Different Shades of Freedom in Digital (Game) Sales

Why I buy proprietary video games

(If you don’t care why I buy proprietary video games, you may skip this paragraph)

Even though more and more – and more and more great! – Free games become available every month, the video game market seems to still be dominated by proprietary software to a much greater extent than other categories of software.When it comes to operating systems or applications, I try to stay clear of proprietary software whenever I can and have in fact all but eliminated proprietary software from my own computers except for the occasional binary firmware blob or software for printing (sadly, my printer simply doesn’t work on Linux). However, when it comes to games, there are just too many great proprietary titles I don’t want to miss. And I don’t dislike proprietary games as much as other proprietary software.

Sure it sucks that I

  • cannot modify a game (though many many proprietary games actually do allow “modding” and benefit greatly from that!)
  • have to put up with any kind of arbitrary measures a game’s developer (or publisher, in most cases) has come up with in order to control players
  • cannot share a game freely with anybody (and the industry tries to come up with new ways to stop people from re-selling or even lending their legally owned – or rather licensed – games)
  • cannot see a game’s inner workings

but unless I feel too controlled by a game’s makers (like when they force me to be online even to play a single-player campaign), I’m way more okay with it in the case of games than in the case of operating systems or applications. Probably that has to do with the fact that games are not as important to me as other software. If there is something I don’t like in a proprietary game but the game is still fun, I can live with that for the time it takes to finish it, whereas with a proprietary application, I can only either live with it until the developers decide to fix the problem or hope to find a better application.

So, yes, I do play – and of course buy – proprietary video games.

Buying your games with more or less freedom

Not all channels for buying purely digital copies of games are equal with respect to freedom, though. From my personal experience, I can tell about two extremes within the domain of digital distribution of proprietary games: The Nintendo Shop Channel / eShop on the restrictive extreme, and Humble Bundle on the permissive extreme.

If you have a Nintendo console (disclaimer: I am pretty much a Nintendo fanboy, so I don’t mean to criticize the company in general, their games are still amazing!) and want to buy a game digitally, you are completely at Nintendo’s mercy: You can only buy it via their shop platform for the price they set, you can only play via credit card or Nintendo Points cards bought in stores, you can only play the game on the exact device you bought it on, and if Nintendo decides to pull a game from their shop, there is no way to obtain it anymore (at least you can still play your purchased copy). This is pretty darn restrictive. I haven’t had the chance to experience the respective shops from Microsoft or Sony myself yet, but I am certain they are not much less restrictive (if at all).

Now the other extreme to that is Humble Bundle. It does sell proprietary games, but within these boundaries, you get pretty much every freedom you want:

  • The games usually* come completely DRM-free
  • The majority of the (non-mobile) games are offered for Windows, Linux and OS X, so you have a choice of OSes to play the game on
  • You can download your purchased game directly, get a Steam key or download it via BitTorrent
  • You can pay via credit card, PayPal, Amazon Payments, Google Checkouts, and even Bitcoin!
  • The best part: You can pay whatever you want, anything from the symbolic one cent up to whatever amount you want, though to get all the games in a bundle, you have to pay more than the average sum paid so far
  • You can freely distribute the sum you pay between the games’ developers/publishers, Humble Bundle itself and a group of charities (including the EFF!)

I find this quite impressive given that it’s still proprietary, all-rights-reserved software that’s being sold here. And, looking at how many bundles they sell, how much money they make and the fact that even big publishers occasionally offer their – older – games via Humble Bundle, it seems that both paying customers and game providers seem to like the approach!

