The Witcher developer CD Projekt Red's online distribution store, GOG.com, turns six years old this month. What began as a niche online platform called Good Old Games and meant to help gamers find...good old games...is now a much larger force, with more than 200 partners--including Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Activision--and over 800 games (and now movies, too).
But the site's success wasn't always a sure thing. I spoke with GOG's managing director, Guillaume Rambourg, who told me that the consensus, back in 2008, was that launching a DRM-free platform would be a disaster. "Everybody thought that this would be a doomed project," he recalls as part of a wide-ranging interview about the six-year milestone.
Of course, Steam is still the dominant digital distribution platform in PC gaming. But Rambourg believes GOG is an alternative growing in popularity every day--and it all comes back to treating gamers fairly. "We want to treat [gamers] like humans, not like wallets standing on two legs. That's not how we see things," he says.
The full interview with Rambourg, which touches on the company's famous anti-DRM stance, what exactly the "GOG Way" is, and plans for the future, is below. Rambourg also essentially confirms that Early Access-style games are coming to GOG in the future, and that GOG is close to reaching a deal with either Microsoft, Disney, or Take-Two (he wouldn't say which!) to bring a whole host of classic games to the platform.
GOG is also holding a week-long sales promotion to mark its anniversary. Starting today, you can score deals on games that came to GOG in 2008 (the year GOG launched), while tomorrow will offer up markdowns on 2009 titles, Wednesday 2010 games, and so on. Also, be sure to check back with GameSpot at the end of the week for a special giveaway where you can score a free copy of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.
Going back to the beginning, can you talk about what your original goals were for GOG and explain how they match up with the results that you've seen now?
Well, when we launched GOG back in the day, so back in fall 2008, the initial goal was to revive classic games and to bring them to modern gamers. And the other mission we had, which we still have, is freeing games and gamers from the chains of DRM. Because, to us, DRM is like a prison. And whether it's for classic games or new games or even movies now, our goal is to free digital content from every kind of locker. I think we managed pretty well, because when we launched GOG back in the day, everybody thought that this would be a doomed project, a niche project, and in the end, as you might know, we have over 800 games without DRM and we operate with over 200 publishers and developers, including some big ones. So I think we convinced many people in the industry that DRM-free was the way to go when it comes to convincing the gaming community to buy games.
"When we launched GOG back in the day, everybody thought that this would be a doomed project, a niche project" -- Rambourg
Do you think GOG is niche anymore?
Obviously, we would love to release all the great blockbusters available on the market, but to do that, we mostly need to make our platform... it has to become an online platform. Hence, the launch of GOG Galaxy, which we announced back at E3. It's the technology which will allow us to sign modern games, games which have online features. Then obviously, DRM is likely to remain a headache for some of the big companies out there. But you know, when we released The Witcher 2 back in 2011 without DRM, we made 20 percent of Steam numbers, which was not too shabby. So step by step, bit by bit, we have to convince the big guys out there that we could release brand new blockbusters. When it comes to indie developers, I think it's already mission complete, because we release on a regular basis lots of indie games on PC, Mac, and Linux. So independent developers are much more aware about the ineffectiveness of DRM.
Your DRM stance has obviously been very well publicized, but if you could lay it out for me again...why do you think DRM is so bad?
I remember the good old days, I mean the good old retail days, where anybody could buy a game, a movie, a DVD, and you were simply the owner of the product. You bought it and you could enjoy it at any time, from any device you owned … the way you want it. And that's exactly the experience we want to bring to digital gamers or movie fans. These guys, we would like them to become the owners of what they buy digitally. And the approach we have on GOG is simple; if you buy a game, it's yours. You should be free to install it on any device you own; you should be free to make up copies if you so wish. Nobody should be telling you how you should install the game, access the game, play the game; this is not freedom. And you know, we have to give gamers good reasons to buy games, not to pirate. So the freedom we have in the whole GOG approach, the freedom is the essence of how we believe gamers want to buy games and truly enjoy them.
Over the past six years of GOG, what are some of the areas you think you've done well in? And what are some of the areas you think you may have struggled in?
I think we did well when it comes to reviving classic games, which was obviously the initial mission of GOG. We still have a big games missing on the top of the wish list on GOG, but we are working on it. I'm quite happy that we managed to bring the GOG experience to Mac and Linux, because these are growing platforms. Nothing to be compared with PC, but there are more and more gamers who want an alternative to Windows, and I'm glad we could fulfill that. Indie games as well. We are really happy that we release indie games because the indie games, they remind us from the classic games from our childhood times because those games are made with passion just with a few guys sitting in a garage developing games with passion and heart. And in the indie movement, we can find lots of memories that we had from childhood times. I'm also quite proud of the fact that GOG has always been very close and honest to gamers. Even though we have grown quite a lot, I think we still remain thoroughly laid back and open-minded people. When we do things well we are proud of it, but when we suck, we admit our mistakes. Getting back to the second part of your question, there are a few things we didn't do properly on a few occasions. I remember, for example, that someday we released a couple of games which were bugged; some bugs went through the testing process and I remember that we tried to be human, admit our mistakes, take down those games, fix the bugs, and a few months later we brought them back. And I think that's my biggest satisfaction is that we remained honest and fair to gamers.
