Almost 10 years ago to the day, CD Projekt launched the online digital game store Good Old Games. The operation and scope was small - a handful of people salvaging iconic old PC games for modern operating systems - but the prices, customer service and DRM-free message were right, and slowly the service grew. And grew, and grew. And today things are different.
Today GOG employs more than 160 people and no longer restricts itself to good old games, so much so that the full meaning has been forgotten and replaced by the snappier acronym GOG. Today you find the newest and biggest independent games there, such as Pathfinder: Kingdom and A Bard's Tale 4, and they are kept up to date by the Steam-like client GOG Galaxy. And today CD Projekt is a household gaming name.
The Witcher games, developed under the same roof, have propelled GOG to new heights. They have been the first big new games on GOG and it has been the best place to find discounts for them. But never has CD Projekt flexed the family advantage as much as it will when selling Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales exclusively on GOG next month. Thronebreaker, based on the card game Gwent, may not be The Witcher 4, but it's a 30-hour, $30 standalone game made by people responsible for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt nonetheless. It's a big deal, and for GOG it could be massive.
It's on the cusp of this new era that I sat down with GOG managing director Piotr Karwowski to talk about Steam rivalry, mod support (which he confirms is in the pipeline, excitingly), the problematic tweet GOG took down, and why being DRM-free is still something to shout about.
Your big boast is still GOG being DRM-free, but how many people in the wider gaming world care about this? When I load up Steam, it works, so I don't mind it being DRM.
Piotr Karwowski: You would mind if it stopped working one day!
Digital distribution, when it evolved, brought a lot of benefits: you just click and you have it and don't have to go to a store, wait in line and get a cold because it's freezing outside. But one thing digital distribution brought was the erosion of the concept of ownership. I assume you are similar to me and when you were a kid had a shelf with boxes you were cherishing and collecting; you felt this was yours and it will not [potentially] disappear the very next day...
"Even if we have to continue educating why this is important, we will. We will not change this approach." -Piotr Karwowski
When we explain it like that, people say, "I totally get it - it's very important to feel you own this stuff," but once you go into technicalities and start calling it 'DRM', it gets much more complex and people say, "Well it works for me - why should I care?"
You could say you don't care about a lot of things because it doesn't affect you... Long-term you can look at it as every game you buy which includes DRM is, in a way, an inferior product because it has some kind of kill-switch there, which may never ever affect you but it is there. If you had the product DRM-free, you know the product is there, it's yours, you can play it any way you want, any time you want, and it will always continue working.
DRMs are not as hardcore these days as they were five or 10 years ago when you had limited activations and were greeted with a message saying, 'Hey sorry you can't play this game because you're not connected.' But that doesn't mean this isn't a problem and we shouldn't care about it; one day, because of some bigger outage, you'll realise parts of your collection on whatever platform - it doesn't have to just be Steam - [are not available].
To us there is a value in DRM-free, and even if we have to continue educating why this is important, we will. We will not change this approach.
What is the attraction of GOG compared to a service like Steam - which increasingly comes under fire for a lack of moderation and curation - beside being DRM-free?
Piotr Karwowski: Our approach to games, customers, and developers. [Back when we were making a name for ourselves] we knew rather than focusing on quantity, we had to focus on quality - have fewer releases but make them shine, and provide the best customer support possible. We ourselves will update this game to Windows 8, Windows 10, whatever Windows comes out; we ourselves will support this title, not send you to the developer which doesn't exist any more.
We were trying to be the service where you had the most customer-friendly policies in terms of refunds and downloading the games to own. That's all still with us today - all of those are similarly important. As a package this is what differentiates us.
I would also focus on the boutique approach versus the Steam approach. Steam has a very good approach - business-wise it was great for them. They released everything with a hands-off approach - you're a developer, you can release stuff over there. There's some conditions of course but 'we don't care about the amount of stuff or the quality of it'. There are stores like that: supermarkets where you have everything mixed together. That's one way to do it.
But GOG grew up doing things differently, carefully selecting games. There is no noise. It's more like single products where you have the quality.
You've grown a lot in 10 years. How big are you now relative to Steam?
"Mod support, which I know will come at some point, is probably something I shouldn't have said..." -Piotr Karwowski
Piotr Karwowski: It really depends on the product. It's difficult to calculate the market share. If we have a game starting on the same day as Steam or another platform, with parity of content and updates, then we have cases where we could work up to 15 per cent of the Steam [sales]. It's nice but it's not, say, half, where you could say 'wow, crazy'. But there is definitely opportunity and GOG can do well if we have the title from day one. If we jump in later then it's not so beautiful looking.
Whenever someone says 'how do you see yourself against Steam - how do you compete?'... I know we are in the same space of digital distribution, selling the same product, but we never ever say, 'OK this is what Steam's doing so let's kill Steam this way.' The assumption of building a product around being a killer of some other product is extremely stupid. Why not build a service which has value and brings something more to the consumer rather than just trying to say we're up against those guys and want to take part of it.
When you ask about numbers and I say GOG has 15 per cent: we got there organically, not because we were doing something based on what Steam was doing. We have our own way and people responded to that.
One big thing missing from GOG is built-in mod support. Are there plans to add this?
Piotr Karwowski: We toy with this idea and discuss it regularly. The way we often build features within GOG is we look at what developers need, be it CDPR or any indie dev. If they say 'guys we need the ability to upload patches ourselves', we deliver it. If we have a game where the dev says 'guys we'd like to sign the release but this is an important feature for us', then this automatically boosts the priority of it.
[Mods] are something we know we'll develop anyway, it's just matter of how soon.
Łukasz Kukawski (head of global communications): It's also the matter where there are some other sources you can get the mods - Nexus Mods for example. Most of them - not all of them - work with GOG builds, so there are alternatives to have mods working with our games. It's not like we don't have the support entirely.
Is a proper partnership with someone like Nexus Mods possible?
Łukasz Kukawski: Mmhmm. We are working very closely with Nexus Mods. We are in touch with them, we do some things with them, we highlight some of the mods we feel are useful. We have the friendly convention there where we try to boost each other.
Piotr Karwowski: There is plenty of stuff we have planned right now. The thing is, we love to announce those things when we're ready to show them! Not before. Even with mod support, which I know will come at some point, it's probably something I shouldn't have said, but (now) it's out there and it doesn't matter.
Recently GOG posted a tweet with GamerGate associations before removing it and apologising. It left a taint on an otherwise fairly flawless company image. What happened?
â€¢ The intention behind our tweet was to inform about a release known for controversial content.— GOG.COM (@GOGcom) July 19, 2018
â€¢ Unfortunately, we've failed to make the association between the image, the date, and an abusive movement.
â€¢ Our intention was never to hurt or condone hate.
Piotr Karwowski: It's difficult for me to comment because I actually wasn't in the office when this happened, but I don't want to dodge the question because that's not fair. I think all that happened was purely a situation where someone posted this image out of a set of images they had because they felt it was funny because Postal had a specific crude kind of humour. Then someone brought it to their attention - 'Hey look this image has some connotations...' - and it was absolute panic, 'What have I done?', and was taken down and there was the apology.
I understand it might have left a sour taste but the important thing is there was never any intention behind this. I don't want to be the person who says 'I'm ashamed GOG did this' because if someone did it out of ill intentions, on purpose - they knew what this image meant - then that's a completely different story. To me this is a really stupid mistake and that's it. We apologised for it and I think honestly that's OK.
This interview was based on a press trip to CD Projekt with flights and accommodation provided.