Good Old Games shifts focus, adds recent titles

Online storefront executives explain site's new approach, fighting piracy but not treating players like pirates, and getting publishers to embrace DRM-free gaming.

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After years of specializing in downloadable retro releases, Good Old Games is changing its name and focus. Tomorrow at 9 a.m. GMT, the CD Projekt-owned digital storefront is changing its name to simply GOG.com and will start offering brand-new indie games, as well as recent frontline titles from larger publishers' catalogs about one to three years after their debut.

GOG.com wants to make a splash with its new approach.
GOG.com wants to make a splash with its new approach.

The new approach kicks off this week with a site overhaul incorporating new social features and the addition of indie games Trine and The Whispered World to the GOG catalog. Other new indies on the way include Machinarium, Darwinia, and Spacechem. Like all games on the services, the new additions will be available for the same price worldwide and will not include any manner of digital rights management.

To mark the change, GOG managing director Guillaume Rambourg and CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwinski fielded a handful of GameSpot questions about what this change means for existing customers and the site's well-established stance against DRM. Over the course of the interview, Rambourg and Iwinski touched on a number of topics, from the downside of promotions like Humble Indie Bundles and Steam sales to changing publisher attitudes toward DRM. The pair also waded into the piracy debate, stressing that publishers could do a lot to counteract the practice by treating players to good value propositions instead of treating them like criminals.

GameSpot: The last time GOG.com went through an overhaul, you took the site down and let customers think you'd gone out of business as a way to drum up attention. Did that get the reaction you wanted? Why go the more conventional announcement route this time?

Guillaume Rambourg: I was expecting this question.

Well, first of all, please let me stress again that it was anything but a pleasure for us to take the website down back in September 2010, when GOG.com left its beta phase to go live. We had to take it down to apply several major changes to our infrastructure in order to deploy our new code, 98 percent of which was rewritten from scratch as the original (rusty) code dated back to 2007! The "old" version of the website was victim of its own success and could not cope with our fast-growing traffic. It was time for a deep and solid upgrade, as well as releasing new features.

Trine will be one of the first new additions to GOG.com after the site overhaul.
Trine will be one of the first new additions to GOG.com after the site overhaul.

We decided to pretend for three days that GOG.com was about to pass away so that gamers and the industry would think (hopefully, with fear!) of a world where all games would be powered with DRMs and a software client, a world where 1 dollar would be the equivalent of 1 euro, a world where you just have to buy and shut up. Scary, huh?

Our action was very risky and obviously caused a lot of stir, but all in all, I think we have succeeded in developing the public awareness about these important matters. For example, we witnessed that a huge majority of our users realized they could back up locally the games they purchase on GOG (a feature we probably did not communicate well enough about in the past), so that they can always play their favorite titles even if the Internet is down. I believe this brought back confidence to them in our ability to protect them; just like our continued delivery of great releases and fantastic prices brought back confidence in our ability to take care of them. Trust me, this risky action made us very worried, and we have doubled our efforts to satisfy gamers even more since then!

As for today's announcement, who said it would be conventional? Before somebody asks: no, GOG.com will not go down for three days again, simply because we finally have the right infrastructure and code to avoid that! Still, we have prepared a few surprises for the next few days--and beyond--and we believe the PC community should like them very much.

GS: You're going to have DRM-free versions of modern games from big publishers, but only 1 to 3 years after launch. Do gamers hate DRM enough that you think they'll wait that long to play games without it?

Marcin Iwinski: It is not about waiting for such games to be rereleased or hating DRM. There are several reasons why games coming out on GOG.com--even if they're one year old instead of brand new--works well for gamers and publishers alike.

There are hundreds of great games released every year from publishers of every imaginable size. When you have a huge catalog filled with classics, it's very hard to sell an older game without putting in on steep discount; your offering hasn't changed any since you launched it a year ago and there are hundreds of newer games for sale. Why would someone want to buy an older game if you don't take the time to make it special? At GOG.com, they know that even top-selling franchises might not be top-of-mind at the moment, and when they release a game on our service, they take the time to make it special, to give it its day in the sun, and generally showcase the value of the game to our audience.

