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 5)
on Mar 11, 2008

Note that I didn't omit any games - I just picked the ones that came to my head first that were dual-releases. There's likely a lot more that I missed, but I don't really keep track of games I know will be console trash.There's a couple I do want to include since I just thought of them:GRAND THEFT AUTO 3:PC: [93/91]PS2: [97/86]GRAND THEFT AUTO VICE CITY:PC: [94/82]PS2: [95/84]GRAND THEFT AUTO SAN ANDREAS:PC: [93/77]PS2: [95/86]XBOX: [93/81]Very interesting....



PC gamers do generally give more of a damn that console players, but that's not the only factor that weighs in on the multiplatform scores. What genres are fresh and new to the console, is sometimes old and dated when released on the PC. Also sloppy ports change scores, and then you need to factor in the different grading scales between magazines that metacritic doesn't take into account.

So your arguement is pretty inaccurate.

on Mar 11, 2008
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.

Quote of the year. This is an excellent article and shows a lot of real-world business common sense. Not many people have that these days.

I'm sick to death of all the image-advertising, hype, and coolness factor ruining gaming. A couple of years ago I stopped playing and buying Need for Speed games because they kept upping the coolness factor. I saw some promotional contest on TV (EA show on MTV) supporting one of their games and just about puked because it was 3 idiots selecting race car drivers to hopefully win them a mustang that looked like one in the game. More recently, I've completely boycotted a developer (Epic Games) for promising the world and then quietly delivering a little slice of New Jersey instead. Then running around giving all these press interviews slamming the PC platform because it's in "disarray" because their game sold so terribly. Nevermind that their product was hopelessly unfinished, buggy, and another one of their products is confirmed abandonware less than 3 months after release. All the advertising was of screenshots no reasonable PC could produce and even things are still advertised that do not appear in the game. Furthermore, some people at the top of this company think they're gods (Cliffy . I absolutely despise that. I want to like more games, but it's rare that a good one comes out these days. Game developers and publishers, with a rare few exceptions, are pretty clueless these days. You'd think that none of them have ever seen the hardware surveys off Steam before.

I think I'll investigate Windowsblinds and think about buying it (depends on its performance impact). I like to support companies who return the favor and actually make products for me to enjoy and not for some idiot editors to enjoy.
on Mar 11, 2008
Okay, alright... I just have to ask... what games target the Chinese market?The only one I can think of off the top of my head is the semi-MMO version of Company of Heroes that Relic is supposedly developing exclusively for the Chinese market. Not sure what the heck they're thinking there, really. I mean, yeah, it's a big market and it's not too easy to pirate an MMO, but China-only?


I would imagine that they don't want to cut into their original Company of Heroes franchise sales. China is just a test center, anyway...
on Mar 11, 2008
Never pirated a game. Don't buy that many anymore either. Gameplay seems to be inversely proportional to graphics sophistication, so most newer games stink. Stardock is one of the few companies that remembers that gameplay comes first.

Brad, you did not mention Youtube as a marketing tool. You would be surprised how many gamers head over to Youtube to see what the game is going to look like and how it really works. Putting up some good Youtube videos is a better investment of time than producing a Demo, I think.
on Mar 11, 2008
Let me preface all of this by stating that I've never pirated a game ... and that this article is spot on...

now ... for my rant. . . .

Ok.

I got linked here from another part of the internet, but I HAVE to make a comment or two about a couple posts in this thread...

1st - @ Abraxis...

I'm not sure what circles you run in on the net but, I come from the same "generation" of gamer as you... it began way back in the days of college playing wolf3d and then on to Doom over the LAN and just better and better from there... You talk about buying new hardware every 6 months... your views are a bit dated for what, on the surface anyways, appears to be such a well thought out, albeit a marathon, post... back to my point of your opinions being a bit "dated" ... you hardly need a new hard drive every six months... and even if you need a new drive every year, you can get 1TB now for around $225usd and 320's and 500's for around 120 or less on sale... as well, these days, you don't need a new sound card through the life of a system, if AT ALL, onboard audio chipsets have gotten to the point that they are vastly superior to the days of old... if you DO find that you want a new Audio card, one can easily be attained for $70-80usd. As motherboard prices and video card prices have also become quite “reasonable” in the last year or so (8800 ultra series excepted), right now, you can get ALL The video card you would need to play any title on the market at the moment and at LEAST for the next year & a half at qualities vastly superior to the Wii and other consoles.

