GOG.com discusses DRM, piracy, next-gen consoles and more


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Anyone familiar with Digital Distribution services on the PC will be aware of GOG.com. PlayStation Gang recently had the good fortune to sit down with Trevor Longino and quiz him about how it has managed to strive when many other such servives have come and gone without making much of an impact.

Not only do we talk about GOG.com’s future and how they plan to offer more to the customers but also touch base on many other important topics including DRM, piracy, Kickstarter and much more. Read on to know more.

PSGGOG’s been here for a while now. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you’ve managed to survive for so long while many others have failed to do so.

GOG – GOG.com is a digital distribution platform built around three core values: DRM-free gaming, fair pricing, and customer love. We started in 2008 with our main focus on classic PC masterpieces like Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, System Shock 2, Duke Nukem 3D and, since then have built up our catalog to 500+ titles. We have also added support for our growing community of Mac users and, a little over a year ago, started selling new indie games and AAA titles.

As to our history, GOG.com is a part of the CD Projekt group that also includes CD Projekt RED development studio, creator of the award-winning Witcher series. CD Projekt started their business way back, in mid-90’s as local retail distributors of games in Poland. Their biggest accomplishment back then was introducing a budget-friendly series of PC games to the Polish community of gamers. To understand the scope of their success one has to understand that in the 90’s Poland was a market where piracy was much more common than buying legitimate games.

Few gamers were able to afford top-of-the-line hardware or new games. CD Projekt came up with a strategy to concentrate their efforts on releasing titles that were at least a few years old, and thus not requiring expensive computer gear, at reasonable prices, and last but not least, equipped with tons of extra content – translated original booklets, posters, stickers etc.

In a few years they were able to build a community of paying gamers who decided to reject piracy for the added value CD Projekt provided at an affordable price. They did not use any copy-protection in their releases, as they understood from the start that, in Poland, buying games was a matter of choice, and that DRM would not curb piracy. This success brought on another idea: why not do this globally? That is how GOG came into being, building upon the relationships with publishers already established by CD Projekt. Interplay and Codemasters were the first to sign up for the DRM-free revolution.

If you are not quite certain what DRM means: DRM-free means we don’t have any copy protection in our games, which is quite unique on the PC market. All the games you buy on GOG are yours to download as many times as you need: you can re-download them on multiple devices that you own, create backups, and play offline without any need for Internet connection. We also make sure that all the classic releases work like a dream on modern operating systems (which is quite an important issue for games released, say, more than 10 years ago).

We sell those games at a flat worldwide budget-friendly price, without any “regional pricing” crap. We also make an effort to provide as much extra value as possible for our customers: our games come with a lot of free goodies, such as soundtracks, wallpapers, original manuals, maps, and so on. Finally, we provide comprehensive customer support for all the games we sell. This customer-satisfaction-oriented approach resulted in a devoted, growing community of fans, who share our passion and values. Many of our users are extremely active on our forums and help us find better ways to serve them.

Our growth and development has a lot to do with us carefully listening to the voice of our community and doing our best to answer their needs, be it with new features, specific releases or new directions for GOG. Our focus on the best that gaming has to offer, combined with our rather receptive nature might just be the reason GOG is the second biggest independent digital distributor on the ‘Net.

GOG started off as a service which only sold old classics but have since evolved into something which now offers the best of both worlds (stocking new and old games alike). What prompted you to make this change? Has it proved to be a bigger challenge than you expected?

Since the conception of GOG.com as (back then) Good Old Games we were quite certain this is just a start for us. After building up our profile through signing more and more deals we were able to entertain the idea of releasing new games from indie studios, most of which are open to launching their games DRM-free. We also treated this new opportunity as an extension of our philosophy towards immortal classics: our new releases are deeply rooted in the same old-school approach that defined the industry in the 80s and 90s.

Developing games was always a way of providing great entertainment for gamers, trying to build something you could be proud of your entire life. This exceptional attention to detail, treating the game as a labour of love and hard work is a defining quality for many indie devs. Those values and pure excitement of creation are bridging the gap between the more idealistic times of the past and today’s reality of PC gaming. We are looking for titles–like Legend of Grimrock, Fez, FTL: Faster Than Light– that are doing just that.

So far, we have received great feedback from the community praising our move into releasing brand new titles and business-wise it has been a very good first year for us in our current shape and form.

GOG is known for its strict No DRM policies, and we’re aware how difficult it was for you, initially, to convince publishers to support this approach. But you now have a sizeable catalogue of games, new and old alike. Is it still a tough job to convince them about such an approach or has it become relatively easier now?

