PC Games: Download vs. Retail & Piracy

I don’t know if any of you guys saw this but we did an interview with GameDaily recently that showed up today:


A lot of the article is spent talking about PC games at retail vs. digital downloads. My view is that retail is still king and is going to be king for a very long time and that indies who are making substantial (read: expensive to make) games will still have to make sure they’re available there.

It also goes on and talks about software piracy. My view is that DRM and other copy protection schemes hinder more than they help on many types of PC games (though I do believe in product activation which could be considered a form of DRM but even there, it depends on the product). The retail version of GalCiv II, for instance, won’t have any copy protection at all on it. The thrust of that part of the interview is piracy rates vs. lost sales due to that piracy.

I was curious to hear what you guys think on these things. Being a game developer, it’s easy to get insulated from what game buyers (or reviewers) see PC games going.

Retail vs. download: This is a big, fat “it depends” for me. Best of all is if I can buy something for $20, download it in a couple minutes, and start playing right away. Instant gratification wins. If it’s a giant, multi-DVD extravaganza that’s going to take days to download, then retail wins. No surprise there.

For more expensive, less disposable games, I start drifting more towards retail, since I like having that CD to reinstall from. Unless you’re do a Steam-style download-as-often-as-you-like, which is great, since I just know I’m going to lose the CD.

Worst of all is buying a CD online. I’ve got to wait for shipping and stuff, and by the time it gets here the moment will have passed and I won’t be interested any more.

DRM, I hate. In particular, the instant you stop me from doing something that I think I should be able to do, I hate your guts and want your company to die in a flaming pile of wreckage. Require the CD in the drive? I hate you. Can’t install on more than one machine? I hate you. Need to go online and activate the CD I just bought? I’m sitting here trying to summon ninjas to kill your dog by the sheer power of my hate.

(That’s a generic “you”; I don’t hate you, Brad.)

DRM that I don’t notice, I hate less. I don’t hate Steam all that much, because I bought HL2 through it and it’ll let me download it again when I upgrade my machine. That’s rather nifty. Oh, and I entered my ancient HL1 CD key and it immediately let me download and play HL1. That was downright kick-ass. I’d probably hate the hell out if it if I’d bought HL2 in a store and had to wait forever for Steam to activate it, though.

Similarly, I didn’t really hate Apple’s FairPlay at all, until a coworker started listing to my shared music collection and couldn’t access the protected files. Now I hate it. And yet I still buy from iTMS, because I accidentally bought a copy-protected CD once. That was the last CD I ever bought. I’m not boycotting CDs, I’m just not willing to deal with the uncertainty of wondering if any given CD I buy will be completely worthless or not.

Oh, and one last thing: I haven’t pirated a game since grade school. This is a major part of why DRM and copy protection completely piss me off. I’m completely sick of being treated like a pirate, when the real pirates are mildly inconvenienced by all this crap at best.

Having recently left employment at GameStop, I am convinced that digital delivery will become very significant very fast. On the PC side the retail footprint is shrinking fast in places like GameStop and seems to vary widely at larger retailers. Generally, though, it seems like there are fewer PC games at all retailers now. I see that trend accelerating based on recent news that PC is now just 10% of the market, at least as far as retail dollars go.

Of course, significant is a relative term. The hard core gamer, such as the type that will buy GalCiv2, will embrace digital delivery very quickly. You will need retail to try and attract more casual gamers, but I could see as much as 40-50% of PC game revenue for most games coming from the digital side in the next two to three years.

In a perfect world, I’d like a digital download and be able to order a paper manual separately. The manual is the only thing I like about retail. I don’t like printing out a bajillion pages on my printer… or 20 pages with microscopic print… and if a game has even moderate complexity - a real live manual is still worth it’s weight in gold… errr copper.

Good article by the way. One lesson people should learn is from the idiots at Frontier/Atari and whatever copy protection scheme they’re using on RCT3 Wild! And people thought star-force was bad!? http://www.ataricommunity.com/forums/showthread.php?t=511129 They’re trying fix #3 to correct the copy protection issues that slow games to a crawl. First it broke day- >night cycles… they “kinda” fixed that just to substitute it with general lag. It appears people have the issue cleared right up by usign a no-CD crack. Yea, it’s stupid to sabatage your anti-piracy efforts… by sending people off to find no-CD cracks because you can’t fix your own problems with cruddy 3rd party copy protection.

I agree, a good paper manual is worth a lot to me. Perhaps a serial number so gamers can register the game and are able to download mods, bonus missions or anything else that adds value.

The manuals are already going the way of the dodo bird, with the ubiquitous strategy guide always foisted on you at checkout.

I like downloading games, but I like having a DVD case with it in there even more. Ideally I want a cheaper digital download with the option to pay full retail + shipping and get a copy sent to me later. It can be weeks later for all I care. That way I have a display copy + backup, and instant gratification.

I tend to agree with this. I mean I like Steam and it has worked well for me but depending on the type of game having the option to get a physical copy and a manual is a nice. I have the same kind of I want to play it now issue with ordering things online. For things like cables, for example, it isn’t an issue but for games I want it now. I wanted to play Gothic 2 Gold the other day but I knew I would have to wait 2 or 3 days to play and it annoyed me enough not to buy it. If I could have bought the physical copy then downloaded it right after that I would have pulled the trigger.