So even if you need to completely “upgrade” your system, you can do it like this:

$100 Motherboard
199 Intel E8400  that would be Intels latest and greatest, non-extreme processor…
250 Video Card – 8800GT 512 Mb RAM
100 – ½ Tb Hard Drive
85 Ram - 4 Gig of DDR2 800)
60 - Power Supply

That’s right around 800 dollars for a SOLID gaming rig… this is all assuming that you’re using your old case, dvd drive and mouse & keyboard. Also, this isn’t including software (OS) so… throw in another 100 dollars for an OEM copy of Vista Home Premium or you can get XP on the cheap these days… That is a ROCKING home PC for under $1000. A system that can run an intensive game like Crysis … maybe not run it at High settings, but get good frames at high settings in dx9 mode…

My point is that this HARDLY adds up to possibly “thousands a year on video cards, quad core processors, expanded hard drives, sound cards” etc… to quote you…

If you want to “break into” the “hobby” that is PC Gaming, you’re going to need to make that initial investment of around a $1000. & That will ALLLLLMOST get you in the door with a 22” wide panel. Name me ANY enthusiast type hobby that doesn’t necessitate some sort of up front investment in TIME and MONEY?? Once you’ve made that investment, you won’t need to put any more money in hard drive space, sound cards (on board), RAM, Motherboards or Video cards for about 2 or 3 years… I’m just tired of all the Console Converts crying the ill ways of pc games and all the money that’s required to keep up… the system listed above is viable for no less than 2 years… at which point you probably would want to invest in another video card for 2 or 3 hundred dollars, or a little more if you want a little more bang for your buck… but if you’re sole source of gaming is on a wii these days, than you’re probably not concerned with that.

& I was ok with your post until you started touting the ills of Steam. Yes, Steam had a bumpy start. But again, your thinking is pathetically old school. Steam is as solid an online distribution application as any of them. Valve isn’t going anywhere, so your paranoid thoughts of Valve shuttering it’s windows and your games all of the sudden being unplayable are unfounded… if you knew a little more about Steam before touting the evils of it, you would know that all the single player games purchased through steam are perfectly playable without an internet connection (http://support.steampowered.com/kb_article.php?ref=3160-AGCB-2555) again, you should know these things before stating otherwise in such a public forum. Your statement that Steam makes “travelling Gaming” impossible is just out & out wrong. Sorry but it is – as are your thoughts that your games become coasters should Steam ever go under… just wrong.

So I feel the error of your post is in your thinking that it takes “thousands of dollars a year” to keep up with PC gaming when in fact, you can more than keep up for a relatively small investment of 400-500 dollars (high end) every OTHER year or so.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Wii, it’s a great little box. I haven’t been able to drag myself away from Mario Galaxies and the Wife and I are HIGHLY anticipating the release of Mario Kart…

Anyways… I digress…

Now … @ 1Spartan

Come on man… a $15,000 dollar rig?

Pardon me if I’m a bit cynical… but allow me to list my system specs and costs out to you…

$199 - Intel E8400
$349 - Asus Striker 2 SLI
$1370 - Nvidia 8800 Ultra x 2 – that at the time I spent somewhere around 685 each for …
$350 - 8Gb DDR2 1066
$300 – 2 x Raptor 74Gb
$320 – 2 x Seagat 750Gb
$49 – Vista Ultimate (Best Friend works for M$)
$300 – OCZ OCZ100PSX 1000 Watt Power Supply
$1100 – Dual BenQ 24 LCD’s

The ONLY reason I posting the specs of my ridiculous system like this is to call in to question the $15k your touting… My system cost in the ball park of 4500 after shipping, taxes etc…

I could even get ridiculous and get an extreme processor… add another 900 to that total and we’re at about 5500 … a far cry from 15K… so I’m calling you out, I’m curious as to your specs.

