Friday, May 13, 2011

The Final Answer For What To Do To Prevent Piracy

(For some reason, Blogger deleted this post. I have recreated it. Sorry for any comments that were lost.)

This article is my decisive statement on how developers should deal with pirates. It includes humorous anecdotes about how dumb I have been in the past. And, believe me, I've been pretty dumb.

I am very confident about what I have to say on the subject. I have used these guidelines for protecting our newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress. So I'm not just putting my money where my mouth is, I'm putting all my money. If I'm wrong, my kids don't eat. So I hope I'm right.

One of the most common questions fledgling developers ask me is how they should protect their games from pirates. My answer is, generally, "The minimum amount you can get away with." That is because I have learned never to forget the following guideline ...

Whenever you find yourself starting a sentence with, "I don't want people to pirate my game, so I am going to ..." you are very close to making a big mistake.

I really, truly believe this rule. Here are two examples of times when I have forgotten it, and the grim consequences.

Trying To Protect My Hint Books

From the very beginning, I have sold hint books for my games. People like them, and they are easy money. When I started, in 1994, there was no convenient format like pdf for online file delivery, so I had to print and mail actual books. This cost lots of money and boxes of hint books took up tons of space in my house.

Then pdf files happened and people started to request that I send the book in electronic form instead of making them wait a week for the post office to do whatever it does. I refused  this reasonable request for two reasons. First, I was afraid people would buy the pdf version and send it to their friends. Second, I didn't know how to create a download link for the file that couldn't then be e-mailed around to everyone in the world. So I kept spending money and precious storage space for the booklets, inconveniencing my paying customers as I did so.

Finally, three years ago, I got fed up with it. I made hint books available as downloadable pdf files. (People who want a printed version can get one for an extra two bucks, but they almost never do.)

But how did I secure the download link so it couldn't be shared? Here's the brilliant part. Ready? I just put it in with all of our other files. Anyone can download it. Anyone who knows how to use ftp can find it. When people order the hint book, I send them the download link, but they could have found the file for themselves if they looked around.

But here's the thing. Anyone who wants to pirate pretty much any PC game can do so easily. That means all of my orders are from honest, nice people. So why waste our time figuring out how to hide the hint book from them? They will pay for it because they know selling things is how I stay in business and make more games for them!

Here's the punch line. Want to know how switching to undefended pdf files affected sales of hint books? It didn't. The sales rate was practically unchanged. Know what that means? All those years humping around boxes of hint books, all those thousands of dollars sent to printers, all those slaughtered trees, all wasted. All because I was scared of people pirating my lousy hint book.

But there is a more gruesome example of my foolishness.

The Worst Registration System Ever Devised By the Hand of Man

In 1994, electronic distribution of demos was very much in its infancy. My plan was to release a demo with a small fraction of the game. Then, when the correct key was entered into the game, it would unlock and everything would be playable. A sound plan. The problem was the implementation.

At first, I thought I'd just generate a key when someone ordered and send it to them. But then I thought, hey, I don't want people to pirate my  game. If I just send them a key, they can make it public or send it to all their friends. So here is my brilliant idea. I will ... will ...

God. It hurts to even think about it.

Here's what I did. When you ran the game, it generated a random code, a 4 or 5 digit number. When you ordered, you had to provide that number. I would use it to generate a key specific to your copy of the game. I'd send you that key, you'd enter it, and the whole game would be unlocked.

So what does this mean? First, when you tried to order a game, you had to have this number with you. Did you realize you needed it? Probably not. So you'd be at our online store trying to give us money, only to have to leave to dig up some stupid number. Want a tip for running an online business? When a customer is at your web page, credit card out and in hand, do not give them a reason to leave!

The system was confusing, and this wasn't helped by the fact that we were the only ones ever to use it. Oh, if only we could have back the countless hours spent explaining the system to confused parents. Countless more hours making new registration keys for people who switched computers or had to reinstall their OS. The weird system made us look unprofessional at best, deranged at worst. And, as a special bonus, it did exactly zero to stop people from pirating our game. Name a way to crack our registration system, and people did it a hundred times.

