Piracy on the High C++

March 12, 2008 at 1:11 am (Musings, Rants) (, , )

I’ve been rubbish at updating recently I’m afraid. Partly it’s due to being enormously busy but mostly due to my propensity for being distracted easily. So let’s get the distractions out of the way first:

Yeah, I’m weak.

So anyway that’s enough about me. Let’s talk about computer games. A perennial issue for the entertainment industry as a whole is piracy and computer games have been feeling the burn just as much as Hollywood or the music industry. Particularly PC games where their native environment lends itself so well to casual piracy. Let’s get the moralising over and done with. Piracy is theft. People can try to justify their actions if they like but if you own a copy you didn’t pay for then you stole it. Sadly stealing seems to be seen as cool amongst the mouthbreathers who make up the loudest part of the internet.

Here are some interesting perspectives from different industry sources.

The Titan Quest Dev.

Two, the numbers on piracy are really astonishing. The research I’ve seen pegs the piracy rate at between 70-85% on PC in the US, 90%+ in Europe, off the charts in Asia. I didn’t believe it at first. It seemed way too high. Then I saw that Bioshock was selling 5 to 1 on console vs. PC. And Call of Duty 4 was selling 10 to 1. These are hardcore games, shooters, classic PC audience stuff. Given the difference in install base, I can’t believe that there’s that big of a difference in who played these games, but I guess there can be in who actually payed for them.

Let’s dig a little deeper there. So, if 90% of your audience is stealing your game, even if you got a little bit more, say 10% of that audience to change their ways and pony up, what’s the difference in income? Just about double. That’s right, double. That’s easily the difference between commercial failure and success. That’s definitely the difference between doing okay and founding a lasting franchise. Even if you cut that down to 1% – 1 out of every hundred people who are pirating the game – who would actually buy the game, that’s still a 10% increase in revenue. Again, that’s big enough to make the difference between breaking even and making a profit.

Titan Quest did okay. We didn’t lose money on it. But if even a tiny fraction of the people who pirated the game had actually spent some god-damn money for their 40+ hours of entertainment, things could have been very different today. You can bitch all you want about how piracy is your god-given right, and none of it matters anyway because you can’t change how people behave… whatever. Some really good people made a seriously good game, and they might still be in business if piracy weren’t so rampant on the PC. That’s a fact.

That certainly puts the issue in some perspective and to an extent it’s backed up by some quick-and-dirty analysis from Rock Paper Shotgun

Thirdly, let’s try a little really rough – if conservative – maths. Call of Duty 4 has been on sale for 113 days, assuming day zero piracy. A seven gig torrent, assuming a 100k download speed, takes just under a day to download. Assuming that the rate of downloads now is constant across those whole three and a bit months – which is incredibly conservative, of course, as it’d have been much higher upon release – that means 993496 copies will have been illegally downloaded via Mininova alone. Which is the sort of number that makes Infinity Ward sad.

Again the chap from Infinity Ward agrees:

On another PC related note, we pulled some disturbing numbers this past week about the amount of PC players currently playing Multiplayer (which was fantastic). What wasn’t fantastic was the percentage of those numbers who were playing on stolen copies of the game on stolen / cracked CD keys of pirated copies (and that was only people playing online).

Not sure if I can share the exact numbers or percentage of PC players with you, but I’ll check and see; if I can I’ll update with them. As the amount of people who pirate PC games is astounding. It blows me away at the amount of people willing to steal games (or anything) simply because it’s not physical or it’s on the safety of the internet to do.

However at the last, putting the cat amongst the pigeons comes Draginol from Stardock who claims that piracy isn’t a problem after all:

When you blame piracy for disappointing sales, you tend to tar the entire market with a broad brush. Piracy isn’t evenly distributed in the PC gaming market.

Blaming piracy is easy. But it hides other underlying causes. When Sins popped up as the #1 best selling game at retail a couple weeks ago, a game that has no copy protect whatsoever, that should tell you that piracy is not the primary issue.

