Interview: CD Projekt's CEO on Witcher 2 piracy, why DRM's still not worth it

Nathan Grayson

The Witcher 2

Recently, I spoke with Bohemia Interactive's CEO about the three most reviled letters in the gaming alphabet: D, R, and M. His company has been making waves with tech that slowly renders pirated games unplayable with all manner of obnoxious, sometimes hilarious effects. From where Bohemia's standing, DRM's a necessary evil. No one ever said, however, that forcing thieves to pony up couldn't be worth a laugh or two.

But that's only one perspective. So, in the wake of the announcement that GOG's version of Witcher 2 made a sizable stack of real, non-Monopoly money without any sort of DRM weighing it down, I decided to get in touch with CD Projekt. Read on for CEO and co-founder Marcin Iwinski's thoughts on DRM schemes like Bohemia's, why we should get rid of DRM altogether, how many Witcher 2 copies were pirated, and how piracy can even occasionally be beneficial.

PCG: For quite some time, CD Projekt RED's been of the opinion that DRM isn't necessary. The Witcher 2 - based on GOG sales numbers at least - seems to have vindicated your approach. Why, though? What made people want to buy it instead of pirating?

Marcin Iwinski : To answer this question properly, I have to go back in history a few years. I started CD Projekt with my high-school friend back in 1994. 1994 was a super wild time in terms of piracy, as this was the year when the software copyright laws were first established here.

From the very beginning our main competitors on the market were pirates. The question was really not if company x or y had better marketing or better releases, but more like "How can we convince gamers to go and buy the legit version and not to go to a local street vendor and buy a pirated one?" We of course experimented with all available DRM/copy protection, but frankly nothing worked. Whatever we used was cracked within a day or two, massively copied and immediately available on the streets for a fraction of our price.

We did not give up, but came up with new strategy: we started offering high value with the product - like enhancing the game with additional collectors' items like soundtracks, making-of DVDs, books, walkthroughs, etc. This, together with a long process of educating local gamers about why it makes sense to actually buy games legally, worked. And today, we have a reasonably healthy games market.

In any case, I am not saying that we have eliminated piracy or there is not piracy in the case of TW2. There is, and TW2 was [illegally] downloaded by tens of thousands of people during the first two weeks after release. Still, DRM does not work and however you would protect it, it will be cracked in no time. Plus, the DRM itself is a pain for your legal gamers – this group of honest people, who decided that your game was worth the 50 USD or Euro and went and bought it. Why would you want to make their lives more difficult?

PCG: Can you offer any concrete numbers or percentages as far as Witcher 2 piracy goes?

MI : There are no stats available, but let's make a quick calculation. I was checking regularly the number of concurrent downloads on torrent aggregating sites, and for the first 6-8 weeks there was around 20-30k ppl downloading it at the same time. Let's take 20k as the average and let's take 6 weeks. The game is 14GB, so let's assume that on an average not-too-fast connection it will be 6 hours of download. 6 weeks is 56 days, which equals to 1344 hours; and with 6h of average download time to get the game it would give us 224 downloads, then let's multiply it by 20k simultaneous downloaders.

The result is roughly 4.5 million illegal downloads. This is only an estimation, and I would say that's rather on the optimistic side of things; as of today we have sold over 1M legal copies, so having only 4.5-5 illegal copies for each legal one would be not a bad ratio. The reality is probably way worse.

PCG: Even so, you're hardly in dire straits. What about other developers, though? Do you think there'd be less piracy overall if everyone just dropped DRM entirely?

MI : In my almost 20 years in the industry, I have not seen DRM that really worked (i.e. did not complicate the life of the legal gamer and at the same time protect the game). We have seen a lot of different protections, but there are only two ways you can go: Either you use light DRM, which is cracked in no time and is not a major pain for the end-user, or you go the hard way and try to super-protect the game.

Yes, it is then hard to crack, but you start messing with the operation system, the game runs much slower and - for a group of legal gamers - it will not run at all. None of these solutions really work, so why not abandon it altogether?

PCG: Why do you think so many other developers and publishers are stuck on DRM that inconveniences paying customers just as much as pirates? I mean, their most vocal customers are shouting "No! This is terrible!" at the top of their lungs. So why is it taking so long for them to listen?

MI : Fortunately and unfortunately at the same time, games are becoming huge business. And as with every growing business, there are a lot of people coming in who… have no clue about games and could work in any other industry. They are not asking themselves the question "What is the experience of a gamer?" Or "Is this proposition fair?" But rather, they just look to see if the column in Excel adds up well or not, and if they can have a good explanation for their bosses.

As funny as this might sound, DRM is the best explanation, the best "I will cover my ass" thing. I strongly believe that this is the main reason the industry has not abandoned it until today, and to be frank this annoys me a hell of a lot. You are asking, “So why is it taking so long for them to listen?” The answer is very simple: They do not listen, as most of them do not care. As long as the numbers in Excel will add up they will not change anything.

I always encourage gamers to go and vote with their wallets. That's the only way to enact real change, and I can already see it is changing. When we started GOG.com, the answer from publishers for selling their back-catalogue DRM-free was a brief and strong "NO WAY." Meanwhile, today we have over 300 games, and there are newer games coming next year.

