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Stupid, stupid, stupid. The Good Old Games publicity screw-up

By on September 23, 2010
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This week, Good Old Games put its foot in its mouth and pulled the trigger.

On Sunday, news spread across the web that the Good Old Games (or GoG) website was down. The site, which offers DRM-free digital downloads of many classic games, was popular with gamers for its open approach to digital distribution, and for making old games accessible, legally, without DRM.

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But it turns out the shut-down was a publicity stunt designed to publicise the relaunch of their site and the inclusion of Bioware-classic Baldur’s Gate in their portfolio. According to PC Gamer, the company said:

“As a small company we don’t have a huge marketing budget and this why we could not miss a chance to generate some buzz around an event as big as launching a brand new version of our website and even more important, bringing back Baldur’s Gate to life!”

I’m imagining the brainstorm session that led to this mind-numbingly dumb decision.

<flashy visual dissolve>

Managing director of plucky digital distribution start-up: “Ok, team, we have an amazing opportunity here: we’ve just secured the rights to distribute Baldur’s Gate, entirely DRM-free.”

Team: “Woot!!!”

MD: “Not only that, we’ve just finished the redesign and the new site is just AWESOME!”

Chief Technology Officer (looking at his shoes): “Aw shucks, it was nothing.”

MD: “So we’ve got awesome content, and an awesome site. What’s our marketing budget to tell everyone about this.”

Chief Financial Officer: “Well, I’ve just run the numbers, and…”

Team: “Yes?”

CFO: “It’s zero.”

MD: “Zero?”

CFO: “Zero.”

MD (rubbing his hands together with a bright expression): “Well, we’re a plucky little startup. That’s normal. Marketing: what can we do with a budget of exactly zero?”

Marketing: “Well, we can’t afford banners. AdSense is out. I know! We’ll put out a press release.”

Team: “BOOORIING!”

MD: “Surely we can do something better than that, can’t we.”

Team: <silence>

Marketing: “I’ve got it. We’ll do a publicity stunt.”

Team: <general excitement and high-fiving>

MD: “What sort of publicity stunt?”

Team: <silence>

MD: “OK, let’s approach this logically. What do people like about our service?”

CTO: “That’s easy. We’ve got no DRM. We let legitimate users play games THEY own wherever they want with no restrictions. We’re all about making legal games as convenient as pirated ones.”

MD: “Hmmm, true, but it’s got no zing. No pizzazz.”

CFO: “How about our great range of classic games. We’ve done deals with dozens of publishers to get hundreds of your favourite games.”

MD: “Dull, dull, dull. Everyone says that.”

Marketing: “How about something that says ‘we’re gamers too’. We could do a stunt that says we care just as much as our customers do about great games at a good price, with no petty restrictions.”

MD: “No, no, too obvious. Wait a minute. Something brilliant is coming in <presses fingertips to his temples> I’VE GOT IT…. What’s the one thing everyone fears about digital distribution? The one thing that stops us from destroying retail for ever.”

CTO: “That the company might go bust, leaving all of their games broken and unusable, and that they would have been better off to have a physical back-up. In other words, a game in a box.”

MD (excited): “Exactly. But we’re not like that. It DOESN’T MATTER if we go bust, because we have no DRM. No validation servers, no licence keys. So we just need a publicity stunt to remind everyone how fragile their ownership of games are, and that they should buy from us because we can go bust and that’s OK.”

CTO (slowly): “True…”

Marketing: “You don’t think our users might not spot that nuance, boss. They might just think that its dangerous to rely on ephemeral downloads and send them rushing back to shops.

MD: “Never in a million years. LET’S DO IT! What could possibly go wrong.”

Team: <silence>

 

* * *

As Michael French, editor-in-chief of Develop, said:

Well done #goghoax – the perfect example of why some developers really do need sensible PRs or publishers to talk you out of a dumb idea.

  • It was dumb because it risked alienating fans (an entirely predictable outcome)
  • It was dumb because it reminded Good Old Games’ entire audience (both current and potential) of the fundamental problem of digital downloads – that you don’t have any physical ownership of your content –  in the most graphic way.
  • It was dumb because it assumed all publicity was good publicity.

To me, this stunt says, in large letters, “IF YOU BUY OUR SOFTWARE, AND WE GO BUST, YOU MAY LOSE IT ALL FOREVER”.

The fact that, unlike digital distributors which do use DRM, GOG games will still work even if the company does go bust because there are no validating servers is a nuance that I fear will be lost on most people.

The company has apologised by getting its founders to appear dressed as monks and apologising for having sinned.

And the stunt will have raised GOG’s profile (after all, I’m writing this piece…). But in the process, I think it will have persuaded a lot of people of the sense of buying physical copies of games instead of digital ones.

Insert foot in mouth. Pull trigger.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • Tjubert

    Not communicating their core selling point is certainly a big screw up that I’d not considered, but to my mind it was still a great stunt, and infinitely better than just another press release.

  • “As they say “any publicity is good publicity”. Quod erat demonstradum.”

    Yeah, for example Foxconn’s suicides or Apple’s exploding batteries.

  • I’m not convinced it was a bad move on their part either. I’d never heard of them before, and now I have. Sure we can speculate about negative outcomes, but without hard data we don’t know how it affected their bottom line. I’m not convinced this will hurt sales, just because a few people in the games press are saying it was dumb.

  • I for one, had never heard of GoG before, so their publicity “stunt” (which is no worse than any shop having their umpteenth “closing down sale”) was effective in making me notice. I paid no heed though, until you posted this article.

    As they say “any publicity is good publicity”. Quod erat demonstradum.

  • Insensitive to your existing customers? Definitely. But I don’t think this is as a big a snafu as you’re making it out to be. This will soon be forgotten and they’re sure to feel the benefit of the raised profile. When the site first went down there was a large thread about it on Reddit and it was telling how few of the Reddit gaming community had ever heard about GOG.

    I think a bigger problem with GOG are the price points they’re (probably) forced to sell at. $9.99 for a 20 year old game? No thanks. If that’s the the trade-off for DRM free games, I’d rather have some DRM I could happily live with, e.g. that employed by Steam.