In the end, the pirates hurt themselves. PC game developers will either slowly migrate to making games that cater to the people who buy PC games or they’ll move to platforms where people are more inclined to buy games.

In the meantime, if you want to make profitable PC games, I’d recommend focusing more effort on satisfying the people willing to spend money on your product and less effort on making what others perceive as hot. But then again, I don’t romanticize PC game development. I just want to play cool games and make a profit on games that I work on.

Now to me, Draginol’s comments seem a little contradictory. He seems to be saying that if you don’t make the kind of games that are likely to be pirated then piracy stops being a problem, therefore piracy shouldn’t be affecting PC games. Errm…

He makes some nice points about ‘rockstar games developers’ and the obsession with shininess over substance – which I rail against in this industry as much as I rage inwardly every time a new plot free, CGI fest is released by Hollywood. Essentially however his message seems to be that pirates have won, you either abandon the PC as a platform for anything approaching an AAA title or you accept that you’ll be developing the game for a loss due to the fact that the vast majority of your players are going to steal your work. Both of which are depressing prospects.

His penultimate point is spot on however, pirates are hurting all of us through their actions and we will all pay for those actions – either in super restrictive DRM or in games that we want to play being available solely on platforms where piracy isn’t so easy for the average user. We all lose so that Johnny Mouthbreather can extend his epeen by being part of the cool crowd that get their games for free.



  1. Dan said,

    can i just say… piracy isnt a good thing, but its rife in asia because the huge economic divide with the west

    i used to play at lan cafes in indonesia, and the games installed were all pirated copies… of course most of them were glitchy as f***, usually because our swashbuckling privateer did a poor job of cracking the thing.

    but at the end of the day, it cost 50X more to buy a PC game, than it is to buy a plate of REALLY good fried rice and chicken satay! the marketing and promotion of any media entertainment in indonesia is tailored for a western market… too many people in indonesia are too poor to buy a music CD, so they buy an MP3 cd off some scummy mug who downloaded all the songs of the net and burnt them… too many people are too poor to buy DVD’s so they buy a pirate copy (its like a lucky dip with DVD’s you either get a really good copy, complete with special features, or a shot-in-the-cinema-from-a-poor-seating-position-with-a-poor-camera copy)… and in all fairness why should they pay a hefty amount (1/3 of a months wages for some) when they can get it for 5%-10% of the original price tag?

    i think the entertainment industry needs to realise that in order to get more people buying legit copies, it needs to realise that 3rd world/developing countries still have massive economic instability…. and a hum, or ha, followed by an ‘oh well’ + shrug of the shoulders as a reply to this issue isnt gonna cut it, simply because, it works both ways…

  2. Flim said,

    Looking at Draginols article he makes one point which I think is fairly interesting – the one about “making games purely for the top of the range PCs” – a lot of games market themselves on how close the new uberspliff shader model has got their game to reality (and they’ve been saying that since 16 bit days ;)), but by going for that market – the bleeding edge – they are cutting their potential customer base.

    How many people did Oblivion lose because it didn’t work on anything less than shader model 3?

    That said for some games their only distinguishing feature is their graphics – they have little other choice 😉

    Draginol has an interesting way of approaching the problem of piracy there – instead of considering PC gamers as a whole you cut it down to “PC gamers who would buy a game given incentive of it being a game they like”.

    He then elaborates based on the assumption that there’s a marked difference in the games that appeal to PC gamers in general as opposed to PC gamers that don’t pirate games. Might not be an entirely bad assumption that but it’s an assumption until it’s tested.

    I’m trying to think of a good analogy but I guess you could couch it as: You have a magazine, some people buy the magazine, other people just read it in the shop. When you’re deciding which editorials to run you base it just on the opinion of the people buying it (which will not necessarily be the opinions of all the people reading it – an editorial on how great it is to buy newspapers won’t appeal to the “read on the shelf” part of that demographic)

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