This is very old news by now but I will bring it up because it helps me to frame my point. Remember that delightful little indie game called World of Goo which I reviewed not so long ago? It turns out that over 90% of the people who activated the games online score sharing feature did not in fact purchase the game. You can of course question the methods they used to come up with this number, but all things considered I believe their findings are quite accurate and completely unsurprising. Or rather, they are not particularly surprising to me. I was expecting the number to be somewhere in the 60-70 range. 90 sounds a bit high, but again – the trend is not surprising.
Some people however were shocked by these news. That shock stems from common misconceptions about what piracy is and what are the reasons that make people download software and media illegally. There are multitude of theories floating out there, and everyone has their favorites. Most of them are wrong. The fact is that even the notorious pirates have trouble truthfully explaining why they do what they do. And that’s the problem.
So let me put down few of my observations here, to try to dispel these common misconceptions first. Once we have that out of the way, lets try to answer the real question: why do people pirate. Cliff Harris – an indie game developper actually tried to talk to pirates and asked them this question directly. Unfortunately what he got was the same list that gets throw around on every forum and mailing list. Pirates themselves don’t really think about this stuff – and when you put them on the spot and ask them, they will try to find good justifications that make themselves look better.
So let me go over most of the items on Cliff’s list in no particular order, and use Word of Goo as a counter example.
Piracy is not about unreasonable pricing
A lot of pirates will tell you that they download games because they don’t want to pay the outrageous prices major development studios are asking for their mainstream titles. Here in US, you will usually pay $60 for a brand new PC game on a release day. I hear that in Australia the prices are even worse. So it is a worldwide problem – games are expensive. But, this is not why people pirate.
Case in point: World of Goo. The game costs $19.99 which is actually quite reasonable. This is actually the price range that most people mention when asked what would they be willing to pay for a brand new game on a release day. And yet, World of Goo had a 90% piracy rate. While some people may be put of by high game prices this is clearly not the driving factor that makes most of the people fire up their torrent clients.
Piracy is not about avoiding DRM
Many new PC releases are riddled with DRM and people are fed up. With every new iteration, the technology becomes more obtrusive, complicated and restrictive. At first we were only required to keep the CD in the drive while playing. Nowadays you are forced to activate the game online each time you play, uninstall emulation tools such as Daemon Tools, you get phantom drivers and rootkits installed on your system and etc. The situation is becoming ridiculous, and even people who never cared about privacy protection are starting to get annoyed. This is why Spore has a 1 star rating on Amazon.com due to poor customer reviews. Many people claim that they download games primarily to avoid DRM or to “boycott” products that ship with it.
That is bullshit though. World of Goo had no DRM and 90% of it’s players still pirated it.
Piracy is not about sticking it to the man
A lot of pirates claim that they are simply sticking it to the big, bad game studios like EA games. These are the folks who set the high prices for games, push the draconian DRM measures, treat their employees like shit, can cool games and make crappy sequels. Some pirates don’t want to give these people any money, but they don’t want to miss out on some of the rare good games they release. So they obtain them illegally.
But World of Goo was an indie game. It was made by two guys who worked on it on their spare time. It is not connected in any way to the big and evil game studios. And yet it has a 90% piracy rate.
Piracy is not about poor quality of playable demos
I used to play a lot of free demos when I was younger. I would get them from gaming magazines, install them and check out all the new games that were coming out. Most of the demos were functional enough to actually keep me occupied for an hour of two. I don’t do it anymore these days, because a lot of games provide no playable demos. Those which do, make them very short and they are often not representative of the full game will run on your machine. So you download a 600 MB demo, install it only to find out you only get 5 minutes of actual play. Not only that, but when you buy the full game, you find out that between the time the Demo and the release the AwesomeShader technology used by the games engine was upgraded from version 7.0 to version 8.5 that won’t run on your machine.
Furthermore, the minimum requirements that get put on the box these days are a lie. If you meet these requirements but not exceed them, the game will launch on your machine – but it will probably run at 1 FPS and will take 30 seconds to process each key-stroke. And that’s with the graphics and effects turned all the way down.
