Convergent Play: Alternatives in Entertainment Software Philosophies – Least Resistance

There’s a lot of hype about video game piracy. And not all of it is just corporate hysteria either. Convergent Play’s underlying hypothesis is that the very nature of the software industry has gotten it backwards on a fundamental level, and that the issues of rampant piracy stems directly from that basic misconception at the heart of all development studios and distribution channels.

So what happens if you can identify the problem? Would you then be able to extrapolate out an alternative model that can successfully compete in an industry already worth countless billions of dollars, despite its relative youth?

Unlike News Hacking, the series on potential means of fixing journalism, Convergent Play isn’t an analysis on how to fix an inoperative system. Rather, it is a first-principles approach to improving a growing, white-hot industry that has quickly become vital and crucial to modern expression and perhaps to modern society as we know it.

This third entry discusses piracy disincentivization – not through discouraging piracy, per se, but encouraging legal acquisition through means that would make a pirated copy inherent inferior.

As with electronics, the market tends towards the path of least resistance. For the most part, consumers aggregate towards distribution mediums that put up the fewest barriers between themselves and their desired objective. There are exceptions, of course – human interaction, and market interaction by extension, are not fully constrained by physical laws, and such things as brand loyalty and legal obligations can restrict or even totally reverse otherwise natural flows of interaction.

Piracy, however, is not such a case. A democratic mixed-marked economy has insufficient means of combating the problem of piracy – in fact, even totalitarian states find it exceedingly difficult to do so. While overwhelming government control of networks can severely mitigate the scale of software piracy, it does so at an enormous cost per unit of prevention – a dreadful, backbreaking expense to stop even one kid from downloading one song, much less prevent him or her from allowing others to copy the file. Not only that, but the piracy issue hasn’t always been network-based either. How do they prevent physical distribution based piracy – an issue that was the prior cause of much wailing and lament from the MPAA, during the heydays of demoscenes and copyparties?

Simple fact is, given the steep price barrier of entertainment software and the prevalence of digital rights management software, amplified by its nature as an abundant resource, large-scale piracy is absolutely inevitable – ethically perilous, perhaps, but nonetheless absolutely inevitable. The issue is further magnified by the cost-detriment nature of all but Steam’s DRM, where by purchasing the game, the client not only fails to gain ownership of the copy, but actually loses intrinsic rights and even security. EA and Ubisoft’s attempt to usurp client sovereignty by demanding they maintain an internet tether to the company in order to run the game at all, or pay extra to access multiplayer components already inherent in the software, both actively reduce the inherent value of a legal copy versus a pirated, cracked copy on the user’s end of the equation.

Forgive the smugness, but the nearly universal hatred of such approaches makes the effective solution to them so obvious, it drastically lowers my already bedrock opinion of EA and Ubisoft even further – and of corporate distributors in general. If taking value away from legal software drives users into the arms of Pirate Bay, then the converse must be true as well: if they implement a system where a legal copy has greater intrinsic value than a pirated medium, they would therefore kill the incentive for piracy at its root. Furthermore, there must be a recognized difference between intrinsic value and theoretical value – the threat of a multimillion dollar lawsuit brought upon by the careless use of Kazaa puts a theoretical detriment to the value of pirated software. But it is a valuation dependent on a number of things – that the piracy in question is of sufficient scale to stick out from the legally perilous actions of literal millions, making the odds of any one individual getting sued comparable to getting struck by lightning, and that there will ever be a day when the media companies bankrolling game development studios are willing to alienate their base so much that they’ll crack down on each and every case of piracy. Given that the companies involved are primarily targeting distribution channels now, instead of individuals, the personal risk of piracy has now become close to nil.

So how do you go about increasing value of a “legal” copy, especially to the point where a pirated version is undesirable, and especially in the face of the changing tide of the piracy prevention war? New legislation certainly isn’t going to cut it, though plenty of corporations have been demanding high-level government interference as a solvency mechanism – the piracy problem is already a matter of illegal activity. Changing the quality of the game actually won’t help either – though plenty of commentators have noted that people are, at least in theory, willing to pay up money for “good” games, measurements of quality are nebulous at best, and is dependent on the whimsies of public opinion.  Furthermore, people being people, there will still be a significant margin of users that won’t pay up anyhow – while they don’t directly take away from profits, the ratio of willing/unwilling clients sets a hard, concrete ceiling on the profitability of any independent venture.

The solution, it therefore seems, lies in the distribution medium. Actually, from this means, it seems as if there is a plurality of solutions, some of which are actively being used.

