Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yes, Buying Used Games Doesn't Make You a Bad Person.

The Big Gaming Argument of the Week is about whether is it's moral to buy used video games. It's legal. Nobody can deny that. But is it, you know, OK? Penny Arcade had a big spiel on it today. Normally I really respect their point of view on these issues, but their anti-rentals-and-used-games screed is way off base.

So here is the question. Creators depend on game disc sales to make a living. Bearing that in mind, is it ethical to buy and sell used games? And, along those lines, is it ethical to buy a used CD? Or buy from a used bookstore? Or check out a book from the library? In all of these cases, you are enjoying the works of creators without putting money in their pockets. So are libraries OK?

That I went straight to the library thing kind of telegraphs where I am going with this. Because, hey, let's look at books for a second. I love books. I really want authors to make a good living doing what they do. And, by the way, I had my
first book published not too long ago, so I actually have a stake in this. Buying new books (and thus putting money in the pockets of authors) is a Good Thing.

And yet, I often buy used books, AND I get books out of the library. And yet, at night, I sleep like a baby. And when someperson buys a used copy of one of my book, I'm cool with that. I'm not going to chase him or her down the street waving a stick or anything.

My games and book are sold used, so I have a personal stake in this, but I'm still for used sales. Because there are other, equally important principles in play here.

Information Is Not Free, But It Should Travel Freely

How can I reconcile these two seemingly contradictory viewpoints? It's not hard. See, there is a principle involved in wanting money to go to authors. But there are also principles involved in being able to give away and sell them.

, it is a long-established principle of law that books (like CDs and game disks) are objects. When you buy an object, you can then give it away or sell it or whatever. It's yours. This is a right you have, and you don't have to apologize for using it. (This right can be waived by explicitly agreeing to an EULA that prevents resale, but this doesn't apply to console games. If you're interested in the legal fiddly bits here, you should read about the First-Sale Doctrine.)

Second, books are works of art and media for transmitting ideas. Art and ideas are good things, and we as a society want them to move around freely. This helps us to have, you know, a culture. Not to mention the free flow of competing ideas that is necessary for a healthy republic. And, if you take video games seriously as works of art and human expression, as I know the Penny Arcade guys do, you should want a similar freedom to apply to them.

(By the way, when I wrote not long ago about
times when piracy is OK, many people told me that they pirated games when they were young because they had no money. In the world of books, this simple fact is understood. That is why libraries exist. As much as the publishing industry might not want them too.)

I often buy books new. I see it as part of my duty to support that industry. Someone has to do it, or there will be far fewer new books. But, at the same time, libraries and used bookstores are Good Things. I bet if you went to Gabe and Tycho and told them it was immoral to go to a library, they would think you were an idiot and throw poo on you. But here they are taking this exact point of view for video games. Which are also works of art and media for distributing ideas. Honestly not sure what they are thinking here.

Oh, and one quote from Tycho:

"I traded in games for a long time, there's probably comics somewhere in the archive about it - you can imagine how quickly my cohort and I consume these things. It was sort of like Free Money, and we should have understood from the outset that no such thing exists. You meet one person who creates games for a living, just one, and it becomes very difficult to maintain this virtuous fiction."

Um, no. It's not difficult at all. I will look anyone in the eye and tell them that the trade in used games is both legal and ethical. And then they, if they want, can look me in the eye and tell me that buying used copies of my book and used CDs of my games is OK too. Living in a country where people have rights and ideas freely circulate is a good thing.

There are more principles at stake here than just how many dollars goes to this or that guy.

On the Other Hand

Publishers have recently experimented in programs to give extra features to those who buy games new. This is totally cool and legal and, in come cases, a practical necessity.

For example, some games now come with a key that you need to enter to play in online multiplayer. Buy the game used and you have to pay a small fee to get multiplayer.

This is fair. Why? Because the publisher is paying the ongoing costs to maintain the servers. If I give my old copy of The Stand to a friend, it doesn't directly harm the publisher. The publisher doesn't know that I exist. But if I give a copy of Halo 3 to a friend and he goes online, his presence on the servers costs a (small) amount of money. In return for providing the online service, the publisher is allowed to ask for money. If you don't like that, you don't need to buy that game used.