I believe a huge majority of digital distribution platforms (from Apple's App store to Valve's Steam, and many others) have become gigantic black holes that sign hundreds of titles and run tons of promotional sales. Running so many discounts decreases the perceived value of our entire entertainment media. When you can buy a bundle of fantastic indie games for $1, it's that much harder to convince someone to shell out $10 to try one indie game.

Of course you see a huge number of people buying games when they're on such incredible sale, but how many of them are enjoying the games they buy? Buying a dozen games, if you never play them, means that you're just a cow to be milked by the industry. I don't think this is good for the industry or the gamers who pay our salaries.

"Buying a dozen games, if you never play them, means that you're just a cow to be milked by the industry."--Marcin Iwinski

GS: Will you also be selling DRM-free DLC for these games?

GR: Our plan is not to sell past DLC separately, but rather bundle that content with the main game, so that we can offer a massive package at a good price. Again, our aim is to provide value for money to gamers so that they are happy to buy games from us and therefore never fall on the dark side, by which I mean piracy.

GS: Why would major publishers who obviously believe in DRM sell DRM-free versions of their games?

GR: But they actually already do so! We have over 70 developers and publishers of various size (from A to AAA, like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, or Activision) who trusted us and whom we distribute over 400 DRM-free PC classics for. It has taken us 3 years of hard work to build up this catalogue and convince rights holders that removing DRM is actually the best way to fight against piracy, a "sector" that managed to succeed where most of the gaming industry failed to perform: providing (illegal) gamers with a simple and fast access to games within a few clicks.

We decided to run a public experiment last year by releasing The Witcher 2 (a much anticipated AAA day-1 title) on GOG.com in our traditional fashion: DRM-free, with a fair pricing policy worldwide and tons of free digital goodies. The outcome? We sold more than 40,000 units so far, which impressed a lot of people in the industry (that was our aim!) and made us the second biggest source of digital revenue for the developers.

The results of that experiment definitely helped us convince a few publishers and indie developers to give us the chance to revive their "not so old" PC titles without DRM; and we will do our very best to prove to them again and again that they were right to trust us!

The Witcher 2 has sold 40,000 units on GOG.com so far.
The Witcher 2 has sold 40,000 units on GOG.com so far.

GS: How will having these DRM-free versions of games impact piracy of them?

MI: Look at it this way: there are three different groups of gamers on the Internet: people who never pirate, people who always pirate, and people who may or may not pirate, depending on a few different factors. What are those factors?

Let me quote an interesting fact from the very interesting Vigilant Defender Piracy Survey from 2011. Sixty percent of people surveyed said they pirated because they didn't perceive the price publishers ask as a fair value for the game. When people don't know if your game is worth it, they'll pirate it instead. Focus on showcasing value for your gamers, though, and the majority of these gamers who aren't sure if your game is worth it will be happy to purchase legally instead of pirating.

GOG.com has always been focusing on value for gamers. They want to tell their gamers that buying games is good and that they'll be treated right if they buy from GOG.com. It is all about providing them with value for money and treating them in a fair and rewarding way.

Here's another fact from that survey: 52 percent of consumers state that DRM actively discourages purchasing. Treat gamers like customers instead of criminals, and you'll go an even longer way towards showing them that your game is worth buying.

"Treat gamers like customers instead of criminals, and you'll go an even longer way towards showing them that your game is worth buying."--Marcin Iwinski
This is the impact that DRM-free games can have on piracy, and if we can convince some frustrated pirates to give GOG's offer a try, even better!

GS: How have publisher attitudes to your DRM-free approach differed from those of the indie community?

GR: Dev studios, small and mid-sized publishers are usually owned and managed by people who are still gamers themselves. Big AAA publishers tend to be run more and more by people who have a strong legal or financial background. This fundamental difference in the way those companies operate is reflected on their respective approaches to DRM.