We stuck by this system for fifteen years. Might as well have just made a big pile of money and set it on fire. At least we would have gotten the warmth.

A year ago, I finally got fed up. New system. When you order our newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, we send you a serial code. Enter it, and you're up and running. Buy the game for the Mac and want to play it on Windows too? Enter the same key. Want to register your copy again ten years from now? Use the same key.

And the result of switching to a slightly less secure, infinitely easier to use system? Sales of Avadon are the highest of any game we've put out in years.

Just Do the Minimum

You need some way to force people to pay. Not because they are evil or dishonest, but because they procrastinate. Registration is a pain. They'd rather be spending their time playing your game! If you don't do anything at all to make them pay, they'll just forget.

But tread lightly. Once you have any barrier in place at all, you'll get your payment from all the honest people, the people who know that, if nobody pays, you won't make more awesome games for them. Anything beyond that will inconvenience your paying customers and do little to nothing to prevent piracy.

It took a long time for me to learn this. Too long. And, whenever I start to forget, I look at the monolith of boxes of old hint books gathering dust in my garage. If you're an Indie developer, be nice to people. In the end, the ability to be nice is one of the best weapons you have.

Friday, May 6, 2011

On Making Lots of People Angry

The other day, after Avadon: The Black Fortress came out, a certain community of hardcore fantasy RPG fans jumped on it with universal loathing.

I thought that I had a lot of good points to be made about the perils and opportunities of listening to feedback from fans (or ex-fans), so I wrote a blog post about it. This had the entirely predictable effect of infuriating the previously mentioned community.

Now, in the light of day, I feel kind of bad about it. I think what I wrote was fairly mild and I do still stand by every word of it. However, I think I kicked a group of my fellow gamers when they were down, and, being a lifelong gamer myself, I regret that. I've been reading their posts and chatting with them and I think I understand where they're coming from a lot better now.

I am only bringing this up because this blog is mainly about indie gaming, and I think this a great opportunity to make a huge point in that area.

Here's Your Audience, Wrapped Up In a Bow

Fledgling developers write me all the time asking for advice on what sort of game to write. What I tell them is that they should look for an underserved niche and serve it. This is the Great Magic Power of Indie developers.

Here, as I see it, is the story of RPG Codex. These people love, love, love old-school hardcore RPGs. The sort that used to be common on the ground and have faded away. They were forsaken by Sir-Tech, and Origin, and SSI, and Bioware, and now me. There was a thing that they loved, and it is gone, and they are angry about it. The anger might manifest itself in unappealing ways, but it's real. Nobody likes losing what they love.

You want to do what I do? You want to make a living writing RPGs? You have skillz? Go there. Talk to them. Pick past the ranting, find the reasonable things they are after, and write that game. Do it well, and you can make money.

And One Final Word For RPG Codex

I am still a gamer at heart. The gritty, hardcore elements in Avadon are later in the game. I put them there to not scare off more casual gamers. Teh casualz need to be eased into that sort of thing.

Were you my fan, but the Avadon demo turned you off? Well, here's a challenge. We have a one year no questions asked money-back guarantee. Buy the game. Give it a few hours on Hard or Torment difficulty. (I suggest until the boss fight with Zhossa Mindtaker.)

Still disappointed? Then I don't want your money. You get it back. My lips to God's ear.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Avadon Out For Windows, Responding To Critics.

We finally released Avadon: The Black Fortress for Windows. So far, it is functional and selling very well. I am really heartened to the reaction to the game. It is doing way better than I thought it would, and it's doing me a world of good to know that a game I put so much heart into doesn't appear to suck.

Because my morale is so high, I am going to do something I almost never do. I am going to go to a forum full of people who hate my games, my writing, and the mere fact that I still draw oxygen on this planet. Namely, the Avadon thread on RPG Codex.

RPG Codex is an interesting place. It is inhabited by people who like role-playing games, but love hating them. It's full of anger and enough raw bigotry that I would never advertise there. But, if you want to keep your self-esteem under control and read bad things about a game you wrote, go there. Just don't ever let those people get into your head.