The first solution is the reason why the console gaming industry is still chugging along fairly well. Frankly, console emulators inherently suck – they are, in essence, virtualizations of console hardware run on a computer with wildly different specs, meaning that the efficiency of their performance is severely constrained from the get-go. Games made for consoles are tied by the technicalities of their hardware – while this doesn’t make them piracy-proof, it makes them piracy-resistant, with the only viable medium in which to subvert it is if the data storage medium – be it a DVD or cartridge – is rewriteable, or can store a plurality of games at once. This is why Disgaea 3 doesn’t suffer a huge piracy problem, but Disgaea 1, for the DS, has cracks everywhere, given that the R4 memory card is completely compatible with the Nintendo DS, and can store many gigabytes more than the legal copies. Legal console games simply function all that much better on legal platforms – and, such as with the case of Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, may even come with inherent exploits on hardware compatibility that makes them nearly impossible to play without a real DS (pirated versions of SMT:SJ don’t have random encounters, making it nearly impossible to play).

But not all games are – or should – be console-based. In fact, smaller platforms are wasteful even on the DS – and the cost barrier of attaining the necessary hardware, coupled with genre bias, puts a hard cap on any one game’s potential audience. They’re also restricted by the same strength that prevents excessive piracy – unique hardware may make copying and playing difficult, but they also have quirks that the developer might not want to deal with. Control scheme limitations, for one, hard-limited by the number of inputs on the console, and design limitations or necessities such as the Nintendo DS’s dual-screen/touchscreen format.

There’s also another medium that’s actually proven to be completely piracy-free. In fact, Facebook is now famous as being the primary distribution channel for such games, most of which are absolutely free to play. That’s right – browser-based games. Or, rather, to include MMOs – which do get pirated, though as outlined in previous articles, not to anywhere near as great an extent as their peers – server-based software. Since most of its computational processes and data are stored server-side, giving users only visual information, pirating such a game would require far more effort than any individual would bother going through. Furthermore, the nature of server-based gameplay allows the parent company to update content at their leisure, greatly expanding the value of the game almost at whim. Not to mention that, by keeping savestates serverside, you’re far less likely to lose progression in the event of hardware damage, hardware replacement, or sudden power loss.

That’s a lot of advantages, but it’s also offset by a lot of issues. For one, serverside implementation requires an even larger tether than the hated Ubisoft model – they must be online, at all times, not only to verify legality but to use the software at all. While game structures can be set up where this is more of a feature than a bug – competitive play, for an obvious example – it sets hard limits on the development process. However, games now have to be designed with bitrate transfers in mind, making it so that the only games that can exploit this platform and avoid piracy entirely are puzzle game of various flavors, maintenance games like Farmville, and maybe certain flavors of visual novels and adventure games.

There are some workarounds for this – Gametap’s model basically has subscribers pay a monthly cost for effectively unlimited access to a library of games that they can play either in-browser or download, presumably sharing the profits with studios. However, the Gametap model has a glaring weakness – not only are most of its games old, reducing the draw, but only a handful of games are made with Gametap specifically in mind. In other words, as they’re released in the default distribution model anyhow, they’re still rampantly pirated.

The alternative I see would require the centralization of both development and distribution – much as we see with World of Warcraft and Steam games, actually, where by controlling distribution the developers are able to value-add to software. However, doing so for non-multiplayer platforms without value-detrimental tethering is… non-trivial. Not impossible, but nontrivial.

The first step, it seems, is to recognize value-addition opportunities. The first of which is to tie the game to accounts – not via hard tethers, as done by EA and Ubisoft, but account benefits. Allow cloud storage of savestates, for example – or backup of entire games, as the Steam model implicitly does (thanks for Portal, Valve!). A semi-tether of in-game online help also implicitly increases the value of truly “legal” copies over pirated versions, as the only way to access community channels and technical help is by verification of legality through a log-in account that, in turn, confirms that you actually bought the darn thing. And, of course, achievements – which requires an account to access.

Working off of achievements, you can then have account-linked achievements affect content. Unlocks of customizability, new paths, data transfers to related game universes, etc – all of which requires some rather interesting new development philosophies, but none of which necessarily impinges upon the integrity of the genre and software.

Developing that line of thought even further leads us to the concept of a metagame genre, where content is explicitly tiered to what games you’ve purchased under the account. This version is necessarily either mostly server-based, or entirely browser-based, and is the least stable of the proposed distribution method alternatives. A combination of factors is required for its success – first, you’d need the content to be absolutely stellar. Award-winners, even. We’re talking about a project that is at least as big as a Korean MMO, and probably coming closer to Age of Conan in scope. Furthermore, as it is tied to other content you’ve acquired, and probably achievements accomplished too, it explicitly requires a massive underlying infrastructure – at the very least, a sufficiently large library of smaller skill-based games, and possibly a network of associated developers, to implement to its full potential.

