By: Derek Yu

On: August 15th, 2008

Too Much Grog

Cliff “cliffski” Harris certainly caused a stir recently when he went around the interwebs and asked software pirates why they, you know, do what they do. Harris, the developer behind Kudos, the Democracy games, and other “real life” sims, drew some interesting (if not necessarily epiphanic) conclusions from the hundreds of responses he received. Your mileage may vary.

Probably the best thing to come out of this is the resulting discussion of piracy and its roots, including a great (and slightly heated) thread on TIGForums. I’m also glad to see that Cliff is being so proactive about his troubles, going as far as to say:

I’ve gone from being demoralized by pirates to actually inspired by them, and I’m working harder than ever before on making my games fun and polished.

That’s definitely the spirit!

(Image Source: NineInchNachosII, via Flickr)

  • guesst

    Been following the thread on the forums, but I guess I didn’t get the gist of it.

    Funny that he expected to get an honest answer form folks known for being dishonest.

    Also, first response!

  • magallanes

    damn… this thread will become a flamebait -> then bloodbath in no time.

    I think that it’s possible to fight against piracy, for example galciv dropped any drm and protection stuff and instead decided to give support only for real users, and as far i can recall galciv was (and is) a successful game. Other games decide to restrict the online use for bootleg copies.

    Also is the fact that some developers are indeed pirates, you known a 3dstudio max is not a program considered as cheap and yet is quite popular amongst indies.

  • Exoduster

    You know, I doubt I’m the first to mention this, but:

    Because your games are not worth paying for, Mr. Harris.

  • Kobel

    If a game’s not worth paying $10-20 for, it’s probably not worth the time it would take to play it either. Piracy shouldn’t be an issue at that point.

  • Dord

    His hand looks like it’s made of wood…

  • Onymous

    “If a game’s not worth paying $10-20 for, it’s probably not worth the time it would take to play it either. Piracy shouldn’t be an issue at that point.”

    careful, your privilege is showing. $10 is my weekly food budget.
    when $15 dollars is four hours of gaming, or eating for a week, guess which one gets priority.
    Thats not to say i think it’s not worth it, I just can’t afford that on my negative income (thank you sooo much college).

  • Onymous

    P.S. That isn’t to say I’m running around pirating everything i can lay eyes on or anything, I don’t think I’ve ‘pirated’ a game that WASN’T essentially abandonware in years. Just saying that $20 is in no way an insignificant amount of money to quite a lot of people.

  • Splinter

    The only way to fight piracy is to make it a moral issue and brow-beat people into volunteering to pay for games that aren’t quite what they want. Come on, who’s with me?!

  • Scott

    This issue always annoys me because of all the high and mighty people pointing fingers. I’ve talked to tons of people in my life, almost all of them were what I’d call pieces of shit. Where are all these amazing do-gooders coming from?

  • Kobel

    Onymous: IMO, not being able to afford something isn’t the same as saying it’s not worth the asking price. While I’d hardly claim to have lead a hard life, I do appreciate that not everyone is in a situation where they can afford to grab a new game every week, even if it’s as low as $5. But if you can’t afford to spend $5 a game, do you chalk that up to your own misfortune or to the creator overcharging for the game? I got the distinct impression that Exoduster’s situation was the latter while yours is the former.

  • DRM sucks :(

    Most of the time for me, piracy was an option because of the ridiculous restrictions put on the software that I pay for. It started with the classic CD-check when starting up a game, but then came Starforce, and then install limits, games phoning home to check the cd and serial at every start up, and so on.

    It became more of a pain to buy the game than pirate it, so which am I to choose? Often times I’d buy the game, and leave it in the box and just play the pirated version.

  • mercuryblind

    im just seriously sick of games being so full of crap. some of those games you pay 30 bucks for and play it less than, say Noitu Love 2, which is about a 3rd of the price. Most new games don’t have much except multiplayer and just can’t stand by themselves. But, hey, if its a good game and i know it, ill shell out 50 bucks to keep the developers going.

  • Golds

    I don’t see how DRM complaints really apply to downloadable indie games. and I don’t buy that line from someone who would pirate, say Aquaria, or Chocolate Castle. If they didn’t have some form DRM, many people would casually pirate the game and your sales would go down.