These days the only reliable way to make sure that the game will run on your computer in an acceptable manner, and that it is not a major waste of money is to download it. Of course once you get the full game for free, few people bother to actually pay for the product. But the idea is, that if we had good Demos, it would help reduce piracy.
World of Goo had a really good demo though. It had the whole first world (one of 5 if I remember correctly) unlocked and available. It actually offered more than few hours of play, and showcased the gameplay quite extensively. And yet, 90% of people chose to pirate it. So I think we can write this one off as well.
Cliff Harris confirms this. Prompted by his discussions with pirates he actually released a longer, and more playable demo for his game and saw no change in his piracy rate.
Piracy is not about lack of digital distribution
People pirate because it is easy. If you want a new game, you have a choice. If you are a honest customer you can do the following:
- Step away from the computer
- Pull up your pants
- Leave your house
- Drive to the nearest store that sells PC games
- Locate the game you want (hoping they have copies left)
- Go wait in line at the cash register
- Wait while the super-slow minimum wage, “I don’t care if you are in a hurry, I’m gonna take my time” cashier rings you up
- Drive home
- Unpack the game
- Install it
- Type in the CD key
- Activate it
- Wait while it downloads patches
- Play it
If you are pirate, your list becomes astonishingly shorter:
- Go to your favorite torrent site
- Search for the game you want and hit “download”
- Continue your online activities for an hour or two
- Unrar the game
- Mount the CD/DVD images using Daemon Tools or Alcohol
- Install the game
- Apply the Crack
- Play it
Major advantage of this method? No need to pull up your pants! Then again, World of Goo was available via Steam which actually makes this process even easier:
- Open Steam
- Search for your game and hit buy
- Continue your online activities as the game downloads
- Play the game
It can be done pantsless, AND it does not require the usual headache of mounting and cracking. It would seem like the more convenient option if you asked me. Not to mention you could also buy it from Direct2Drive, Beanstalk, Greenhouse, Impulse and directly from the developer website. That looks like plenty of choices! You could have bought the game from every single of these services without any pants on, and in most cases without the need to actually locate your credit card as long as you had an existing account on one of these services.
And yet, 90% of people who got World of Goo did not pay for it.
So what is piracy all about then?
Here is my theory… Before I tell you, let me just say that I may be wrong. I do not have any statistical data to back it up. But neither do the people who were talking to Cliff Harris. So in the worst case my idea is no better than the ones I shown above. So let me break this down to you:
People pirate because they like to get stuff for free and the chances they get caught are close to zero.
Yup, that’s my theory. All this other bullshit people bring up when you ask them about piracy is just stuff they make up to make themselves look better. No one wants to say “I download games because I don’t feel like spending money” when talking to a game developer or someone from the media. That makes you look like a douche-bag. But the truth is that not spending money is better than spending it. That’s just how it is.
Of course some people who live out of touch with reality will argue with this point, and say that if it was true and everyone was like that people would be stealing all the time. They would be taking stuff from the stores, from their neighbors and wherever and think nothing of it. Or would they?
But there is a difference. If you steal your neighbors lawnmower, then the neighbor doesn’t have it anymore. It feels wrong because someone gets hurt in the process. But if you could copy his lawnmower atom, by atom for free do you think he would get upset? I don’t think so. I think he would happily lend it to you for the day just so that you can make yourself a copy – just like neighbors and friends exchange CD’s and DVD’s for that very same purpose. No one is hurt, and your conscience is clear.
Theft also carries much higher risks and social stigma. If you are caught shoplifting, you might get arrested. That means public humiliation, embarrassment and possible long term repercussions such as criminal record. You will be the talk of the town, and people will look at you differently. Thieving is frowned upon even in the most anarchistic societies. It’s just something you don’t do. But copying? Copying is like sharing. Nothing wrong with that.
If you get caught downloading software you might get a nasty letter from your ISP telling you to stop. If you are really, really unlucky, you may be one of those few people who gets slapped with a lawsuit in which case you will probably end up settling out of court for a hefty fee. It may hurt you financially, but not socially.
