PC Game Piracy Examined

[Page 10] Practical Solutions & Conclusion

This section wraps up the article by bringing together some key conclusions from the facts presented earlier, and importantly, trying to provide some practical solutions and suggestions to both sides of the debate so that both gamers and games companies can move forward productively in addressing an issue that impacts on all of us.

PC Gaming is Dead

There's one particular tactic which people commonly use in the piracy debate that absolutely must stop. This tactic involves the sarcastic use of the claim 'PC gaming is dead', and is based on a technique known as the Straw man Argument:

A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "set up a straw man," one describes a position that superficially resembles an opponent's actual view, yet is easier to refute. Then, one attributes that position to the opponent. For example, someone might deliberately overstate the opponent's position. While a straw man argument may work as a rhetorical technique - and succeed in persuading people - it carries little or no real evidential weight, since the opponent's actual argument has not been refuted.

Basically as soon as anyone attributes any negative impact on PC gaming to piracy, opponents will quickly say something like "Sure, PC gaming is dead lol, that's why we've got so many games to choose from." The implication is that just because PC gaming hasn't been completely wiped off the face of the Earth, or that games companies are still making a profit, this automatically means that piracy is not having a significant impact. This type of argument might appeal to the immature fanboy demographic within the PC gaming community, but doesn't address any of the very real and very complex issues we've tried to cover in this article for example.

Let me make one thing clear: PC gaming is not dying. The term 'PC gaming' is very broad, and covers everything from casual games such as Solitaire, through to FPS, RTS, RPG, Simulation, Sport, Adventure and MMOs. There are online and offline variants of most of these genres, as well as hybrids. In short given there are an estimated 1 billion PCs currently in use around the world, almost 200 million gaming PCs in particular, and around 1.5 billion individuals using the Internet, the PC has a huge amount of potential and is most definitely not going to die off as a platform for some form of gaming in the future.

The problem with the simplistic 'PC gaming is dying/thriving' dichotomy is that it completely excludes the possibility that PC gaming is changing, and not necessarily for the better. As we've seen in this article, the evidence points to the fact that as PC piracy becomes more and more rampant on the platform, games companies have been doing two things: migrating to less piracy-prone platforms; and also adjusting business models to try to capitalize on the remaining strong points of the PC platform, which happen to be in the online-only area. PC gaming will continue to grow, as the PC Gaming Alliance is constantly eager to point out with their vague statistics for example, but that growth is likely to be at the expense of certain genres and types of games. Cevat Yerli of Crytek explains the situation much more succinctly, and with much greater authority than I could:

At the end of the day, I think our message is if you're a PC gamer, and you really want to respect the platform, then you should stop pirating. We will see less and less games appearing on the PC, or less and less games pushing the boundaries of PC gaming. Or, in other words, speaking in terms of PC exclusivity ...if the situation continues like this or gets worse, I think we would only consider PC exclusive titles that are either online or multiplayer and no more single-player.

So if you enjoy single player games for example, then you're faced with the very real possibility that fewer and fewer developers will risk investing large sums of money into this type of game. If they do, then instead of a lengthy and high quality gameplay experience, you may be looking at shorter, less challenging games which may be less than satisfying. Or you may wind up with more poor quality console ports. Furthermore, all major single player games are virtually guaranteed to be protected by some form of online-based DRM to try to at least reduce the massive piracy during the critical initial sales period.

Alternatively if you enjoy multiplayer games, then you may find that if the number of unofficial pirated servers for such games continues to grow, and the tools to find and join such servers become more popular, that this will tip the scale towards more and more multiplayer games being created in the Battlefield Heroes mold: cheaply developed, free to play, low-spec quality, designed for the lowest common denominator of online gamer, with little focus on actual skill and more on simply making the game as attractive as possible to anyone who can operate a PC keyboard.

These are the very real scenarios which rampant piracy is already steadily turning into reality. So while PC gaming as a whole may thrive based on the sales success of subscriber-driven MMOs and casual puzzle games for example, many PC gamers may see their favorite types of games become casualties to changing business models in search of gamers who actually pay for the games they play.