Actually, a small theory tangent. This may actually work as a freemium model without the Korean MMO model’s ethical setbacks. All content is available – however, if you’ve bought related games, or purchased small puzzle games, it can affect and accelerate the character progression path for the MMO. You can even trigger certain games to cause access to premium items and in-game service discounts, causing sales to spike in relation. You can even trigger in-game events to either promote the game or reward users that’ve bought it – though much would depend on how well the two games can correlate with each other in terms of flavor. Heck, other way around – race-the-clock achievements in the freemium MMO can trigger discounts and bonus content for the external game.

However, back on track – the final option I can think of at this time is to allow browser-play when technically possible. The popularity of so-called hardcasual games combines two elements – the addictive nature of simple gameplay, and their ease of access. Though browser games are inherently tethered to internet access, their relatively undemanding processor requirements and small screen real estate makes them ideal to simply bookmark and access while you’re in the midst of doing something else.

The most feasible of these models, in terms of current implementation, is the service value-adds on accounts and achievement-based bonuses and rewards. But true success of the platform may require the inter-operability of games, and may explicitly require an MMO metagame setup to fully eclipse the inherent value of pirated software. While every game sold to a customer for a fixed price must, ethically, be a complete package on its own, not only are bonus content not frowned upon, gamers apparently love it quite a bit if the option is available to them.

There’ll always be those that pirate for piracy’s sake. There’s a reason why there are such things as illegal WoW servers, even if they regularly get shut down, and even if their content is, at times, terribly out of date (and inferiorly balanced [and buggy]). The trick here is to put those sort of folks deep into the minority of the market – while, here in the status quo, you’ll be lucky to claim paying customers off of 25% of the playing audience.

And there’s naught to do to help improve those numbers but make the very distribution of the game a game in of itself.

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on May 20, 2010.

6 Responses to “Convergent Play: Alternatives in Entertainment Software Philosophies – Least Resistance”

  1. And for those people who don’t have access to the Web as a distribution channel? Are they stuck with only their single-player modes and having to wait for content packs to be distributed in physical media to their various game stores?

    Or for those people that don’t want to give their kids the ability to access the shop to download new content, but want to keep the ability to do so after the financial decisions have been discussed?

    And what stops a company from releasing crap games and them making you buy them to get new things in the good game you want to play?

  2. 1. The incidence of a gamer with a decently high-end gaming platform yet not having internet access is low enough that I’m willing to forgo such a market. All they really need to do is download at home, anyhow. And if they want to buy games, but don’t have internet access, it is probably in their best interest to acquire internet access at opportunity cost of the game, given the vital role that ‘net access plays in terms of future opportunities.

    2. Parental locks should be fairly easily implemented on an account basis. Or even just have it identify user access by the age set on their credit card information. If the kids got their hands on a credit card with spoofed age, the fact that they’re getting games outside of their age rating is the least of the parents’ concerns.

    3. Nothing’s keeping them from releasing crap DLCs /now/, except individual studio integrity. FLEETers’ve been complaining about the quality of two of the three Dragon Age: Origins DLCs – it’s really up to the company whether or not they’re willing to sacrifice long-term client relations in order to appease shareholders and accountants in the short term – in such a case, status quo really doesn’t change. But, hopefully, what they gain off of reduced piracy can help fatten up the margins sufficiently that they’re willing to take more risk on development, and less on cheating their user-base with crap content.

  3. It’s an optimistic gamble, but if it works, it would be nice.

    At some point, you also may want to address one of the 900-pound gorillas in the room, in relation to this last point. It basically goes, “Game release price points are $50-$60. If I’m going to be dropping that kind of cash, I want to know damn well that I’m going to get my money’s worth out of it.” Do you have a mechanism or an idea on how to get people to be able to effectively evaluate whether or not they’re going to want to buy the game? Demos and pieces like that provide some help, but they’re usually not enough content to make a real decision about whether the game’s going to be good. It’s kind of like deciding to see a movie based on the trailer – some are really good, some are really bad. The more bad ones you hit, the more likely it is that you’re going to want to play more than just a demo to know whether you like it. Of course, if/when you pirate the game on that, you can play it all for free and don’t have to worry about the money.

  4. Actually, writing another article about that would just be more Steam fanboying: ie, free game days, where new games get full play unlocks set on timers.

    Really, Valve did a /very/ good job on their DRM implementation – I’m just theorizing how to push it a bit further.

  5. Got it. The World Can Be Saved by Steam (or something like it.)

  6. I’ve heard kazaa is coming back again, who are looking to take over Itunes. This time I doubt there will be any carelessness.

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