After 5 years of operation we have raw data from all of our sales numbers that is very persuasive. It turns out that our approach has a lasting appeal for gamers – the older games are made available to them hassle-free, with additional goodies, optimized for their operating systems. Another eye-opener for them must have been our successful release of a brand new AAA title – The Witcher 2 from our sister company CD Projekt RED. That made it easier for us to release completely new indie games as most of the publishers acknowledged our success and have embraced releasing games without copy protection. Not all of them, mind you, but we keep working on it…

GOG has always been a supporter of Indie talent, but how does the audience respond to Indie games? Does the good reviews most of these titles actually convert to good sales numbers? How successful has Indie games been on your service?

We’ve had great success as an indie platform; since we started a little over a year ago we’ve grown to where developers talk about the fact that we’re often their #2 source of revenue after Steam ). This doesn’t come by accident, of course.  A lot of what made games from the 90s so innovative and fun was that pretty much every game has been created with a team and a budget that would be considered “budget” by today’s standards. As a result, there’s a whole lot of overlap between “indie” games and the classics of yesteryear, and we deliberately look for games that evoke the classic gaming qualities and feel. The indie devs who make these games have true passion for their game and work on the tiniest of details providing great value for money to their customers. These are values we can get behind. Suffice to say we are very happy that we have taken the step into the indie waters last year.

It’s an interesting balance for us: new games are obviously generally much easier to put up in the store for sale–there’s no QA or game remastering for modern systems needed, obviously–but there’s also usually no built-in fanbase who want to play the game, so we have to work harder on the marketing & PR side to help make the game a success.

No one can ignore the impact Kickstarter’s had on the PC gaming scene with developers having an option to get their game directly out there, in front of its audience and try to sell the idea to them even before the game’s been made.  What is GOG’s opinion about this? Has GOG featured any Kickstarter funded games on its platform? How well have they performed?

We’re fans of Kickstarter here at GOG–across the company we have collectively chipped in to back more than a hundred projects, according to a quick internal survey we did a while back. That doesn’t mean that we don’t also realize that there are potential risks and rewards with Kickstarter. The crowd funding bubble we’re in right now will probably burst when the first major Kickstarter project fails. A simple fact of game development is that more than half of the games that start production don’t finish. As such, developers should be extra cautious not to promise more than they can deliver to their supporters.

That said, we’ve seen some great stuff from Kickstarter already land on GOG. From the recently released Expeditions: Conquistador to some great games like FTL: Faster Than Light or Strike Suit Zero, I’m excited to see that developers are making good use of Kickstarter to make innovative and exciting titles, and we continue to look to sign the best games from there–and elsewhere.

Your thoughts on the pay-what-you-want model which services such as the Humble Bundle has made popular?

We’re in an interesting position on this: we’ve come out, before, as being against steep sales and pay what you want pricing. But anyone who looks at GOG will note that we’ve done both of those. Our audience reacted when we mentioned, around two years ago, that we were opposed to crazy steep discounts, and the reaction was not good. We found ourselves re-evaluating our stance on these things in light of the reaction. And there’s undisputable, hard evidence that–in the short term–80% off sales definitely increase revenue. And for all that we’re the crazy rebels of digital distribution, we’re also still a business. When every other store was doing it, we were handicapping ourselves by not joining in.

But it’s a bit of a devil’s bargain: when we release an indie game like Expeditions: Conquistador and you see a lot of comments saying, “Man, this game looks good but $15 is too much to pay for a game,” I think the bargain you’ve driven is evident: people are increasingly seeing that games are cheap commodities, something that you pay $5–or less!–to purchase. And that puts game creators in a tough place; it’s devaluing games and our hobby in general, and it’s not a good place for the industry to be going overall, I don’t think.

How does GOG think might be a way to tackle the menace of piracy? The reason which has prompted most of the big publishers to implement restrictive policies such as DRM?

We’ve proven our anti-piracy model. It works without question: 90% of our catalog of classic games were only available via abandonware, torrents, and other illegal methods when we started to sell them. So we clawed these games back from piracy by providing a simple thing: value.  Pirates don’t give you the goodies, the customer support, the fantastic community that GOG does. When you buy a game on GOG, that’s what you’re paying five or ten or twenty dollars for: knowing that we take good care of you, and we provide unparalleled value for money.

There’s a challenge to doing things this way: it’s harder work. Our sister company CD Projekt RED, for example, provided a phenomenal package in their basic retail version of The Witcher 2: there were maps, a medallion, a paper strategy guide, a paper manual, a CD with the whole soundtrack, and so on. When’s the last time you bought a boxed retail game and got a CD and a single slip of paper that says, “the manual is on the DVD”? At that point, what are you providing that pirates don’t? A box? The same with a Steam copy of a game: you get the game and not much else. It’s hard work, getting extra assets together, making a package that feels special. And it feels risky to say, “let’s take the ten, fifty or hundred thousand that we’d be spending on DRM licensing and instead devote it to making our game an extraordinary value.”

