Good Old Games on online activation: "it's just bollocks."

Rich McCormick

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It's been a rollercoaster week for retro game publisher Good Old Games . They closed! No they didn't! They're back! They apologised! They're wearing monk costumes! They're making money hand over fist ! What the hell!

Before it all kicked off, PC Gamer sat down with GOG co-founder Marcin Iwinski and Managing Director Guillaume Rambourg to discover the story behind their relaunch, and how they convince publishers to release their games without DRM, how they combat piracy, and their holy mission to improve PC gaming. Warning: this interview contains Poles explaining themselves using slightly awkward metaphors.

To re-iterate - this interview took place before GOG closed their site.

Rich McCormick: So... what's going on?

Guillaume Rambourg: Ah, what a question to start with. Next week we will finally bring back Baldur's Gate to millions of users, which is quite a big achievement and we're really, really thrilled about it. We'll be launching a brand new version of GOG.com with new features and new design and many many things, I think you'll have more questions about it.

Marcin Iwinski: I'm really excited about Baldur's Gate, because historically GOG is part of the CD Projekt Group, and Baldur's Gate was the first major game for us in our Polish business, years back when it was released. It was fully localised in Polish and was a foundation for the growth of gaming in Poland. It's a very emotional connection. Baldur's Gate enabled us to really make gaming massive in Poland, so what I really hope is that Baldur's Gate will be the same for GOG; will make it massive and show people the good old gaming is really cool. I think Baldur's Gate is one of the best games you can pick.

Guillaume Rambourg: There is something I'm very curious about, which is that currently, if you want to buy Baldur's Gate you have to go off to eBay and [it is] really, really expensive, and even after buying a copy you are not even sure if the game is going to be running fine on modern operating systems. So we'll bring back the game at a decent price, fully remastered for Windows, and I'm wondering if gamers will be willing to play it again.

Rich McCormick: How do you actually go about getting publishers to sign off on this? How do you get a game like Baldur's Gate?

Marcin Iwinski: Well, we put on the hat and the shoes, you know? And we knock on their doors for two years, walking the path, you know? Essentially, this one was the most complex games we've had. I think early discussions started probably two years ago, and what is most challenging, aside from making the game compatible, is to convince the [publishers of the] DRM free model. But I think how GOG works is step by step convincing every single publisher out there. We just bring revenue and make gamers happy, offering them extremely good value.

But then you have to look at all of the more corporate considerations: who owns what and if they are not, you know, under restructuring and reorganisation or something. And [with] Atari we historically go a long way back, because they were the original publisher of The Witcher, and right now with the Witcher 2 we have a distribution deal with Atari in the US, so we have very strong ties. But still, part of the company will [be sold] – it's all complicating things - and then the guys from GOG.com are knocking on their door and asking "Hey, we are doing good old games, so we can wait, but maybe it's time that we could make a deal”. So at the beginning of the year we came up with a deal for the original Atari stuff, so original games like Archon, Orion and whatnot and then of course the next big priority was to have the Hasbro deal.

Rich McCormick: Are there any games that you want to get on GOG but can't because the publishers have collapsed?

Guillaume Rambourg: In the last two years we have managed to sign a couple of big publishers, and I would say that every big publisher we have signed was perceived as a bottle opener, so step by step we build up our reputation, we show that our values are making sense for users and for publishers, that they can monetise old games and so on, and so you are right, we are still running after a couple of key publishers who we have to convince, but we hope that Baldur's Gate will be the next bottle opener.

Marcin Iwinski: What we are planning to do is send them free download codes and say, "Please enjoy Baldur's Gate here, and [get in touch] if you'd like to have your games on GOG and available legally to all its users." Because the thing with old games is that in a lot of cases you cannot get a legal copy, unless you want to buy a collector's edition or an old boxed copy on eBay. It costs a lot of money and ususally you have a problem with it working, so there is no revenue stream for publishers and there's plenty of people who want to enjoy these games. I mean, how hard is it right now to buy the older Atari/Hasbro RPGs in the UK? It's not that easy to get it retail.

Rich McCormick: Yeah. The only other option would be to pirate it.

Marcin Iwinski: Yeah and then I think people are really reaching for it and then quite often pirating, quite often it's abandonware. You know, the legendary Hasbro/Atari RPGs, they were huge so you still have a chance to get them, but some titles were not that that active commercially. They were really great games but you really have no chance whatsoever to buy them anywhere outside of GOG.

