There we go
For a long time arguments have been flying from both sides, for and against piracy. But the rule of thumb seems to be better loud and wrong than quiet and right. Most arguments don’t hold water, or are observations that could be both positive and negative at the same time, making it very hard to debate or their net impact. In this post I will try to summarize some of what I have read and heard so far on the subject, in an attempt to organize my thoughts. I don’t have any solution though, but I am looking for your reactions.
Just to clarify my background and stance on the topic, I played a lot of PC video games in my youth, I pirated most and only bought a few. Once I got a job I decided that I had to pay for my entertainment and don’t remember ever copying a game since. Early in my career I have setup DRM into a retail game, that proved to be highly effective but extremely unpopular, and I spent a good deal of my time trying to debunk myths about what that particular DRM was really doing, and handling customer support for issues related to copy protection.
So, let’s start by stating that…
Copying a game is like <insert analogy here>
No, copying a game is not like riding a train, stealing a car, lending a book, learning a song, or anything else. Even if the temptation is great, trying to relate to another field is only adding confusion, piracy is specific and “proof by analogy is fraud”. I would even say that video game piracy is different enough from piracy of other kinds of media that it deserves to be discussed on its own.
A copied game is not a lost sale
This one is maybe one of the strongest arguments for piracy, or shall I say against anti-piracy arguments. There used to be a time where I would “archive” every game I could get access to, just in case I would feel like playing it at some time (that was before the Internet). I still have boxes full of unlabeled floppy disks packed with games I never played. The total amount of money that would represent if I had to buy those would be enough to purchase a nice car. Considering those as lost sales is obviously wrong, I would not have purchased those if I could not copy them.
But considering the system as a whole…
Time and money are limited resources, if I couldn’t have spent all my time playing games I would not have bought anyway, I would still have to buy something to play and I would have most likely gone for the big hits of the time instead of playing some random game. So making a copy of twenty of lesser known games probably equalled to a lost sale of Doom or Lands of Lore. So no, one copied game is not one lost sale of that same game, but if you consider video games as a whole, there is still money lost somewhere when that copied game gets played.
Money goes to the ones who already have enough
Successful games sell and earn a lot, the ones who made those and their publishers are already getting enough money, so I am not going to buy <big AAA title>… If already enough people have paid to make a game well profitable, why can’t we all enjoy it for free now? From there this argument usually goes into a general debate about capitalism and the way profit drives the economy. But somehow the convenience of free entertainment with very little risk of getting caught makes for a very weak form of political activism. A much more intelligent way would be to put your money somewhere else, for example on games that are struggling to break even.
Games are getting too expensive
20 years ago I pirated most of my games, but I was still buying some. Back then a boxed PC game sold for about €50 (roughly $70), and it would cost me months of lawn mowing. Today, I still pay most retail games about the same price (yes they are more expensive in Europe) but the boxes are now cheap DVD cases instead of cool cardboard boxes with goodies. Compared to the price of most goods which have increased a lot over the last two decades I am happy the one of video games did not rise. But it is true that everything related to electronics became a lot cheaper over the same amount of time, probably setting invalid expectations from consumers. My first computer was at least five times more expensive than my current laptop. Cost of hardware goes down thanks to better automated production techniques, but video games are still made by people in a handicraft kind of way and my fellow colleagues did not grow a third hand in the last two decades. So hardware is cheap and games are expensive. But some hardware is cheap because it is merely a mean to sell games. So isn’t it all about…
How much are we willing to pay for a game? That’s a very personal question but usually it makes you refer to other games you played and the price you paid for those. Nowadays, a few months after a game has been released and got some success the price gets dropped significantly, until it reaches ridiculous amounts. I recently bought a handful of games on PlayStation 3 for a few dollars, and even some PSN minis for a bit over $1. Some of these games are on par with games that would have sold in boxed retail for $50 a few years ago. Let’s not talk about the tsunami of $1 games on iPhone and alike… Now, when I saw “Plants vs Zombies” on PSN my first reaction was “no way I am going to pay $15 when I paid $3 for Super Stardust HD”. And it literally took me two days to realize that $3 was the wrong price, and also that I would never have bought SSHD had it not been at bargain price (I am frustratingly bad at shmups), and that Plants vs Zombies had for my personal tastes a perceived value well worth its price despite it being more expensive than other games. And why such a high perceived value? My girlfriend and I got addicted to the demo…
Evaluating games that have no demo
When there is no demo, or when the demo is too limited, piracy could be regarded as some way of trying the game, and if the game is good it gets bought. If it sounds nice in principle, how many people really buy games they pirated? And given the fact that prices drop quickly after release, how many of those buy the game for a discount price after playing the copied version from day one?
Pirates have an ethic
And this might very well be true… for some vocal minority. I could read in a lot places about people who copy games but buy a fair share in the meanwhile, or copy to try then buy what they like the most and so on. I do not doubt that those people exist, but I also believe that most people who copy games simply do not care at all. The risk of getting caught is almost nonexistent, and the complete lack of direct consequences makes answering the question “why should we pay for something we can get for free?” very hard. It reached a point were some people don’t even seem to realize that copying a game is illegal.
This post is already getting a bit big and I only covered half of my notes, so I should probably keep the rest for later. Especially my thoughts on DRM, piracy as promotion, F2P models, and homebrew. Please let me know your feelings in the comments, and if you think that was boring, feel free to say so as well so I can switch to something else for next time.