Smaller studios have historically been much more aware of gamers' expectations and consumers' behaviors than big publishers have. Being gamers themselves, they do know as a fact that the best way to fight against piracy is to convince people to buy them instead of somehow trying to force them to. In this respect, selling games without DRM is a good step to achieve that. Companies such as Frozenbytes, Mojang, Remedy, Paradox or CD Projekt Red have already taken this DRM-free direction in various yet very similar ways.

Big publishers--due to a much bigger headcount and financial stakes involved in the production of AAA blockbusters--have had a historical tendency to manage their DRM policy via Microsoft Excel. As Brian Fargo said recently, "In the beginning of the industry all the nerds were in charge, but then as the industry grew it changed, and now the guys that picked on the nerds got back on top."

EA's Origin store has made no impact on GOG.com.
EA's Origin store has made no impact on GOG.com.

What I mean here is that those companies have a pyramidal structure that is way too big and which prevents them from being close to gamers and the latter's expectations. It is easier and faster for a sales or business executive to tick the "DRM" column in Microsoft Excel to secure his own position, rather than trying to convince the Management Board to change (or at least consider changing) their corporate DRM policy. The good news is--as I mentioned earlier in this interview--that more and more big publishers started thinking again about their strong DRM policies, and I am happy to see them asking questions to us about us lately.

GS: Have you noticed any impact on your business from the introduction of EA's Origin or the continued growth of Steam?

GR: We have not noticed any impact for GOG.com, simply because we are not competing against Steam and Origin as such. Historically, 99 percent of our catalogue is made of PC classics, while the aforementioned platforms focus on day-one releases and launches. To make it more clear, we sell copies of Duke Nukem 3D or Baldur's Gate, while they sell copies of Portal 2 or Mass Effect 3. There is no overlap here and we are not competitors as a matter of fact.

Of course, you're also asking if this is changing now that we're offering newer games. Once again, I think the answer is "no." In that case, because our offer deeply differs from the offer of Steam or Valve. All our games will be DRM-free, sold at fair price worldwide (no regional pricing), and with tons of added value (free digital goodies, full customer support, an optional light-speed downloader).

As a matter of fact, I think that GOG.com is more of an alternative than a competitor. There is still no way to fight against Steam, for example, something we knew from the very beginning of GOG. The only way to shine is to offer an alternative model to gamers. Being different is our daily obsession to make us stand out from the rest of the field. We treat our gamers well and this generates good sales numbers, as we proved with The Witcher 2, for which GOG was the best-selling platform, right after Steam.

"There is still no way to fight against Steam, for example, something we knew from the very beginning of GOG."--Guillaume Rambourg

GS: You're going to have uniform pricing worldwide. Does that mean all games will be available in all regions?

MI: GOG.com has always been a truly global service that offers games to all gamers worldwide. The idea that a gamer could not buy a certain title because he or she lives somewhere different than we do is silly. You cannot claim to be a global distribution platform and then decide that you're only "kind of" global, that you will only sell games to some people! That's against GOG.com's founding value of fairness. Just to show you how seriously GOG treats this matter, there are even games that they refused to sign because some users would not be able to purchase them due to banned in-game content in some countries.

GOG.com's games will always be available to everybody worldwide at a fair and unified price. This is one of GOG's pillars and they will gladly and stubbornly stick to it.

GS: Does this mean you'll be adding fewer retro titles to your catalog in the future?

MI: Absolutely not! GOG will still be adding classics on a weekly basis at least. Users have been following this company on its journey for the last three years and a half, and they're expecting that from GOG.com. And they are right to do so!

PC classics are GOG.com's daily bread and butter. They will now just enlarge our family of products by adding some more recent titles (whether indie or from big publishers), and also release some carefully chosen new releases, just like we successfully did with The Witcher 2 last year. Stay tuned!

GS: What are some of the most frequent outstanding requests for additions to your catalog?

GR: Oh, there are still quite a few: Theme Park and Theme Hospital, System Shock 1 & 2, and obviously all the original LucasArts classics from the '90s. We know what our users expect thanks to our telepathic powers (OK, I am lying: we have a community wish list!), and they can be certain that we will never be satisfied ourselves until those titles are finally signed and revived in a GOG fashion.

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