Beyond the layout and the UI, how has the GOG platform changed over those past six years?
Obviously, the more we grow, the more challenges we face, such as keeping content easy to find. It has to remain easy to search and find. As you said, we had a couple redesigned elements, but these put aside, I'm quite happy with the pricing policy we just established in non-USD regions, such as Europe, Great Britain, and Australia. Because one of the challenges we faced was when it comes to signing brand new titles, regional prices have become a standard on the market, unfortunately. We believe that one dollar is not one pound or one Euro and we came up with a fair pricing model whereby if you live in the UK, Australia, or Europe, we give back or pay back the price difference so that they benefit from the same value of money and are treated properly. So that's one of the biggest changes we've had recently, in the past few years. I'm quite proud of it.
In past interviews I've seen quoting you and other GOG executives, you guys speak of kind of a "GOG Way" of doing business and running a platform. What would you say this "GOG Way" is? What does that mean to you?
The GOG Way, let me quote an internal expression that we're using at the office, we call it the boutique way. We want GOG to be boutique. We want to curate everything we do. That's why we hand-pick very carefully all the games and movies that we are releasing on the platform; we make sure that it fits the users' expectations and tastes; we make sure that it's working flawlessly on any modern operating system; and we really try to curate everything to make sure that we don't release any garbage on GOG. This is the GOG Way, trying to care; we care a lot. We curate a lot, and as I mentioned a few minutes ago, we try to be very honest and human with gamers; we want to treat them like humans, not like wallets standing on two legs. That's not how we see things.
Wallets standing on two legs? That's quite an image.
It's quite self-explanatory [laughs]
I also saw that you're going to make a bigger push into North America. What is this going to entail? And at what point in this expansion are you at right now?
In Europe, it's quite simple right now. This is where we are based, and we can easily travel to any indie developer in Europe to talk about their games, how we can bring them to GOG. So we have a really good connection with European publishers and developers. The thing is, in North America, while we obviously go there for E3 and GDC, but that's like two or three times per year. And we have to be there to be closer to existing and potential new partners. We want to talk to them, make sure they understand the way we work; we want them to join the DRM-free movement and give us the opportunity to sign their games. So this is the main purpose of the office. The office is being established right now. It has been incorporated, and now we have to start recruiting the first settlers, if I may say, and start a GOG colony in North America.
That's going to be based in California?
Yes, it's going to based in LA; Venice, to be precise.
And what is your target date for starting that up?
In the six years since GOG's started, I'm sure you've seen sales numbers climb and user numbers climb, but how else do you measure success? Beyond users and how much revenue you pull in, what do you think it means to be truly successful?
I think the fact that we have such a faithful, vocal community, that's probably the best proof that GOG has performed well. To us, the most important thing is not how many users we have or how many sales we have; the most important thing is how many active gamers are coming back to GOG every day to talk to other members of the community, to buy new games, simply to keep the website alive, and have interest in it.
"To us, the most important thing is not how many users we have or how many sales we have" - Rambourg
Are you sharing the number of users that GOG has in general?
Unfortunately, this is the only number that we do not share, simply because it's not the most relevant number to us. And I don't want to take part in the usual competition i.e. who's got the biggest or largest userbase.
(More GOG stats are available below)
Security has become an increasingly important topic since the launch of GOG six years ago, and its importance continues to grow. Everyone wants to know their personal information is safe when they're making a transaction through a site like GOG. How have you had to change or update or overhaul your security processes over the years?
It's quite simple. First of all, it's not rocket science, but as a digital distribution platform, you need to have very tight security policing when it comes to the backend and the infrastructure. So we try to apply the latest best technical practices. But the technical security put aside, it's very much about how you treat gamers. I think if you treat gamers well you are less likely to be a potential target for hackers for example. In everything we do, every day, we try to shield ourselves from such threats simply by respecting gamers. And besides, we have never stored credit card details on GOG. I realize it could be more convenient in certain occasions to store credit card details to be able to make quick purchases on GOG. But on the other hand, it increases the security threat level so much that the question becomes, 'Is it really worth it?' And to us, the most important thing is to have safe, secure, and happy users, and not to play with their data, with their accounts. This is too sensitive. It means a lot to them, so it means a lot to us.
Going back to what we talked about before, the GOG Way, and CD Projekt's culture, is very unique and I just think about...because GOG is obviously very popular and it's growing...are you confident you're going to be able to stay true to these original tenets and values?