You are not a thief, or a criminal. It doesn’t go on your record. You were just caught up in a copyright dispute. And if you tell people the details they will roll their eyes, and admit that shake their heads in disbelief making comments about frivolous lawsuits and broken legal system. “They made you pay how much for just downloading a video game? That’s preposterous!”
But how many people actually do go to court for downloading stuff? RIAA and MPAA have quite a legal team cracking down on file sharers and yet they still only manage to sue few thousand of people each year. That’s out of millions of people sharing data online. You are actually more likely to die in a car accident than get sued by RIAA. I imagine this is actually lower for software, because we don’t hear about major crackdowns on video game sharers in the media that much. Most people consider this a fair gamble.
As a result of all these factors, most people don’t really care about copyright law. Some do – especially people who are content creators, and who earn living by selling their IP. Most however don’t have strong feelings about it one way or the other. They might actually buy stuff every once in a while. For example they may make a point of actually owning every installment of their favorite game series. However, they would never consider buying 80% of the stuff they download. Downloading is like a long term rental – only you don’t have to pay. Many pirates simply discard the downloaded game once they beat it get bored with it.
That’s my theory. People pirate because they don’t want to spend money. There is nothing you can do about this as a game developer. DRM does not work. Longer demos are nice, but do nothing to convert pirates into paying customers. Digital distribution won’t make your game disappear from torrent sites. Pirates are not your customers. They never were, and they never will be. If you just can’t convert them into paying customers. If they were unable to pirate, most of them would simply go without your product. Even if you make piracy an offense punishable by death, and had the ISP’s do deep packet inspection, dispatching kill teams to deal with file sharers, it would still not increase your sales by any significant amount.
If you look at things this way, you will clearly see that combating piracy and increasing sales are two different goals which have very little overlap. If you commit yourself to the former, you are bound to neglect the latter. And anti-piracy measures will hurt your bottom line in the long run.
So concentrate on selling stuff. Listen to your customers – the people who are paying for your games. Drop the DRM – it’s not doing anything but alienating the folks who want to give you their money. Instead, try to focus on Kevin Kelly’s 8 generatives – intangible features that reward customers and which pirates loose out on when they download a cracked product.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps my analysis is flawed. But that’s what I believe in. People pirate because it is easy, relatively risk free, guilt free, it carries no social stigma and it seems perfectly victimless. Yes, yes – I know it is not, but then again it is actually very hard to even prove how it is hurting the developers. The concept of “lost sale” is flaky, and as I said above – most people who pirate, wouldn’t buy your product anyway.
I’m making no excuses. Piracy is not ideological, it is not a protest or a boycott of any kind. It is all about human selfishness, greed, laziness and lack of regard for a fairly abstract law regarding exclusive distribution rights for intellectual property.
Does that mean that all the answers Cliff Harris got when he talked to pirates are null and void? Does this give content creators an excuse to ignore any and all of these points? No. The things we discussed above are still valid. Customers want less DRM, longer demos, digital distribution and lower prices. But, as I said – pirates are not your customers. When you ask them what would influence them to buy your product, they for a brief moment put themselves in the shoes of a paying customer. When they say they want these things they are not lying to you. They genuinely wish that the games were cheaper, had no draconian piracy protection and etc. In that aspect their wishes are very similar to the wishes of people who are perfectly willing to buy your games.
So while fulfilling these wishes won’t bring your piracy rate down, it may actually increase sales. Look at World of Goo – they have hit all of these major points and I believe they are quite successful. The succeeded in generating a buzz, got raving reviews everywhere online and created a huge user base. But the more popular you are the more pirates you get. Games which have very low piracy rate, are simply not in high demand and their sales numbers probably reflect that. Popular games have high piracy rates and high sales.
So I say – ignore pirates. Treat them as an inevitability – a side effect of living in a digital age, and producing digital goods. You can still pursue notorious file sharers in courts – that’s your prerogative. But don’t try to convert pirates into customers using technology. It wont’ work, and it is annoying to the people who genuinely want to support you.