Of Game Piracy

[Penny Arcade]

I buy a lot of games and I think it’s no secret that I don’t have the time to play all of them. It’s like how some girls buy lots of shoes and bags, I buy games (and books). Well, I bought a bunch of new games lately so I thought I’d write a little about game piracy.

I had a discussion with Jo some time back about the difference between branded goods and video games. When someone carries an imitation of say a LV or Gucci bag, said person will be scoffed in public. However, when someone gets a bootleg copy of the latest game, he becomes everyone’s best friend, at least till they all got a copy from him.

Of course, she replied that there isn’t “branded” video games, to which, I tried to explain that there are triple A titles where publishers pump millions of dollars and developers can spent up to 5 years working on. On the other hand, you have hobbyist or casual games developed by a couple of friends and published online as a free Flash game or selling for a couple of bucks. More often than not, it’s those triple A titles that get pirated.

Recently, Kotaku ran a poll on its readers on various aspects of gaming, with a dedicated section for piracy. The key findings are as follows:

– 51% of participating readers have pirated a console game

– 40% of participating readers have pirated a handheld game

– 79% of participating readers have pirated a PC game. 79%!

via Kotaku Census 2010: The Results (In Full) – Census 2010 – Kotaku

Actually, I’m not as surprised at the 79% figure as I am with the low figure for handheld. I’m ashamed to say I contribute to all the figures. However, I’m slowly making up for that. In fact, I see the trend slowly shifting as teenage gamers, like myself, mature into responsible adults who start paying for their games. I think the moment really came to me back when I was working on Diablo II mods. Blizzard was nice enough to indirectly support the modding community by not shutting us down but I was screwing them over by no working on a legit copy of their game. So I went out one day to buy Diablo II and Diablo II: Lord of Destruction (I can’t remember if I bought two at the same time or if I already had one).

I think by now we know why it’s important for us to buy games, so much so that publishers are thinking of new digital rights management techniques to prevent piracy, even if said DRM just backfires and more. I find it more interesting to talk about why people pirate.

Money, or the lack thereof

Honestly, I think this is the primary reason, at least for me, to pirate a game. As a young boy, I often wanted to try out all the new games but I only have limited pocket money and can’t afford them. I remember buying games in sets of 3½-inch floppies before we had $10 per piece CDs. Sure $10 is a lot to someone who only has pocket money of around $50 a week but that’s still less than whatever the shelf prices were.

If I were rich back then or had a magical pet hamster that shits money, I won’t pirate any games because I won’t have to. Unfortunately, this is a basic economic problem. Considering how games have remained at around the same prices despite years of inflation, they are actually becoming cheaper.

Value

Now, value is different from cost as it has to do with a consumer’s perceived worth of the commodity. Something might cost only $2 but if I feel it’s only worth 20¢, I’m not going to pay for it. When games first came out, they were merely perceived as toys; and at $60 – $80 per title, boy were they expensive toys.

While games have gotten more sophisticated over the years, not all games mature at the same pace. This may not be as big an issue for PC games that come in a wide spectrum of pricing, especially now with digital distribution. I find the issue of value more applicable to handheld games.

With handheld games priced at around the same price as a full-priced PC game, you’d think that you can expect the same quality or at least playtime as a PC title. Unfortunately, that does not hold true most of the time. I’m sure there are reasons why handheld games are priced as they are, such as manufacturing cost of a DS cartridge but the fact is that if a game is crap, people won’t buy it. Even if the game is decent but it can finished in single seating of 5 hours, gamers will have trouble seeing the value and might pirate or simply rent it; they will tell you that renting is as good as a sale lost.

“Is it good?”

For the lack of a better term, this section is titled as so. It has nothing to do with the actual quality of a game but with gamers wondering if a game is good. Back in the day (I probably don’t have the right to use this phrase), the only way for one to know if a game is good is to subscribe to game magazines and read the review for the game. Even with that, it’s merely a single review, the opinion of an individual. Are we just going to take the reviewer’s word for it? A lot of people probably didn’t. So the best way to find out if a game is good without paying for it is to, of course, pirate it. Some people claim to pirate games merely to “demo” it but I wonder how people actually went out to purchase the game after enjoying their “demos”.

At this day and age, with the prevalence of the Internet and web journalism, you can look up a game on Wikipedia, watch video trailers, read about everyone’s opinion on a game before deciding whether to purchase it. I feel there is no such thing as an ill-informed consumer anymore, just lazy ones. Or I’m too harsh and they are just late adapters to the Internet Age.