Rich McCormick: Getting it running on the operating system is always the hardest part.

Marcin Iwinski: The funny thing is that when we making deals with some partners our main concern was, "We are very happy to make a deal with you, but we have a tiny little problem, we don't have anything for the games, including the game itself. Can you get them?". That's the funny thing. Looking ten years back, the publishers, the decision makers, they couldn't imagine, and we couldn't blame them for that, that in ten years somebody would be willing to sell this stuff. I think that's a really huge advantage of digital distribution.

Guillaume Rambourg: When you knock on doors asking for rights to certain games, and the games are old, you have to convince them to dedicate some resources on the legal side to clear up the rights, to look for the rights, and so on. As I stressed before, it's just a question of legitimacy. GOG has built up some legitimacy and thanks to it we are convincing companies to look in their attic, to remove some dust and to trust us to take those old games to today's users.

Rich McCormick: Have any old developers thanked you for putting their games on GOG?

Guillaume Rambourg: We have direct deals with developers, and that's another beauty with GoG because again, the titles are really old and the rights have quite often reverted back to the original creators. Then we have the opportunity, instead of making one big deal with the publisher, to go to the developer and say "We are huge fans of your games, let's make a deal together." It's two different worlds because, you know, publishers are publishers. They have big structures and they have to take care of their business but, there is a good example. On Thursday we are releasing Age of Wonders, which is a game from Triumph studios, and basically the rights for those games, the three games of that series, they used to belong to Take Two, and those guys they got back the rights, and they approached us as developers. "Guys, can we have those games on GOG?"

Marcin Iwinski: One of the first developers we sat with was Charles Cecil for the Broken Sword series, and he's a great guy. It's really a pleasure to do business with him. It's part of the cool factor of building GOG.com that you can be in touch with such people, and these games, you know, some of them still have excellent graphics, but it's more because they're great and extremely playable games, and that's the beauty.

Rich McCormick: When you release a game you tend to package it in with additional materials. How do you track them down?

Guillaume Rambourg: It's a lot of digging, a lot lot lot of digging. The thing is we have a design team on board and they are extremely creative and productive. Plus, our testing team, they still have many, many copies of old games in their attic at home. They are collecting games, so it is a lot of hunting, digging, and then a lot of work. When you have assets for an old game, you have them in low resolution and you have to rework everything to make it in a decent format, right? So it's a lot lot lot of digging, but for us it's not hard. Beyond being a business, I would say we have a theological mission to promote the works of gaming, and for us bundling games with free goodies, it's not hard, because this is the way we can convey the right message. Which is that games can be adorable, they can be lovable if you put the passion into it, and that we put soundtracks, wallpapers and so on directly benefits the passion around the products on GOG.

Rich McCormick: What is it about old games that draws you to them?

Marcin Iwinski: To elaborate a little bit more on where the idea comes from, we originate from Poland where the PC market is probably 70% of the business. It was more two years ago and we were already selling a lot of back catalogues, something Sold Out was doing in the UK two years ago. So we're selling millions of these budget games and budget editions at retail here in Eastern Europe were really big stuff.

Something like Baldur's Gate Gold Edition, we had it, and it was very reasonably priced. It was first of all a great offer for the end user, but also an education, a chance to tell the gamer, “This is a legal copy, it costs only a few quid and it's a really good deal." Looking at the piracy history in Poland, quite often that was the first legal game somebody would buy, so it became remarkably successful and educated people: "This is your first cheap game, maybe you will reach for the mid price afterwards, maybe you will reach for the full price."

And hence the need for GOG.com. There are all these new games. If you look at Steam or Direct2Drive, the business is about new games, so either it's a big game that's just released, or it's a massive promotion of something, this is pretty much how the business model works. For us, the business model is more long-term sale. It's about rediscovering the gems of gaming, really, and that's a starting point for a lot of gamers, especially the ones who don't have the highest specs to run the new games. But also for people who remember the old games and would like to play them, and it's much more affordable than buying new games. On top of that, with older games it was much easier to do the DRM free model, which was sort of the base of the concept.

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Rich McCormick: You mentioned that in Poland there's a lot of piracy, and for a lot of people, the first game they buy will be a budget title. Why do you think they took the step of buying the game after piracy? Was it convenience, added value, or...

