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Tycho / on Mon, Sep 29 2008 at 12:00 am

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The Origin Of The CD-Keys, Part Three

Daniel James has a presence which extends somewhat beyond the borders of his person, so that when you meet him it seems like you are having a Very Real Experience.  As a game designer and a CEO (in that order), his company Three Rings is known for putting out incredibly quirky shit.  I asked him to write a piece because I knew it would be interesting, but also because (as the purveyor of several digital worlds) he’s in a unique position to discuss it. - (CW)TB

The business model of putting bits in a box and charging to experience said tasty bits is forever broken. Furthermore, to prevent the copying of bits is futile and ultimately destructive to the goal of any modern digital business, which is to conscript enthusiastic ‘users’, and from them, customers.

Our mission at Three Rings is to create an emotional connection with players. We want to become one of the ten places you go on the interwebs. We want to be on your Chrome start page. We want you to dream of puzzley pieces and Pirates (or Zombies). If some folks would like to give us some money, that’d be great too.

Money can’t buy you love, but love can bring you money. In software the only sustainable way to earn money is by first creating love, and then hoping that some folks want to demonstrate that love with their dollars.

The cheddary ‘Free to Play’ is not just a cheesy marketing slogan, but a shift in assumptions; it costs approaching nothing to give away some bits, or let people play Puzzle Pirates for free. Every player, free or paid, adds value to the community and excitement for other players. Free players are the content, context and society that encourages a small fraction of the audience to willingly pay more than enough to subsidize the rest.

It’s perhaps easy to stand in the server-side tower, printing coin of the realm and lording it over a bit-mountain. One of online games’ many business model advantages is sidestepping DRM questions by maintaining the canonical database that is highly valued by members of the community.

‘Not fair’, the vendor of music or packaged software cries. Well, tough shit. Nobody added your business to the list of protected species, despite what your lobbyists and lawyers say. Find a business model that’s actually appropriate to the 21st century, and perhaps scale back your expectations of vast profits accordingly (oh, and fire some lawyers and lobbyists, too, please). For example, as some musicians have done by returning to live performance as their main source of revenue.

We all know folks who collect music, movies or software, thrilled by all the notional value acquired, but rarely look at any of it. To me, it seems worthless. I assume that any bits are commonplace and easy to come by, and the value is in their use. Everything should be shareware to be tried and tested until its value is proven and the love-meter swings open the wallet. If I were to pass on some music or a piece of code I become a vector of word of mouth viral marketing, the best kind, the kind that money can’t buy. To fight this inexorable trend seems as counter-productive as the cellular operators practice of not distributing game demos in order to fleece people with marketing and crappy games. Way to kill a platform, guys.

DRM takes a big poo on your best customers—the ones who’ve given you money—whilst doing nothing practical to prevent others from ‘stealing’ your precious content juices. Worse, it makes these renegades feel nice and righteous about sticking it to ‘the man’. Stop trying to persuade people to love you more by hitting them a rusty pipe. Put down the pipe, and give up on DRM.


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