    Also, pirates complaining about the price aren’t the market of people you should by vying for. The bulk of people who buy indie games can afford to pay $15+ for a game..

  • Esha

    I think he’d have been better off simply asking in earnest why his games don’t sell as opposed to why they’re pirated. I think that’s what he was trying to ask anyway but he had to put some kind of spin on it for the sake of his pride, and piracy was that spin.

    There are a number of things that need to be considered when pricing a game:

    – Take the “time and effort” equation out of the price, a developer may care about these things but a possible buyer won’t.

    – Look at the quality of the game and stack it up against games of a similar quality, then base the pricing from there.

    – Also look at what else you could get for the same amount of money and then evaluate whether the product is genuinely worth the asking price.

    Here’s an example: For the price that Cliffski used to ask for Kudos, one could pick up an episode of Sam & Max and an episode of Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People.

    Does Kudos stack up to the polish, the variety, and the entertainment provided by the other two options?

    No, no it doesn’t.

    I honestly feel that some indie developers are hoping to profiteer rather than add to the indie scene. There are honest indie developers out there but listening to some of those who charge for their games… it’s a small number.

    An example I like to cite (because he’s a stand up chap and just generally better than most of us) is Dan Marshall. His first indie game was Gibbage, he looked around and did the math. Did he try to attach a $20 tag to his game? Nope! His first price tag was $8, and the older the game has gotten the more the price has dropped.

    To be utterly frank, I think I’ve learned more about the consumer market from Theme Park than these folks have from actually working the market.

    If you want a game to sell and it really isn’t up to the quality of a $20 game (hell, Bionic Commando: Rearmed is only six quid/$10) then don’t try selling it for $20 in the first place.

    Just consider: Selling a game for about the $8 mark means that you’ll likely get more positive publicity too. A news site may say “And it’s only eight bucks, that’s pocket money!” or they might just drop the $20 price tag with no positive comments at all, just leaving it lingering there all by its lonesome… the silence speaking more than criticisms ever could.

    I bought Gibbage, I bought Bionic Commando: Rearmed, and I continue to buy just about anything that Telltale throws at me (which will soon be Wallace and Grommit, bless ’em!) but I’ve never even looked twice at a Cliffski game and the reason for that can be found within this very post.

  • Paul Eres

    “This issue always annoys me because of all the high and mighty people pointing fingers. I’ve talked to tons of people in my life, almost all of them were what I’d call pieces of shit. Where are all these amazing do-gooders coming from?”

    Technically, isn’t not pirating “not-doing-bad” rather than “doing-good”? It doesn’t make someone a saint if they don’t pirate.

  • Esha

    Oh and in regards to my last post (as I forgot to mention this)…

    Cliffski really needs to bring on board an art person, and a good one at that. If Kudos had some real cartoony flair going on there, and an amazingly pretty user interface then it would’ve done better for itself.

    If he brings on an art person and does these things for Kudos 2, then he might just get away with charging $15 for it.

    The problem right now is that Cliffski couldn’t design a UI to save his life (I have played a few of his demos) and using Poser as a substitute for actual art is a bad choice. He needs to find someone to work with, someone who can boost his works up to the kind of price tag he wants to charge.

    Even then, I think that $20 is expecting a bit too much of his buyers after trying that with the first Kudos game… but he may manage it.

    If Kudos 2 had decent art, some nice animation in there, a great UI, and then sold for $15 I feel that Cliffski would be on to a winner and he’d have more sales than he ever could’ve hoped for.

    He’s trying to appeal to the casual audience mostly right now and when it comes to casual games, having pretty graphics speaks to people.

  • Paul Eres

    You guys are talking as if Cliffski’s games don’t sell. They sell fairly well. He’s made at least a hundred thousand dollars from them over the years. He makes a fairly good living. He’d make more without piracy, sure, but the people here who are saying that he’s just complaining because his games don’t sell don’t know the facts. His games regularly sell in the top 0.1% of all indie games.

  • Esha

    I could just as easily pull statistics and numbers out of my rear to claim that Elephants fly.

    With a statement like “sells within the top 0.1 per cent” one would think he outsells the likes of Telltale and Braid. Before I bought that I’d need to see the numbers, because that’s more than a little hard to swallow.