Marcin Iwinski: If I consider buying things, I always think about the value it will bring, and the same is pretty much about games. So if you buy a game and it's reasonably priced and it offers you a lot of value, and then maybe there is a great community on GOG, it's compatible with your new operating system, it's patched and it runs really well, and you just pay, I don't know £5.99, £9.99 for it, that's an extremely good deal. Then you have a soundtrack, then you have wallpapers and other things, and this makes it super value for money. At the same time, if you are in a store getting for 49 dollars or Euros a game which has 16 pages manual and one DVD, you know, unless the game really knocks you down, that is not that big of a value. So we are trying to build a value for the consumer, and the amount we are talking about, it's in many cases an impulse purchase. If you have a good offer you just go for it and buy it, and that's what we are after.

Guillaume Rambourg: We believe that GOG.com is on a different segment, right? Our number one competitor since the very beginning is abandonware, all those websites giving away games for free. The thing is to take people from abandonware to let's say a more legal road. As Marcin explained, we had to put quite some heart and values into the products, and funnily enough, this is something that makes me smile all the time, but we turned many abandonware websites into affiliates. This shows that if you put the right values and the right message into all games, and you stress the convenience for the users, you make a special focus on the ease of use, everybody's following. And they have a ready to go package where you have all of the flavour of the past in a simple package, basically.

Rich McCormick: So if you guys were put in charge of a major publisher tomorrow, what would you do to prevent piracy?

Marcin Iwinski: We come from a country where we know something about piracy. When I started CD Projekt with my high school friends, there were no legal channels for game distribution. The market was 99.9% piracy and our competitors were always pirates and not other companies. Whenever we were releasing a game it was available on the street, you know, CDs priced at one fifth of what we were asking for, so it was all about value. This is in our opinion the only way to go.

Of course, we don't agree with piracy, we don't like piracy, but if you put a really strong protection DRM people will always find a way around it. Unless DRM is not part of the game. I'm really annoyed when I see examples of companies who release single player games and they ask you to be online. I think it's just bollocks, pretty much. Frankly speaking, I have my notebook and I'm going, I don't have internet access. Though people wouldn't like to think so, there's no internet access in many places in the world where you go, or it costs a lot of money, so I'm not able to play the game.

Normally what a lot of gamers will do is say "This is not a good offer, this is not a good value, I'll go download this game from torrent, or I'll copy it from my friend. It's cracked, and the annoyance of being online is removed." and I'm totally separating it from cases when the game has online elements and it makes perfect sense. This is a totally different world. I think the best example is to offer value to the end consumer; if you offer substantial value both in the retail box and in the digital version, and then additional stuff like being a part of the community, people will think ten times before pirating.

And of course it has to be widely available, because in some countries, and Poland was one of them, you couldn't buy the legal products and people were pirating because it was not available. This is not the case anymore with digital distribution. If you are in Costa Rica or if you are in Poland you cannot buy a good game and I'm asking, "What the hell is that?". On GOG one of our fundamental values is that the games are available worldwide. We have people offering up games and saying, "We have the rights for Western Europe." And we say, "Great, what about Eastern Europe? What about Russians, Poles, whatever? How are they going to enjoy it?". So if it's not worldwide we just don't sell it.

Guillaume Rambourg: I wouldn't like it to sound too extreme, but if you treat people like criminals, they react like criminals, right? We can see it in society every day with riots, strikes and so on. Our aim is to be a fair trade business. To put the right values, to put heart in with the users and the products. It is the best way to convey a positive message that, yes, our product costs money compared to a game which you could pirate for free, but for that money it's fully compatible, there is no hassle, and you don't have to configure the game to have it running. You are given free goodies, and you really feel that you invested in - I know it's going to sound like philosophy or something - but you invested in a product that benefits gaming. You feel you are part of an adventure, part of a good cause.

Rich McCormick: Your community is quite vocal in talking to each other as well as talking to you. What has that brought to the company?

Guillaume Rambourg: A lot. A lot. We are very, very, very sensitive to their feedback, suggestions and so on. This is why the new website we launch will include some features that were requested by the community. This is why we made Baldur's Gate happen, because we knew that the game was really well ranked in the wish list we have at GOG, so there's a real communication being done. As I stressed before, they can read our minds, we can read their minds, so it's like some kind of telepathic forces between respective wishes, and this is the way we drive the company forwards.

