PC games — and even Windows customization utilities — make up a much larger market than music software. But in this parallel universe there have been echoes of the challenges facing music developers since the early days of PCs. Both have highly dedicated, niche audiences. Both face rampant piracy. Neither has the support of big business sales as the likes of Adobe and Microsoft do. Many of the customers use the products in their free time, rather than as tools that generate revenue. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Both have, let’s face it, customer bases who often don’t have that much money to spend, period — particularly after a hefty hardware investment.

And both gamers and musicians have been the target of aggressive anti-piracy campaigns, campaigns that get to the heart of the debate over software DRM, and very often blame pirates for failing business models.

Stardock, a “boutique” developer with a rabid following of sci-fi strategy gamers, finally spoke out. And they had good reason: a game with absolutely no DRM made it to one of the top three spots in the country.

Piracy & PC Gaming

There are real lessons for the potential of future music software development, not only in terms of piracy, but in terms of building future businesses.

Now, before the music developers start coming out the woodwork to tell me I’m deluded because I think piracy isn’t a problem, nowhere does this article say this — and neither do I. Quite the opposite, in fact. Stardock simply turns the argument on its head: the problem is not to figure out how to stop pirates with new software technologies — it’s how to connect with more users who actually pay, because they’re the ones that matter. Count paying customers — and stop counting users pirating your tool as lost revenue, because (as piracy foes themselves argue), it’s by definition revenue you’re not getting back.

In fact, once you start looking at it that way, you begin to see that users and developers alike have real responsibilities to support tools they care about:

  • Developers have to target paying customers. It’s sound business sense. In the case of Stardock, that means making games appealing to a broad audience, affordable, and widely compatible with different hardware — all equally relevant in music software.
  • Developers have to earn customer loyalty. Stardock actually doesn’t harp on this, but it’s true — they’ve provided exceptional support and built fantastic relationships with users over a long period of time. Look back at our industry, and the folks at the top have done the same thing.
  • Users have to pay for software they use, if they want to see it shipping. This one should give you pause: lots of products have simply died because users didn’t embrace them, or didn’t pay for them. This is where pirates really do kill entire development houses. And it is a problem. But it’s one you have the power to solve — by paying for the software you use, you vote for the software you use. No DRM needed, and no massive undercover sting operations needed — neither of those actually encourage people to buy (or use) anything. It really is in users’ hands. And it’s a loop: if users pay for software they value, developers make more. If developers don’t make software users value, users don’t buy it.
  • The press (and blogosphere, and forums) have to call attention to little-known software. If no one sees it, no one buys it. Stardock’s word-of-mouth power — and a few press advocates — have managed it to stack up to big developers with huge marketing budgets.

None of this evades the problem of how serious piracy can be. It simply rephrases the problem, from this:

Software is doomed by piracy.

To this:

Software development depends on paying customers, so we need more of those.

And the “more of those” part in the case of their latest game, Sins of a Solar Empire, are entirely the result of an improved product with great buzz for a wide audience. Much like music, sometimes the really large market (bedroom producers, or real-time space strategy gamers) is bigger than what everyone perceives as “cool” (think celebrity artists and big-name audio studios). But the solution in this case was not DRM or legal action, because those don’t generate sales, period.

But, as with that game, the responsibility doesn’t just lie with developers and industry. It lies with us as users, too. And in music, in particular, if we are using proprietary software at all, I think we have an obligation to put our money into tools we believe in, and encourage others to do so. (I can’t count them number of times I’ve had to convince friends to go out and pay for an upgrade, or buy the tool they “evaluated” from a friend — and often successfully.) I think there’s even a parallel in open source software — just with a different value model. If you want open source software to succeed, you need to contribute code, or documentation, or other value — and because open source developers and users also have rent and health insurance and the like, you still often need to find a way of generating some revenue somewhere, even if via a different model.

But all of this reveals the past “gloom and doom” piracy argument as what it is: an excuse. Really finding solutions means actively building them, and it requires involvement from everyone who cares about the tool, from developer to user to, yes, the press.

The good news: if you make that happen, you get long evenings of fun romps through the galaxy.

And there are worse things in life than splitting your time between FL Studio and Sins of a Solar Empire. Hurrah, geekdom.