Totally. I can tell you with my whole heart, 101 percent sure, that yes, we can stick to our values. This is what we have done so far. GOG is not a greedy company. Obviously, we are not a charity, either. We have people to pay, we have servers to pay, and we have partners to pay. So we have an obligation to perform. However, I think we perform thanks to our values and not the other way around. We are still DRM-free, we will offer fair prices to gamers, we still try to bundle every single release with lots of goodies. A few months ago, we introduced a money-back guarantee whereby if a title doesn't work and we cannot help you, we will just refund the gamer, no questions asked. GOG is kind of a philosophical project as well. It's not only about the business. It's very much about treating gamers properly, because we are gamers ourselves, and we want to be treated properly ourselves. In everything we do, we make sure in the first place that everybody at the office will be happy with everything we do at GOG because if they are happy I think every gamer will be happy.
Another big topic today is digital gaming, and GOG is obviously a big digital service. And it's often said that digital is becoming the next major platform replacing traditional retail. But what have you seen on your end? Is the trend toward digital, is that kind of adoption as dramatic as you thought it would be?
When we launched GOG six years ago, we had one partner and 30 games. And right now we have 220 partners and 800-something games. So the content acquisition put aside, clearly it comes to numbers and the popularity of the platform and how many people visit us every month. I can tell you that it's perpetually growing. Every single day we are making a step forward. Of course, there is an organic growth here because GOG is now six years old and we are not such a young company, so there is some organic development. But on the other hand, we see lots of users coming to us simply because they find the digital experience more convenient. The fact that you can easily patch your games, you can get lots of goodies which don't take any space on your shelf in your bedroom. Digital should be the synonym of convenience and that is what we are trying to achieve every day.
One of the things about digital, though, is that games don't really have much of a residual value compared to boxed games for consoles at least, because you can't sell back or trade digital games. We've heard from different people that digital trading could be possible some day. Is this something that GOG is looking at?
This is something we have been discussing internally, but we haven't reached any conclusion to be honest. It's not a simple topic. There are lots of different regulations in various parts of the world, so it requires a lot of in-depth analysis to come to a proper solution which can satisfy everybody. We are considering it, but we haven't reached any conclusion, so this is not something we will do anytime soon.
Another new and popular trend on PC and digital platforms are the Early Access games you see on services like Steam. What does GOG think about this? And is there any chance you might add Early Access-style games to GOG sometime in the future?
"Digital should be the synonym of convenience and that is what we are trying to achieve every day" -- Rambourg
I think Early Access is a good idea because it really helps developers to make their games better and polish them until the game is released. There have been a few cases lately where certain Early Access games are not really that polished and were fairly expensive considering the amount of bugs inside. But I think the right way to do it, that's the way we plan to do it at some point, is again, to follow the curated approach. We could release games on an Early Access basis, but I think the right way to do it is to spend significant time and resources internally to make sure that the game and the developer behind it are serious; that they do it properly and that the game is polished enough at the alpha stage to be released on the Early Access platform. So definitely we are considering doing stuff like that but if we do it, it's going to be the curated way for sure. We will not take any risk.
That's good to hear. Just earlier this week, on Steam, they removed a game because the developers had kind of just walked out. So I guess in your process, you would have to have a relationship with those developers, and speak with them and carry on those kinds of conversations. But I feel like that would add quite a bit more...you would need more time and resources to be able to do that.
It's exactly the same problem we have when it comes to releasing titles on GOG on a regular basis. We could be releasing 20 or 30 or 40 games per week if we wanted. And actually, on purpose, we only release a handful of titles, usually around five, per week. Why is that? Because again, we want to make sure that, first of all, every game has a chance to shine, so that gamers have time to look at it, play it, finish it, enjoy it. And when it comes to the Early Access, it's going to be exactly the same approach. We will take the time to do things properly. Because of that, we might have to slow down certain discussions with a couple developers, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is to make sure that GOG remains a boutique; that we don't have such cases where we have to take down a game because we made the wrong decision. We spend a lot of time talking to developers, getting to know them, building up a relationship of confidence and trust. Nothing can replace human confidence and human trust. Nothing can replace that. You can have the best contract in the world between GOG and the developer but it's just a piece of paper at the end of the day. And we want to talk as humans and make sure that the people we deal will support our values, our model, and at the end of the day, that they're going to support gamers all around the world.
Another thing that's really been interesting as a trend is virtual reality, things like Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus. Has GOG done any tests for what a VR interface might look like for GOG?
I'm really surprised with your question because actually we have never thought of that.
