I recently came upon the newly-formed blog of an indie dev/operator named Jeff Vogel by some sort of byzantine channel of linking. I’m fascinated and I hope the guy keeps up the blogging. The links from various sources all pointed to his duo of posts on the economics of his particular business. He makes very old-school RPGs for a very niche audience and does well at it. But what I want to comment about is his latest post, which was apparently guest-posted to some other blog or something called IGN? Have you heard of it?

It’s about piracy. Wait! Come back! Yes, it is a very tired subject with lots of hand-waving and histrionics, but Vogel puts a unique perspective to it. The thesis is in the title: “We’re All Charity Cases Now”. Please read it, but I’ll quote a bit:

[L]ately, I’ve had to come to a grim realization. I do have a donation section on my website. It’s called the order form. … It is so easy to pirate our work now that we can only get paid by two types of people – those who don’t know that BitTorrent exists (a rapidly dwindling group), and those honest souls who give us cash when they know they don’t have to. In other words, donate.

Yikes! Screw the moral/immoral argument. That’s distraction. This ties right into Clay Shirky’s assertion that the reason traditional media giants (record companies, movie studios, newspapers) are failing is because they are in the business of selling packaging that happens to contain media in a world where packaging is free and nearly-instantaneous.

Our industry has responded in a number of ways: DRM, subscription games (World of Warcraft), subscription services (OnLive), peripherals (Nintendo), fancy pack-ins (limited to old Infocom games and expensive ‘collectors’ editions) and ad-support. But none of these solve the problem because DRM is hacked in a day, subscriptions only work for certain types of games, subscription services have not been proven to be successful, pack-ins have appeal only to the hardcore and ads don’t provide a lot of revenue.

I know very little about charities except from my own experiences with donating. I think maybe we should be looking at how successful charities raise money. Do I smell a GDC talk for next year?

No, probably not.

But here’s what works on me for charitable giving:

  1. Make me appreciate how my money gets spent. This is the major “trick” of the Feed the Children type ads out there. Obviously, I’m not saying to run commercials of emaciated programmers. The key value here is empathy. I give to Kiva because I know exactly how my money is used. Why did people care so much about World of Goo‘s piracy rate over Grand Theft Auto‘s? It’s because we know that 2D Boy is just a couple of guys living a dream. They do talks at GDC. They do interviews everywhere. They have a blog. We get their personality. It’s like we know them. Contrast this with the “faces” behind the big budget productions. With only a couple exceptions, when there is a blog it sounds like PR-releases. It’s like they bought a hammer and have no idea that you are supposed to use it on nails.
  2. Put me in a community. Public television doesn’t give out tote bags to members because PBS watchers are always totin’ shit around. They do it because it has their logo on the side, so when the members go out to Whole Foods with their other well-to-do friends, the friends can see that the member has a cause that they are proud to support. Those free-loaders don’t have a tote bag because they haven’t put their money where their mouth is. They should call them totem bags.
    Games do this all the time, even without tchotchkes. While Goal Line Blitz is a game supported by microtransactions and thus not completely applicable, they nail this community angle. But it sounds like Vogel’s Spiderweb supporters have their own community that encourages others to participate to remain a part of what makes the community valuable.
  3. Don’t annoy the hell out of me. The week after I graduated, I got a letter from my undergraduate university asking me to donate to them. I just about sent them an envelope with my student loan statement instead. Since then, I get about one of these envelopes a quarter. They hired some of my cohorts to call us before graduation to talk about how we need to “give back” to the university. Sheer volume may work for spammers, but force-feeding guilt and repetition don’t open my pocketbook. This is the same as the game demo that has a “Buy Me!” interruption every thirty seconds or ends with an unskippable five-minute video or an ad-supported game that shoves pop-ups in your face (I’m looking at you iPhone devs).