GOG.com are heading the no-DRM gaming revolution. Find out how they're fighting the good fight.
By Tim Colwill on July 15, 2013 at 12:22 pm
Earlier this month, we sat down for a chat with Trevor Longino, the Head of Marketing and PR at GOG.com. In this first part of our interview, we talk about how GOG has been convincing the big publishers to let them rifle through their back catalogue, why Steam has become acceptable as a form of DRM, and the perils of censorship.
GON: Before we start — I’ve been wanting to know. Is it G-O-G or ‘gog’? Because everyone I know says ‘gog’.
Trevor: Most people say ‘gog’. I say ‘G-O-G’ simply because as the brand representative, if I say ‘G-O-G.com’ you don’t have to wonder where the URL goes.
GON: It reminds me of this advertisement which I’m going to show you now, which you may not have seen because it was Australian — but perhaps you can watch it and enjoy the reference. You can watch it now if you like, it’s only 30 seconds long.
Trevor: …that is well-nigh unintelligible, to the American ear. But after a few listens through, I figured it out. It’s *still* an odd commercial.
GON: I’ll pretend you laughed when I transcribe the interview.
Trevor: (laughs) Okay.
GON: Now obviously GOG has been about no DRM from the start – has that ever caused any problems with any of your relationships with traditional publishers? Or any developers that you’ve spoken to who have wanted to release something — maybe you’ve said, “Hey, we’d love to release your old game on GOG,” and they’ve said, “Oh, but you don’t have any DRM, do you?” Has that ever been a sticking point?
Trevor: It can be. There’s a very persuasive argument we have, which is money. You speak to a developer or you speak to a publisher and you say, “But look at all the money we’ve made!” They’re like, “I guess this ‘no DRM’ thing can work!” Of course, for certain scales of money, you know — we went to EA, not initially, not in the very beginning. At the beginning we were like, “Well, we’ve been open for three months and we’ve sold this many games” and this is the kind of money we had experience with and EA was like, “Eh.” They wouldn’t have cared about that much money because we were a brand new company that had just started.
GON: Yeah, small change.
Trevor: Then we added EA what, eighteen months ago, I think. Maybe a little bit more than that. By that point we had Interplay, Activision, Atari, I think we had Ubisoft by then. So we had this stable of big companies who had joined in and we had a large user base and we just said, “This is where we are, this is what we’re doing.” There are still some problems, but the problems are increasingly less about “We don’t want DRM-free games for our classics” and more like either, “Man, we don’t know who owns the rights for this,” or just, “We don’t have anybody whose focus is restoring old content at this company, so we have no idea who you should talk to.”
These are the sorts of problems we tend to find now, because when you show up and you say, “Look we’ve got EA, we’ve got Activision, we’ve got Square Enix, we’ve got Ubisoft, we’ve got Atari,” clearly what we do works for big brands. The other problem we occasionally see, particularly for newer games, we’ll get in contact with an indie dev or non-indie dev and they’ll be like, “Yes, we want to put our games on your service, DRM-free. It just uses Steamworks.” And we’re like, “Ehh, but that’s a problem.”
GON: It seems like Steam is the only acceptable form of DRM a lot of people with deal with. Do you find that reception also?
Trevor: Personally, yeah. I have, I think, 60-odd games on Steam, not including the 11 billion Humble Bundle games that I’ve gotten.
GON: (laughs) Yes.
Trevor: Games I’ve actually paid like, real prices for, I’ve got 60-odd games on Steam and then I’ve got all the Humble Bundle games which I don’t actually download DRM-free but I could I suppose, or put on Steam as well. So I’ve got a lot of games. Personally, I’m fairly well fine with Steam. It causes me some problems because I can only buy games when I am actually in America. For whatever reason, they won’t let me buy games with Polish money in Poland or American money from Poland. So I can still play my games anywhere but purchasing them can be a bit of a challenge.
On the other hand, it’s not like I’m lacking for games, I have the GOG catalog for games. So personally, I’m kind of cool with Steam, although I do agree that it is DRM and it has caused me problems. As a company, I would say that kind of approach is still something that GOG is opposed to, because there are ways you could do multiplayer without DRM.
Rise of the Triad, which is coming out at the end of the month is a multiplayer game and it’s a game that both Steam and GOG users can play on the same servers and it’s DRM free on GOG. So it’s got multiplayer, it’s got those functionalities, but it doesn’t have to have a DRM system built into it. So gaming like that is more what GOG wants to see as we move into new games.
GON: What do you say to the theory that Steam has become acceptable as a level of DRM because of the low cost of most of the games involved, compared to regular retail prices?
Trevor: You know, I believe that’s part of it. I believe it’s also DRM with added features. The social layer — I mean, it’s not as fully fledged a social network as Facebook or, I don’t know, Instagram or Flickr or any of the fairly mature social networks. But there are features there, you can contact your friends, you can invite them into your games. There’s a robust functionality there that a lot of people appreciate. And so they accept the downside of DRM to use it.
I think you can build all those features and not have it be DRM. But since no-one has yet, I think the question then is, “Well, this is what we’ve got that works the way we want it to, so we’ll put up with the downsides.” And then also, when you’re paying those really steep discounts, 80% on a game, or something, you don’t mind the feeling that you don’t necessarily own this title, I think. It’s less important to you to know how you’re going to play this game 9 years from now, or 20 years from now or 30 years from now.
Some of the GOG games we have — take Zork 1, which was released in 1982, that’s what a 30 year old game? And you know if it was tied to any kind of DRM activations system you couldn’t play it anymore. So I think people who say, “Gaming with DRM is fine” aren’t considering the fact that we’re leaving behind a part of our history of the hobby as we do this.
