Piracy and the four currencies, part 2

Cross-posted on gamasutra.

My previous article, piracy and the four currencies seems to have caused a bit of a stir, so I'm going to make this a series. Welcome to part two!

For those of you just joining the conversation, go read the original article. Don't worry, it's pretty short and we'll wait right here for you.

Back already? Great.  I'm going to expand upon my original theory, and then test it out on a few new case studies to see what kind of explanatory breadth it has. 

The "four currencies"

The Point

The basic point of my article was to look at the discussion in a new way*. The old model (which so many senators and CEO's buy into), naively equates "cost" with money-dollars.  This model does a poor job of explaining human behavior, however, because humans care about more things than money- namely, they care about time, pain-in-the-butt, integrity, and a million other things.  Furthermore, the value of each of these things is different for each person - including money!  A model that acknowledges that these other, non-monetary "costs" exist is better at accounting for how and why human beings make choices.  This is what the "four currency" theory is all about. 

I chose my specific "four currencies**," not because they form an exhaustive list, but because:
  • They're the main ones I think of when buying stuff
  • "Four currencies" is a catchy phrase
  • It gets the idea across quickly
Gauging by the intense reaction the article received, I think this theory has legs.  Since I'm just a random game developer and blogger, I'll leave the hardcore analysis and scientific testing of this theory to any grad students out there who need a thesis topic.

*The idea is still "new," but I'm not the first to posit it. This 2010 article proposes almost exactly the same idea with slightly different wording.

**Money-dollars ($M), time-dollars ($T), pain-in-the-butt dollars ($P) and integrity-dollars ($I) for those of you who didn't read the original article :)

Things I didn't cover

CC image courtesy of wilhei55

There's a few things I left out in my original analysis, which I'll touch on real quickly here.
  • VALUE of the product
    All of my side-by-side comparisons assume products of equal value. This isn't always the case - for instance, a pirated game might come with viruses, buying from Steam has added value from Steam integration features, etc.  Although low quality can be considered an additional $P cost, that muddies the water somewhat.

  • WHOSE cost?
    When analysing DRM "costs", I didn't really explain WHO was paying the "pain-in-the-butt" and "time" costs.  For instance, there's a high $T and $P cost to the cracker who actually breaks the DRM.  Without this, DRM is insurmountable to non-techies, so the $P cost of piracy is initially high for them.  As soon as the cracked version hits pirate sites, the $P/$T cost for everyone goes down.   I could write another whole article on just this point, so for simplicity's sake most of my examples in this article will only consider the user's "costs."

  • Values are DYNAMIC
    Many people said I was assuming costs were "static," ie, unchanging.  Though I consider this a mis-reading, I'll clarify things now - each and every "four currency" value is dynamic, varying over time, between individuals, and even within an individual.

  • Values are RELATIVE
    The actual number for a cost is less important than the subjective value a person assigns it.  For instance, 60 money-dollars is valued differently by the rich and the poor.  At $5/hour, that's more than a day's wages, but at $240/hour, it's 15 minutes.  And converting money-dollars to time-dollars still leaves us with relative values, because everyone values time differently.  So even the most "objective" and "quantifiable" values like $M and $T are still in the end subjectively valued, and of course $P and $I are harder still to quantify.

  • Your Mileage May Vary
    In the charts I show 4-currency costs as I value them, or else I'll describe the values of the person in the example.  More than likely the weights you give to those values will differ.

What I'm Not Saying

Let's clarify what I'm specifically not saying. 

I don't think we can (or should) use the $M+$T+$P+$I formula to quantify or "put a price on" things like our time, pain-in-the-butt, and integrity, or come up with "conversion rates" between, say, $M and $I.  Even if there is some not-terrible calculation, it's use is limited because the values keep changing, and it's hard to compare values between people.  And even if you account for that, we still wind up at the original problem - considering only those values which we can reduce to numbers, which leaves out all the squishy stuff that influences human behavior.

CC image courtesy of 401k

So, when I assign numeric values to the four currencies, they're not precise.  It's more about "what moves the scales" rather than how many "pain-in-the-butt dollars" equals one "integrity dollar." 

