CDProjekt are about to embark on one of the most risky experiments in PC gaming history, releasing a their new title DRM-free on Good Old Games and doing so from day one. One way or another we will soon know the answer to the question we have all been asking for years; is it possible to create a viable business case for developing and publishing DRM-free media in a digital & online world?
The experiment will have far reaching consequence’s, well beyond the realm of PC gaming itself.
In a limited sense we already have an answer to that question; yes, of course media can be successfully developed and published in a DRM-free market, just look at the music industry. However, the music industry is a bit of a special case for a number of reasons:
1. A single person with access to a PC, and microphone and a guitar can create a song in a week, and arguably an album in a few months. Whereas, a AAA title on the PS3, Xbox360, or PC typically costs over $30m to develop, involves anywhere from fifty to one hundred and fifty staff, over a period of eighteen months to three years.
2. The music industry is fundamentally constrained by the existence of the audio CD, an utterly ubiquitous standard that allows lossless digital copying totally without any copy-protection inherent to the system. By contrast Consoles are 100% controlled environments and PC’s have the flexibility to add any DRM imaginable in a self-obsoleting ecosystem.
So the music industry has both cheap production costs and unrestricted capability to copy and distribute product outside of authorised sales channels. The problem with PC piracy on the other hand is both immediate and fundamental. The nature of the PC means that any system of DRM can be broken, and frequently is before a game can hit the shelves, so it is now common practice to release multi-platform titles on the consoles first, so that PC piracy cannot damage the crucial post-release buzz where most of the profits are made. After the first couple of months the buzz has gone new games are demanding the consumers attention, and the titles future revenue potential lies in an ever declining number of sales spurred fitfully by ever larger price-cuts as it spirals towards the bargain bin. How do you persuade a publisher to gamble the money necessary to develop a AAA game when the pay-off is three years down the line?
This is why the move to release The Witcher 2 DRM-free on Good Old Games is such a ballsy move, if the piracy kills sales of the the Game at retail and on Steam then a game which has taken circa $30 million to develop will be a massive loss to Cdprojekt.
On the other hand:
a) This is why even the standard DVD version is loaded with physical extras that cannot be attained from a pirated GoG .exe. If those extras mean something to you then you have a reason to buy a genuine retail version.
b) For gamers that appreciate convenience in advance of all other concerns the Steam version will still be an attractive proposition. These people already have most of their modern PC games on Steam, and will now even be able to store the save-game files on the Steam Cloud.
c) For the people who want to escape the clutches of all forms of copy-protection including intrusive & problematic systems such as Tages, Securom, and Ubisofts colossal mess, they now have a GoG version.
Up until now we have not been able to have an informed conversation about how the consumer will react to having a AAA PC title DRM-free on the day of release, there has been no evidence, so all is speculation and treated as such.
This blogs prediction is that in the days following the May 17th début of The Witcher 2 there will be reports of massive volumes of illegal torrenting of the GoG version of the game, but, that it will not substantially effect the sales success of the game, it may in fact increase sales revenue due to the games higher profile resulting from its DRM-free nature. Steam will be by far the most successful outlet, followed by DVD-disk sales, however The Witcher 2 will swiftly become the fastest selling game GoG have ever published whose gross revenue in the first month of sale will eclipse that of all other GoG games combined over the same period.
Steam have a discounted pre-order page for the game today, and will make a steady stream of pre-order sales from now until May 17th 2011, and provided the reviews are good will make even more sales in the weeks following. People who use Steam are not interested in the hassle of piracy, if they want the game, they will buy the game.
GoG likewise have a pre-order page for The Witcher 2, and they are offering a free GoG game to be credited to the customers account if they place a pre-order before release. GoG customers care about DRM-free games, and realise the stakes involved in the success of this experiment, many will buy the game regardless of interest.
The final point that reinforces the first two is the belief of this blogger that PC game piracy in advanced markets such as the US, Europe, and parts of Asia does not materially harm games developers…………………….. because those sales would never have happened anyway!
If this blog is correct then we may quickly see other publishers push their back catalogue of games onto GoG, initially with toe-in-the-water experiments to see if a game past its peak selling period can extend its revenue return by providing DRM-free convenience. If this blog is wrong then GoG’s ambition to become the second biggest digital games distributor (after Steam), will be dashed, and the service will potter on with its current business model; redistributing very old games that no-longer realise any revenue return for their publisher.
The more interesting consequence of a success story for CDprojekt in their PC gaming experiment is how it might encourage other media industries to offer DRM free product themselves. Video is one possibility, but the real opportunity lies in ebooks and breaking the dominance of Amazon and the second-rank players such as Apple.
Here’s hoping The Witcher 2 makes millions, a lot is riding on its success.