Please do tell.

Anyways, sorry to rant. Everyone continue on with your lives and have a wonderful day.
on Mar 11, 2008
One thing about piracy is not the ability for people to get a pirated game for free its when some sites will SELL the game which i think is the lowest of low.

I wont lie when i say this I'm currently playing sins as a pirated game but the reason i am is so i can test the game to see if it was good enough before giving away my money. Of course i love this game so tomorrow ill be going to the store and ill buy the game so i can of course have a real cd key. Now of course i'm not saying this is my only reason but i love when game devs make demos so i can play test the game before buying. me watching videos on youtube like the post above doesn't catch me at all. so a combo of the video and demo advertising helps out the user decide whether to buy it or not.
on Mar 11, 2008
I want to go back the NWN post. I agree with NWN2 being very high end and most systems that could play the first game can't w/o serious upgrades altogether or getting a new rig entirely. The Blu-Ray thing I feel for you. Having to replace a DVD drive means the software company who made that piece of trash is blacklisted in my book. I did not purchase Heroes of Might and Magic V because of hearing about destroyed drives and granting root access.

Also I want to say lets not let developers blame pirates when their game sucks. I am not pointing fingers just pointing out it could be used as a cop out. A lot of games out there are ones I'd never buy and never play. I like strategy games like CIV and GalCiv. Halo just isn't my cup of tea. If a FPS game making company folds its totally nothing to me. Just making an example. Now if Firaxis or Stardock quit making games I'd be devastated.

@Draginol great post. Loved it.





on Mar 11, 2008
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.


No joke.

I've seen way too many games start specifically for the PC, just to wind up being delayed left and right and then announced that they will premier on the Xbox first, and on PC months later. Not to mention PC games that fizzle out and become only released on consoles. Often because of tech requirements, or hassle over copy protection and the resultant bugs - and all the thought of losing money over it causing the producers to make stupid decisions (Shadowbane, anyone?).

Blizzard has taken the same approach to World of Warcraft, as was taken in SoaSE (in terms of tech). I've always felt that their phenomenal success was a direct result of their generally low system requirements (and hence ability to reach a huge customer base) - because let's face it - WoW is their WORST title ever made... more bugs than any previous Blizzard game, inadequate repetitve gameplay, and absolutely lousy customer support (which was once one of their strong points). But - you could run it, even still, on a machine from 2004 (like my own) - whereas the other MMO's have higher systen requirements (I lament the tech requirements of Age of Conan!) that prevent anyone who hasn't already spent thousands upgrading their machine, from joining in on the fun. And thus, they (Blizzard) win.

Just so no one gets the wrong idea - the comparation between Blizzard and Stardock/Ironclad ends at the technical requirements - SD/IC in my opinion far exceed modern-day Blizzard in terms of quality, and quite frankly - service.

I can only hope that more developers and producers see the light, and produce more high quality games that can be run on a broad range of PCs, and cater to the majority instead of the highly-vocal minority.

Game on guys.

on Mar 11, 2008
WOW does pretty damn well in china... I think it has like 2 mil in us, 2 mil in china...


Where's the other 6 million?

http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=17062
"According to Blizzard, WoW now hosts more than 2 million subscribers in Europe, more than 2.5 million in North America, and approximately 5.5 million in Asia."

More like twice the USA subscriber numbers play in china

on Mar 11, 2008
PC gamers do generally give more of a damn that console players, but that's not the only factor that weighs in on the multiplatform scores. What genres are fresh and new to the console, is sometimes old and dated when released on the PC. Also sloppy ports change scores, and then you need to factor in the different grading scales between magazines that metacritic doesn't take into account. So your arguement is pretty inaccurate.


