GOG: Indies, nostalgia, and the evils of DRM

One year after being rebranded

It took a long time for me to be comfortable with digital distribution. I held onto my dusty boxes and physical media with grim determination, seeing no reason for me to move with the times. It was Space Quest that changed all that. I’d lost my discs filled with the adventures of space janitor Roger Wilco years before, but when I realized that I could simply download every single one of them and start playing them mere minutes later, I started to become a convert. 

That was many years ago, and now — between plaforms like Steam and GOG — I have almost 400 digital titles, and the last time I purchased a physical PC game, it was for an article I was writing about the experience of going back to a brick-and-mortar store. I want to emphasize this: I only bought the game for an experiment. 

GOG.com, once Good Old Games, started out by appealing to folk like myself. Those who wanted to dive into the classics and bygone titans of PC gaming, but it’s transformed into something much larger: a huge digital platform promoting and selling bounties decades old next to modern indie titles, and all the time sticking to its anti-DRM principles. A year after its rebranding, I caught up with managing director Guillaume Rambourg, and some of the developers whose games feature on the site.

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“[W]e knew that at some point we will run out of classics to release.” This was the first reason that Good Old Games became GOG, according to Rambourg, and shifted towards selling games of all ages, not just drawing from gaming’s past. “So the question of ‘Where do we go from here?’ after we’ve picked all of the low-hanging fruit for classic games is something that has always been a part of our long-term strategy.”

By 2012, the platform had secured the likes of Black Isle classics Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, beloved adventures like Syberia and Gabriel Knight, and famed strategy titles such as Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and Master of Orion. If an old game wasn’t there, it was likely because it was tied up in “legal limbo,” Rambourg explains. 

The industry had also changed since the platform’s inception. An “indie renaissance” had begun, and GOG wanted to be part of it. “We decided that releasing modern games, specifically those which fit in with our audience, was a great idea. If these encapsulate the best qualities of the timeless classics — the willingness to experiment, the need to craft experience that engage with more than just eye candy, and the capacity to iterate quickly, we know our fans will be more than happy to buy them.”

Within this “indie renaissance,” adventure games have made a surprising comeback, and many have found themselves on GOG. Wadjet Eye Games has four titles up on the platform (one being a bundle), and I asked company founder and adventure game creator Dave Gilbert what impact being featured on the platform had for the developer. 

“I think Resonance was our first game on GOG,” he recollects. “But I don’t remember exactly. In any case, it was awesome to be a part of the service. Sales definitely went up, and suddenly we were on a lot more radars than we were before. GOG is very selective about what they take. They take that first ‘G’ very seriously and as a result, Wadjet Eye was taken more seriously.” And Wadjet Eye’s titles have done well on GOG, all being rated between four and five stars by users. It’s the community that rates these games, not arbitrary scores from Metacritic.

More than just a place to buy digital titles, GOG was created with an eye towards fostering this community; one that was built around the values that Rambourg and his team share with PC gamers. The prominent user ratings, user reviews, and abundance of user-created lists and bundles of recommended games puts that community at the heart of the platform.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without our community,” Rambourg admits. “We’re extensively engaged with them, having adopted a pretty transparent dialog with them about what their opinions are and why we want to make the changes we do.” GOG has a clear vision of what it wants to achieve, but it wants the community to be involved in the process of achieving it. 

“We’ve run a number of surveys, for example, about site changes,” Rambourg continues. “You know, we know what we want, but it never hurts to ask our users. GOG is also very responsive in social media and on forums. We really do understand that this community is a driving force behind our growth, so we would be fools not to listen to it. A lot of our expansion projects, like Mac support, have been born out of listening to our users.”

The feedback from the community is also important to the developers with products available on the site. Larian Studios has three games on GOG, including Divine Divinity — four if you include preorders for Dragon Commander — and CEO Sven Vincke has made good use out of the forums. “On GOG you have a great group of people who play a lot of RPGs, so for us it’s a gold mine in terms of info on what we should do to make people have fun with the type of games we are making because ultimately that’s what it’s all about, ensuring that the people who buy our games have fun with it.”

Wadjet Eye’s Dave Gilbert calls feedback a double-edged sword. “I saw many complaints about the notebook interface in the first two Blackwell games, so I removed it for the third. That resulted in even more complaints from those who really liked it. So for the fourth game I went back to the drawing board, asking people what they liked and didn’t like about the notebook so I could make it work for everybody. So feedback is important, but sometimes difficult to parse!” Engaging with the community and asking them direct questions is key, not simply taking comments at face value.