The Culture of Piracy

In researching this article I read literally hundreds of articles, studies, forum posts, blog posts and general comments from a wide range of people. What disturbed me more than the blatant misinformation and falsehoods regarding various aspects of the debate was the unashamed 'Culture of Piracy' which now appears to be prevalent around the Internet. Not only are the people who are pirating games openly bragging about it, they're flowering it up with a range of excuses, even suggesting that it's their right to do so. Back in the 1980s when my friends and I swapped copies of Amiga games, we didn't blame the copy protection for forcing us to do it, we didn't blame copyright laws, or assume it was our right to copy any game we want in the name of 'freedom', we didn't even make a point of openly advertising that we did it. We copied games for one simple reason: because we could.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and piracy has apparently somehow become a political struggle, a fight against greedy corporations and evil copy protection, and in some cases, I've even seen some people refer to the rise of piracy as a "revolution". What an absolute farce. Truth be told I have the greatest respect for the people who simply come out and just say that they pirate because they can, no more, no less. At least then I know I'm dealing with someone who's being honest and has got their head screwed on straight.

Piracy is the result of human nature: when faced with the option of getting something for free or paying for it, and in the absence of any significant risks, you don't need complex economic studies to show you that most people will opt for the free route. However to back this up, the data presented in this article shows quite clearly that DRM or no DRM, good game or bad game, demo or no demo, available via Steam or not, cheap or expensive, whether sold by an independent or a major publisher - all games are being pirated on a massive scale. The most significant determinant of which games will get pirated more is how desirable they are. No surprises there.

The purely self-serving nature of the arguments people use to justify piracy has become quite galling, and frankly is an insult to the collective intelligence of all internet users. Whether you pirate games or not is ultimately none of my business, but at least have the decency to be honest with yourself and everyone else about the real reasons why you're doing it.

The Business of Piracy

A major reason why the piracy debate is such a confusing minefield of misleading and sensationalist information is because piracy pays, and pays well. As the saying goes, in any legal dispute, the only people who win are the lawyers. Similarly, when piracy is rampant, both gamers and game companies stand to lose a great deal in the long run; the only people who are laughing all the way to the bank are the owners of piracy sites, and the companies that sell copy protection and DRM.

We've already examined copy protection and DRM in the section of the same name earlier in this article. Suffice it to say that as shown earlier, various developers and publishers have openly stated they don't like DRM, and there's every reason to believe them. I have no doubt they don't like paying hefty fees to Sony, Macrovision or Valve for example to implement SecuROM, SafeDisc or Steam DRM for their games. They consider it a necessity, especially against day-zero piracy, otherwise they quite simply could do without the added expense and negative publicity.

However while virtually no-one likes the protection companies, the other party which is making a massive profit on the basis of pirate activity is sadly getting only admiration and respect from most gamers. I'm speaking of course about the variety of piracy-related websites which have proliferated in the past few years, especially the sites which provide links to torrents, several of which have daily traffic propelling them way up into the top several thousand or hundred sites in the world. The Pirate Bay (TPB) is a particularly interesting example, because Swedish authorities raided their operation in 2006 and now have over 4,000 pages of documentation based on their ongoing investigation of the business. What's been discovered is that what is ostensibly meant to be a site about "freedom of information" is actually a full-blown business that's been estimated to earn up to $9 million each year from advertising alone, excluding donations. The owners of the site have since claimed that these accusations are false; that all the money goes towards server-related costs, and in fact TPB operates at a loss.

There are many reasons to doubt this claim, not the least of which is the fact that the owners have admitted to complex tax arrangements bordering on what appears to be either money laundering or at the very least a serious attempt to hide their income. More importantly however, The Pirate Bay doesn't host any pirated material, it has an extremely basic text layout with minimal content and virtually no images (aside from ads served by other parties), which means bandwidth costs and server requirements are actually considerably less than any other major sites. An enterprise class server can be purchased outright for a hundred thousand dollars for example, and obviously you don't need to buy new servers every year. Certainly, they seem to have enough money on hand to offer regular visitors the opportunity to win prizes such as trips to Dubai with $5,000 spending money despite supposedly operating at a loss.