I disagree. I picked FPS games, RTS games, RPG games... Racing and sports games aside (both of which, upon checking Need for Speed and Madden, carry the same trend of the PC version getting dramatically worse scores, and even worse user review average), there's really no major genre you can't name.

According to your post, and my list, PC gamers are sick of EVERY genre?

Sloppy ports I can sympathize with, but I've played several of these games, and it's not the case with all. Oblivion had a shitty UI for the PC, but Bioshock's was functional without feeling overly consolized. The Grand Theft Auto series have had no issues with 'crappy porting', as PC port versions are usually *BETTER* than the console.

Yeah, there are some that may have dropped a few points for shitty UIs and improper controls, but I know that that wouldn't affect scores as dramatically as I showed you, and I also know that maybe only half the games suffered from that, if even that many.

It was a good sample, and I stand by my conclusion - PC gamers have higher standards.
on Mar 11, 2008
@ 1SpartanCome on man… a $15,000 dollar rig?


I called bullshit on that too, but I assumed he either was confused and by 10k and 15k he meant 1000 and 1500, which is likely, or he's just a liar.

I was ok with your post until you started touting the ills of Steam. Yes, Steam had a bumpy start. But again, your thinking is pathetically old school. Steam is as solid an online distribution application as any of them. Valve isn’t going anywhere, so your paranoid thoughts of Valve shuttering it’s windows and your games all of the sudden being unplayable are unfounded…


Pardon me, but that line of thinking is really no different from saying that wiretapping and monitoring is okay, because if you're not a terrorist you have nothing to hide.

Just because I have nothing to hide doesn't make it any less wrong. Valve can, at and for any reason, remove $200+ of games from me. They don't have to have any justification. It can be their crappy anti-cheat malfunctioning. It could be because they don't like my name.

They control these games utterly and completely. To say "they aren't going anywhere so don't worry", is not only foolish, but a rather uneducated thing to say. Nothing is permanent. Gabe Newell could have a heart attack, and Doug Lombardi could sell the corporation off to EA, take the $80 million, and retire. It's happened before, and it'll happen again. Never say never.
on Mar 11, 2008
FalconNorthwest, Alienware and certain other such 'premium' brands can you run a PC that will cost 10-12k. It will be overpriced for what its worth but that WILL be how much they paid...

Now on to Piracy.

Piracy is a good thing. Thats my view AND my experience. Period. I can't tell you how many games I've ended up buying (or not buying) because I found out they would/wouldn't run on my computer. The techspecs for games are usually at best misleading and at worse just plain wrong, especially if you have a non-standard hardware configuration. (Take Sins, it will run on even LESS than the minimum specs they state : which is a good thing, but still tells you that the specs are misleading).

I play at least 2-3 games a week with a group of online friends (5-6 people from a totally different forum), Originally I was the only one who actually owned it, the rest were pirated. I even gave them the patch so they'd know support from Stardock was good (and so we'd all have the same version).

They. ALL. OWN. IT. NOW. Even the dude in... Estonia I think it is (the eastern european country right? My geography sucks but anyway they aren't selling Sins in stores there) who had to buy it direct download.
on Mar 11, 2008
@ Uranium

Agreed...

but all paranoid thoughts aside... it's HIGHLY unlikely valve is going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

But you're right.
on Mar 11, 2008
I still say that a great part of the migration of gamers to consoles is because PC's don't have fixed hardware specs, developers and publishers release buggy games that cause nightmarish conflicts with drivers and repeated patching, and they release stuff that won't work on a lot of machines.

Consoles are quick and easy. Any veteran PC gamer knows from experience that PC gaming is often anything but.
on Mar 11, 2008
Well at least one games company is noticing that PC users are FED UP with "needing" a $1000 computer with 10gb of memory and xtreme slix10 shader 9 1000tb hard disk nuclear powered monster. Just to get a game to run at 10fps.

I can't say how nice it is to see a game which did not need 10gb to install and runs like crap. I wish other developers would take note but they are too busy making games which need nuclear power stations to run and then wondering why nobody buys them and instead blame it on piracy.