    I may not know the facts, but I’m not fabricating “facts” either.

  • Paul Eres

    How am I fabricating them? He posts his sales statistics on places like the Game Producer blog. The charts of the portals are public information. I know him, I post on most of the same forums as him. Why would I lie?

  • Paul Eres

    Also, the only reason I’m not directly linking to the information to back my statements up is because this blog has a URL filter which filters out any post containing a URL. That kind of makes citing sources difficult. But in an attempt to get around that filter, search for ‘games sales stats gameproducer’ (without quotes) in Google, or go read Cliffski’s blog at ‘Cliffski Mumblings’, or read his forum posts on the indiegamer dot com forums under the username ‘cliffski’, or look at the best-selling games from the portals (there are charts out there with data going back quite a while, and it’s also on the indiegamer forums). The numbers are fairly easy to obtain.

  • Paul Eres

    As for comparisons with Braid, I don’t know exactly how much Braid has sold, but his games have probably earned around as much as Braid has, especially if you count gross profit to the developer rather than copies sold. Although that doesn’t mean much because he’s been in business for years and Braid was just released a few weeks ago. But last I heard, Braid has sold 28k copies thus far. Microsoft takes around 70% of the profits of that, leaving the makers of Braid with (I’d presume) 30% of $15*28k, or $126,000. Cliffski’s games are also in that range. So they’re certainly comparable.

    I don’t really consider telltale an indie developer in this context, because it’s a fairly large company made up of ex-Lucasarts employees. It’s not one guy like Cliffski or two guys like the makers of Braid.

    You also should consider that there are thousands of commercial independent games released every year (some portals release a new one every day), so being in the top tenth of a percent of indie commercial games is just a matter of being in the top dozen or so most successful games of its release year. And his games certainly qualify. Obviously nobody goes out and measures how much each indie game actually earns, and I was mainly using the number for illustration, but I’d be surprised if he isn’t in the top 0.1%.

    Considering all that, anyone who think he’s complaining because his games don’t sell well, and anyone giving him random advice on how his games could sell better is off-track.

    (Oh, but people pirate his games primarily because they aren’t very good. I’m not even sure why I bother to argue against rationalizations like that.)

  • Wikipedia

    *”Braid was purchased by more than 55,000 people during the first week of release.”*

  • Andy m

    I started playing games when i was about 5 (21 years ago) and £1.50 a week generally went on sweets and comics, making £20 for a game impossible. that was the good ol days of the spectrum.

    r-type and another world were pretty much the only games i actually forked out money for on my atari ST.

    then i got a psx. games cost about £45. i bought some, i copied some. at this point i was 16ish.

    Then i got a PC. id borrow games, buy-burn-return games and buy and keep some games, i was late teens / early twenties. money was still an issue. beer is mighty expensive you know…

    now im in my mid 20s i have money and i dont rip games off, even though its easier than buying them. (however applications are a different kettle of fish. they’re charging prices for people who make money from them, which i dont, so in my morally ambiguous world it doesn’t feel wrong).

    I recently bought all dawn of war games for £20. 4 games in one pack. sweet. orange box also £20. but i spend most of my time playing UT2004 mods which are free. (alien swarm rocks! waiting for infested to appear and paying for that is absolutely fine with me)

    games i have my eye on are world of goo and braid. i have a PC and im not buying a bloody console (haven’t got the space or money to waste), so im waiting for the PC releases.

    as for films, i wont download them, i have a subscription to a film rental service £3.99 1 film at a time. thats fine. but TV programs again are different (in my world anyway…) My video rec is broken, pvrs are pointless with a broadband internet connection so what difference does it make downloading them…

    so for me its was mainly about money. as i get more of it, i spend more of it.
    I recently found space tripper again, so im going to fork out some cash money on that.

  • Eclipse

    @Paul Eres: Microsoft doesn’t take 70% at all. As explained by Blow, he signed the contract with the old share ratio

  • MedO

    I’m with Andy m there. When I was younger and didn’t have much money to spare, I’d often copy a game.

    In my opinion, piracy is often a social thing. You know, when your friends in school are talking about this new game, and are really excited about it. You can’t afford to buy it, but they offer to give you a copy. They are glad they can help you and it doesn’t cost them anything, you are glad you can share their experiences.

