Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Games: Free Stuff, No Matter What the Cost?

XCode's In-App-Purchase documentation - screenshot
XCode's In-App-Purchase API doc

As an Indie game developer my livelihood depends on being able to sell what I make.  What I make has to be good, and then - so the theory goes - people will pay what its worth and I will be able to make rent and go on making games.  In this little article I am not posting because I have the answers - I guess what I'm more interested in hearing about is what people feel about the issues.  In-App-Purchasing - which is made drop-dead simple by technologies and API's like Apple's iTunes one shown here - make it easy to make money, but if people feel that is evil, that then is a thing.  Feelings can't be fixed by technology.

Thing is, a lot of people don't want to pay for games.  This is the so-called "race to the bottom" in game pricing.  One way to deal with the desire for free games, while still making money, is via In-App-Purchase - but there is a lot of contention out there amongst gamers about IAP.  I agree that there ought to be some rational perspective on IAP, but it can cause media spectacles like the kid in the UK who spent thousands of dollars buying virtual donuts on IAP.

I was having a discussion yesterday with a friend about how badly we as human beings do our calculations on what is good value.  We'll crawl over broken glass to get something "for free", even though it would actually be much better value to us to pay up front for it.  Why IAP works is that we "get something for free" and figure we'll have the judgement to not fall for the mechanisms that lie in wait to get us to pay for it.  So why is the games industry so hot on IAP?

IAP as an Anti-Piracy Mechanism


Here's another way to look at In-App-Purchase - as a response to "piracy" of games.  Below I mention the SimCity fiasco and a mention of it in an interesting article by Tommy Refenes which I link to.  That was ElectronicArts trying to do "DRM" by making SimCity players connect to a server - IAP requires connecting to a server to access game content too.  But IAP is not DRM and its not the flash-point rage causing issue that DRM is.  It's like "DRM-low-tar" and we can sort of deal with it, so industry is turning to it big time.

So let's look at this: what is "piracy"?  Note that I put that word in quotes because I think its a poor choice of word but one we seem to be stuck with.

I have some acquaintances who pirate movies.  I smile and shake my head.  One of my friends downloads her movies via torrent and when the file arrives burns it onto a DVD for watching later.  She downloads the color cover art for the movie, and prints it out on her colour printer, and tucks it into the DVD jackets she buys for the purpose.  She feels she has "got something for free" then because she has the same DVD she could have bought from JB HiFi in town, but didn't have to pull out her credit card for it.

But she did have to pay.  All that printing and stuffing about.  Even if you're not a high-rent computer pro your time is worth something.  My point is doing that downloading is not nothing - its a personal investment.  Those bytes come out of your quota.  When you torrent you advertise your IP, and expose yourself to malware.  Then there's the cost of whatever else you have to do to install and maintain the software to do the downloads, and manage and store the content.

My point is that with all these costs, why would folks do it?  Answer: our desire for free stuff.  IAP is clever because instead of defeating the human urge to get stuff for free, its exploiting it.  So - with IAP if we get stuff for free, what's the problem?  Answer - its not free because we shoulder risk.

Risk is a Hidden Cost


Downloading also involves a small but not inconsequential amount of personal risk.  When I was at the University of Queensland doing my degree (far too long ago) the RIAA showed up one day at the IT center with a bunch of lawyers, and a court order demanding the computers at a given set of IP addresses and the hides of the students & staff using them.  I know some people were identified in that fiasco, and I don't know what happened to their careers - I would not want to be part of that.  Regardless of what you personally feel the morality is of downloading, you cannot say that the personal risk is zero.

Risk is a cost.  If you shoulder a 0.1% chance that you have to pay $100,000 - then a statistician or an economist will tell you the expected outcome of that decision is $100.  Its just that as humans we are absolutely lousy at seeing this.  We are crap at figuring out if we really got something for free or if we wound up paying in some way that we did not expect.

I know some of you are pretty clued up when it comes to downloading stuff, and you know how to use torrents and other warez services so that you're not at risk: you can manage all that stuff, and make out like a bandit.  I'm impressed - I would not know how to secure myself against those risks.  I guess I could learn.  But when it comes to getting warez there's lots of folks cleverer than me, I freely admit.

But you know what?  A lot of people feel the same about IAP - they can download the free game and not be hooked in by the IAP.  But plenty of people do fall foul of these things.  I guess all those folks who wound up paying felt they would not be the ones to be hooked - but they were.  Maybe we'll be the clever ones - but we need to ask, how good am I really at assessing the chances?

Maybe I'm drawing a long bow here, but my argument is that whenever we think we're getting something for free, we should be saying "if its too good to be true, it probably is".  Google search is "free" right?  "I never click on those adverts!"  But guess what - millions and millions of people do.  Maybe you've clicked on them and not realized?  How confident are you really that a "free" app won't cost you in the long run?

Buying Up-Front versus the "Never-Never"


I don't have time to muck around searching for warez and freebies - I find it much easier to buy stuff.  I'm not rich, in fact I'm not well-off even - but I can afford to buy a movie or TV program if I want.  Certainly I can afford to buy more than enough for the time I have to watch them.