Publishers can legally and ethically hobble used games. They're certainly heading in that direction. They can do it, but it's not wise. People get really smart when it comes to their money. When someone buys a car or house, they pay attention to resale value. It goes the same for video games. If resale is no longer an option, the $60 for that disk suddenly becomes a lot more expensive. If publishers think that crippling used sales is going to suddenly make angels drop piles of cash on their heads, I think they are due for a crushing disappointment.

But if I've learned anything in the last few years, it is to never underestimate the death-wish of either the music industry or gaming companies.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Being Nice Is Good Business.

One of the fundamental truths of writing single-player PC games now is that it's so easy to pirate anything that people will only buy your game if they want to. Which means that being honest and forthright and likable is a key business strategy.

For the fifteen years we've been selling games, we've had a suite of generous, customer-friendly policies. However, we haven't been clear and forthright about them. Some of them are only known to people who ask us for support privately. The others can only be found by hunting our web site. This is dumb. If you're going to the trouble to be nice, make sure everyone knows about it! So I wrote this little manifesto that will be prominently linked to on our site.

In you're an Indie developer and like one of our turns of phrase, please feel free to borrow it.

Our Spiderweb Software Promises To You

Spiderweb Software is a small company. We read all our e-mail, we love our customers, and if you are sad, we are sad. We're literally a Mom & Pop company, and we believe in the personal touch. So here are our three promises to you ...

1. No Obnoxious DRM!

Pirates exist. Sad, but true. But we won't let hatred of people who rip off our games drive us to annoy our paying customers.

When you order from us, you get a number you can enter into the demo to turn it into the full game. And that's it. No online authentication. No need to keep a disk in the drive.

If your computer dies and you need a new registration key? We're sorry to hear that, and your replacement is free. Register on the Mac and switch to Windows? A new key is free. Your child wants to play the game on his or her own machine? That's awesome, and an additional key is free.

2. Money-Back Guarantee!

If you don't like our game, we don't want your money.

We have a no-questions-asked One Year Money-back Guarantee. Game stops working? You wake up one morning and realize that it sucks? You decide that you hate us personally, and our adorable children too? Money back within one year.

You might think, "Hmmm. I wonder if people ever buy the game, play it through, and demand a refund." The answer is: No. This has never happened. You know why? Because our customers are awesome people.

3. Big, Free Demos!

Spiderweb Software has the biggest demos in the business. What's more, the demo is actually the full game. You just need to enter a key to unlock the whole story.

That means that you get a chance to play a bunch of game and make sure that 1. It works, 2. You are having fun, and 3. The retro graphics don't enrage you. If the demo works for you and is fun, you can buy the full game and be confident that it will still work and still be fun. And if it doesn't? Have we mentioned our Money-Back Guarantee?

We love that almost all of our customers played a demo first. It means we're earning our pay honestly. Because, again, If you don't like our game, we don't want your money.

Hopefully, we will come across and friendly and honest when this goes up on our web site. And the truth is, we at Spiderweb are pretty friendly, honest people. But make no mistake. At the heart of it, the reason we are putting this up is pure self-interest. Since being nice is a core part of our business plan, when we are nice, we will do it in a loud way.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #2 - What Sort Of Game Will This Be?

Here is another long overdue developer diary for our next game, Avadon: The Black Fortress. These articles are about the ongoing process of developing our new series of games. The first installment was about the source of the idea and the basic framework of the plot, which came together fairly quickly.

We recently gave a long interview about Avadon, with a lot of information about the storyline and game system. If you haven't seen it already and want some hard information about what the new game will be like, it's a good place to start.

So I Had the Basic Idea

Now I needed to decide what sort of game I was going to write. So the next step was to decide on the theme, the mood, and the choices. This process took weeks of thought and is worth attention. It might be a little bit technical and vague though, so if you aren't interested in the artsy parts of game design, you should probably wait until the next part, when I get into the game system and the cool number-based hacky-choppy stuff.