    In my experience, as people grow up and earn their own money, they usually buy their games, movies and music. However, there are different causes for piracy, too:

    – Convenience. Many people don’t want to wait for days for an ordered game to arrive, or look for it in a shop, or bother with the ever-more-annoying copy protection. Services like Steam do it right, in my opinion, by letting people buy and download their games instantly, without annoyance through copy protection / CD checks.

    – Getting a game / movie / episode ahead of time. Especially TV shows are often a season or two ahead in the countries they are originally produced for.

    – Getting a game/movie/episode in the original language. This is mostly a problem with games, since DVDs of TV shows and movies offer an original language audio track most of the time. But you can often only get translated versions of games in non-english speaking countries, and they are often translated / spoken badly.

    – Getting an uncensored version of a game. In Germany, rules are quite strict about violence in videogames, to protect children and youths. If a game is considered too violent or otherwise unsuitable, it is put on an index. These games may still be sold, but may not be advertised in any way, so most game developers try to reduce the violence in the German versions of their games, or make it less realistic by turning blood black or green. Depending on how this is implemented, it can ruin the atmosphere in a game (imaging Half-Life with robots instead of Marines, and Scientists that just sit down and shake their heads when they are hit. Also, enemies hit by a grenade don’t explode but just fade out. Yes, that’s German Half-Life, and it’s pretty much unplayable).

    Importing a version from abroad is often a solution to the lower three points, but shipping costs and times are often high, and depending on the price you may have to pay Customs, too, which complicates it further, so many people just pirate their games.

    Much of this is not applicable to indie games, but that’s my general view on reasons for piracy.

  • Gutter

    I’m all for piracy if you copy your game yourself, for backup or even for a quick multiplayer game with a friend. Don’t expect support though, and that is only fair.

    I’m against piracy when it become a game for pirate groups, awarding each other points for releases, which means that they get points for releasing indies. They get less points for small releases like that, so they pirate more of them.

    Cliffski was wondering why his game was pirated. It’s not because of “convenience” or whatsnot, it’s because the group that released it got points by doing so. Removing the DRM won’t make a difference beside un-alienating legit customers, which, more often than not, aren’t inconvenienced by DRM and just protest against it because it’s the cool thing to do. Check any NFOs from release groups, they don’t give a crap about DRM or not.

    The future of anti-piracy is not DRM, it’s a support systems based around unique (serial) numbers linked to the buyers. I’d rather have “soft DRM” than a “hard DRM” where I need to give my name and address when I buy a game. But it’s coming…

  • MedO

    Gutter: That might be the motivation of those who crack games, but it’s completely different to the motivation of people who pirate games to play them.

  • Del Duio

    Careful, your privilege is showing. $10 is my weekly food budget.

    Since when did TigSource hit the huts of Ethiopia?

    $10 a WEEK? Holy God, I spend that in for one lunch if I’m lucky. You must be one with the Ramen.

  • Squishy

    Just to correct some comments above:

    As of Friday, 8/15, Braid had tallied more than $750,000 in sales.

  • Paul Eres

    Thanks for the info on the 70%, I didn’t know that. It’s 70% now, but I’m happy he got a better deal.

    As an aside, I live in the US, and I only spend $25 a week on food. Living cheaply is fairly easy if you work at it. Who needs all that expensive processed junk? Just get a huge bag of rice, a huge bag of lentils, a lot of cabbage, chick peas, sweet potatoes, etc., cook the stuff yourself, and you can easily live off a $100 a month food budget and have money left for a good box of gunpowder green tea. Buying those awful prepared meals that are pre-cooked and ready-to-microwave like Hot Pockets is where the expense is.

  • Yaen

    I don’t think I’d ever pirate an Indie game (again). I dunno, theres lots of great experiments released each week to play, but I just don’t see (where I get my news) enough projects that look big enough to purchase. Usually the larger games for sale aren’t the genre I like.