And it’s not just engaging with the community that’s important. Having direct feedback from the platform itself is a boon for indie developers. In contrast to Valve and Steam, who have, in the past, promoted completely unfinished, barely playable alphas as finished products, possibly overlooking QA, GOG is surprisingly hands-on. Neil Barnden of Stainless Games, the Carmageddon developer, filled me in on the assistance GOG provided his studio when it came to adding the classic title to the platform’s library. 

“When it came to preparing the original Carmageddon for release as an installable package, we were able to largely hand over the task entirely to the ‘GOGologists’ to do the work. As we were really busy already, working on Carmageddon: Reincarnation and the mobile versions of the original game, this was a great boon for us,” Barnden informs me. “We really didn’t have to worry about the work; the guys at GOG just got on with it and came back to us with some outstanding technical questions towards the end of the project.”

Rambourg talks me through GOG’s process for selecting and working with indies. “[F]irst our QA team evaluates them and often provides us feedback that we can pass off to the devs, then we make sure the developers are not doing anything problematic with their business models, then we make the devs an offer and see if we can come to terms.”

GOG also offers advances against royalties, which Rambourg claims is almost unheard of. “[A]nywhere from $5k to $50k USD isn’t uncommon, depending on our estimates of how the game will do, and estimates on if the up-front advance will help make a substantially better game at launch.”

Even with the shift in focus to new titles, nostalgia continues to be important at GOG. It could be argued that the indie developers of today are continuing a tradition going back to the ’80s and ’90s, where small groups of people with even smaller budgets attempt to create something that stands out, something “a cut above the rest,” in Rambourg’s words.

A major part of that nostalgia is quite rational and well earned,” Rambourg clarifies. “It is not remotely true that the ’90s only saw phenomenal games. The games that we remember are the best ones. Back then, for each Baldur’s Gate there was a Big Rigs Racing or Extreme Paintbrawl. Those games exemplify the worst in gaming: buggy code, terrible performance, and eye-hurting graphics. Today, it’s just as true: much of what gets made in any industry is rubbish. But we try and find the gems, the games that have sparkle.”

When asking Dave Gilbert about the nostalgia aspect of GOG, I described Wadjet Eye’s adventure games as old-school, but that’s not really how he sees them. “It’s funny. I don’t think of our games as old, or even old-school. Sure, they might look old because of the pixels, but that’s purely for budget/practical reasons instead of any desire to achieve an old-school aesthetic. We make the types of games we want to actually play, and the results seem to resonate with people.

“So many adventure games try to reinvent the genre when they don’t need to. The same could be said of many old-school genres like platformers, shmups, or turn-based RPGs. The GOG audience understands this. They aren’t fans of these ‘old’ games just because they are old. They like them because they are, you know, good.”

With the advent of Kickstarter and crowd-funding, even more independent developers are coming out of the woodwork, which means GOG has a potentially even greater pool to draw from now.

“Kickstarter is awesome. Across the company we have probably backed at least a hundred projects. There are, however, risks and challenges. The first big flop will burst the crowd-funding bubble,” Rambourg warns. “So each Kickstarter developer should definitely underpromise and strive to overdeliver. As to successful Kickstarter projects being released on GOG.com, we have already launched FTL: Faster Than Light and Expeditions: Conquistador. We have also committed to releasing Project: Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenara, and Wasteland 2, among others.”

Larian Studios recently had a great deal of success with its Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin, and due to the studio’s relationship with GOG and demand from backers, decided to select GOG as one of the platforms for Original Sin‘s distribution. Vincke believes that there’s a significant overlap between the GOG community and the type of people who back Kickstarters, particularly old-school RPGs and strategy titles.

“I believe — and you see it from projects currently successful on Kickstarter — that there’s a large gap in the offers that exist in terms of games and demand from a specific part of the gamer audience, specifically strategy games and RPGs we grew up with weren’t being made anymore… so for a long time there was no publisher interest… that created a gap between what certain players wanted to play and what was on the market.”

Kickstarter-funded titles and GOG make good bedfellows, according to Vincke. The latter proved that there was still a strong desire for old-school RPGs, and the former provided a means for developers to start making them again after so many years. 

Neil Barnden shares this sentiment. “I think it’s more likely that backers will embrace the idea of ‘bringing something back,’ plus their money is safer with something they remember fondly as being great fun to play the first time round. It’s always going to be tougher to launch a new, unknown game concept on Kickstarter — especially if your team is also new.