To me, that shows that, even for people who still refuse to join the Free Software movement, allowing customers as much freedom as possible is the key to success. The difference between the restrictive systems of Nintendo & Co. and permissive ones such as Humble Bundle are their perspective on their customers: The console makers seem to see their customers almost as their enemy who will try every possible way to avoid paying for the games they love and supporting their continued development. They try to beat their enemies by locking them in so tight that they have no other chance than to comply with their rules – or not get any games. Humble Bundle, on the other hand, seems to see their customers as their friends, who actually want to pay for the games they love in order to show their appreciation and support their continued development. And they do! If people didn’t want to pay for the games, they could just all pay $0.01. If everyone wanted all the games in a bundle, the average would slowly rise since everyone had to pay more than the average, but if each person beat the average by only one cent, it wouldn’t increase all that fast (without actually calculating it, I’d speculate they’d have to sell quite a lot of bundles just to get over $1!). And since they games come DRM-free, they could just share them on BitTorrent for $0.00 anyway. In reality, however, the average paid is usually between $5-10. This still isn’t much, but the games they sell their are usually either very low-budget or rather old and it seems that the developers/publishers as well as Humble Bundle themselves still make enough of a profit from that to keep the concept attractive.

Oh, and guess which group of OS users consistently pays the highest average amount for each Bundle? The Linux folks! Yes, those people about which gaming industry stars like John Carmack say ” there are not many people who are interested in paying for a game”.  Sure, Linux users still are the minority of Humble Bundle buyers, but their willingness to pay is actually higher than that of Windows or Mac users.

Freedom to those who support it

Knowing this, one of my first questions when Aaron Seigo introduced the “Free Culture”-inspired digital market “Bodega” was “Will there be the option for a ‘pay what you want’ model?”, and I was glad that the answer was “This isn’t implemented yet, but it’s definitely on our agenda!”. If freedom works for selling proprietary games, it surely will work for supporting Free Culture! And that spirit of freedom for every participant (regardless of whether they provide or buy content – or both!) is so palpable in Bodega and Make Play Live that I’m sure it’s bound to succeed!

Update

I added “usually” to “The games come completely DRM-free” in the Humble Bundle description since, as Raht pointed out in the comments, some of the Humble Weekly Sales from major publishers did only come as Steam keys. The actual Bundles, however, are always completely DRM-free and even most of the weekly sales are DRM-free, so the sentence “The games usually* come completely DRM-free” definitely holds true.

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Researcher on usability / usable security / user experience Volunteer KDE usability consultant Open Access / Open Science supporter

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6 comments on “Different Shades of Freedom in Digital (Game) Sales
  1. Raht says:

    “The games come completely DRM-free” – unfortunately that’s no longer true, newer Humble Bundles are mostly Steam keys.

    • Are you sure= The Humble Indie Bundle 7 I bought in September was still optionally Steam key or direct download, and the current page says “Pay $1 or more and get a Steam key (except Anomaly Korea) as well as downloads.”, so it’s not only Steam.

      • Raht says:

        I am sure about Humble Bundle in general – there are weekly bundles and ‘dedicated’ bundles featuring one developer. The Indie series stays DRM-free, I think. In my defence, you only refer to “Humble Bundle”, which is an umbrella term for all PewDiePie’s game-related charity activities.

        However, my point is true for many indie games that are featured in weekly and dedicated bundles, too.

    • Kevin says:

      Even if the game is only a Steam key (which is not true for all Humble Bundles I bought so far), does this imply DRM? I thought the Steam DRM was an option a game publisher could but didn’t have to choose

      • Raht says:

        Steam is DRM, as in Digital Rights Management. Even when a Steam game don’t use Steamworks (the copy protection part), you still have to use Steam app to install it. The game is tied to your account and can only be installed by you. You can’t give it, or share it, or resell it – i.e. do all sort of things you could do before DRM era. Your digital rights are managed.

        Now, if this is good or bad is left for everyone to decide, but there is no doubt that Steam itself is a DRM scheme. The fact that so many people differentiate between Steam and DRM part is a big PR win on Valve’s part.

        • Sure, Steam itself is a “Walled Garden”. However, not only the Bundles but also the Weekly Sales often do not come as Steam-only (in fact, none of those I ever looked at did). Steam is only an option, you can also download directly.
          I’ve added “usually” to “come DRM-free” though, for correctness’ sake.

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