Do not pirate from indie developers
Last night, I watched the fourth and final part of Matt Barton’s interview with Jay Barnson, developer of Frayed Knights. In the interview, I was disturbed to hear that someone had gone to the trouble of cracking the (incredibly minimal and non-invasive) copy protection on the game, then distributing it to a variety of warez sites as a torrent. Even worse was the depressing revelation that Jay’s sales immediately plummeted.
Correlation is not causation, of course, but that timing is awfully convenient, and I refuse to accept the “they wouldn’t have bought it anyway” argument here. This game had a free demo. Clearly, if torrenters went to the trouble of getting the full version, it’s because they wanted to keep playing past the end of the demo. Would they have been willing to buy the full version of the game at the price offered? I guess we’ll never know, because they opted to flat-out steal the thing instead. (Besides, if you’ll recall, Project Zomboid was priced at $5 when piracy forced it offline. Was that one too expensive as well?)
To the people who pirated Frayed Knights, I ask: have we really sunk this low? There are circumstances where piracy is arguably justified, but this is not one of them. Frayed Knights has a free demo, and its copy protection consists entirely of a painless, once-ever, copy-paste-the-code-into-the-box activation. You should know from the demo whether you like the core gameplay, and you can consult reviews to determine whether there is a sudden drop-off in quality later in the game. There is simply no excuse to pirate here.
Maybe the problem is that you thought the game was too expensive. But hey, check this out: you may have heard of these things called “sales,” where indie developers temporarily reduce the price of their games. They generally happen at least once a year. You could have waited. Besides, it’s too easy to consume something without paying and then, after the fact, announce that it wasn’t worth the price anyway. To me, at least, it looks pretty much like this:
Customer: Hello! I’ll have the steak tartare.
Waiter: Right away, sir. (Returns with steak.)
Customer: Thank you. (Eats the entire steak, leaving only a sprig of parsley on the plate.)
Customer: Oh, waiter!
Waiter: Yes, sir.
Customer: That steak was awful. I’d like something else.
But as bad as all this is, it isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is that you chose to steal not from some faceless, mega-billion-dollar company like EA or Ubisoft, but from Jay Barnson. Jay Barnson is one man (and quite a nice one, in my experience). He has a wife and kids. Do you really want to be the person that steals from a nice, regular guy with a family?
Jay has sunk innumerable hours of his own time over the course of five years into developing a (quite good) product, and in a genre that mainstream developers just won’t touch. Most of you out there reading this won’t understand what it means to do that, but I do. So let me explain. Developing a game like this means giving up on your social life. It means going to your 40-hour-a-week day job so you can pay the bills, then going home and, rather than relaxing, instead working your heart out on something incredibly difficult, entirely without pay. You lose sleep and go through your work days tired, trudging slowly through a dim mental fog. You have less time for your girlfriend or boyfriend. You are asked to get drinks after work, and you have to refuse because the effects of the alcohol would cause you to write buggy code when you get home afterwards.
About 60% of the time that you actually spend working on the game is spent purely on fixing bugs. Hours of fixing bugs, day after day after week after week after month. For years. It’s physically exhausting and emotionally draining. Read this interview with indie developer Phil Fish to get a taste of what a five-year development cycle feels like.
After you’ve invested years of your life and/or thousands of dollars of your own money into making a game, there is never even so much as a guarantee that the game will ever be finished. It could (and oftentimes, does) die in utero because one or more developers just can’t keep sacrificing his or her life to making the game anymore.
But when you do finish a game, the fun doesn’t end. Oh, no. You have to release it. Releasing a game is among the most horrifically nerve-wracking experiences you can have short of losing your job, losing a home or facing mortal physical danger. Imagine giving birth, then having to market your baby to dozens and dozens of websites, hoping that they will like it and judge it favorably. If they don’t like it, your baby will die in obscurity. You have no control over the outcome, and no emotional distance from the outcome either. You built every last nook and cranny of your game by hand, by yourself. This work represents you. A bad reception means a repudiation of everything you’ve worked for over the course of years.
You’re going to get feedback from players, and the most vocal ones aren’t going to be considerate with their critiques, even if most players secretly enjoy the game. Gaming news sites might pan your game or ignore it outright. Even if they don’t, you still might fail to recoup the money you’ve invested in it. And by “the money you’ve invested in it,” I am of course talking purely about the out-of-pocket expenses of hiring artists and musicians; you are almost certainly never going to be able to pay yourself for the time you put into it.
I’m not writing all this to convince you to feel sorry for indie developers. I’m writing this to explain to you that indie developers work hard and take a lot of risks, and we are counting on you. We have no publishers: you and your willingness to pay for what you’ve taken are the only things keeping us afloat. The bucket exploit is funny in Skyrim; but for an indie developer, the real-life equivalent is deadly serious. We simply cannot keep making games if you do not support us when we finally release the games that we have made.
And so we come back around to the title of this piece: Do not pirate from indie developers. But come on, now. You already knew better than to do that, didn’t you? Surely I don’t need to tell you not to steal from indies. I might as well write an opinion piece called “Do not punch homeless people in the face.” Indie game developers sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice in order to put out games. You are not entitled to play those games for free. Play the demo. If you like the demo, buy the game. If you can’t afford the game, save up a little bit of money, or wait for a sale. Pirated games are free, but so is being a decent human being. Guess which one matters more?