The Blame Game

At the risk of sounding like Sheriff John Bunnell, in my 20-odd years of game development, I've seen many things happen in the industry. The whole thing has evolved at, what with it being a pretty technology-driven beast, a pretty swift lick.

It's fair to say that things were a lot simpler on almost every level back in "the day". But we're not back then any more - and won't be again. Whilst I would argue that the modern game development scene is considerably more accessible than it ever has been and the rise of the small indie studio echoes the bedroom coder ethos from back then, the methods of getting paid for all of this have caught many on the hop.

Now there's all sorts of buzzwords going around. Freemium, DRM, Microtransactions et al. Almost all of these provoke ire in gamers. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

What does it all mean?

Of course, there are some of you reading this who haven't got the faintest idea of what it is I'm talking about, so I think a brief summary of those buzzwords is in order. The rest of you can just skip ahead to The Next Bit.

Nobody seems to like DRM


DRM stands for Digital Rights Management and is easily the thing that gets the most people up in arms. It's basically a method for publishers to keep an element of control over how you use that thing you bought from them. The long and the short of it is that only the person who purchased the item from the publisher is allowed to use it. To this end, the item normally has to check in with the publisher to see if it's being used correctly.


Freemium refers to the Free-to-play or F2P business model. It's something I've written about before, but it basically boils down to giving your game away for free but then allowing players to give you money in exchange for things that they might want or need to progress. It's closely linked to and relies upon...


These are, in theory, very small payments that you shouldn't think twice about making. Nominally they'll come in at under a dollar or pound and, if you do think about it, that's really nothing to most people. A chocolate bar over here easily costs the thick end of 70p. Or you could get a quarter of a pint, of beer possibly. The theory is that you wouldn't think twice about spending much more than that on something else - your morning coffee for example, so it should be a no-brainer.

The Next Bit

There are two main threads to this that tend to get consumers annoyed.

The first is the idea of some remote body preventing you from using something that you've paid for. With regards to games, this refers to the game 'phoning home' to see if it is allowed to be used by whoever is using it. If home says "no" (or even if it can't get in touch with home), the game will refuse to be played. It's a valid and fair point.

The second is the idea that the game is trying to extort money out of you, forcing you to pay at every opportunity. Another valid point.

Gamer Perspective

Astro Teemo reporting for duty - worth every penny!
As a gamer, I find all of these things very annoying. If I've bought a thing, I expect to be able to use it whenever I like. For the most part, DRM is pretty unobtrusive as whatever I would be trying to play my legitimate copy on will usually be connected to the internet and everything is fine. Where it falls down is the false positive - that one occasion when, through no fault of my own, I'm not connected to the internet. I mean, an online, multiplayer game obviously requires a connection to a server somewhere, but a single player game?

I'm also not opposed to microtransactions at all. I am opposed into being tricked into spending money. Offer me things that I'm happy to pay for and I'm happy to pay for them, but don't treat me like an idiot.

Developer Perspective

As a developer, it's a different kettle of fish. Now even though I place myself firmly at the "To make fun games" side of the "Why do you do this?" spectrum - the other end being occupied by "To make money" - I realise that games cost money to make. A lot of money.

The only way games get made is if Joe Public actually stumps up cash somewhere along the line. Sadly, Joe Public has never fully understood just how much money it costs. Well, how about some back-of-the-envelope maths for you?

Suppose you've got a team of 8 people. That's a pretty small team - you can imagine a couple of coders, a designer, some artists, a sound guy and maybe a producer of some description. Allowing, say £8k per person per month (the man / month rate) and a time span of 8 months - which is a ridiculously short time to make a game - and you're looking at £8,000 * 8 * 8 = £512,000.

£512,000 - over half a million. And that's for a tiny team rushing out a small game. Suppose that's an iOS app selling for 69p. Okay business people - how many units will it have to shift for them to break even?

Answer: 742,029 - the thick end of three quarters of a million units. To break even.

Actually, it's a lot more than that. See those were just the development costs - how much it would cost to get the team to physically make the thing in the first place. On top of that you've got distribution (otherwise people can't play your game) and marketing (otherwise people won't know your game exists). They cost a lot of money. Okay, in the digital age, distribution has come way down in price, but it's still very much a factor and I reckon you'd easily need to see north of a million unit sales before you can even think about profit.

So, as you can see, it can be a very expensive business, this making games lark. And it only gets riskier and more expensive the larger the game gets. Which is why the big publishers get all antsy when people start eating in to that revenue. Now I shall highlight a couple of areas that really get the publishers all steamed up.

Second Hand Market

It's a great deal for retailers - people trade their old games back in for a nominal fee and the retailer sells them back on again for a whopping profit margin.

It's a great deal for consumers - a second hand game can be much cheaper than a brand new one and you'd get some money back for games you'd finished playing.

