For every convoluted DRM system that treats customers like criminals, there is an army of hackers chomping at the bit to get around it. When it’s easier to download an illegal copy of a game than to play it legitimately, where is the player’s motivation to pay up?
I’m going to take a moment to be honest, here. For years, I didn’t pay for games. I started out with free flash games, and free indie games. I longed for the expensive AAA titles, but I was a poor teenager and I genuinely didn’t have the money to buy them. I just shrugged my shoulders and accepted the fact that those games were for rich people, and ignored them altogether.
Then I discovered torrents. It was so easy! Click a button, download the game, run a crack or a keygen, and voila! I had a game that I couldn’t otherwise have obtained. No one was hurt. It wasn’t like I was going to spend the money on the game, anyway. I didn’t even have any money.
As I got older, got a better job, started to earn more money, it just never occurred to me that I should spend any of it on my games. It was years before I heard about the debate over DRM and DRM-free games. At long last, I stumbled upon a few articles detailing the effect that game piracy has, not on AAA developers, but on small, independent ones. I started to hear about indie developers who chose not to put DRM on their games, and decided that they were deserving of support for not treating their customers like criminals. Still, I never quite managed to find a game that I wanted badly enough to pay for. Not when I had so many free (or pirated) games to choose from.
And then there was Humble Bundle. All those games for just a few dollars. It was a difficult decision the first time, but I never looked back. Buying my first bundle was a turning point for me, in particular because a few of the games included could only be played through Steam.
I refused to even look at them for the longest time. I paid for these games, I told myself, and I will not be tied to some third party client with their own DRM just to play them. But eventually, I gave in. It wasn’t like I was giving money to Steam, after all. I had paid for the games, and this was the only way to play them.
I hadn’t counted on the achievements. And the social features. Before I knew it, all of my online friends were also my Steam friends. I could see what games they were playing. I could take screen shots of my most epic game moments and post them for all to see. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself unlocking games on Steam that I had the option to play DRM-free. I bought more bundles, unlocked more games on Steam. I felt good about spending money on these worthy games, but I also enjoyed collecting the achievements and trading cards, unlocking a badge here or there, and leveling up.
And then there was Good Old Games. What an excellent idea. DRM-free games at reasonable prices, and they even offered support for their games, making sure they worked on modern systems, and offered money-back guarantees (something Steam would never dream of doing). Now there was a company that deserved support. This was the way to get people to pay for games without treating them like criminals.
And yet… When I saw a game I wanted on GOG, priced very reasonably, I hesitated. I didn’t click Buy. And why?
Because there were no Steam keys. I could buy the game and support the developer, and I could play it as much as I wanted forever without any DRM. But I couldn’t put it in my Steam library, and I couldn’t show off how many hours I’d played it, and I couldn’t share the experience with all my Steam friends. In the end, I didn’t buy it. In the end, I never bought anything from GOG, even though I think they’re an amazing company which deserves my money. In the end, Steam won.
And you know what? I don’t resent them for it at all. Don’t get me wrong — Steam is the source of a lot of douchebaggery, the likes of which could fill several articles like this one. But there is one thing that they did right, and they did it so right that they have made me a loyal customer despite myself: they created a DRM system that customers actually want to use.
That’s the key to getting people to pay for software in an age where it’s almost always easier (or at least possible) to obtain it illegally for free. You have to offer something to the paying user that the pirate user doesn’t get. And that thing can’t be something critical to the game, or else you’re just punishing legitimate customers who have trouble getting their DRM to work. It has to be something extra. Something fun.
Steam has taken the most successful parts of sites like Facebook and integrated them into their game distribution service. They have gamified game DRM. They have gamified buying games. They have combined social networking, the sharing of photos, and the endorphin-releasing joy of leveling up and earning achievements and badges. They’ve added collectibility and competitive events.
When I buy a game on Steam, I’m not just buying the game. I’m buying a social experience, and a meta-game that I enjoy. And even when I know I could easily get a game for free by pirating it, or DRM-free for cheap, I still elect to use Steam.
I should hate Steam for addicting me, and to be honest, I do, a little, but I can’t really hate them too much. Whatever douchebaggery they may be responsible for, they are also responsible for an incredible number of people actually paying real life money for their games instead of pirating them. They don’t treat the customers like the enemy, or like criminals. They simply say “play with us and you get all this extra stuff, and all your friends will play with you.”
In the end, if it weren’t for Steam, I have to admit that I would probably still be pirating a lot of games. As much as I want to support developers, it’s just not easy to justify inconveniencing myself and spending money unnecessarily. I’m glad that Steam has got me hooked, because I can feel good about playing these games now, knowing the developers are being supported — and knowing that everyone can see me racking up ‘chieves on One Finger Death Punch.