    I pirated one Indie game a long time ago (some MMF 1.5 game about a guy in a cave, $30) and funny enough everything past the demo portion was so damn boring and uninspired it felt good to delete it within the hour. Even that giveaway of Jets’n’Guns Gold was fun for about 5 levels and I deleted it because it just copy-pasted everything and couldn’t have a cool boss fight to save it’s deletion. Hell, I think they stopped doing boss fights after so many levels and it just because a ‘shootan small fry pickn up money’ grind.

    Honestly, my general taste for longer indie games is soured by these good concepts that get stretched out too thin with no variation. I really like all the bizarre usage of time in braid, it makes each level something else to challenge with even if its just like Mario at its core.

    But for piracy in general, I won’t pirate a game unless its for a long dead console. If the developers aren’t making money off it anymore and theres only used copies to be had for a premium, why bother. Current gen and to an extent last gen systems are still moving along.

    Sam & Max season 1 was a great buy for 20$ but I found myself finishing the chapters too fast and not getting much out it because all the scenery gags (jerk!) kept getting reused and there was almost no reason to explore outside of exactly what needs to be done. There were tons of great gags but I kinda wished they had paced them out over the whole season.

    Imma’ go buy me some Braid when the PC version is out. I feel like a douche playing the demo on a friend’s 360 because I haven’t had the extra funds to buy a console this gen.

  • mrfredman

    I feel like the main problem with PC piracy is the availability of the pirated material. I think most people’s excuses for pirating games are quite ridiculous and really them just trying to justify there selfishness and guilt for stealing.

    This isn’t to say that I am not a pirate. I only pay for games when I want to help support a developer, that is to say; I pay for all my indie games, and even a few big name games made by companies who I want to encourage and support. The games that I pirate are often big name games that have sold tons on consoles or gotten mediocre reviews, or just whats new and floating around on thepiratebay.

    The reason I do it is because they are there and available, and I’m poor and bored, so what the hell. These are games that I wouldn’t pay for, but because they are readily available consequence and price free, I am happy to give them a try.

    I feel like a big step towards cutting down on the piracy of PC games would be to start coming down hard on the groups that are cracking the games and making them available. If groups like RELOADED become aware that there will be serious consequences for their actions, I think that participation in those communities will go down, and more people will turn to buying games.

    Thinking about how this would be enacted makes me cringe though, seeing as these groups are scattered across the world, and it would involve all sorts of devious counter-hacking and spying on them to actually bring them down. Which is an idea that makes me uncomfortable.

    I’m not sure Piracy of PC games will ever go away, and I actually think that may be a good thing. But right now its way out of control and something needs to be done to put it in check. I don’t know what, but those are my two cents.

  • Trotim

    “$10 a WEEK? Holy God, I spend that in for one lunch if I’m lucky. You must be one with the Ramen.”

    You know… that’s actually kind of normal?

  • AmnEn

    The good old ghost story “Piracy”. In all honesty, I fail to see the problem with Piracy.

    There are many reasons for it:
    1) The Pirates wouldn’t have bought the games in the first place. No, really. If someone checks his money and comes to the conclusion “not worth buying”. Well, he won’t buy it.

    2) Publishers LOVE Pirates. Of coures they can’t say that officially but they really love them.
    “Higher Prices, Less Content, Surveillance Software, complete stripping of rights from the customer, hell yes!!!”
    How couldn’t they love it? They can shove ANYTHING down the throats of their customers and get away with it by saying “Piracy”.

    3) Funny assumptions that when a game does not meed expected sales, it must be because of pirates. I mean, all the DRM Stuff, Bugs, incomplete Game, 3 Hours of Gameplay, 50€ PriceTag, shoddy Voiceovers, insane hardware requirements, online activation, game crippling copy protections, etc.
    Well all that SURELY can’t play a role in someones decision to buy a game can it? Must all be Pirates.

    As a matter of fact, if the software industry really would suffer as much as they claim to be, they’d come down on Pirates a lot lot harder. I mean it’s not really hard to find guilty people, some of them even openly admit it. But currently they don’t see a reason to, because it’s a nifty all around argument to justify lower quality standards and higher costs for games.

  • Foppy

    >> $10 a WEEK?

    >> You know… that’s actually kind of normal?

    Hmmm, not in the Netherlands at least. 10$ (7 euros) would maybe buy you a few cartons of milk and a bread, and a pot of peanut butter. This could be ok for a week only if you’re a very small person.