What I Am Saying

This comic strip (source: TheOatmeal.com) about a guy trying to watch the new HBO series A Game of Thrones is a good example of what I am talking about.  I'll annotate a few of the panels showing the relative 4-currency costs of pirating vs. buying legitimately, as the character perceives them.

You can see that $I cost of piracy starts off very high. Even though he could pirate and get the show for free, he's determined to "do the right thing."  Also, he knows piracy incurs a small amount of time and hassle, so he'd much rather just spend the money, which he hopes will earn him a quick and painless buying experience.  It's not clear exactly how much he's prepared to spend, but from the looks of it money-dollar cost is less of a concern than the satisfaction he'll get from buying legitimately.

His attempts at buying are frustrated.  Additional $T and $P costs are added to the legitimate side of the scale.  The perceived cost of piracy stays the same.  He tries iTunes, Amazon, and Hulu Plus before finally going directly to HBO:

Turns out, the only way to legitimately access "A Game of Thrones" is to sign up for cable service and subscribe to HBO. This is an enormous pain-in-the-butt, it's really expensive, and if he has to schedule a visit from the cable guy, that will eat up a lot of time. $P, $M, and $T skyrocket*.  The cost of buying legitimately just went way up.  

*If he's opposed to cable on principle, the $I cost just rose, as well, which isn't reflected in the picture.

At this point, he's still averse to piracy, showing how highly he values the perceived $I cost of doing something "illegal" and "wrong."  He's still not sure what to do - but the scales are on the verge of tipping.

Hesitantly, he considers piracy, and is surprised by how quick and painless the procedure is.  $T and $P costs for piracy plummet, reflecting his new perception.  Furthermore, by this point he's been so frustrated by HBO's inferior service that the $I cost of piracy shrinks as well (he doesn't feel as bad about it). The scales tip, and his decision is clear.  Piracy it is. 

What's worth noting is that it wasn't until the very end of this process that the customer decided to pirate.  If HBO had made any effort whatsoever to making this content available in a customer-friendly way, they would have likely gotten a sale out of this person and others like him.  Instead, their inferior service drove him to piracy. 

I'm Not Justifying Piracy

At this point, I imagine DRM advocates will accuse me of trying to "justify" piracy.  I am doing nothing of the sort.  I make games for a living, and I happen to think piracy is just flat-out wrong, so the $I cost of doing so is near-infinite for me.

That doesn't mean, however, that I'm willing to fork out the money-, time- and pain-in-the-butt- dollars that movie and AAA game studios demand, though - given the choice to buy legitimately or pirate, I just refuse to do either. 

Most people aren't like me, though, and have a point where $P, $T, and $M will override $I and make them consider piracy.  The above example is one such case. 

Some of these people could be our customers.  Not all of them, sure - but some of them will most definitely buy our games if we make a service that "costs" less.  We can complain about pirates "stealing" our content and waste our efforts on burdensome hardware, software, and legal protections in a mostly futile attempt to stop them, or we can try to understand what drives their behavior and respond accordingly.

Piracy. Is. Not. Theft.

Also - Piracy is not "stealing," for the record.

is the unauthorized access and duplication of copyrighted material, such as a movie or video game.

is the unauthorized taking of some thing, such as money, horses, or sandwiches, which deprives the rightful owner of said stolen thing.

When you pirate Defender's Quest, you are violating my legal right to monopolize its distribution for a limited period* of time.  You are not, however, "stealing" it, because I still have my copies of it, and so do all the other customers who bought it. Piracy and stealing are two different things.

*Well, copyright used to be limited, at least.  It's basically forever, these days.

More Nuanced Examples

I used the 4-currency model to explain why DRM Is A Bad Thing, but some astute readers pointed out that in some cases, my model could actually justify DRM.  Let's take a look at a few of those cases.

Case #1: Steam

First, let's consider Steam.  Steam uses DRM, but instead of making people angry and driving them to pirate, it's captured an enormous and dedicated base of players.


The 4-currency model explains this pretty well - Steam costs only a small amount of $P and $T to set up the service - comparable to buying anything from some random website for the first time, after which every transaction has a lower $P and $T cost thereafter.  They already have your credit card info, so your wallet is already open, so to speak.  The only hurdle to overcome is the first purchase.

Steam is one of the very few cases in which the only "cost" being evaluated is $M for most players.  Steam is a service that competes magnificently well with free, as their recent success in Russia, previously written off as a haven for pirates, demonstrates.