“And GOG has been a huge force for the good of the older IP — it’s exactly what’s needed; a well-established and trusted site that brings together classic titles where those who fondly remember them can go and find them, or the new generation of gamers can rely on to give them a painless introduction to the previous golden age of games without the need to find patches, workarounds, and hacks to get the old stuff working on today’s hardware.”

And we’re likely to see a lot more Kickstarter-funded projects appearing on GOG, according to Rambourg. “I don’t see any reason not to add more Kickstarter-funded titles to our catalog in the future. A lot of those games come out DRM-free from the get-go which makes us happy, and also makes signing them a much easier job for us.”

GOG has always been a vocal opponent of DRM, featuring no games with DRM on the store whatsoever. I asked Rambourg if he saw DRM as a growing problem, with the likes of Ubisoft’s Uplay and EA’s Origin adding to the problem. “DRM is not a growing problem, it just continues to be one. We’re about the only store that’s remained committed to our DRM-free policy — no game has DRM, no compromises; that does mean that some offers pass us by, but the longer we do this, the better our case is that DRM doesn’t have any effect on piracy rates. I’d love for the day when you see launch title from EA or Ubisoft on GOG.com because they’ve signed on to the DRM-free philosophy.”

While this does limit GOG’s catalog of games, it’s not so much of a problem when it comes to indies, Rambourg informs me. “For now, most of the indie gaming scene does not use DRM, but for many of them that’s more because DRM is a pain to implement than because they’re directly opposed to it. Honestly, the majority of gamers are probably not that concerned about DRM. DRM is not a problem for anybody right up until the first time it stops them from doing what they wanted.

“Steam’s DRM is practically invisible to 80% of their users,” he continues. “And the remaining 20% that is sometimes bothered by its implementation? A lot them probably already know about us. The majority will realize they don’t have freedom only when, for example, a blackout happens, and they cannot access Steam to play their game.”

Rambourg remains optimistic, believing that the industry will eventually move away from consumer-punishing practices such as DRM. “Abiding to the DRM-free rule of course makes it a little more difficult for us to sign games from certain publishers, but we do believe the gaming industry will finally catch up with other branches of entertainment and will understand that penalizing paying customers — because that is basically the practical effect of DRM — gets them nowhere.”

Like most digital distribution platforms, GOG has frequent sales, where prices are slashed to what would once have been a ludicrous degree. It’s never more obvious than it is now, during the summer. There are those who claim that this has a negative impact on the industry, devaluing games and giving rise to the consumer mentality of waiting until a title is at least 75% off before they’ll buy it.

Rambourg considers this a valid concern, and acknowledges the detrimental effect that it has on the industry. Yet it’s a practice that has become increasingly necessary, as gamers become more and more used to these frequent sales. “I’ve talked about this a few times before: these sales are like a sugar rush. Big spike of energy, lots of fun. But a crash comes after. So you have another sale, and another one. And before you know it, your diet is mostly junk food, not the real stuff.

“When I see gamers commenting — and this is more and more common — ‘$15 for a new game? Meh. I’ll wait until it’s on 50% off sale at least,’ I know that we’re seeing the fruits of this cheap binge. When you can get five games for a buck or two, it’s hard to rationalize paying $30 or $35 for an indie game that’s new now, but you know will be in a bundle in nine months or a year.”

And he admits that GOG is just as guilty of this as anyone else. “I believe that frequent sales hurt the value of games in the long term. Unfortunately they bring revenue and they are a big part of the digital market, and GOG.com is stuck on this binge as much as the next guy.” Yet an attempt is made to retain the value of games that are better known and will, in Rambourg’s words “sell regardless if they are on sale or not.” It is, perhaps, not the response critics of the trend want to hear, but Rambourg and GOG are at least transparent. 

Despite the significant changes that the platform has undergone since its relaunch in 2010 and rebranding last year, in many ways GOG remains the same. The aforementioned transparency hasn’t disappeared just because it’s become successful; it continues to actively promote and assist developers rather than just sell their games — going so far as to feature interviews and insights into the development process, and, most importantly to some, it continues to stick to its guns and not capitulate to the proliferators of DRM.  

For now, Rambourg and his cohorts are focused on signing more day-one games, finding more unreleased titles within the libraries of their partners, and working on a secret project which will launch next year. Rambourg promises me that it will “knock my socks off.”

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Fraser Brown
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