We have lots of ideas, but that's the idea we never had recently. So perhaps you should join us as the R&D guy [laughs]
I was just wondering because Netflix does a hack day thing, and one of their engineers created a Netflix demo for Oculus Rift and it was really amazing and I thought, as VR becomes more and more popular, something like that could find its way into the games space…
I'm sure there will be many, let's say, experiments like that. But we haven't discussed anything like that for GOG. And to be honest, I think it's quite early to talk about it. First of all, let's see how many people are going to own those devices at home. That's the key question. So far there is much excitement but let's see if it's going to sell eventually or if people really like it and if they really demand a 3D user interface or something like that.
GOG Galaxy is something that is also really interesting to me. When you guys announced it back in June, I think there was some level of maybe confusion about how it's going to operate alongside the existing GOG. So how would you describe GOG Galaxy?
GOG Galaxy is an ecosystem. It consists of a few things. First of all, there is going to be an optional client, so that gamers, if they want it, can keep their GOG collection tidy. So they will benefit from auto-patching for games, there will be a few more features which I cannot talk about right now because I would have to kill you.
But the client is going to the next step for us. It's totally optional. Which means that if people don't want to use the client, they can still patch their games through the website. They will not benefit from auto-patching, obviously, but they can still do it manually if they want. So again, freedom of choice. Nobody is obliged to use it. So that's the first part of GOG Galaxy, the client. The second thing is GOG Galaxy is going to be an online play ecosystem, whereby we will be able now to sign day-one titles which have online features such as matchmaking; so GOG will provide technology to game developers, they will be able to implement it inside of their games; and as a matter of fact, we will be able to bring newer gamers to GOG with online features because so far the platform has been mostly about single-player titles, but that's something we need to improve; we have to bring the online experience to GOG. So first the client, second the online play. And third of all, there is going to be a cross-play feature. The cross-play feature will allow game developers to put together their Steam players with their GOG players inside their game. So our goal here is not to lock the players inside one platform. If somebody bought game A on Steam, and I bought the very same game on GOG, I should be able to play with my friend; nothing or nobody should prevent us from playing together.
[GOG released 150,000 beta keys for The Witcher Adventure Game on GOG Galaxy. This was a test to make sure that the platform could host enough games and enough players to support a good experience. Over 40 developers currently have the GOG Galaxy SDK. "So far it has been a success," Rambourd says. Galaxy-powered games are coming this year.]
Lastly, we've already talked about the first six years of GOG, but where do you think GOG might go in the next six years?
Whoa. That's a vast question. I can tell you about the next 12 months, but I cannot tell you about the next six years because digital is moving forward so fast, so quickly, that it's even hard for us to follow sometimes. But in the near future, so first of all GOG Galaxy; in the near future there's going to be the optional client which we are finalizing right now. There will be a couple modern games coming to GOG such as Wasteland 2, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which is developed by our Polish friends The Astronauts; there's gonna be Pillars of Eternity, and a few more GOG Galaxy games. There is one last thing coming up hopefully before the end of the year. This is at the top of my to-do list right now. I have a pretty substantial deal in my inbox right now, which I need to finalize. It's going to be a deal for classic games on GOG with a major publisher, and that publisher has many games which are at the very top or in the middle of GOG's wish list. So if we sign that one, we will fulfill many wishes in the coming months.
I'm guessing you're not going to give any teases about who that might be…
I cannot tell you who that's gonna be, but I can tell you something else. We have more or less three major publishers missing when it comes to classic games. There is Microsoft, there is Disney, and finally, there is Take-Two. It's one of these [laughs].
I guess I just have one more question. Do you have any plans to move into different markets like non-gaming software or anything different like that?
Well, you know we launched GOG on Linux a few weeks ago, then we launched movies on GOG a few days ago. That's enough to keep us busy right now. Because if we want to fulfill our promise to be a curated boutique, we cannot do too many things at the same time. So now, the immediate goal will be to sign more Linux games; we have 70 right now, but we can do a lot better. So we are working hard on it. And when it comes to movies, there are lots of possibilities going forward. The ultimate goal is to sign movies from major [studios] as well. This is quite difficult; we gave it a try. Pretty much the problem is DRM. They agree that DRM is totally ineffective, that's what they told us--most of the time--but on the other hand, there is a certain fear among movie studios that 'We don't want to be the first major movie company which says yes to DRM-free digital distribution.' However, 'If there is another of the major studios who says yes, then we will gladly follow'; that's what they told us. So this will take some time. It's a bit like playing hide-and-seek somehow. So when it comes to movies, we have lots of ideas. We will experiment a lot in the coming weeks to know what the users, what the gamers, expect from us. And then we will have to make a decision about how to diversify the movie offerings further going forward.
Rambourg also provided some statistics about GOG.
- 300,000 people watched GOG's summer conference this year. This includes live streams and the recap.
- Since GOG launched in September 2008, 70 million people have visited GOG.com
- GOG users have a combined 45 million games on their virtual shelves
- Most of GOG's users are 18-35, but over 2,000 people 70 and up have visited the site to date