The simple act of making someone open their wallet and pull out their credit card is a pretty big $P cost in and of itself, and Steam has removed even that from their buying process.  This is the "Steam Lock-in Effect" - once you're over the initial hump, it usually makes more sense to keep buying from Steam.

EA's competing service, Origin, whose DRM is much more onerous and restrictive, does not benefit from the "Steam Lock-in Effect."  They may already have your credit card info, but they do nothing to make the experience less painless, so the second purchase is just as much a hassle as the first.

Case #2: Consoles

The second case is that of dedicated gaming consoles. Let's roll back the clock to 2001 and the era of the PS2.  Steve is thinking of getting Final Fantasy X and has no qualms whatsoever about piracy. Let's say money's tight and he'd rather not pay $60, and that this alone is enough to drive him to piracy if all it took was downloading a torrent file. Were Final Fantasy X to be released on PC, he'd pirate it in a second (or several hours, at 2001 download speeds).

However, this isn't the case.  FFX is only on the PS2, and he'll have to do more than download it to get it running on his PS2.  He'll also need to burn a DVD from a downloaded ISO file, assuming he knows how.  Then, he'll need to hardware-mod his PS2 to run unsigned code.

This is pretty daunting for non-techie Steve, so he just shells out the 60 bucks and decides not to buy any other games that year.  Even though he doesn't feel guilty about piracy at all, just forking over the money is easier*.

*Of course, if there was a store that sold modded PS2's and pirated discs in his area, it'd be tough to get this guy to go legit.

This anti-piracy strategy is the one the RIAA, the MPAA, EA, Activision, and congress pursue - they assume none of us have scruples, and that if they make piracy hard enough they will force people to go legit.  In some cases, this model works.  It works for when customers:
  • Put little value on $I
  • Can't easily circumvent DRM
  • Will not just quit playing games when treated poorly
First, it's ridiculous to think nobody cares about $I.  There's plenty of people who don't, but you will almost always lose them to piracy anyway, and there's no reason to drive all the honest people away, too.

Second, as time goes on technology improves, stuff downloads faster, and more $P and $T cost can be off-loaded to crackers who then make the product available for piracy.  The "good ole days" of hard-to-pirate console games are fading.

Third, as consoles move to digital distribution, the more their piracy problems start to resemble that of PC's, where piracy keeps getting easier.

Fourth, quality of service matters.  If I had the choice of selling our game on XBLA or Steam, I'd choose Steam in a heart-beat, on sales considerations alone.  And why is Steam selling so much when the PC market was supposed to be dead? Because their service is better, and customers love them for it.

Finally, even if DRM advocates win the day and invent something so strong that piracy somehow just isn't an option, the customer can always walk away. Who needs video games if they're such a pain-in-the-butt?

See You in Part 3!

That's all for today! In future articles, I'll cover some more case studies - namely MMO's, Free-to-play games, and our own title, the Indie tower-defense / RPG hybrid, Defender's Quest.

You can follow my blogging here at fortressofdoors.com, or at gamasutra. My twitter handle is @larsiusprime, and you can see how we applied this theory to how we market and sell our own game at www.defendersquest.com.

UPDATE: part 3 and part 4.

-Lars out

PS: Free Goodies

You've been a lovely audience, so here's some free goodies for y'all.

First, here's an animated gif of the comic and my analysis I put up there earlier.

Second, the "four currencies" images I've made are hereby released under a CC attribution license.

Creative Commons License

"The Four Currencies" images by Lars A. Doucet are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.  Based on a work at www.fortressofdoors.com.

Piracy and the four currencies

Cross-posted on gamasutra.

Part 1 of a multi-part series. (Part 2)

The problem with most piracy debates is that the only "cost" they discuss is money-dollars.  So, the problem is framed somewhat like this:

"Buying the game from us costs money-dollars.  Pirating it costs zero money-dollars.  Therefore, most people will pirate the game if they have the choice and we must do everything we can to physically stop them."

The familiar Money-dollar ($M)

This is wrong because there are at least four currencies involved here, not just one (money-dollars).