And, of course, DRM doesn’t solve piracy anyway. Look for any AAA game released so far this year on a torrent tracker you like. Of course you can find it, and of course they’ve cracked the DRM and removed it. So pirates–the very people who you are trying to stop–don’t have any need to worry about the DRM because they don’t ever see it. Only paying customers do. That’s crazy!

Finally, piracy isn’t solvable. Since the invention of the printing press, people have been infringing on IPs. Some people steal. Some people will always opt to take your IP for free. To hell with them. Instead, find the people who will pay for your product and treat them like kings. That is how you build brand loyalty. That is how you make people who don’t just buy the game you’re selling, but who want to buy the next one. And it’s how you solve piracy–as much as it can be solved.

TrevorLongino

Your closest digital competitor is Steam (Valve’s Digital Game Distribution service), and they’re doing pretty good although they’ve some kind of DRM in place. We have to ask, why the #NODRM approach for GOG?

Actually, I’d argue our closest digital competitor is piracy. And they’re even bigger than Steam.

We’re not necessarily a competitor for Steam. We’re an alternative. We provide things they don’t–namely, a DRM-free experience, flat pricing world-wide, and goodies and attention to our games and gamers. They provide things that we don’t.  Many of the games that we sell are available on Steam as well, and the fact that we do as well as we have in the last year proves that some people find what we’re doing a valuable alternative to Steam.

So with that said, the fact that we’ve taken the #NoDRM approach makes a lot of sense if you think about who it is that we consider as the largest “digital distributor” in the market: pirates. We’ve deliberately designed our signup, purchase, and download process to be as quick and painless as possible, because if you compare the process of buying a game with DRM to downloading the game from a torrent, the stark difference in simplicity and user-friendliness is boggling.

#NoDRM is something we believe in for a number of reasons. First of all, DRM pretty much burdens the legit gamers instead of the pirates. If you are paying for the game, like you’re supposed to, why should you have to go through all the hoops of permanent Internet connection, copy protection etc.? Sure, Steam’s DRM might seem unintrusive, but wait until your Internet drops out with no warning on a Saturday afternoon, and suddenly you can see that you don’t have much control over the games you buy if they have DRM.

We simply believe that if you have paid your buck the game is yours to do with it whatever you want. If you need backup copies, or you want to transfer it onto your friends laptop you have borrowed for the weekend – it’s all up to you. Above all, we are gamers here at GOG.com, and these are the things that we would like to be able to do with our games.

Although GOG is a strictly PC service, one has to keep a check on the gaming scene in general. With the next-generation of consoles announced. Who does GOG think has had a more consumer friendly approach? Which one is GOG personally looking forward to the most?

GOG.com is a PC/Mac service only but most of us own consoles as well. I’d say that it looks like PlayStation 4 is the way to go at the moment, but there is also a lot of time left for developments on the console front, so let’s not declare completely one way or the other yet.

Still, I think most of the GOG staff is leaning SONY this year. :)

People reacted pretty strongly to Microsoft’s Always-online and DRM policies. So much so that it actually forced the company to turn back on most of its previously announced DRM and used-game policies. What does GOG make of it? Was it right on its part of do away with all the features they ‘promised’ would make the experience better in order to recover from the consumer’s initial ire?

The DRM that Microsoft had proposed was ridiculous, and the community reaction wasn’t surprising to us. Microsoft’s initial response to the reaction was also ridiculous, so they didn’t do any damage control once things started to look bad, either. The damage is done, and they will have to work hard to regain consumer trust and support. I also don’t see how these features are so tightly linked to the revolutionary improvements they were so eager to introduce. I guess, if they really wanted to, they could do away with the “always on” DRM and still provide the infrastructure for voluntary connection.

With the advent of additional services such as Kickstarter, and digital distribution options such as GOG themselves, where does it feel the PC gaming scene is heading? Has things improved as far as sales are concerned? Is PC gaming going to grow like never before in the coming years or does things look bleak for the industry?

About every three to five years, people declare that PC gaming is dead–usually right after a new console launch, actually. Somehow, the platform keeps soldiering on. I think we have a bubble around PC gaming at the moment–crowdfunding, bundle deals, great indie content–and it’s bound to burst eventually. That said, I think that the trend remains: more and more people spend more and more of their time–work and leisure–on PCs. They’re not going anywhere. So I believe that while the prominence of PCs may wax and wane, that things are going well, we continue to see developers creating exciting things, and PC gaming will remain a big part of the market for the foreseeable future.

What’s in store for us in regards to GOG? Is the company planning to make some interesting announcements which PC gamers should keep an eye out for?

Well, we can’t make any specific announcements, but we do have some great games–classic and new ones alike–coming out in the next few months. Make sure to keep your figurative ear to the ground for more updates from GOG. ;)

We would like to thank GOG.com for taking its time out to give us the chance to speak with them. If our readers would like to know anything, feel free to post them in the comments below.