Monday, April 15, 2013

Piracy in Magic, and why Cockatrice Exists

Thanks to everyone who listened and gave some feedback on the previous podcast, I learned that some people still didn't agree with my point of view about piracy and DRM.  So I'm taking advantage of this blog to attempt a longer form explanation of my idea.

Because of the nature of digital goods, there is the incentive and ability for independent actors to distribute the digital good closer to the actual marginal cost.  These independent actors are called pirates.  They spend a smaller fixed cost uploading the digital good, and charge only skeevy ads in the sidebar of your favorite torrent site, plus a bit of goodwill.

The obvious reaction to this argument about piracy is that possible doesn't make it right. And I'll admit, that's actually a tough reaction for me to work through.  But here's the rub - it's not just possible, its inevitable.  There is an incentive to pirate, and there is nothing that can ever completely stop a pirate from doing so.  If it's video, I can always point a camcorder at my screen, and upload that video, completely separate from the original file.

So the best way to handle piracy is to acknowledge it is a competitor.  The music industry has done so, and is now more profitable now than it was before Napster, and music is still pirated, and distributed for free on youtube and similar sites.  The cost to buy music has gone down significantly, but its decreased to somewhere very close to the marginal cost through marketplaces like iTunes, Pandora, and Amazon.  Which brings me to another notion, the notion of multiple aspects of a price.

At iTunes, you pay mainly one price, a monetary price of 99 cents.  At Pandora, you pay an inconvenience cost of listening to ads occasionally.  At ThePirateBay, you pay an inconvenience cost of finding the song, and the ethical cost of not contributing to the art.  The balance of these three costs enables paid, convenient and ethical options like iTunes to compete with free options like ThePirateBay.  Or, as Gabe Newell puts it, "We think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem."  This is how the music industry has been able to compete with free.

With that groundwork laid, we can come back to Magic the Gathering and Cockatrice.  Cockatrice is the Magic equivalent of Napster.  It is free, convenient, and not very ethically burdened.  To reuse my analogy from the podcast, it's not very different from proxying.

What Wizards of the Coast (owners of Magic) should do is develop strategies to compete with free.  Free will always exist, even if it's just proxying, and the goal of Wizards should be to make those options less good than the paid variety.

And there are many avenues to do that that are much easier for Wizards than for Cockatrice, and they already have some of them.  Prizes would be very difficult to do on a free, untrusted network like Cockatrice.  Phantom drafts (where you essentially draft proxy cards that aren't added to your digital collection) provide a price point that is a closer competitor to free drafts on Cockatrice.  If they were offered more frequently, I could see myself running them instead of Cockatrice.  $2 is worth the benefits I get - assurance that my competitors will remain online through the whole draft, financially relevant prizes, and honor prizes like Planeswalker Points.  A standard draft at $18 isn't worth those benefits. I don't attach any value to the cards I rip online, except to defray some of the costs of the $18 outlay, and they rarely cover much of that price.

Another area that Wizards is better than Cockatrice, and must continue to compete, is in their draft and deckbuilding interface.  With Cockatrice, you have to use a 3rd party site, and transfer data between that and Cockatrice.  Not very convenient, easy to beat with a proprietary offering.

Changes to constructed play is going to be a tougher pill to swallow.  Cockatrice functions as a playtesting and casual environment.  Wizards doesn't offer that in their online service, and until they do, there is an incentive for "pirates" to provide that for the public.  Wizards needs to offer a way to build decks, for free, for non-competitive play.  This play will be unranked, without prizes, but perhaps Wizards could charge per set, or per month, for access to this functionality.

I love the game of Magic, and I love what Cockatrice provides for me that fills in gaps in Wizards functionality or pricing models.  Wizards needs to acknowledge, like the music and movie industries have, that piracy is a competitor, and that it's price point is non-negotiable.  The way to beat it is by lowering your prices, and delivering more value than the pirated options.



  1. Great article man. Brings up some very interesting points. The copyright issue is a very odd bird. If I charged money at the door for an event, and played music I didn't pay royalties for, I can be sued. This happens all the time. But why doesn't Wizards go after the third party sites that offer "premium" material in the form of people streaming Magic online? They literally sell footage of people playing someone else's software.

  2. Wizards take the piss, for instance the Duels of the Planeswalker games on Steam.
    Releasing the same game year after year with a few different cards and missing game types, paid download content.
    Their web game is even worse, I'm not going to pay to buy fictional cards, though I would happily pay a monthly subscription to play it, assuming all the cards were available.