I propose the following:

  1. ($M) Money-dollars
  2. ($T) Time-dollars
  3. ($P) Pain-in-the-butt-dollars
  4. ($I) Integrity-dollars
Whether a player buys or pirates a game depends on how much each service - not product! - "costs" in terms of these four currencies, as well as how much the player values each one.

I hate spending these
For the purpose of this article Money-dollars will be denominated in USD, Time-dollars will be denominated in hours, and Pain-in-the-butt-dollars will be denominated in SI standard units of "amount-of-aspirin-I-have-to-take-after-beating-my-head-against-the-wall-for-an-hour." Feel free to measure Integrity-dollars in Hail-Marys, or hours spent lying awake at night.

Okay, I kid, I kid.  Obviously, $P and $I are the most subjective "currencies" and it's hard to quantify them, even on an individual basis. That doesn't make them any less real, however - as I'm about to demonstrate, the $P and $I cost of a service are sometimes the most important ones.

You have a finite number to spend, and you never get any more.

So, let's start with my favorite example, Dragon Age II. On release, the game cost:
  • $M 60 
  • $T 5
  • $P 100
  • $I 0
This game was expensive, it took forever to install and deal with the invasive DRM, which was only slightly more fun than getting groped by the TSA in the comfort of your own home.  The only thing that was cheap about the game was that buying it was "the right thing to do," wasn't illegal, and it didn't make the player feel guilty.  The only way this service competed with piracy was in the $I cost.

By comparison, pirate sites were offering the game for the low, low price of :
  • $M 0
  • $T 0.5
  • $P 5
  • $I 10
It cost no money, and the only time spent was downloading the game file. There was some pain-in-the-butt, ie, the player could accidentally download malware, needed to know how to use bittorent (easy for us geeks, not so for average joe/jane), and was constantly being hassled by lurid ads and pop-ups.  Finally, there was the integrity cost that piracy is illegal, and in some sense, "morally wrong."

Spending one costs a tiny part of your soul.

What if Dragon Age II had this price instead?
  • $M 60 
  • $T 0.5
  • $P 0.5
  • $I 0
Ie, what if buying Dragon Age II was as easy as entering payment information, downloading the game, and running it? Now the game looks pretty competitive - it's actually less of a pain-in-the-butt than pirating it, and it doesn't "cost" any moral integrity or ask you to break any laws, either!

The $60 price tag will still turn those who value $M above all else to piracy, but now the game can capture all those who value $I and $P and $T more than $M, which is not a small number. 

Again, I want to underscore that the relative values of each currency vary from player to player.  People who live in low-income nations will be willing to spend more $T and $P if they can get the game for 0 $M.  The $I cost is the most subjective of the four and depends on how much stock a player puts in "doing the right thing," (so to speak) or whether they even see any moral integrity in the choice at all.  

Those who reject the notion of copyright altogether would likely value $I = 0, though even in this case, thinking of it instead as "the risk one takes of getting in trouble with the law" still raises $I to some non-zero value.

The $I cost also varies with the developer's behavior. The friendlier and more "deserving" you are in the eyes of the player, the higher the $I cost becomes for pirating the game. Conversely, a hostile attitude can easily lower the $I cost of piracy as nobody loses any sleep over pirating from an imagined "rich, greedy CEO."

Additionally, there's some strong interplay between the various currencies - a high $M cost makes the player feel entitled to a low $P cost - if I'm paying out the nose, I expect white-glove, full service VIP treatment.  If I'm treated like a criminal instead, the $I cost of piracy just plummeted.  I'll give my time and pain-in-the-butt dollars to the competition, thank you very much.

We used this theory to inform our strategy for Defender's Quest. Here's the current price of the game:
  • $M 5-7
  • $T 0.08
  • $P 0.5
  • $I 0
And here's what it's going for on your local torrent site:
  • $M 0
  • $T 0.08
  • $P 5
  • $I 10-20*
*Depending on whether pirating an "indie" game makes you feel more guilty than pirating from so-called "fat cats" like EA.

You will never be able to compete with pirate sites on price ($M) alone.  Furthermore, at best you will only be able to match their price on time cost ($T), which is merely the time it takes to find and download your game. 

The two areas you can compete on, and which do seem to make a big difference, are in pain-in-the-butt-ness and moral integrity.  If you add any DRM, even if it only has a 1% false-positive rate, you've thrown up a $P cost for those customers that far exceeds that of the pirate sites. 