PCG: On that note, do you think DRM's becoming less popular with developers and publishers? I mean, a lot of games are just using Steam now, and even Ubisoft finally got rid of its always online requirement.

MI : It is for sure becoming something to think about, something to consider as part of the gaming experience. It has still a way to go.

The social media revolution helps here a lot. Having all these places on Facebook, Twitter and forums where people post 24/7 – they can share their opinions much easier, faster and on a much larger scale. If they do not like how a certain game works, they can flame it in just a few hours, and that news makes its rounds quite quickly.

This is the only way to get the Excel guys moving. If they hear that they have a couple hundred or thousand negative comments on Amazon, Metacritic, Twitter, etc, they will most probably do something about it. Some of them already did.

PCG: Do you pay attention to unique approaches to copy protection? For instance, Bohemia Interactive's FADE/DEGRADE tech turned a few heads recently by slowly making pirated copies of Take on Helicopters unplayable. Are there any techniques along those lines - in other words, ones that don't harm legitimate customers - that you've considered implementing?

MI : I was reading about what Bohemia did and it's not a bad thing, but ultimately it will be cracked. The question is how much time it will give, and being a developer you always have to ask yourself the question if this kind of protection will not harm even a small percentage of your legal customers.

I would rather focus on rewarding the legal customers. We did this with Witcher 2 and beefed up both the retail and digital version with a lot of additional goodies to make it real value for money. I always think that ultimately it's about convincing the customer in all possible ways, that your game is the best value and that the original version is something they must have at home. I do not believe in forcing anyone to buy our game. If they do not want it and they pirated it, it means we did not have the right offer for them – maybe the price was too high and they will buy it later on a year or two after the release when it will be more affordable.

PCG: What about always online "games as a service" platforms, ala Blizzard's Diablo III and its Auction House? Do you think those fall under the umbrella of "punishing legitimate customers for hackers/cheaters/pirates' crimes"?

MI : So long as it's a real part of the game it's the best thing you can do. Blizzard was the first to come up with it, and they sold gazillions of copies of Diablo 2 just because you had to have the legal copy to be part of Battle.net. That's a fair deal, and it works. I would love to have something like this in The Witcher, and I hope the time will come. However, it must offer real value and enhance the gameplay experience. Gamers are not tricked easily and either it's the real deal or they will go elsewhere. I am really curious to see what Diablo 3 will be like on this end.

It all has to make sense. If by being connected to the Internet we can offer a new gameplay experience, that's great. If this is just a tricky way to make the game more difficult to pirate, it would not make sense from our perspective. Fundamentally, we believe in freedom, and that's what I want to deliver with every single game we sell.

Currently we are heavily single-player, but I would like to enhance this experience one day. However, if we would do it, I still would opt for giving full freedom to the gamers as to how they want to have it. If they prefer to play the game offline, that's great. And if they would rather be online most of the time to have access to some additional functionality, community, that's also great.

PCG: Some developers and pundits claim that pirates simply aren't legitimate customers. That is to say, if all piracy were eliminated forever, those people would opt to simply not play games instead of buying them. Do you think that's true, or is it an excuse to avoid confronting a larger issue?

MI : Like in every society you have a small percentage of thieves. They will rather steal than buy; but statistically speaking that's just a fraction and we should not be bothered with them. I strongly believe that you can convince almost any gamer to buy legal games if only you have the right offer for him/her.

When analyzing piracy, you should look at every single country. Why, for example, is the piracy rate higher in Poland than it is in Germany? It does highly depend on your average disposable income. 50 Euro for a German gamer is quite some expense, but for a Polish one (who earns on average 3-4 times less) it will be a much more difficult decision. You can ask the same question in every single country, and you will have different answers about the affordability of games. Plus, you have to add the cultural specificities, how people consume games, is buying game in their country a normal thing or are they not used to it (like in Poland in 1994), etc.

Let's also not forget that the life of the game does not end a week after its release. If you are honest with your gamers, treat them fairly and support your title, they will support you back, spread the word about your game among their friends, and ultimately go get your game - be it on a sales promo at GameStop, Amazon, Steam or GOG.

Witcher 1 was originally released in 2007, then in 2008 we released the Enhanced Edition. In the first year we sold 1M units, and most of it was in the area of $30-50, while the other million (we just reached 2M) was sold over the next 2.5 years. This shows that if you care for your game and gamers, they will support you. I am sure that lots of these guys played TW1 in a pirated version first. I am really happy they liked it so much that when they had a chance and could afford it, they decided to get a legal version. That's how we treat piracy.

PCG: Thanks to issues like innumerable potential hardware configurations and - of course - piracy, many developers have made consoles their primary focus. That in mind, what makes PC so attractive to CD Projekt? Why is it worth all the fuss? And - if Witcher 2 sees enormous success on consoles - will PC remain your primary platform?

MI : Consoles are a great market, and - especially in the US and some western European markets - if you do not publish on consoles, you do not reach a wide audience. We would, of course, like to introduce Geralt of Rivia to as wide of an audience as possible, but at the same give the right experience.

Making simple ports is definitely not the way we will go, and PC is and will remain super important for us. Due to its nature and constant evolution, PC will always be the most powerful gaming platform, and we will do all we can to deliver the best possible games utilizing the power of PCs. We are PC guys at heart, and nothing will change that.

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