Ironically, the widespread of broadband Internet connection is what I believe to have killed off pirate shops as people could simply downstream the games straight into their computers. Those shops used to be elusive creatures that could only be found by word-of-mouth, now anyone who knows how to use a search engine can pirate a game.

Convenience

I believe convenience is also the reason why other medium are pirated. If I’m too busy to watch a movie and missed it while it was screening in the theatres what do I do? I can wait for its DVD release or pirate it off the Internet and watch it at my own convenience. If the game I want to play is very hard to find or the shop does not stock it or the mall is very far away, what do I do? I can order it online and wait for it to ship or I can pirate it off the Internet since I’m already online to begin with.

Admittedly, this is not as prevalent an issue here compared to other countries like the United States. I’ve read horror stories of how some game shops only stock 1 or 2 copies of games on top of pre-orders and do not plan to bring in any more.

I can’t say I’ve succumb to piracy due to convenience as there are so many shops for me to prowl and search for what I want but the convenience of Steam has definitely made me purchase more games. My digital game collection has grown rather respectable in just a few months.

Physical Medium

I don’t know about the rest of you but I do not like to have my CD / DVD spinning in my drive while I play my games, so much so that I search for cracks or mini-images to circumvent the checks while playing my legit games. I won’t go so far to say I’d pirate a game to avoid having a physical disc but if digital games are priced at shelf prices, I might just buy them digitally.

On the flip side, there are some people who still love the physical copies of their games. Sure, there are collector’s editions with nice swag packaged inside but honestly, I’m not big enough a nerd to hang up every cloth map that comes with my RPGs or read the art books more than once. There’ve been the recent trend of digital CE games that replaces physical goodies with exclusive bonuses, such as the Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2 digital deluxes.

Connectivity

I remember a time when connectivity was the sole reason for many to pirate a game or not. If a game is multi-player, changes are people will buy it to play it. However, if a game is single-player, does not provide extra content after purchase, it quickly falls prey to piracy.

Fortunately, majority of games today provide online play in some form of another while others provide downloadable content on top of the original package. The down side of this is that some developers have decided to hold gamers hostage by requiring a persistent online connection to play their games.

With all that said and done, does it mean it’s all grim and gloomy? Well, I certainly hope not as I continue to pursue a career in the game industry. It’s a good sign when you see forumers come together to bash the pirate asking for help or people posting on a game release scene site that they enjoy their downloaded game so much that they’re going to purchase it.

Different publishers tackle the problem differently, some more with a iron fist than others. I find it interesting that some have even resorted to asking pirates what changes they’d want to make them buy the game or using pirated games as a form of publicity and marketing (I can’t remember or find the sources right now).

Personally, I wish publishers would stop treating their paying customers as pirates with DRMs that only inconvenience those who purchase the game, by making them jump through hoops and flaming rings of fire to play it but pirates escape the annoyances simply because they bypass the entire DRM. I kinda like EA’s recent “Project Ten Dollar” where new purchases are rewarded with free DLCs, combating both piracy and second-hand sales. Humans generally prefer to be rewarded for correct behaviour instead of punished for wrong behaviour; reinforcement rather than corrective training.

Steam has made a huge impact on how I buy games. With its direct download, sales and special packages, it tackles the issues of Money, Value and Convenience. Demos and trailers too play an important role in the decision-making process, nailing the issue of “Is it good?”.

The purpose this long entry is not to bash pirates or promote Steam. Hopefully all of us put more thought into it the next time we are tempted to pirate a game. Everyone might have their reason but the only way to get more of the games that we enjoy is to support game developers by purchasing their games. Unfortunately, spiritual support doesn’t work here.

Think of it this way, you could easily spend $10 on a 90-minute movie. With some homework done, you could spend $50+ dollars on a solid game that lasts anywhere from 10 to 60 hours. Now, that’s value for money.

2 thoughts on “Of Game Piracy

  1. You have great taste in games! I agree that DRM is a thorny issues that tends to create more problems than it solves. What do you think of Stardock’s no DRM at all policy?

  2. I feel that no DRM would make it easier for both legitimate buyers as well as pirates. The only one who seems to stand to lose at the end is the developer.

    Yes, I love to play games and I try to research before making purchases. The only one I’ve been disappointed with recently is Borderlands.

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