Marcin Iwinski: I think it's a beauty what a company the size of GOG [can do]. We are 20 people, and I can say frankly that we listen to all of our community and react and interact. That's really cool. We release an average game - I don't want to say a crappy game, because we don't release crappy games - but we release an average game, or a game that doesn't really feed the Good Old Games value system, and people are the best policemen. You read the comments and they're like, “What is that?” or “It's good, but it's not old!” or “It's old, but it's not good!”. We had a few cases, especially at the beginning, when we were looking at what exactly we should release, where exactly we should go, and we were picking up feedback from people and shoving it around the office and saying, "We sucked this time, let's make it better next time." Next time the goal was, "Okay, this game is really not Good Old. Is it what people are after, is it what they want?". Sometimes we are asking them, "What do you think, what games would you like to have released?". That does really help.

Rich McCormick: Do you find that most of your users come for one game and then buy that game and leave, or are they people who stay around for a long time?

Guillaume Rambourg: I will tell you what is the most impressive metric for me: it's not the amount of accounts, it's that between 85 and 90% of our users have been active in the last 90 days. Most people have bought more than one game, and how come they're so active? Because we try to keep the message alive, to have the light always on at GOG. We go back to them with new content, new ideas. We have some regular crazy contests, soon we will have the GOG mixes [where users can create their own custom lists of their favourite games - Ed]. We want people to stay on GOG and have pleasure browsing the products.

Rich McCormick: What's the plan for after you've relaunched?

Marcin Iwinski: For Christmas we have a really strong line up of titles, of excellent titles and I think together with the GOG mixes and the new features on the website this'll make people very happy, and obviously we want to grow bigger next year. Our aim is to have almost every good old game out there, and there's still a lot of work to do

Guillaume Rambourg: Marcin is right, we are still running after quite some old games, maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty. And these will be the hardest games to sign, because the rights might be scattered, or the big publishers behind them may be reluctant with DRM free. And basically, because I believe we need a statement for this interview, because we need something big to be put somewhere! I have a statement, and I think Marcin will agree: our biggest wish for next year and for the future will be to become the number one alternative to Steam. Because let's be honest, Steam is the heart of full price and mid price. They are leading the market, nobody can compete with them, and if in the future we could be perceived as, "There is Steam on the left side, and there is GOG for all the rest,” this will be our biggest satisfaction.

Rich McCormick: What's your favourite thing about PC gaming?

Marcin Iwinski: I think it's a sea of opportunities. It's a platform where you can do whatever you want and it's all about the idea and the execution of the idea, and the value which you build. I think GOG.com is a perfect example. Can you do it on XBLA, or on PSN? No, because there are platform owners. So we will see the PC as the most creative platform, where all the new ideas start and thrive, and right now with the chance of publishing digitally, directly, looking at games like for example World of Goo, it's great. It's just spectacular what's happening on the PC. Torchlight, you know? This is the new PC model and yes, there is no statistical data, but there are a lot of very happy gamers.

Not mentioning that the state of notebooks and laptops are exploding [in the last] two years, which has been good for us, because we have good old games and you don't need a high end configuration. Hardware trends is linked to our trends and we hope to combine it properly and contribute to the development of the PC market.

Guillaume Rambourg: It's a great market, but the thing is really, looking at the perspectives, you have to really treat the gamers seriously. Because in the mid games segment, if you're offering a lousy port of the console version, and it's coming a few months after console release because the companies are afraid of piracy - come on, this is not the offering. The offering is "Make a PC game, make it right and you're successful." Let's look at StarCraft 2. Okay, Blizzard is the biggest company, they know how to make games, but that's exactly what they're doing. In a month they sell three million units. I really love niche markets where you can sell three million units of a great game, that's [what it's] all about. Torchlight selling 600 thousand units. Different platforms, different games, that's the beauty of it.

Rich McCormick: Is there anything more you'd like to add?

Marcin Iwinski: I think at this point it would be really good to thank all of our users and partners for supporting GOG. We started just walking around with an idea and there were partners who immediately jumped on board. Then we launched the site with a very new concept and people really loved it and followed it, and they are the guys or girls who built the platform, because without them GOG would not exist. They call us every day, they tell us what is wrong, what is right, and so we're really grateful and we hope they will be happy with Baldur's Gate.

Guillaume Rambourg: I would like to say some special thanks to the guys at DOSBox, because we started with some good old games from the early 90s, and we really built up a great relationship with the guys from DOSBox. [They] have been extremely supportive. They helped us to put GOG on track and, as Marcin explains, without the help of such key partners, we wouldn't be here today. We don't have a short memory and we would like to thank them for the last two years.

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