Intellectual Property Piracy is a ridiculously divisive issue in our culture, and despite my “in your face” leanings, I’m not here to take a moral stand. Piracy is, generally, illegal in my country, and the noose is likely to get tighter before it gets looser; the looming threats of SOPA/PIPA are evidence that the money is going to try to protect the money.
What I am here to talk about, after my long absence, are the effects of piracy on the gaming industry. It’s no joke to smalls publishers; there is a distinct feeling that the proliferation of digital ‘scans’ has been a major factor in the ruining of the market. As Matthew Grau, creator of the game CthulhuTech, notes:
That doesn’t even address the issue of piracy. I remember a day when a mediocre release of a game book sold 3000-5000 copies, with healthy restock orders. Now, a successful release might sell 1000, if you are lucky, selling through the rest of your 3000 unit print run in three years – many companies print far less. Not only is the industry shrinking, but people don’t have to pay for their gaming books anymore if they don’t want to. Unfortunately, unlike the music industry, we are not made of money. It costs a surprisingly large amount of money to develop a well-written and attractive gaming book and the return is not so hot. Without those extra sales, the traditional model of core plus regular supplementation isn’t really viable.
A follower of mine, Old School GM, posted an interesting article about the sales of Eclipse Phase, taken straight from the horses’ mouths: their company report. This got me thinking, much as my article and blog got him thinking. We don’t have any concrete idea just how big the industry is, but the numbers behind those links show some fantastic progress for the folks at Posthuman Studios.
What is most interesting is that Eclipse Phase is FREE. Free as in beer. You can download it, legally from torrent sites, sanctioned by the publisher. What’s more, you have free reign to remix or redo the game and publish it yourself. In the spirit of the posthuman information age, ownership is nothing. Want to pay? Sure! Thanks! Don’t want to pay? Here, you can have it, from us, for free.
Under this model, Posthuman Studios sold a tremendous 8,422 units in 2010. That’s big numbers for a small press publisher. One could crunch the numbers and reveal their probably gross, but I won’t do that to them. It’s not important. They’re moving units of a product that they’re also giving away for free. Meanwhile, the Cthulhutech guys are spending a lot of time whining about how piracy is ruining their business. A not-insignificant amount of time and effort is wasted by them (and many other small press companies) “chasing down pirates.”
So, we have two games of comparable scale. Why is one selling, when it’s available for free, and another is struggling? Well, friends and grognards, I think you already know the answer. It’s Quality.
You see, Eclipse Phase is a magnificent game. The setting is a genius take on the idea of a Posthuman world; the background and adventure work is top-notch. Players love it, because it’s an empowering, vast solar system of intrigue and information. There are nearly infinite possibilities for adventure, and new sourcebooks are being released all the time. And, despite the fact that you can have them for free, many customers are willing to pay for the books and PDFs.
Cthulhutech, on the other hand, is a mess. The system sucks, the setting is full of stereotypical, mustache-twirling demons that betray the basic principles of Lovecraft’s mythos, and the developers are fond of telling the players that they are playing the game wrong. New supplements aren’t coming out (mostly because of the aforementioned whining about sales).
It’s worse than that, though. The books and adventures are chock full of fetishistic descriptions of murder, rape, and misogynistic and/or racist portrayals of, well, just about anyone the authors can think of. If you don’t believe me, I encourage you to read Ettin’s reviews of Cthulhutech and its supplements. One of the adventures ends in a narrated rape scene. (One of the writers once claimed the game was only around 2% rape.)
Yeah, I’m really wondering why one of these games is selling, and another isn’t. If you’re not convinced, though, I encourage you to look at a big player: Paizo, who literally gives their core rules away for free. Do people pirate their PDFs? Sure, almost certainly they do. However, they’ve chosen a winning business practice out of making people desire their actual products.
We see the same themes repeated throughout the industry: if a release is good, if the art is beautiful, if the rules are laid out well, if there are useful game aids and accessories, customers will want to purchase the product.