could download GCII from a bit torrent site and play it without a problem but I would not be able to connect and download updates. And with the outstanding way that stardock supports their games after release I would be missing out on a LOT of content.

on Mar 11, 2008

Hmm. gherardo said:

gherardo


Some additional toughts.Whant to sell more? Make demo versions. If I try it and like, I'll buy. I'm investing my time to learn your inteface, please help me with a demo. I'm not buying Sins because I don't know if I'll like it.As you said, go for buyers.

 

I disagree with this. I think one of the main reasons that companies aren't making anywhere near the number of demos that they used is that they have gotten too large. Of course, it usually takes extra time to develop a demo, but also the download sizes for demos are almost as large as full games now (on the order 1-2 Gb); that's a hefty download, even for someone with a slow-to-moderate DSL connection.

I don't think marketing is a problem with PC gaming. Look at most games on Metacritic and what you'll see is a pretty good consensus based on reviews of what makes a "good" game. That doesn't mean I always agree. I've had a really hard time getting into the GTA series not because of the content or specs but simply because I tend to hit missions that seem designed only to be completed by someone with the reflexes and coordination of a teenager or an android. However, as a general rule, it's a good bet that if a game is a) in a genre I like and one that scores good ratings on most of the major sites and in the gaming mags, I will enjoy it.

I also disagree with developers who suggest that piracy is the bane of PC gaming. Chris Taylor was the first person I heard complaining about this in this article: http://pc.ign.com/articles/853/853275p1.html. If you read the responses, you'll see that there are many easy ways to "crack" games for the console market, and most users probably have the hardware and software to do it at home already. The only real reason I think you don't see or hear as much about console piracy is because games for consoles are available on the cheap from myriad sources--blowout sales on eBay, other internet sites, video stores, et cetera--and don't forget about the rental market. So I think piracy really constitutes a red herring here. Draginol has long stated that it is his belief that most pirates can't or won't buy your game anyway, so designing a game with that market in mind is a bit absurd on its face; I tend to agree. Taylor's arguments ring hollow to me because he picks as his example a game that only a fraction of computer users CAN play due to steep hardware requirements. How many people are going to buy a game for $50 just so they can play it one or two or however many years it is down the road when they can afford to upgrade or replace their PCs?

No, I think the main two advantages consoles have for developers are the advantages they have historically held for a very long time: market share and fixed hardware specs. Since the PS/2 came out, consoles have had an edge in the area of the installed base that PCs can't touch (gaming PCs for sure, and that means you have to at least have upgraded your video card from the onboard integrated crap that most any machine comes with these days). Moreover, it's easier for developers to make games in a fixed-spec environment (and cheaper too).


Does that mean the games are better? That's clearly a matter of opinion. Two genres where I don't see consoles ever competing seriously with PCs are real-time strategy and role-playing. I just can't see a serious game in either of these genres starting at or porting to a console without suffering some very serious control issues. Sure, Jade Empire worked well enough, and I enjoyed the PC version, but for all the hooplah surrounding it, it had far more in common with Diablo than Baldur's Gate. And I think real RTS players, people I'd never want to meet in a dark matchmaking service alley at two in the morning, will never want to give up the control they can achieve over a game with the keyboard+mouse combo. Casual gamers may not be bothered by having to deal with weird circle-wheel interfaces like EA designed for the XBOX version of C&C3 and they may not bemoan the downhill slide of CRPGs from the likes of Wasteland, the gold-box games, BG 1 and 2, and Torment to things like Diablo 2, Titan Quest, et cetera.

So here's a hint for developers who want to make money with their PC games: 1) make your game fun, 2) don't release it before it's ready, and 3) don't make your game the "have-to-upgrade-to-play" hot s#%! title of the year. Every two or three years, the PC gaming world crowns such a title and that invariably means that people like me who can't afford to upgrade except maybe every five to six years will be left behind. Crysis was the last one. Before that it was probably F.E.A.R. And before that HL2. Oh, and I can't count the number of titles where I've read reviews that start something like this: "Well, I wanted to like this game, and maybe if it were properly patched, it would be great, but . . . ." Okay, publishers--EA, Ubisoft, I'm looking at you--quit pressuring developers to release stuff before it's ready, because that flushing sound you hear is the profits you could have made on those games going down the toilet. Don't let your next release become the comic-book-movie of games.

The bottom line is that if you make a good game that runs well on many computers, people will buy it, even if it means scrimping somewhere. Personally, I'm looking forward to StarCraft II and Dragon Age, two titles that are clearly being given the time in development that they need to mature and I fully anticipate will provide terrific gaming experiences.

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