GOG The Indie Game Store Took On Piracy And Won
Piracy is destroying the gaming industry. We speak the man that met them head on and came out on top
You probably don't need us to tell you how bad piracy is for gamers. It means less money for developers, fewer games, and less incentive for anyone to try anything original. It's even put the future of a blockbuster series like Football Manager in doubt on your phone.
Typically, the solution's been to lock all your games down with DRM (digital rights management). It makes it harder - though not impossible - for you to copy games you've splashed out for, but it has a nasty side effect too: it stops you from playing what you've paid for wherever, often by limiting how often a game can be installed. What happens if you lose your laptop?
Good Old Games' managing director Guillaume Rambourg thinks he has the answer: stop bothering with DRM at all.
"We see DRM as something that doesn't really bother the pirates. The more sophisticated the copy-protection methods applied, the bigger the challenge and fun for crackers and the more credit for the crew that manages to overcome them," he tells Red Bull UK.
So why not drop the whole concept if it does nobody any good? The only thing that DRM succeeds at is making life harder and the games less enjoyable for legit gamers. This is crazy.
That's exactly what he did with GOG.com, which launched in 2007. The download store, with more than 80 employees, is packed with more than 450 retro games for both PC and Mac, and they're all completely DRM-free. You could pirate them and put them online for anyone to download, but why would any paying customers bother, when they can all be found already - if you know where to look.
Instead, the service focuses on enticing paying customers with decent prices, and lots of extra goodies, Kickstarter style. Pick up a game and you can get everything from full soundtracks to wallpapers, videos and walkthroughs along with it, which you're unlikely to find in that dodgy folder in one of the internet's murky back alleys.
And it's working: Rambourg has managed to sign the biggest publishers in the industry to his approach, from Codemasters to Ubisoft, Activision, Atari, Square-Enix and even Electronic Arts. The site gets 1.4 million visitors a month, and has sold more than six million games over its short history.
Sure, that's pocket money compared to number one game download service Steam, but it's proof that millions will pay to avoid dreaded DRM.
A Long History of Fighting Pirates
DRM-free media's a relatively new trend: even Apple only made it songs DRM-free on iTunes in 2009, so you could play them on more than a couple of computers and iPods. But Rambourg's business model actually has its roots in Poland, back in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when GOG's parent publisher, CD Projekt, was just starting out.
"The Berlin Wall fell just a few years earlier and there weren’t many gamers in Poland with access to high-end PC gaming hardware. That created a high demand for older games and sadly it was being satisfied mostly with pirated games," he says.
"If a legit distributor wanted to compete with shady characters selling unlabelled CDs from a back of a truck it had to offer the buyer more for his money. And so CD Projekt introduced a budget collection of back-catalogue games that maintained a high quality standard with DVD-boxes, printed manuals, language localization, and bonus content. The series became a great success."
A decade later, when Rambourg was working for CD Projekt, overseeing the porting and translation of games for European countries, he says the team noticed the same thing was happening again online.
"With no legal source of classic games people reverted to underground sources to meet their retro-gaming needs."
GOG.com was born, though persuading publishers to release their classic old games - which were rarely on sale at the time anyway - DRM-free was an uphill struggle though.
"It’s been a long road for us," says Rambourg. "Back in 2007 most publishers were really skeptical about the GOG.com approach. They didn’t see how it would help them revive the sales of their PC classics." The team convinced Interplay - creator of hit RPG Fallout - to give it a go, and when the numbers came back, others suddenly got a lot more interested.
The Future for GOG
But it's not just yesteryear's classics GOG distributes without the DRM shackles: it's moving into brand new games, with the very same approach.
Earlier this year, it slapped hack and slash RPG blockbuster The Witcher 2 up for sale, complete without DRM - it sold 40,000 copies in six months, making it the second biggest digital download service for the game (almost certainly after Steam).
The game was promptly put up for download online, but here's the kicker: it was a disc version of the game that was most widely pirated. That's right: rather than just sharing the DRM-free version from GOG, pirates went to the trouble of buying the game in a shop, taking it home and breaking the DRM instead. That's about all the proof Rambourg needs to show he's on to something.
"We started a new journey for GOG: convincing a growing amount of publishers and developers that releasing a day-one title without DRM can be good for their financial health," says Rambourg.
Up next is support for Windows 8 ("We should be done with that quite soon"), but Rambourg's a bit more hesitant about trying to take over the living room, as Steam's creator Valve is trying to do, or mobile and tablets.
"I think that trying to take over the living room may be a losing bet in the next few years. Instead, what is increasingly common is that the media device that people use most often - their 'second screen' is a phone or tablet. For casual gamers, this is increasingly important," he explains.
"But GOG.com’s audience tends to be a bit more 'hard core', so we’re continuing to work on providing them with the best experience that we can, rather than sacrificing some of what makes GOG.com special to try and broaden our appeal."
Still, never say never: "We know our community wants to see support for other operating systems though, and we're constantly evaluating to see if it makes sense for us."
Given just how popular mobile gaming's getting, it's only a matter of time before someone tries the same thing on your tablet.