– Xaroc

I agree with that as well. I like the instant gratification of digital downloads, but I also like to have a backup hard copy. Getting a game digitally and then having a disc sent later is appealing. I’m fine with digital downloads that let me burn my own disc, too. No digital download and having to wait for a disc to come in the mail before I can play is the worst of all worlds. I almost never do that, unless it’s the only way to get a game. But even then, I don’t like it.

Things I’d like to see with digital distribution:

  1. Price concession since the publisher is eliminatiing physical goods
  2. Option to order paper manual and backup discs for extra $$
  3. One-time only online validation check. Check me once, you’re done.

For me, driving five minutes to a nearby retail store is still probably more convenient. I can’t really count on doing a multi-gig download unless I queue it up overnight – too many people in my household use the computers during waking hours. I can’t queue it up in the afternoon or early evening and count on it occurring without interruption.

As a broke colledge student I pirated nearly everything. If I had not pirated games (and many other things), I would not have played them, aka I would not have bought them either. In that sense, piracy did not hurt sales because there never was any chance of a sale from me.

Once I got a real job and could afford to eat more then hotdogs, mac & cheese, and ramin noodles, I paid for every game I got. However, the more games I paid for, the harder it is for me to buy the next one.

You see, when I was pirating games, if I downloaded some game that sucked, so what? Id just delete it. Now if I go purchase a game that sucks, I am out 50 bucks. I can’t take it back because it sucks. So now I play fewer games because of my unwillingness to take a chance on spending 50 bucks on a crappy game. Sure the box art and previews seem tempting, but it is not really good enough to get me to try it.

AOE III is a prefect example of this. The demo didn’t grab me very strongly. It might be fun to play, then again it might not. Do I want to gamble with 50 bucks and play 3 or 4 games and get sick of it? I chose no. I am sure there is some price point Id see that it was worth it.

With reguards to online purchasing with digital downloads, id be a lot more confortable if there was an online personal library that was going to stay around forever. IE: I buy a game now, and in 4 years with a new computer I may just decied Id like to play it. Will I still be able to download it again? I am fine having only a digital version of the game and manual, as long as I can retain a copy of it indenfintly online for retrevial at any place in time.

I also think a very good software protection scheme could be worked out for digital distribution. You could have a validation client, that sents checksums for all your binaries every time you log on to the internet. If they do not match, it redownloads the bad binary. Then each game, whenver used online validates the validation client and repairs it if it has been altered. Basically you could but in 3 or 4 cross checking systems to make sure everything is on par. While this still can be defeated, it would make life for the average pirate very difficult.

As for a unproteced version of Gal Civ II, I think that is a mistake Brad. I think you will lose a lot to piracy. Id try and think of something at least to hinder piracy. You do not just want me to get the zip or .exe you send to me and then just burn a cd and start handing out copies to my friends like holloween candy.

Id suggest letting people downloading an installer for your game that downloads the game from the net. Then the installer gets some info about someone’s box, like thier MAC address, cpu, bios, window version, etc and then your server ‘stamps’ the your executable with this info. Your executable will only run on a machine matching those criteria. If someone needs a new copy, they can log in and download it. You could then limit downloads to 1 per month, so they could not just give thier friends the info to install it themselves.

A software pirate will be able to do this anyways. They aren’t hindered by copy protection, they are only delayed by it. By giving out copies of GalCiv2 to your friends, you’re doing a good thing, because they might like it and they might buy it. If they don’t, they probably weren’t going to buy it anyways.

This is the part that I really don’t understand. Any CS student out of assembly can take the EXE, deassemble it, change the MAC address around, or make a keygen to change it… or better yet remove the MAC address checking portion of the EXE. What now? Whoops, the developers spent weeks implementing DRM and it got cracked within a day.

I wish more developers would be like you Brad. DRM doesn’t stop pirates. It only makes pirates out of the rest of us.

I like Steam, it removes the inevitability that in 6 months time when I feel the urge to have another go at HL2 that I’ll find I’ve lost the CD or it’s cracked or whatever. Like I had with RRT2 the other day, I had the install disks but not the play disk.

When it isn’t a huge download I’ve no objection to buying online and downloading. Special Forces was, in some respects, a prime example of everything that is both good and bad out Downloading. The good is that I had the game bought, downloaded and installed while I was doing something else, the lack of a manual in this case not being an issue. The bad is that it actually cost me more to forgo a case, disk and printed manual by buying direct from EA. I could have saved £5 by going down to the shops or odering from Amazon instead.

As for piracy, The only “pirated” games on my system at the moment are those that we use on LAN parties and I hope you’ll forgive my unwillingness to spend £30 on a game that I’ll only play for an hour or so every six months. Novalogic seems to be a rare exception nowadays in that their games have pretty much always worked via a LAN without needing a disk, 1000 digit CD key and a retina scan to load up.