Update: The Pirate Bay has now been found guilty of assisting the distribution of illegal content online by a Swedish court in April 2009 and have been sentenced to a year in jail and a $3.6m fine.

Update: As conclusive proof of the commercial profitability of The Pirate Bay, the founders of the site have sold it to a company called Global Gaming Factory X for $7.8 million in June 2009.

Update: As of November 2010 The Pirate Bay's original owners have again been found guilty after appeal, and now must pay an even larger fine.

But TPB is not alone in making generous profits from piracy. Virtually all piracy sites of reasonable size would be making substantial sums given they're absolutely saturated in ads and have large amounts of traffic. While most sites don't disclose anything about their income, a recent spat on the medium-sized ReleaseLog website resulted in a disgruntled staff member publicly revealing on the site that the owner makes $5,000 US a month from advertising alone, equating to a comfortable $60,000 a year, simply for linking to various torrent releases. This is at the same time as he was asking for donations and free hosting, not paying his staff anything at all, and also linking to images on other sites to minimize his bandwidth costs.

Update: The 26 year old founder of the members-only Oink music piracy site has been found by Police to have $300,000 in his personal Paypal accounts derived from member donations.

What's objectionable about this practice isn't so much the amount of money these people are making, but the fact that they're doing it without contributing a single cent to the people who are actually responsible for creating the content that is being pirated. These sites are the ultimate free riders, because their content is almost entirely made up of other peoples' hard work. It also reveals the fact that there are millions, maybe billions of dollars up for grabs in the lucrative world of piracy, so for obvious reasons piracy sites love to put on the front that piracy is all about freedom and altruism, that DRM and big companies are evil for opposing piracy, and that there are endless flimsy studies which purportedly show that piracy is actually beneficial, despite actual evidence and logic to the contrary. Plausible misinformation is the key to their survival, so they've become extremely adept at it. It's a very successful business model and there are millions of eager users who are more than happy to swallow any excuses given to them as long as it gives them access to lots of free stuff. It appears that the idealistic concept that P2P is supposedly all about sharing without profit is not one shared by those who actually profit from it: piracy sites.

Practical Solutions

Instead of an unrealistic and unviable list of demands, what the piracy debate really needs are practical suggestions which both parties can accommodate. In that spirit I want to provide a basic list of the types of things which games companies and consumers can each do to reduce the negative impacts of piracy and hopefully maintain a healthy selection of games to suit all tastes on the PC in the years to come.

Developers & Publishers

  • Release more demos. Demos are becoming rarer these days, and this provides an excuse for piracy. Of course Crysis had a full demo for example and was still pirated to the tune of almost 1 million copies in 2008 alone, however a demo released before the final game will help some legitimate purchasers avoid the temptation of day-zero piracy, help manage user expectations about the final game, spread valuable word of mouth legitimately, and also help identify major bugs earlier, leading to quicker patches.
  • Make copy protection and DRM methods clearer on game boxes and on game websites. Also publish a link to a page detailing the hardware with which the protection is incompatible (e.g. SecuROM & known DVD drive incompatibilities). Aside from deflating claims of a cover-up, this also allows customers to make a fully informed purchase and lowers support costs.
  • Publish realistic minimum and recommended specs. Too many people assume that minimum specs are sufficient to play the game at low settings, when in reality minimum specs are usually sufficient to only barely run the game in an unplayable manner. Recommended specs should be published to a standardized level across all games, e.g. 'Below is the recommended hardware to achieve an average of 30FPS at 1280x720'.
  • Provide a toll-free tech support line for DRM-related issues. It's completely unreasonable for legitimate purchasers to have to pay several dollars a minute to call tech support regarding issues that are no fault of their own, such as SecuROM disc check failures and known drive incompatibilities. Emailing tech support on these issues is also a complete waste of time due to vague stock answers, so email support also needs to be shored up.
  • Stop delaying releases by region. Releasing games earlier in some regions is probably the single biggest incentive for people to pirate a game and contribute to day-zero piracy. Releasing games with different protection methods in different regions also allows pirates to simply attack the weakest link to achieve a working crack. For example the TAGES system in STALKER: Clear Sky went uncracked for two weeks after release, however the Russian StarForce version of the game's executable - which was released three weeks earlier in Russia - was cracked and used as a working crack for the non-Russian versions upon their release. So release all games globally at approximately the same time, and unify the protection method if you're serious about slowing down day-zero piracy.
  • Lower prices on digital distribution. Instead of making sure that digital copies match retail copies in an effort to protect retail distribution, accept the transition to digital distribution by lowering prices to realistically reflect the lower costs, potentially increasing sales due to the greater convenience at a lower price.

