The Future of PC Gaming

I just finished reading a long article on piracy by Koroush Ghazi from tweakguides.com. It’s an interesting article, and certainly one of the best researched articles out there on the subject, so I do recommend that you read it if you’ve got the time… but, I do also need to address some fundamental problems with it. If you’re sort of short on time, I advice you read the first half of it.

There are a few problems with the article, and while it’s quite possibly the best research done by anyone, it’s certainly not the best written article or best analysis. I’d love to have read the same article written with a fair bit of scientific method. I have the benefit of a background in Computer Science, and while I do understand that without it you’re likely to make that mistake, it still saddens me to see all that research presented in such a way.

Some background may be in order. In scientific papers, there’s a strict separation of source material and the authors’ own progressive works. Everything which is claimed is backed up either by a reference to source material or as conclusions of the authors’ own research. Generally, the papers themselves are split into sections where some are clearly dedicated to going through source material and others are entirely dedicated to the conclusions drawn from the research.

Ghazi makes no such distinction, but rather mixes and matches as he sees fit. This is an approach that is more similar to a short article you’d find in a newspaper than to a scientific paper or even, to grab a subject closer to the tweakguides home, to a hardware test on one of the hardware guide sites out there.

Added to that is the problem that he mixes logical conclusions to different levels in a way that shows a somewhat clear bias in the message he’s trying to tell. All honor to that message (hey, I make my living relying on these things too you know) of how destructive piracy is, but such information tends to have a better punch if it’s actually founded on the correct conclusions. In fact, any article that spends so much time telling you how objective and unbiased it is should probably flag a warning somewhere in the reader’s mind.

Let me take an example. In the section on The Economics of Piracy, Ghazi extrapolates the source information “there is a chance someone who pirated a game would buy it if piracy was unavailable” into the conclusion “there is some potential loss of income to the producer”. Fair enough, that’s a reasonable conclusion to make (the assumption that the chance being larger than zero implied).

However, he then goes on to present the source information “there’s some chance a person who pirated the game may cause a sell of the game by word of mouth”, only to argue that the chance is in fact near-zero through a complicated series of arguments without any actual proof. This is not only a flawed argument, it’s also inconsistent. The logical conclusion is that “there is some potential gain of income to the producer”. It can be argued that this potential gain of income is smaller than the previously mentioned potential loss of income, and in fact I’m fairly convinced it is. However, to make such a claim in an unbiased and well-founded way you really do need to back it up with some data, which simply put, the article doesn’t even attempt.

As the article gets closer to its conclusion, it also seems to lose more of its brilliance and good foundations. Ghazi spends two long pages examining not DRM techniques but DRM products, and then draws conclusions about the techniques based on the observations about the products. This bares some resemblance to looking at Super Mario Bros, Doom and Command & Conquer, and then drawing far-reaching conclusions about the merits of platform games vs shooters vs strategy games from it. He also falls into the logical trap of not understanding the single tier of effort of today’s networks.

About DRM techniques, the article fails to separate the concerns of small scale and large scale, and comparing the invasiveness of the techniques. For instance, the lock-down to only allow 3 installs of a product (small scale) is motivated by the fact that a restriction on number of installs is needed (large scale). This misses the very obvious point that any number would harm large-scale piracy as much. Allowing 5, 7 or 15 installs would likely have unmeasurable impact on piracy levels or sales, but would likely have caused much less of a PR disaster for a game like Spore. At the very least, with no conclusive evidence either way you can’t make a claim of 3 being a necessary number.

Ghazi then goes on to make some very perplexing claims about Steam. Let’s examine things: Steam was released and forced down the throats of very unhappy gamers, and was near-universally hated. That far, he has his facts straight. He then goes on to try to explain how Steam became accepted, without acknowledging the fact that Steam has changed. The reason people hated Steam was because Steam sucked. For the machines and bandwidth of the time, Steam was a horrible bloat.

Then he fails to grasp the core points of what makes Steam popular: It gives something back to the customer. It’s that simple — the other DRM schemes are all for the benefit of the producer, while Steam has loads of nifty features for me as a consumer that have “Future” stamped all over them.

His recommendation that Steam may be a danger because it may turn into a monopoly is also somewhat strange. Several games companies including EA and Ubisoft have already started moving towards Steam, not because they like the product but because they like the technique… but Valve is several years in the lead. Even if I’m sure Ubisoft would rather use their own Steam-like tech, they’re stuck with Steam for the time being. The royalties they inevitably end up paying Valve should be more than sufficient a reason to fuel the development of their own tech.

Finally, the article turns into something more suited as a flame war forum post on some fanboy forum. Ghazi claims that various groups of people do various things intentionally with absolutely nothing to back such a claim up, and the tone turns rather ugly. The illusions of grandeur on display also somewhat leave a sour taste, when he claims to have made Microsoft take action on a previous issue. Anyway, consider the following from the beginning of the article:

Other articles take the easy path by slapping together some unsubstantiated opinions and dubious arguments which merely follow whatever the popular sentiment is on this topic, and come to the usual conclusions. Let me be clear: I won’t be doing that here. I’ve invested a great deal of time into actually delving into all the various aspects of this issue, thinking through all the issues and getting a good handle on the situation based on a large amount of publicly available data. Consequently throughout the article you will find numerous references to reputable data sources and first-hand information rather than just hearsay and conjecture.

Now compare that to the following, found on the last page:

Fast forward to the 21st century, and piracy has apparently somehow become a political struggle, a fight against greedy corporations and evil copy protection, and in some cases, I’ve even seen some people refer to the rise of piracy as a “revolution”. What an absolute farce. Truth be told I have the greatest respect for the people who simply come out and just say that they pirate because they can, no more, no less. At least then I know I’m dealing with someone who’s being honest and has got their head screwed on straight.

Balanced and unbiased articles do not call people of different opinions dishonest or say they don’t have their head screwed on straight. This is the same kind of name-throwing that continually hinders the piracy debate with anyone trying to argue logically about DRM gets called a thief. It’s counter-productive. Don’t do it.

So what do I really think about the future of PC gaming? I think that two things will happen — There will be a clear shift towards online-only titles or titles heavily focused on multiplayer… adding to this, you’re unlikely to see titles ship with the option of running private servers. The cost of maintaining servers is so much lower than the cost of having your game pirated that the solution is obvious. I also think that Steam or Steam-like networks will become the dominant distribution channel, and with this software around it’s likely that pirate software will be detected more often.

The development may go two ways from there… one way would enforce a shareware-style culture where pirated titles would cause an annoying reminder to please buy the game. The other would actually hinder the user in some way, like closing off access to other games or areas of the network. And reasonably, the games industry never learnt from these things before, so the second approach is likely to be tried first, have a huge backlash followed by more debates before we finally arrive at the first approach. But I’ll be happily surprised if we can be smarter than that.

In the mean time, singleplayer games are likely to become near-extinct on the PC market.

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