My friend that downloads stuff - I don't judge her for that.  I just smile and shake my head in wonder because the once or twice I have been at her place and seen some of that stuff the quality is pretty awful.  I know if I'm watching a 100 minute movie I don't want the key part of the movie to have some guy with  big hair stand up in front of the cam, and obscure the best part of the show.

I know its possible to get much better quality pirated stuff, but why should I bother?  I can spend a fraction of the time and buy stuff on line - in and out in seconds from Amazon or where-ever.  I have only once had issues with quality on some DVD's I bought that way - and it was a lousy cardboard jacket that a collection of X-Files DVD's came in.

But the point for me is that watching DVD's is a relaxing and fun thing to do - I don't want to be stressed out trying to deal with all the issues around pirating stuff.  LifeHacker has this interesting article about how to torrent safely - man it sounds like a lot of work.  Some of the best suggestions like using a VPN service may actually cost money, and still don't guarantee your safety.

I just feel a lot more comfortable with my nice crunchy shrink-wrapped thing I bought for some $$$$ and if there is any quality issues I know exactly how Amazon or whoever can fix it for me.

Paying for Games


Does this carry over into games?  

For me it does - I know I personally would much rather just pay up front for a game.  I just don't think in general that I am clever enough to monitor how much I would spend on IAP on games that work that way.  One $0 game is "worth" about the same as any other $0 game - but if I pay $7 for a game - like I did with Bulky Pix's "Yesterday" recently - then I know some things about what I'm buying.  I have some expectations about its quality, the amount of content, and I know if I'm not satisfied I can hit up iTunes for my money back.  That's not really an option with IAP.

Maybe this is a weird analogy - comparing downloading a free game with IAP, to "pirating".  What I am really trying to say is that what we do as humans and as gamers when we "go for free stuff" is always driven by the same desires. 

It's like loans with "pay nothing for 6 months", and credit cards with high limits.  Some people do well on those things.  Most people don't and pay a fortune.  Corporations and fancy marketing guys know how to abuse our desire to get free stuff.  They are awake up to how poor our decision making can be in that regard, and now they're in digital media gunning for our wallets with the same techniques.

As far as "piracy" of digital stuff goes - I think that word is idiotic - it is stupid to compare attacking ships on the high seas to downloading digital content.  I think it is not a crime, its just bad karma.  I think that if companies need draconian laws to protect their business model they are doing something wrong.  And I think that if they make it easy enough and cheap enough to buy good stuff, people will do that rather than pirate it.

No Harm, No Foul?


However: I think "piracy" is not innocuous and its not harmless.  I strongly suspect it hurts you and me more than it hurts Electronic Arts.  I suspect that faster than we can profit from it clever corporate types can turn the urge for free stuff into profit for them.

There is an interesting article about piracy of Super Meat Boy, from Tommy Refenes who was one of the creators of Super Meat Boy, and featured prominently in the indie movie "Indie Game" about the lives of indie game developers.

Tommy is pretty philosophical about piracy, and I agree with pretty much all of what he says.  I agree that if someone pirates 1000 copies of your game you still have infinite copies.  Tommy says "there's worse things than piracy:  like DRM and refund requests".

True that.  However I have a couple of comments.

First I think that the best industry response to piracy - "easy enough and cheap enough" - when driven to its logical conclusion means IAP and things like it.  I don't think IAP is evil, but I do think its very easy for people to spend a lot of money on IAP without being aware of it.  You need to be pretty clever to avoid paying out large on those things - I don't trust myself to be that clever and so I mostly avoid such schemes.  I'm lousy with my credit card - so I have a low limit.  And I just know I'd be lousy with IAP in my games I buy.

I think that our desire to "make out like a bandit" can be used against us by corporations to make a profit and IAP is an example of that.  We can outsmart ourselves too easily this way.

Secondly - you know what?  Ripping off digital content is Just Wrong(TM).  Do you really want to be that guy?  When something is wrong that doesn't make using DRM or laws to try to stop it right or justifiable.  "Wrong" doesn't mean - "let's bring in the DMCA and the goon squad".  Wrong means bad karma.

Play Nice with your Friendly Neighbourhood Indie


Developers of games are people, people like you and me.  People like Tommy Refenes and Edmund McMillen.  Pirating our games is just lame.  Go ahead and do it, why not?  We can't stop you.  Like Tommy in his article all I am going to do about it is say "WTF really?" and write about it.

I understand Tommy's point that there are worse things to worry about than piracy.  But just because you can find something worse, doesn't mean that its harmless.  Just because there's other stuff going on that's bad doesn't make it totally fine.

I'm going to sell my games with an up-front price and hope that folks are OK with that.

I doubt my game will be as successful as Super Meat Boy, and if I fail to make enough money to keep doing games then it won't be piracy that causes that problem.  In fact if I ever get to where my game is pirated that probably means I have finally made it to the Big Time.  :-)

But we're all gamers and I just think that our desire to Get-Stuff-For-Free-At-Any-Cost(TM) is just making our world a worse place to be in, but worse we're outsmarting ourselves when we follow that instinct without watching our hip-pocket.