Yet More on Piracy

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Our friendo Tadhg Kelly, last seen peddling his "games have no inherent value"/"developers should embrace piracy" tripe over at Gamasutra, has now reposted his article at GameSetWatch. I described my exceptionally low opinion of this article in the post below, but this morning I had another idea on the developer versus pirate war.

One of my favorite people in the universe is Ian Malcolm, so of course it's a crying shame that he's a fictional character written by one of my favorite authors. (And yes, that's despite the fact that Crichton became a climate change denialist later on in life.) One of the reasons I love him so much is that, in the book Jurassic Park, Malcolm takes part in a great colliquy on discipline.

Here it is:

"You know what's wrong with scientific power?" Malcolm said. "It’s a form of inherited wealth. And you know what assholes congenitally rich people are. It never fails."

Hammond said, "What is he talking about?”

Harding made a sign, indicating delirium. Malcolm cocked his eye.

"I will tell you what I am talking about," he said. "Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it’s your power. It can't be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.

"Now what is interesting about this process is that, by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won't use it unwisely. So that kind of power has a built-in control. The discipline of getting the you so that you won't abuse it. But scientific power is like inherited wealth: attained without discipline. You read what others have done, and you take the next step. You can do it very young. You can make progress very fast. There is no discipline lasting many decades. There is no mastery: old scientists are ignored. There is no humility before nature. There is only a get-rich-quick, make-a-name-for-yourself-fast philosophy. Cheat, lie, falsify--it doesn't matter. Not to you, or to your colleagues. No one will criticize you. No one has any standards. They all trying to do the same thing: to do something big, and do it fast.

"And because you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can accomplish something quickly. Yon don't even know exactly what you have done, but already you have reported it; patented it, and sold it. And the buyer will have even less discipline than you. The buyer simply purchases the power, like any commodity. The buyer doesn't even conceive that any discipline might be necessary."

Hammond said, "Do you know what he is talking about?"

Ellie nodded.

"I haven't a clue," Hammond said.

"I’ll make it simple," Malcolm said. "A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands. He does not lose his temper and kill his wife. The person who kills is the person who has no discipline no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special. And that is the kind of power that science fosters, and permits. And that is why you think that to build [Jurassic Park] is simple."

Awesome. Sure, Malcolm was talking about the gung-ho enthusiasm that Hammond harnessed to create Jurassic Park in the first place and populate it with all manner of fabricated dinosaurs, including the ones that can rip your face off and open doors and eat your PR specialists, and then the power goes out and Muldoon has to go and drunkenly hunt them down with a fucking rocket launcher, which is completely sweet, but I digress.

It takes discipline to create a computer game. Millions of dollars, hundreds of people, years of work, infinitismal amounts of accrued knowledge. Gabe Newell worked at Microsoft for thirteen years before he left to found Valve Software. Even I - a complete nobody in the gaming industry - started my trade in the mid '90s when I was still in elementary school, going from programming text adventures in QBasic to mapping for Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Half-Life 1. I joined the Firearms team in 2002 as a mapper and refined my coding, modeling, animating, and 2D art skills over the next five years on the FA and World at War teams. Despite my multi-year hiatus from design, I returned in early 2009, and released Around the World after 14 months of learning C#. Project Squish is currently in its eighth month of development.

That takes discipline.

Piracy? Piracy doesn't take discipline. It's the easy way out. Don't pay, get the game you want the moment it becomes available online. Your wait consists of how long it takes to download and how long it took hackers to crack the Digital Rights Management (DRM) software on the game.

Piracy is the absense of discipline. It's access to a broadband connection. That's it.

Above, I almost wrote "it's access to a broadband connection and complete disinterest in rewarding the developer", but how many people actually care about the developer? My frustration with Kelly's rationale is the moral and personal argument about justified piracy as a component of developer-client interaction. Which is a problem, because almost nobody thinks that way. Allegiances are to gaming franchises and things that look shiny, not people in the industry who supply those things. Which means that the primary way of looking at the gaming industry is through economics (duh) and not morality.

Not only does that handicap Kelly's argument, but it also handicaps my own. If you can't care about morality, how can you care about discipline, or the lack thereof? Pirates don't care about either, so of course that leaves me sitting here in the corner frowning. I dislike pirates because of their lack of discipline, but that's cold comfort given the fact that yelling "Lack of discipline!" at them doesn't change the contour of the market.

As I said last time, Kelly is completely right about wanting to nurture a good developer-client relationship. But he's wrong to just make it about trying to lure pirates back over to the Light Side of the Force because of how much of a nice guy you are. That attitude is part of the overall Venn diagram on this, but the much larger part is that there is a class of customer that appreciates a vocal developer who tries to build relationships with his/her community, describes what is going on, and seeks to provide excellent, personal post-release support of their product. Lots of people love that. Some of those (very few) are even on-the-fence pirates who can be converted into a paying customer, but that's the exception, not the rule.

So, in the end, we're talking economics. Being personable and showing good post-release support of your product means, economically, that you're reliable and your product is reliable. And consumers go looking for that. A subset of that can be moral and personal, but overall we're talking about how to facilitate the exchange of money.

Which, as I said, means that moral and philosophical justifications of piracy just fade by the wayside. As do my own moral and philosophical justifications of why it's bad. And everyone should know that I seek to be a moral person and a good, commercially-minded developer that plays in the gaming market as it is, not as I wish it to be.

But that doesn't mean that I like pirates. Because, they're undisciplined.