Even in the backwoods it’s not that hard to find AAA titles at retail, but it gets much harder to find less hyped games from smaller publishers, particularly in a timely fashion. I rather like digitial delivery for niche titles, MMO add-ons, and anything that really won’t be readily and speedily available at a retail outlet. I guess I’d rather have a physical copy all else being equal, especially if there’s a manual of any consequence involved, but mostly I’m pretty ok with downloading as a primary delivery medium.*

*As long as I have broadband of course.

There are some key points in this. Damien nailed it with the “DRM I don’t notice” comment. CD Keys in multiplayer. We have been doing this since Quake 3 (maybe earlier) and its never got in my face. The one thing I noticed there was that all my warez monkey friends that pirated every game, actually went out and bought Q3 - simply because it was easier to do that then the piracy route when playing random games on the internet.

Speaking as a gamer at home, I have never really believed the “piracy = lost revenue” argument. There is a guy that I know who pirates everything (and blames it on various things, which always cracks me up). I highly doubt that he would every purchase anything, so there never was any revenue coming from him to any company. If some DRM blocked him, he isn’t going out to the store to buy it.

Disk checks I am in the middle about. I crack all my games and put the discs away for safe keeping. Have I stolen anything by doing this? I don’t think so. Have I violated the EULA or done something illegal? Probably, but I don’t really care. I bought the game and I am not sharing it with anyone else.

The Download Vs. Retail thing has come up many times before. My thing is that they are neither mutually exclusive nor is one better than the other. It really comes down to situation. Have fast internet vs. a 1 hour drive one way to the store? Download is probably your friend. Live beside a software store? Retail is probably faster for you. Sometimes its faster for me to download something overnight. To me, its all about the options.

I hate driving to the store, and the steam model is ok for me as a solution.

Buying outright online I also like (this is how I bought COV) but I hate the heavy drm’d ones (direct2drive and their custom patches etc… I want the same game as the retail box)

I dont mind activation.

The best though, IMO, is gamefly. They have a list of games I want to play, they send them to me, I play them, if they are great, I go to gamefly.com and click ‘keep it’, get charged half price-ish, they send me my manual and box and the next rental. It’s awesome and I wish it could work for pc games, it really screens the turds out and gets you past the honeymoon stage before you buy so you KNOW the game is REALLY good and worth making a permanent addition to your library.

I’m down with digital delivery, provided I can use it how I want, much like what Stardock provides. I don’t really need a CD if I’m allowed to easily back it up myself. I only need a manual in select circumstances.

If I can’t do what I want with it, I’d like a price concession (Mark’s point) or a lot of convience (Steam does provide this). Most of the time, you get neither and that a bummer. The DRM that you face severely limits your choices and severely limits my desire to download the software.

The biggest problem that I have with the lack of a physical copy of a game is that it makes it difficult or impossible to trade my games with a friend. The retailers probably think this is a good thing. I’m not so sure. There are plenty of games that I didn’t have the money or time to play that I borrowed from a friend. Remove this exposure and I’m not so sure that those sequels will continue to sell so well.

Brad, I agree with your main point: piracy is overrated, particularly when you are considering lost sales. I wish there was a realistic way to study the actual numbers.

Back when Totalgaming.net moved to Phase 2 (eliminating the “monthly” game releases and associated subscription and adding the points-based system), I was critical of the change. Previous subscribers such as myself were handled well, but the new system didn’t seem to do anything special – it was just a place to buy indie games that were usually available elsewhere, only you got them for a slightly reduced rate.

Well now that I’ve got my Tablet PC and am wanting to populate it with games, Totalgaming looks much better. Having everything centralized and DRM-free is a huge plus. I can just put Stardock Central on the machine and redownload all the games I already bought. Plus when buying new games, I don’t have to worry about activation emails or unlock keys or any of that crap. The selection of games on the service still isn’t where I think it should be, but otherwise it’s a great system.

Oh man, if Popcap or Reflexive did this (or, even better, if Stardock got the rights to put their catalogs on Totalgaming), they would clean up.

Yeah, of all the digital download systems I’ve seen, I like Stardock’s the best. It’s simple, straightforward, and relatively consumer-friendly. They do need more games, but as more developers look into the digital distribution route, maybe they can land some choice distribution deals.

How long until it’s possible to buy an inexpensive “digital paper” flat screen/portable display thingy, hook it up via USB to your computer, and display pdf files on it so you can read them wherever?

How hard can it be? (He asked, having no idea how hard it could be.)

It’ll still be quite a while. I believe sony has released or previewed an e-paper device, but the resolution is horrible. Basically they form “pixels” with tiny magnetizable balls that are half white/half black. So you’ve got two strikes against you for crappy display right there: a) While the magnetizable balls my be tiny to the eye, they’re huge compared to a 1200dpi print size and b) Monochrome.

Full color would take some type of OLED production that actually worked (and a powered frame) or more tech than I’m currently aware of at freezing in liquid crystals with external fields. AFAIK it still requires active power to get the LCD type of response you see on monitors and TVs (as well as a silicon backplane which is a bit fragile).

Printers are still it for quite a while to come.