Daniel Cook: Embracing Piracy
Piracy as a fun activity
I was a pirate in my youth. Many of my fondest memories involve sorting through a giant stack of 3.5" floppies searching for that one diamond in the rough. I’m not exactly ignorant of the practice. In fact, I partially credit my current design chops to playing through such a vast range of hundreds of wonky and experimental games.
Being a ‘pirate’ was being part of a community. You and your friends shared games like social gaming gifts on Facebook. It didn’t cost you anything to copy a game and give it to someone. A game was a social token to chat about, a gesture of kindness to reciprocate. A key takeaway from that time is that copying and sharing vast quantities of digital goods is a deeply fun, social and highly useful activity. This is a new thing, a new behavior in a post-scarcity world.
Hacking piracy for profit
As a young game developer, I believed that ‘piracy’ was the norm. The first game I worked on, Tyrian, used the shareware model. The essential assumption was that people love copying games for free, taking home a stack of 100 and then playing through them like it was Future Christmas. This behavior wasn’t about ethics, morality, legality, etc. It was an observable cultural pattern of behavior that sprung quite naturally and innocently from technology and people mixing.
If you put out a pool of water and people start merrily flopping around in it, you acknowledge that this thing called ‘swimming’ exists. You can ban it as immoral, but I’d rather invent a sexy sandy thing called a ‘beach’ and get 2 bucks a head for admission.
With shareware, we hacked the copying behavior. People would play the random floppies and some of clever programs would say "Hey! Did you know that you can pay for this?" And a small portion of users did. ‘Pirate’ and ‘consumer’ are not mutually exclusive properties. In our capitalist society, almost everyone (with a few notable exceptions) is trained to buy stuff. People who like checking out new software for free are really just another audience of potential consumers.
Observing retail shenanigans from a distance
Now to the retail world, piracy is kind of philosophically shocking. For much of history, physical goods have featured an inherent production cost. I make stuff, I sell stuff and hopefully the resulting revenue pays for the cost of making all that stuff. This is ingrained… we don’t even think about it. In fact in our specialist world, we’ve abstracted many of the roles and treat them as magical black boxes. Many engineers focus just on the ‘making stuff’ portions of the pipeline. "Oh, I don’t sell stuff; I’m a maker" is the essence of their personal identity. When the rest of the black boxes don’t magically perform ‘selling’ and ‘making a profit’, the world seems broken.
Over the past 30-plus years, we’ve witnessed multiple generations of business owners coming to terms with this wild new copying behavior. And it is hard. EA used to think of themselves as a company that sold boxes. That is their culture. They hire people that love selling boxes in the same way that engineers like ‘making stuff’. Then they find that 80-90% of the people playing their games didn’t pay for them. In physical goods, that situation doesn’t even compute. Identities are at stake. The closest analogues are terms like ‘piracy’, ‘counterfeiting’ or maybe ‘intellectual property theft’.
It has been a really confusing time for businesses. Some lashed out by labeling consumers as evil, some tried to protect the old ways with DRM. Relationships with customers…who see themselves as just having fun sharing cool stuff…became antagonistic. 30 years. When you raise kids in a warzone, they grow up parroting propaganda. No wonder the conversation is polarized.
Embracing the culture of free
I’ve never really cared much about piracy. Even the term itself is a construct of a retail mentality attempting to protect old business models.
Those business models may fail in the long run. I have zero emotional attachment to buying games at retail, collecting cardboard boxes or even more radically, preserving the existing forms of games that thrived in the retail world. If all ‘sequels’ aka ‘excuses to get you to buy another box’ stopped tomorrow, I wouldn’t be overly upset. Detach yourself from the emotions of history. Give up the past forms of what games were. Adapt to the current environment with one eye firmly fixed upon the future.
People copying digital goods as an inherently joyful social activity is an opportunity. It is an artistic opportunity. It is a business opportunity. It is a cultural opportunity.
– Daniel Cook