Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Turning Zeroes Into Ones, And Vice Versa

It's always a bit alarming to hear the video game industry describe piracy, used games, and game rentals.

For one, there are people in the industry who want to lump them together, which is ridiculous. Also, the industry itself seems to have a very rigid, digital mindset when it comes to this subject.

You're either with us or against us. You're part of the solution or part of the problem. Add another dozen mindless clich├ęs [HERE].

Like most things in life, though, it's not that simple.

Let's look at piracy first. Actually, let's look at me first. In the late 1980s, and I'm certainly not proud of this, I used to copy Amiga games.

Back then, it was easy. There were software programs you could buy that allowed you to "make a personal back up" of your games. There was a local Amiga store where the owner was incredibly nice, and he used to let me check new games out (I know--talk about a different era), then return them a few days later. I'm sure he knew what I was doing, but he didn't seem to mind.

So, 30 years ago, I was a pirate. And I'm sure, over the course of a couple of years, that I "stole" about $2,000 in games.

That's simple, right?

Not exactly. I played hardly any of those games for more than an hour, because most of them were terrible. I kept the copied discs, though, because I had a strange compulsion to acquire them, even though I didn't want to play them.

How many of these games but I have actually bought? No more than half a dozen, or about $300 worth. At most.

So in the eyes of the software industry, I was a zero. A thief.

I was also, however, quite young.

I started making more money. I became a salaried employee instead of an hourly employee. I got promoted.

And I started buying games.

Lots of games. Lots and lots of games. For at least a decade, I bought 40-50 games a year, at least.

Here's the twist: being able to play all those games I copied fed my interest in gaming. I started talking about games, started forming opinions, started getting interested in how games were made.

As I got older, I also rented lots of games. Being able to rent instead of always by increased my exposure to gaming in general. It increased my immersion. It made me more likely to spend my entertainment dollars on games than anything else.

It was less complicated back then, obviously. Piracy wasn't online, and it wasn't collective. I don't know, maybe a few friends would trade games and copy them, but it didn't seem organized, at least not in the U.S.

So sure, it's different now. The Internet has made it possible for piracy to go big-time.

Still, though, the gaming industry has the same problem it had back when I was young. How you take a non-paying gamer, a 0, and turn them into a 1?

That's a complicated question, and maybe I can't answer it fully, but I can tell you that I damn sure know what the answer ISN'T: treating people who play rentals and trade in used games as enemies.

It's an analog problem, not a digital one. It's not a flip. It's a slide. The gaming industry should want to slide people along the continuum toward the "always buying customer" that they cherish so highly.

Answer me this, though: who's more valuable to the gaming industry? Is it the guy who never trades games and never rents them, but only buys three games a year, or is it the guy who plays games constantly, buys used games and rents frequently, but only buys one game a year?

That's an easy answer. The guy who plays games all the time will be talking about games all the time. He'll be telling other people what games they should play, and some of those people will be buyers, because the 0 and 1 tribes commingle at every level.

In short, the dude that the gaming industry hates is an advocate for the same industry that despises him.

See what I mean about this not being a digital issue?

Here's another complication, and you'll recognize this, because I've written about it before. How many times have publishers told us that games would be much cheaper if people didn't steal them so often? I mean, it's a reasonable argument.

And yet, Gamestop is now selling PS Vita titles, and they're generally $39.99. On PSN, you can purchase a few of those same games as downloadable-only titles. What's the discount for the version that can't be pirated?

Ten percent.

Wow. Clearly, based on actions and not words, piracy can't be nearby the problem that the industry (in this case, Sony) is claiming. If it was, then downloadable titles (that can't be pirated) would be deeply discounted, right?

It's Denmark. It's rotten. Etc.

Ubisoft took a different approach. They require a persistent online connection for most of their PC titles now. But these "unpirateable" games aren't deeply discounted. Hmm, what's up with that?

Oh, and if Ubisoft's servers go down, so does your ability to play the game in any mode, like this week.

First word "cluster".

Like I said, I don't have the single best answer for this question. Wait, yes I do. Provide more value to your customers. They will then become more loyal. And for people who aren't your customers--the zeroes--do everything you can to slide them along the continuum. Entice. Provide opportunities.

It's supposed to be a partnership, not a war.

Site Meter