Strip the DRM away and provide a friendly and easy-to-use purchasing experience, however, and you can drive the $P cost down to fractional amounts, far below what a sketchy torrent site can offer.  

Also, by virtue of being the author, you provide the lowest $I cost in town.  In the best case, you actually have a negative $I cost, which means buying the game gives the player a moral integrity credit.  The player now feels like she's doing "the right thing," she doesn't worry about breaking the law, and gets a warm fuzzy feeling knowing she's supporting the makers of games she loves.

I'll throw in one more quick note - do not underestimate the value of $T, and look for ways in which you are potentially wasting the player's time.  I got many e-mails from players telling us that one of the chief reasons for buying the game was our long demo, which also allowed them to export their save file. Many said they would not have bought the game if they had to start from scratch.  For these players, spending the 7 money-dollars was not an issue, but having to lose the 2 time-dollars they'd already sunk into the demo would have been a deal-breaker. 

This little button lowers the $T cost of playing the demo

Well, that's my theory. It's not perfect, but I think it's a lot better than what a lot of congressmen, CEO's, and so-called economists have to offer.

-Lars out

Part 1 of a multi-part series. (Part 2)

Version 0.8.9 is ready!

Hey everyone! We've got a new patch out today and some news!

First off, we're trying to commit to a patch schedule of one new patch every Monday.  This will usually be a bug-fix patch, but eventually as we finish new content and features we'll be releasing those, too.

The only exception is a few features we'll be holding back on until the full version 1.0 "gold" release, because they'll need some extensive testing, and many of them need to be released as a complete package to make any sense.

Here's what's fixed in the new patch!

  1. Plugged the massive memory leak.
    The party screen had a massive memory leak. Just opening it would gobble up a big chunk of memory, and every time you clicked on a character button in that screen, it would gobble up an extra tiny bit that would never be released until the program was closed.

    That's all been fixed now. There might be other problems somewhere in the game, but this was the worst culprit by far. If you notice any additional slowdown, turn on your computer's memory usage tracker and see if you can pin down which screen and behavior causes the problem.

  2. Fixed healer logic.
    Or at least I think I did. There were some situations where healers would just stop healing their friends, even when they were wounded. Now, the logic should work more or less like this:

    If a friend is hurt, use best heal available, even if I have a higher-level attack. Otherwise use the best attack against enemies. Save ZEAL for healing.

    If an enemy is in range, use best attack available, even if I have a higher-level heal and a wounded friend. Otherwise use the best heal on a wounded friend. Always cast "ZEAL" if I have inspire.

    Use the highest level skill if possible. If it's an attack and no enemy is in range, use the best heal instead if a friend is hurt. If it's a heal and no friend is hurt, use the best attack instead. If neither, case ZEAL if I also have "inspire."

  3. Fixed ice mage skill display bug.
    The ice mage's "chill" % would sometimes show up with lots of trailing repeating fractions. This is fixed now. I've heard reports of ice mage chill debuffs interacting strangely with each other such that people are intentionally not using sleet/blizzard - I'm working on tracking this bug down but I don't think it's fixed in 0.8.9, and might need to wait until next week.

  4. Fixed boss battle level trigger in Act VI
    To avoid spoilers, those who've experienced this bug know what it is. There's a certain battle where a level trigger was supposed to fire but wasn't always doing so on 4x speed. I think it's fixed now. Of course, that's what I said in the last two patches...
  5. Fixed level cap bug
    Previously, you could level up past 40 and still get skill points even though you wouldn't gain XP. I've fixed this, so now it's a hard cap. In upcoming patches we will roll out more end-game content and we'll be making a set of challenge rewards that progressively raise the level cap by 5 to 10 levels or so each.  As you get into the higher levels, at a certain point the "skill cap" will be raised past 9, so that even at high levels, you can never completely fill out anyone's skill tree. This keeps your characters from all becoming the same.