So, if you are interested in what it's like to write a game and get feedback from the vast madness of the internet, take a look at these threads (mildly NSFW). Here are some comments from the thread, and my responses to them.

"I love Vogel's games but damn the demo is so boring..."
"The demo area is small and extremely crappy"

Demos are always boring. Tutorials are always dull. There are two ways of doing a demo. One - Put the player in a training wheels dungeon and teach him or her enough to play the real game. Two - Set up a really big, flashy set piece to start the game, and have the player wander through it doing nothing.

They both have their points. I've done both. But tutorials are always work. That is life.

By the way, while my demos are smaller than they used to be, they are still some of the longest demos out there. My demos used to be longer than some other full games, but, to be brutally honest, that's just bad business.

"Anyway, party members not dying but being just unconscious and resurrected after combat ends. DECLINE"

When you're designing an RPG, there are lots of toggles you have to flip. Will people recover from their wounds over time or do they have to go back to town? Will the party jump between towns/dungeons or will the whole outdoors be explorable? Will items be automatically identified? Do you have to keep track of ammo for your bows? Each answer to these questions has its good as bad points. There are no right or wrong answers. You just pick what works best for the design.

There are people who will, for religious issues, say they will never ever buy your game if you make one of these choices or the other. Ignore them and do what is best for what you're trying to do.

Oh, and there are some people who will respond to things about your work by posting an angry smily or some other image meme. Ignore these people. If they had anything valuable to say, they would use words, like people, instead of jpgs.

"I do loathe the worldmap. A single large continent shaped like a rough circle does not an interesting map make. Dunno why it bothers me the way it does but it does. "

Oh. Come. On.

There is an important lesson here for indie developers. When you make a game with a small team, you have millions of decisions to make and little time in which to make them. There isn't time to second guess everything. For a lot of stuff, you have to make the call and move on.

When people nitpick, you can't take it to heart. You have to forgive yourself. People will always nitpick. To borrow a phrase from my favorite SF story ever, the dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

"Got bored with the demo as soon as I was sent to the beginner dungeon to fight rats and spiders. What a lousy piece of shit game."

You are right. I'm sure those two minutes of gameplay were crushingly disappointing!

"It seems like he put in a lot of effort to attract the casual crowd. The "casual" difficulty mode for people who are "new to fantasy RPGs"?"

A lot of complaints that the early game, especially on Normal difficulty, is too easy. When someone says that the default difficulty should be harder, what I hear is, "You should make a pile of money in your backyard and set it on fire."

I make the default difficulty easy enough that 90% of players can get through it. If this doesn't give you a challenge, play on a harder difficulty level. That is why it is there!


"Yep, Jeff fucked this one up a bit - although not as bad as some people put it. Give him some credit, go to TPB and help yourself."

By TPB, the poster means The Pirate Bay. In other words, he's saying to go pirate it. I honestly think that most of these complaints are not sincere. They're just pretending the game is bad to justify their pirating it (and playing the whole thing three times). Another good reason to be very careful about whose feedback you accept.

"I am seriously disappointed. Shittiest Spiderweb game so far. By a lightyear.  Will definitely not register the demo."
"Hope that it'll flop commercially"
"Started the game right now and I'm lacking words to describe my disappointment."
"Jeff Vogel went full retard"
"I wonder if Spiderweb is going to survive it..."

I think we'll be just fine.

As I said, the game is doing great. A lot of people are playing my bland, dull, derivative demo and saying, "Hey! Want more of that!" This is the biggest lesson for small developers. People who post on forums are a tiny, tiny portion of your audience. Read them occasionally. Pick through them for the rare tidbit of good feedback. But otherwise keep a respectful distance.

And, to those who have registered, thank you so much! I love flattery, but, in the end, there is no compliment better than a credit card number. That people are actually giving me their real, hard-earned money is incredibly flattering, and I thank you for making it possible for me to write Avadon 2.

Edit: I've closed comments. I think everyone who wanted to say something has had a fair chance. Thank you for the bits of interesting feedback. I will be doing more blogging on some of the issues raised. If you have more reasons why I am not cool anymore, you will have a chance to share them then.