By ahoodedfigure 6 Comments
The Board Game Angle
People will sometimes contrast movies, music or even books with video games when talking about piracy, trying to draw parallels or contrast the methods used to protect copyright, publisher property, and creator output. I think board games though, which are a completely analog format, are actually pretty closely related, at least in their approach to entertainment. Whereas vidya games need consoles or other machines to run, board games are dependent upon the players' own brains and the cardboard and plastic machine that lies between them. I think they're similar enough, at least conceptually, that the board game industry's methods of tackling piracy provide an interesting contrast.
Since you can't exactly be proprietary with human brains (thankfully) the cardboard-and-plastic machine of a board game is all that the publishers and creators can protect. You usually have a rulebook, game components, and often a board (though not always). Unless they're terribly complex, boards can be copied in one go, and technically just about anyone could construct a game out of the rules from a rulebook (which many companies offer up for free as pdfs as a sort of preview of the game), assuming all the details of the game were in there.
Game components like plastic miniatures, individual cards, and dice are harder to duplicate without having similar things already, with cards being the hardest, since they usually need to be made of thin, tough cardstock, be laminated to prevent fraying, all be identical on one side so they can't be differentiated from the back, and be clear enough to read if they have a lot of complicated instructions or symbols on them. Cards are actually where many bigger game design firms have been helping to prevent copying; you will often see that rulebooks are missing specific examples of character powers or events because the rules are printed entirely on individual cards. This does discourage all but the most diligent of copiers. It also makes a lot of games feel like glorified Magic clones, with plenty of rules exceptions that wind up making things more confusing, and lead to a very specific flavor of game that doesn't translate well across genres and themes. While it may work fine for some games, it puts so much focus on individual cards and their interaction that it makes a lot of the more ambitious games a huge mess to play, reducing focus on unifying elements and making them more arcane and niche than they really ought to be.
Thing is, most people don't copy board games. The amount of work to hand-build a game is a bit too much for most people, and even when people do it they often modify the existing game to suit them, which results in technically a new game at the end. But it's also that board games often give you little trinkets to help you play, whether they're cards or miniatures or dice or little cardboard tokens or whatever other gimmick. They give you higher quality components than you're likely to be able to make yourself, full color print, glossy paintings by professional artists, and playtesting of the final product to (hopefully) make the game not broken (and online errata if they screwed up). In a way, board games fulfill the suggestions of folks like Gabe Newell make for video games; they say you should provide users with a better service to discourage piracy, rather than punish those who legitimately bought the rights to use the copyrighted work. While board game piracy has natural limits that discourage most people from copying, it also as natural benefits because it's a physical product.
Back to Video Games and the Bonuses They Provide
Video games are often a self-running package. You don't necessarily need people skilled in its execution to run it, you just need an electronic brain that's up to the task. You don't need extra bits to get it to run, unless you have DRM or other code wheels that prevent you from just using the thing, sort of like what some game manufacturers like to do with card text. Publishing a rulebook would be the equivalent of making it open-source, which doesn't often happen with major commercial works, but rulebooks allow for human logic to take over a bit, whereas open-source projects are limited by user interest and ability in a way most board games could never limit users. It's because video games are so self-sufficient that many publishers feel that copyright protection is the only way to prevent their software from being widely distributed.
Yet, as I've said, others argue that improving what the legitimate package offers diminishes the need for DRM. Gabe Newell of Valve was using his company's service, Steam, as an example of that kind of improved service. There are constant software updates, cloud saves that can be ported between systems, controlled but unlimited downloads, and prices that are, at least in this writer's opinion, a bit too low to make all but really high volume games successful, yet help encourage impulse buys and lower the theft threshold (although it could be argued that if people are willing to steal a game, the price doesn't matter a whole lot). I'm not sure how much of his opinion was self-aggrandizing, but I've heard enough positive words from users of Steam that it seems to be working.
[EDIT: While in principle Newell may have a point, some have pointed out that individual sellers can add DRM to their products in addition to Steam's prtections, effectively negating the streamlined Steam interface.]
Good Old Games, a service I'm much more familiar with, has a similar tactic of providing users with documentation and little bonuses like stripped audio files, captured icons, that sort of thing. None of these things are far beyond a user with even a small amount of skill in fiddling with game files, but it makes the product look a lot more enticing if you see a bunch of extras underneath. Their major feature is their unlimited, no DRM downloads and forwards compatibility, which I imagine kept users happy long after the pain of their stupid monk stunt faded away.
Both of these companies are, like the board game companies I mention, providing more than just the "rulebook", which in a video game is the software itself. They're providing services which help you play the games; the digital equivalent of dice, cards, boards, and errata.
But these are major distributors and services, which are often connected to popular games. Small publishers, like Cryptic Comet, don't often get to play ball with such companies, as they produce games that may be a bit too specialized a market. Theft often affects smaller companies even more adversely just because their volume of sales is usually so much lower. If cut out of these distribution networks, such creators wind up having to resort to DRM, or depending upon the good will of players interested in their games. For smaller groups this seems like a tall order to fill. If Newell et al. are right that the way to a user's heart is through features, it may be down to individual smaller companies to find solutions on their own.
It should be noted though, that piracy seems to be cultural, varying between groups. This suggests to me that there is no absolute amount we can expect any given game to be illegally copied, and that attitudes toward digital rights are more flexible than they might seem. I don't think it's hopeless for people who believe in protecting copyright, but those that believe that strong DRM restrictions on their software is the only solution may actually be reducing the perceived quality of service that others are trying to improve.
Any other game services or publsihers worth mentioning that provide you more than just the software without resorting to annoying levels of DRM? This would include DRM that's acceptably tolerable.