    I'll also consider making it something you can just manually unlock from a menu if you want. The reason we have a skill cap is that the game balance hasn't really been fine-tuned for end-game play, so we want to generally discourage people from super grinding up before there's any real fun content to experience at those levels. We'll give you the tools to raise the level cap as soon as end-game is more properly balanced.
  6. Fixed character menu lagIn the battle menu, if you swipe your mouse across the spells, or the character class tabs, the information will update but the game won't slow down. Previously, if you did this across the character buttons themselves, there'd be massive lag.  I did some optimizing and reduced the lag by 80%. It's still noticeable on some machines, but hopefully should be muuuuch better.
  7. Fixed bonus hp bugPreviously, any passive traits that gave you bonus hp like "bulk up" and "fatten up" gave you HP that displayed in the party menu and battle preview menus, but NOT when you actually put the characters down on the field. It's fixed now - their in-battle HP's match what their preview stats say.
  8. Fixed bonus range bug
    There used to be an exploit where you could get free bonuses to a ranger's range stat by upgrading "range focus" and then re-specing the character. This is fixed now.
We've got Windows, Mac, and Linux versions on the update server and are in the process of updating the store, which should be ready within hours of this post.  I've fixed it so in the new version, it will display the full path to the downloaded update file and won't close the game window automatically.

Of course, you'll all be using the old version to download that, so you won't get any benefit from this new feature until the next patch, if you follow me.

That being said, the official solution we have right now for anyone experiencing download problems is to email us at leveluplabs@gmail.com, and we'll send you some fresh links from the store (once we get that uploaded). I wish our store would just let us give you permanent download links, but they haven't been super helpful in that regard, and if they continue to do so I'll consider finding a new storefront provider. In the meantime email us if you have any problems!

Also - from now on we're changing the naming convention for the files. Previously it was "defq_mm_dd_yyyy.exe", so something like, "defq_01_31_2012.exe" for a windows installer created on January 31st.  

The new convention is "defenders_quest_x_y_z.exe", so, "defenders_quest_0_8_9.exe" is the windows installer for version 0.8.9. This should be easier to keep track of, and also is easier to find if you can't locate the file and need to use a search query.

I'm already working on bug fixes for 0.9.0, which should be out next Monday. My top priorities for that are additional slowdown/memory issues, battle glitches (including the ice mage problem), and lots of other stuff. The best place for the general public to report bugs for now is our bug-report thread in the forum:

Thanks for playing!

Forum and Wiki are live!

Hey everyone! Just a quick post to announce our brand new Forum and Wiki just went up!

Here's a link to the forums.
Here's a link to the wiki.

The forums are pretty plain-jane for now, and the wiki is externally hosted via Wikia, and is equally bare-bones.

I'll put some quick thoughts up as to why we're creating these resources.  We are committed to doing right by our customers, but there's only so much a couple of guys can do, and we find ourselves answering the same questions over and over in e-mails.  So, what we're trying to do is slowly add things that make it easier for our customers to get their problems solved without having to wait for us to respond to an email.

The first thing we did was set up a frequently asked questions page, which I've just updated. Originally it just had question, answer, question, answer, in no particular order, but I found that it was pretty hard to scan that and find your problem, so imagine a lot of people went there, got confused, and skipped it.

Now, all the questions are in a big list up front with anchor-tag jump links to the answers, and the questions are grouped by category so it's easier to scan. Hopefully this will help people out.

However, the support and FAQ page can only answer so many questions, and so far the only way to talk to us has been through e-mail or blog comments, which kind of scatters the conversation and information. People have been posting strategy tips on various forums on the internet, and right now our audience doesn't have a "home."

Today that changes. Now we have a real forum, so all you guys trying to figure out how to take down a certain mythically delicious mammal will now have a place to discuss that :)

As for the WIKI, we hope to eventually create a fully-featured living encyclopedia about the game there, so all you guys asking how the "under the hood" formulas work will be able to look that up there, as well as read up on the game's backstory and setting, etc.  Us devs will pop in there every once in a while to fill out information only we have direct access to (like the exact battle damage formulas, etc), but we welcome fans to put up information, too.

We'll do our best to maintain these structures, both as a way to grow the Defender's Quest community, and also as a way to give you more immediate sources of help and support rather than waiting for an email response from us while we scamper around putting out fires and trying to keep everyone happy.

And of course, if you can't find an answer to your question, feel free to email us, as always. We just want to give you some options, and hopefully make things easier for all of us :)

Hope this helps!
-Lars out