Once I had the skeleton of a plot and setting, I think about how the game will "feel". What will the player be doing? How will I get the player emotionally involved? What gripping choices will the player make? You see, I make small budget games. Fancy graphics and sounds aren't going to happen. My main weapon is the ability to tell a good story, so I focus on that. For Avadon to succeed, I have to make it interesting. How do I do that?

The Theme - You Have Power. How Do You Use It?

So first, I need a Theme. This is a set of vague questions and ideas that determine the choices and quests the player will face. When I am designing a new area or town or set of characters, these are the questions I go back to for ideas and inspiration.

So you are a citizen of the Pact, five nations that have banded together to keep the barbarians and monsters at bay. And you work for Avadon, a secretive and powerful force that hunts down and destroys those who would disrupt the safety and stability of the Pact. Avadon's word is law.

Role-playing games work best when they are, at some level, power fantasies. You are a hero (or villain). You have power, and you get to choose how to use it. This has appeal to a lot of gamers, myself included. So the first step is to place the player in a position of power and responsibility. You need to protect your people, and you are given a lot of leeway for how to do it.

But there are also hints that your power is too great. Your word is law, and that isn't necessarily a good thing. Well, it's great for you, but not so hot for everyone else.

Maybe you want to play a thug or a bully. Or maybe you want to resist the temptation to misuse your power, which is satisfying in a different way. And the story of Avadon is about all of the same sorts of choices. Avadon can do what it wants. Will you guide it to do the right thing? And, for that matter, should a group with so much power exist?

That is the theme. Power. The option to misuse it. What will you do?

This is a theme I go back to a lot. I think it leads to interesting games, and a good theme makes coming up with ideas and writing dialogue a lot easier.

The Mood - How Does the Game Feel? Light or Dark?

The next thing to decide is how the game will "feel"? Will it be dark and grim? Bright and cheery? Will there be humor? Will there be detailed descriptions of horror and chaos? How many nice people die?

Based on the theme, Avadon could go very dark. Mass Effect 2 dark, easily. But I decided early on that I don't want that. I like writing humor, and I think games that are too unrelentingly grim aren't very fun.

I decided that Avadon will have a lot of humor and some areas that are fairly cheery. Some of the characters will actually be happy. Sometimes, you will be able to squish evil and make choices you actually feel good about. There will be more confused, cynical moments, of course, but a little of that goes a long way.

A lot of this will show up in Redbeard, the all-powerful master of Avadon. He has much responsibility and power, but I am making him a cheery character, with a lust for life, a macabre sense of humor, and someone who takes true delight in his reach and authority. This character will be the spine of the series, so I want him to be fun to write. And he is.

Of course, these are big games. That makes it easy to have some areas that are light and some areas that are grim. And I will. But, when you are laying down the whole plot, knowing what mood you want at the start helps you get the balance of Neat! and Yuck! right.

The Choices - How Does the Player Change the World?

Finally, choices. I think the most important quality of my games, the thing that adds interest and keeps me interested in writing them, is the ability to make choices that affect the ending. Of course, I'm not the only developer that does this. Bioware is better at it than I am. But it is still something very important to me.

Happily, now that I have the setting and theme, the choice comes naturally. Avadon has almost limitless power, and it can use that power however it wants. Sometimes it uses it for the good of the land, but sometimes corruption sinks in. Avadon has many enemies. The player's choice will be whether to serve Avadon or reject it. Whether to work for Redbeard, master of Avadon, or fight him. Or even plot to replace him.

Choices like this make writing a game much easier. Whenever I design an area and the conversations in it, it provides me a North Star to sail toward. I always skew the choices and conversations toward that final choice, the final destination.

And Then I Have To Write a Game

All of this is a little vague and metaphysical, I know. It is supposed to be. This is all stuff that has to get settled before I write a single line of code. It takes months of thought. But when I'm lost in the wilds, when I have a thousand bug reports and fifty dungeons to design and I'm going crazy, that is too late to figure out what I want the game to be like. I need to put firm clear principles in place so that, when I am exhausted and distracted and just trying to wrap the game up, I have as many questions already answered as I can.

The next diary will be about the next step, the game system, the actual nuts and bolts mechanics of what the game will be like.