September 17, 2008
Interactive Piracy: What Dialogue Really Looks Like

We here at C3 spend a lot of time thinking about copyright and IP, and the debates over "piracy" of materials online. In addition to our white paper on the topic, we have a whole blog category devoted to copyright and fair use. On the whole, however, most of our attention has been directed towards the music and film/television industries since they are the site of some of the most visible and vicious IP battles. I often overlook the games industry, who are often engaging with the same dilemmas. Recently, however, CMS colleague Josh Diaz from the MIT Gambit game lab, brought a very interesting case to my attention.

Back in early August, Cliff Harris, founder of independent PC game company Positech Games posted an open call to anyone who pirated copies of his games to tell him why. Fed up and perplexed by why people downloaded illegal copies of his games rather than paying the relatively low price per game, he did something that most major corporations have failed to considered: he asked why. Rather than going from the assumption that fans of his content were out to rip him off and seeking to correct the behavior through legal action, he made an effort to understand the motivating factors in search of problems that he might be able to address.

While his process was neither scientific nor comprehensive, the original call for emails received over 250 comments and, according to Harris, also hundreds of comments on other sites as well as private emails numbering in the hundreds. The results that went up a couple of weeks ago were interesting, ranging from a very small percentage claiming they just want free stuff to people with concerns over content quality. Many people "pirated" copies of games simply because they wanted to know what they were getting prior to committing to a purchase, whether to check if a game lived up to the hype or simply to make sure it would run correctly with their system. Other cited reasons such as prohibitive costs or the convenience of downloading games.
Even more interesting than the results, however, is what Harris decided to do. He decided to adjust his marketing and development process for his upcoming releases in response to what people said. He is dropping the prices of all of his games, spending longer to ensure higher quality and fewer bugs, and releasing longer, more thorough demos to give people a better feel for what the game holds in store for them. He's also canceling the use of DRM on his upcoming release and removing it from older games.
Certainly, Harris and Positech have the advantage of being able to change release timelines and company policy and pricing scales far more quickly than larger companies, but the principle behind his actions are instructive. As he says in the conclusion of his results:
"So it was all very worthwhile, for me. I don't think the whole exercise will have much effect on the wider industry. Doubtless there will be more FPS games requiring mainframes to run them, more games with securom, games with no demos, or games with all glitz and no gameplay. I wish this wasn't the case, and that the devs could listen more to their potential customers, and that the pirates could listen more to the devs rather than abusing them. I don't think that's going to happen.

"But I gave it a go, and I know my games will be better as a result. I'll never make millions from them, but I think now I know more about why pirates do what they do, I'll be in a better position to keep doing what I wanted, which is making games for the PC."

Rather than targeting behaviors that compromise the current business model, media companies need to think more carefully about the changing expectations and practices in our current landscape and seek to understand what the motivations behind those behaviors might be. From there, they can better assess how to adjust the business model to address the larger structural problems at the source of the so-called war against piracy, rather than pursuing a brute (legal) force short-term solution.

With media and marketing companies constantly talking about the need to engage in a dialogue with their audiences, perhaps this instance makes an important intervention into that discourse, reminding us that "conversation" isn't simply about finally speaking to your audience, as is too frequently the assumption, but about listening as well.