It's a terrible deal for publishers - they don't see a penny from the sales of second hand games and they actually detract from sales for the new title.

As retailers realised they could make much more money from their available shelf space through second hand sales, so they devoted more and more of their energy to this enterprise rather than selling the new units. When high street retail was pretty much the only avenue open to them, this obviously annoyed the publishers. For 'annoyed' also read 'scared'.

As a direct response to this, the Online Pass was born. Its sole purpose was to ensure that, when a game was sold on, the publisher was still able to see some revenue from it. If you weren't the original purchaser of the game, you'd have to pay an extra fee in order to be able to use the game online.


Also - don't do drugs kids.
Regardless of the reasons for people give for justifying piracy, the long and the short of it is that this costs the publishers money. And they don't like that. Okay, those scare-verts on the front of DVDs were a bit OTT but the principle is very sound - piracy is theft.

And this is where you see either DRM or F2P coming in. Both are a response to revenue lost through piracy and an attempt to fix that problem. (F2P also has the advantage of increasing revenue over the lifetime of the product to far greater levels than would ever have been possible using a standard retail model, which is why you'll see many more publishers embracing it in the near future)

It's hard to pirate a DRM-filled game as you'd need to crack the DRM, which is considerably harder than simply duplicated the data. Not impossible, but harder and, for the general consumer, something that is way beyond their reach.

It's pointless to pirate an F2P game as the 'F' part means, well... "free". They're giving you the game for free. In fact, under the F2P model, you're actively encouraged to spread the game to as many people as you can.

My conclusions

It's a pretty cursory examination of the whole affair and not that detailed but I have reached a number of conclusions.

Obviously, I blame the publishers, but only a little. See, at the end of the day, they're just businesses. They're run by business people whose sole remit is to make money. That's how businesses work. They're not in it for the romantic notion of filling the world with wonderful games - that's the sales pitch and a happy accident when it actually happens. If they could make money from it, they'd happily shit in a box and slap a price tag on it.

So I don't really blame the publishers for adopting these systems. Man, there's a sentence I never thought I'd write...

But I do cast the stink eye in their direction for adopting them in the way some of them have. It seems to me that there are a number of ways of doing these things - some feel okay and others feel just cynical and nasty.

DRM, for example. The nice way is Steam. It phones home when you start (also checking for updates and the like) but it allows you to put it into offline mode ensuring that you can still play even when not online. It is also just one small facet of the 'always online' system that comes with many, many benefits. Persistance across devices? Rapid updates? Community?

The nasty way is a system that defaults to "no" if it can't phone home. The nasty way just reads like a huge Fuck You to Joe Public whenever it kicks in. Of course, it doesn't help that the average, somewhat uninformed consumer starts going all Daily Mail and jumping on the Knee-jerk Reaction To Publicised Bad Thing bandwagon. Then again, what happens when someone up the chain decides to pull a plug on the servers? Does it all just stop working (Fuck You) ? Or did someone have the good grace and foresight to patch out the DRM at some point in the game's lifecycle so that it no longer needed the authentication aspect and would continue to work as a single player experience?

I blame the retailers. They exploited the second hand market thing to such an extent that it left the publishers with few options. It's understandable though, as they are both businesses, trying to survive. Retailers have been running scared thanks to online sales for the longest time.

So, I blame the consumers. That's right - Joe Public. You brought this on yourself. It started out with "harmless" piracy and then moved into (albeit unknowingly) gobbling up the second hand market and all in the name of saving a bit of cash here and there rather than paying full price for the service you were receiving. If you'd just played by the rules you wouldn't have angered the beast and found yourself staring down the barrel of these unpalatable countermeasures. It's a trust thing - the publishers don't trust you to do the right thing any more.

Harsh? Possibly. I include myself in this though - I've been known to plunder the second-hand aisle in the local Game as much as the next man - so I'm happy to shoulder some of the blame.

If you haven't already, might I recommend reading Cliffy B's article on how the games industry is just that - an industry? It's what got me thinking about this post in the first place.

Well, that and my as-yet unfulfilled desire to play Sim City V...
I want to play this, but external forces don't want me to.


  1. You mean Sim Village 5 right? ;)

  2. There’s a stand-out contradiction here in underlining that the motivation of business is pure profit but then berating the consumer for failing to act as a moral agent, instead of rightly behaving as economically efficient units seeking the most favourable transaction. A second-hand market exists, like it or not, so you can either change the world or deal with it.

    Other than that, this seems to be a pretty acute assessment of why companies like EA want to persist with all the hassles of technical countermeasures. I’m reminded that I never got round to playing Spore after the last DRM kerfuffle. EA lost out on my bucks altogether, as they’re likely to do with SimCity, so this clearly isn’t the way forward.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts