A Trial, A Spectacle, A Marketing Disaster

I’ve been following the trial in Swedish court against three of the guys behind The Pirate Bay (and one of their providers). Initially, I decided not to post about it here, as the trial is mainly political in nature, intensified by the theatrical spectacle that the pirate bay and their supporters are trying their best to fuel. I don’t really intend this blog to be about politics… but the more I’ve heard and read from the trial, the more that decision changed.

It changed not because the trial is less political than expected (or less spectacular, indeed), but because of the involvement of the industry I work in, and because of the way it’s being conducted in our names. It’s become increasingly clear to me that not only the outcome of this trial but also its very existence affects me, regardless of my choices. To explain my view on it, let me begin with some background.

The games industry has had its own battle against piracy, very separate from the other parts of the entertainment industry (Music and Movies) — our very nature is that we’re an interactive media, which differentiates us from them. The grander the interaction, the harder it becomes to do any meaningful piracy, to the extreme of online-only games and MMOs, where piracy of the game client is almost to be considered helpful.

With the emergence of the Internet, the games industry quickly picked up on the budding culture of participation that was thriving with the new possibilities — “user-generated content” as it’s so nicely called nowadays started appearing as level editors and levels for Doom, mods for Battlefield 1942 and Half Life. At first, the unexpected creativity shocked everyone, but then it was all embraced by the game studios and eventually turned into the massive support systems for user-generated content that today exist in games like LittleBigPlanet and the Trackmania games series (awesome games by the way).

Today, there’s basically two problems for the industry (well, winning the “simplification of the year” award here, but anyway): piracy for PC titles, and used game sales for Console titles. Yet if you listen to the internal dialogue in the industry (at least my part of it), the talk about what to do about this is not about punishment, it’s about new business models, and about providing more value for owners of original game copies, like giving away free stuff. I can guarantee that you’ll see more of that in the future.

Contrast this with the Music and Movie industries, who have been happily strolling along with the “shove it down their throat” business model until now. With a tight grasp of the market, distributors have been able to pocket most of the money, sending only spare change to the people doing the actual creative work.

With that background, I find it extremely strange how there are computer games in the list for the trial. It gets even weirder, in that World of Warcraft is one of them. So, one of the games that’s the very poster child for the new business models I mentioned above, that give away their game client on free trial discs, is a part of a lawsuit against a piracy site? Wait, what?

Why does this happen? Simply put: because the studio is one step removed from the publisher, and the publisher is one step from these umbrella lobby organizations. The end result is that the people doing these lawsuits are pretty much lost when it comes to the material they’re representing — they have absolutely nothing to do with its creation. The middle man is behind lawsuits, because the middle man is being cut out in the new world with a new economy, and more of the money is starting to flow directly to games studios, directly to musicians.

The behavior of the industry lawyers in the court has been nothing short of disgusting. With no actual case, they’ve spent the entire sessions trying to discredit the professors who have taken the witness stand, acting like an IFPI lawyer was qualified to pass judgment on who’s fit to be a professor and who’s not. They’re so eager to hide facts that don’t fit into their outdated view of the world that they don’t even realize that not only is it an insult to the Professor in question, it’s also an insult to the entire academic world and everyone who’s had a hand in reviewing and publishing his papers.

I’m proud that I’m part of the sector of the industry that is trying to move with the times rather than ride the lawsuits all the way to the end. I’d like to be able to say that I’m proud that my studio’s products aren’t on the list for that lawsuit — but sadly I think it’s just a question of random selection.

In the end, even if we aren’t associated directly with the lawsuit, we’re funding these organizations and we’re indirectly connected to it by our very profession, and treating people that way is nothing short of a marketing disaster. With the amount of money we spend getting games out there, not having the process sabotaged by a public backlash should be priority.

My conclusion is that it’s time to sever the connections and publicly distance ourselves from anything even remotely to do with suing our customers, and go back to working together with the gamers out there on the net. We have nothing to win in court, and nothing to lose in the market.

The mountain of flowers sent to professor Roger Wallis and his wife by (and paid for by) people following the trial on the net shows how deeply people care (and are obviously willing to pay for things they care about). I’d rather recruit this unprecedented movement of creative energy than die slowly of starvation like the likes of IFPI are going to. After all, there’s only so many years you can spend 75 Million Pounds on jailing your customers — if you somehow don’t run out of money I’ll guarantee you’ll run out of customers.

If you’re interested in the trial, check out the Wired article series or follow #spectrial on twitter.

4 Comments

  • By dsio, Saturday, February 28, 2009 @ 13:37

    Well said sir, very much looking forward to a time where entertainment creators such as yourself with positive attitudes are the dominant force not only in the gaming industry, but in entertainment at large.

  • By Mosselman, Sunday, March 1, 2009 @ 14:39

    Absolutely spot on what is really wrong here.

    Nothing to add here.

    Thanks!

    p.s. I once downloaded a trial downloader for world of warcraft from their own website, when their download server wasn’t working for it I was redirected to a download link for the full game client WITH the latest add-on, wrath of the lich king, all for free. This was about 1 week after it was released. I never played it, not even the trial, but I DID get the full package that some other people payed for in full, from Blizzard’s own web site.

  • By Dylan, Monday, March 2, 2009 @ 4:40

    Well written and insightful.

  • By steffenj, Monday, March 2, 2009 @ 11:13

    Yup. I’d say leave these pirates alone. It’s not worth fighting over something that only exists because the industry hasn’t fully moved on yet to business models that make piracy go extinct (so we wish). Of course, pirates forced that change upon the industry in the first place but now that the industry is embracing the change, should be still condemn the pirates?

    Free to Play, Subscriptions, Micropayment, Console games, Steam et al – it’s what the pirates want, right?

    I absolutely despise what the music and movie industry has done with their copy-rights – especially the cinema ads “piracy is theft”. (It’s not, it’s copyright infringement.) Let’s not do the same mistake and piss off all consumers.

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