GON: Has GOG ever considered building a framework similar to Steam, obviously DRM-free, but with a single sign-on and community features?
Trevor: You know, I don’t know. That sounds like way outside the scope of what we do. Certainly at the moment we’re not saying, “Hey, we doing this!” No no no. I won’t say that anything is impossible but it’s certainly not something we’re looking at right now.
GON: Well, GOG has already branched out considerably from it’s original mission… I mean, the fact that you’ve changed from originally being ‘Good Old Games’ to ‘GOG’ instead highlights this. I would argue that perhaps the mission of GOG has changed to perhaps just be good games, rather than necessarily old ones.
Trevor: I’d like to say that our focus is on good games of all types, yes. We say we’ve got the best games in history for PC and Mac.
GON: You said earlier that you use money to persuade people to come on to GOG. Can you give me any example of any publisher who has been reticent to come to GOG until they saw the sales figures that you were waving in front of their nose?
Trevor: I think most any big partner is only persuaded by performance. It’s rare to find someone of huge scope who’s got the idealism to say, “You know what, I want to just do the DRM-free thing.” I mean, the way we got started with Interplay and, I think it was Codemasters — it was before I was here, so I’m a little fuzzy on who the publishers were — was GOG is almost a digital ooffshoot of CDProjekt Red the original distribution company here in Poland. CDProjekt found that if they bundled up games suitable for older hardware with a bunch of extra content, DRM-free, it sold really well in Poland, even though these games have been pirated to hell and back.
So they had made partnerships with companies like Interplay in Poland, and then they said, “We want to do this on the Internet globally,” but they had those partnerships to lean on and they had the ability to say, “Look at how well it did in Poland. Now we want to put this globally for download.” So even the very first arguments with the very first publishers were still, “We know this works because we’ve proven it works well in a small market. Let’s take this globally and then you’ll see how much money you can make on these titles that you aren’t monetising anyway.”
GON: So it’s just a matter of scaling it up to the larger publishers, using each previous publisher as a reference point, I imagine.
Trevor: Precisely, yes. The more people you get, the more persuasive you can be. I’d say some of the hardest people to sign were probably the Atari/Hasbro classics like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dale, Planescape Torment. Those were really hard to sign, that was a crest for us — I won’t say it’s all been downhill from there, the biz-dev team would kill me if I said that — but being able to get those games and then shortly after EA, it feels like we got momentum behind us now. When we approach a partner, we say, “Look at all these guys we’ve signed,” and it’s an easier discussion to start.
GON: And those are some of your best-sellers now, the original Dungeons & Dragons games, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and so on, I imagine.
Trevor: Yes, they do quite well for us. If I look at the site right now I can see that our best-sellers are indeed Baldur’s Gate 2, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale 1+2 and only then, finally at the seventh place is something that’s not one of the Baldur’s Gate games showing up, which is Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura.
GON: Which is still basically the same genre anyway.
Trevor: Which is, yes. You have to get to the tenth game before you don’t have an RPG, which is Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri in tenth place. And deservedly so.
GON: Were you around at the time when The Witcher 2 released and Australians suddenly found that it was more expensive for them than for everybody else?
Trevor: I’d been there for, I think, 6 months by that point. I started November of 2010.
GON: Would you be prepared to talk about that now, since it’s been a couple of years now?
Trevor: We did end up — not GOG but CDProjekt — ended up… the details of this are, obviously I’m head of PR for GOG and not in any way involved with the legal side for the entire group. But there was a legal situation that went to the courts and a decision was handed down that the pricing had to be set the way it was, so GOG had to conform to what the decision of the courts was.
GON: But then you did what I think is a marvellous thing, and allowed players to tell you where they were situated rather than pulling it from their IP address.
Trevor: I find the fact that you believe that that is somehow related to be entirely preposterous.
GON: My apologies for my wild speculation.
GON: Has that caused you any — this completely coincidental activity that we just discussed — has that caused you any problems with publishers in the future, when they saw what happened, obviously (again, completely coincidentally) did that put them off dealing with you?
Trevor: Well, we did actually end up, as part of the court decision, having to reimplement a geo-IP system. And so uniquely out of all our titles, The Witcher 2, because of the legal requirements, the country your IP is from determines what version of the game is available to you. Nobody else had this big an issue, I sincerely hope this won’t be something that crops up again for us.
Of course, some countries do censor games that either they don’t want it available or they want a different version of the game available. So far we’ve been able to manage with having all of our games, except for The Witcher 2, available as the same version everywhere in the world. And our sincere hope is to keep it that way because I think when you’re censoring a game, when you’re cutting out content — and admittedly for The Witcher 2 it was an extraordinarily minor change. But there are some other older games, you know you try and play — let me think of a game that got utterly destroyed by censoring — Fallout 2, right?
I think it’s the European version of the game has no children, because you can kill children. But there’s a child who has to give you a quest, I think, that’s story critical. So it breaks the game. And there’s also games like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream where they removed a character from the game and it’s an adventure game so this character is pretty much somebody who you have to interact with to finish the game and you couldn’t. Of course I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream is more or less a game about suffering immensely, always. It’s a game where, I think, the only way you –there’s no winning, there’s just better ways of losing. But they removed a whole character, which is like the finale of the game is removed because the suffering was too much.
Things like this are massively disruptive to the game and you can’t program around them. And something I think is disruptive to gaming as an art form, gaming as a hobby — whatever you want to consider it — I think if you remove the option to accept a particular quest reward that’s colour text basically, that’s not a big deal, that’s what happened with The Witcher 2 in Australia for the censorship. But the bigger censorships are problematic and GOG would hope to stay away from them.
How do GOG feel about pirating their games? What about sending a copy to your friend? Find out all the answers tomorrow when our interview concludes.