A little worry on the subject of server-side games


Hm, this is troubling: http://www.reghardware.com/2011/03/15/wtf_is_cloud_gaming
I think that we run the risk of loosing our gaming heritage with server authentication, and especially with this new server-side-only stuff. I mean, we occasionally enjoy playing an old Mario or Sonic game, since we still have the consoles around and they still work. But, I bet that in 20 years or whenever, we’re going to have a huge host of games which we bought, but can’t show our kids. Anyone interested in ‘history of gaming’ will enjoy games from up to about a year hence, and then enter the ‘dark age’ when every game ‘can’t connect to server’. Indie games, without strong copy protection like the AAA games, may eventually come to represent that gap. However, it will still be a bad loss.


Right, and what you’re seeing there is a step further than “server authentication” - games that authenticate against a server (like starcraft 2) can always be cracked, but you’re talking about the nigh-uncrackable - games that never put any client code on the user’s machine (stuff like onlive, where there’s not even game-specific JS being run in the user’s browser, where the game is just a video feed). Stuff like onlive - there really is no way to pirate it, short of actually hacking into the company’s servers and directly liberating the game yourself (which might end up even harder if these servers aren’t commodity hardware/software - if a game is running on some virtual machine in an IBM Power7 server running System360, it’s not exactly going to be portable to an x86 desktop running windows. Can anything ever be really uncrackable? No. But it can be made hard enough that it’d be easier to rewrite the game from scratch? Yes. I believe it can be rendered hard enough that it stops being worth doing.

It’s hard to say what I think about this, besides saying that piracy is something where both of the counterpoints about it are true. That is, it’s entirely true that many people who pirate would never pay for your software, yet help with word-of-mouth, etc. However, it’s also true that with easy enough piracy (as is the case for PC games), many people who otherwise would pay, will pirate. And I think this latter bit really hurts developers who are well-known enough that the word-of-mouth benefit from piracy outweighs lost sales. I think only the tiniest, most unheard-of indie crews get a net benefit from having their game be “free as in beer” (frogatto certainly qualifies).

I don’t think a lot of people understand how difficult it is to make it in this industry; I think a lot of people assume (based on ridiculous success stories like WoW, GTA, etc) that practically any polished game is guaranteed to make a solvent business. That if you just make a good game, they presume you’ve got a license to print money. I don’t think people realize that a lot of perfectly professional, enjoyable, high-quality games that did everything right simply fail due to poor sales. Given a traditional model of investing a bunch of money to make a game, and then hoping sales will cover the up-front costs, roughly 95% of games fail to recoup initial costs, and put their makers out of business. This is why the current model of ultra-huge publishers like EA/Activision/etc exists; they have a stable of dozens/hundreds of titles, although the vast majority will be a bust, a tiny group will be big enough hits that they’re able to cover the costs of all the other failures. It’s one of the only ways to guarantee a solvent business - you can get lucky and live for a while as a smaller business, but the moment you make one mistake - one game that has poor sales, you’re dead. This is a model, that shuts virtually everyone else out of the loop - all of the midsize developers, all of the small ones, and all of the indie developers who aren’t even making a living off it. This is why those companies are constantly going bankrupt and selling their franchises to EA et al. All it takes is one stumble and they’re gone.

Part of it is poor economics of boxed software (you have two weeks to make good sales at the retail stores or you get pulled). But I think a huge part of it, especially as moving to online sales and downloaded distribution negates the former, is just that the average computer user has a culture of stealing virtually all of their software. The average statistic - from small devs who put phone-home routines in their software (but who don’t use this to disable pirated copies) is that something like 95-99% of their users are pirates. Even if half of those would never have paid anyways, that still barely reduces the percentage of people who aren’t paying. For example, if you’ve got a game with 100,000 players, and only 2,000 actually paid for it (98% loss), you’ve still lost 48,000 sales under that presumption (96%). Even if only 10% of people would have paid, that’s still a loss of 8,000 sales, or 80%. For piracy to be so insignificant that lost sales aren’t an issue, the rate of people who would still have paid if piracy wasn’t so easy would have to be less than 0.5%, which is 500 people.

The fact that people do download, and that at least over 20-40% of those who do are observed via those phone-home stats to spend weeks or months; hundreds of hours playing the game over and over, are what convinces me that this isn’t a problem of a videogame bubble, or of trying to sell something so worthless that no one would buy it. I think piracy really is what’s killing these businesses. And I think a lot of people pirate because it doesn’t feel like stealing. It’s not a tangible product. In fact by default, we usually feel like we’re doing a robin-hood style act of stealing from faceless megacorps who stole from us by usurious pricing. Sometimes that’s true - but I think more often than not, we’re making some independent, small-medium sized software company close its doors because they can no longer make ends meet. Unless the game is published by EA or something, this isn’t like the music industry - you’re actually directly stealing from “the artist”, not from some executive that’s siphoning 90% of the profits.

When certain videogames start becoming only available as server-side, with no other way to play it, yes, it will suck for all the reasons DDR pointed out. But frankly… we brought this on ourselves. And the worst thing is that this is just human nature. This isn’t about moralization, or hoping that people won’t stop stealing. They won’t - hoping for that is about as naive as thinking teenagers will stop having sex because the church told them not to. This is like working against a force of nature; people won’t stop stealing software, so we shouldn’t be surprised when the people who make it start distributing it in a way that can’t be stolen. So, sadly, yeah, I think this is inevitable. It probably won’t happen for quite a while, but I think by, say, 2050, most commercial games will only be available as streaming video, like OnLive does.

If we want to “keep our software heritage”, the only real option is to fix human nature, or come up with some radically different economic system. Good luck with that.