  • Consumers

  • Reduce piracy. This article has demonstrated the potential impacts of piracy, so while I have no doubt that most people will just ignore it and continue to pirate games anyway, if you don't want the PC to become just an MMO and casual gaming platform, try to buy most of your games if not all of them. If a game is crappy, there's a simple solution: don't buy it and don't pirate it.
  • Stop making excuses for piracy. Not just your own piracy, but also the piracy which others commit and openly brag about, and which piracy sites promote through misleading propaganda. Stop helping them to justify it with made-up facts and regurgitated misinformation which you don't truly understand, such as claiming SecuROM is spyware. If you aren't fully across an issue, either research it properly before making a comment, or stay quiet. Don't blindly support piracy just because it's the popular thing to do.
  • Drop the DRM hysteria. Work with developers and publishers to provide verified and rational feedback on problems you genuinely believe are related to DRM so that they can rectify the issues, either through patches or workarounds, and of course to prevent these issues in newer versions of the protection systems. If all else fails, don't buy games which have problematic DRM, but don't pirate them either - this sends an unambiguous message to the games companies that all demand for their product - both legitimate and illegitimate - is falling.
  • Don't blindly support Steam. Steam is a good digital distribution platform, but at the moment Valve has an effective monopoly on digital games distribution. In the absence of a real competitor, prices will remain high and Valve will have no incentive to pressure publishers to both lower digital prices and remove redundant DRM on Steam-protected games.
  • Support small innovative developers. To counter the constant run of gradually lower quality franchise games such as the Need for Speed and Sims series, reward small developers who innovate and take risks with their own money - buy their games. Everyone loves to be seen saying supportive things to small developers, but data and anecdotal evidence from the developers shows that in private people pirate the hell out of these games, especially those without any DRM. Put your money where your mouth is.

  • This is just a sample of the types of things consumers and producers can do if they really want to improve the situation in PC gaming and prevent the death of their favorite genres - unless of course your favorite genres happens to be MMOs and casual games, or you own a console, in which case you have nothing to worry about... for now.

    What people fail to understand is that games companies don't actually want to have an adversarial relationship with their customers. It's extremely bad for any business to become openly hostile or accusatory towards their customers, but by the same token when a lot of the people playing their games aren't actually customers, yet still seem to demand tech support and generally believe they're entitled to play something the developers have worked hard on for nothing, then clearly things can become nasty. In all the years I've been gaming I've never seen major game developers come out and openly state the things they have in the past year regarding piracy. You don't even need to believe a word they say, just look at their actions: developers who've dedicated many years almost exclusively to the PC platform, such as Crytek, are finally making the move only now. It doesn't take a genius to work out that in at least a few of the cases, something has forced their hand, and piracy fits the bill based on the available evidence.


    I've seen the piracy debate evolve a great deal over the years. A few years ago people would firmly deny that piracy was anything more than just a few people doing it. Then eventually as a range of data such as the number of torrent downloads made it painfully obvious that it was actually being conducted on a huge scale, the next argument to be trotted out was that it may be large, but it doesn't really result in any lost sales. Now that we have sales figures showing huge differentials between PCs and console game sales despite roughly the same install bases for each platform, the argument has devolved into simply blaming the greedy developers and publishers for making crappy games and using DRM. Of course even good games by struggling developers with no DRM are heavily pirated, so I wonder what's next. I believe most people justify piracy on the basis that it's a victimless crime, "like punching someone in the dark" as Nelson Munce would say. The irony is that the real victims of piracy may end up being PC gamers.

    Whether you agree with the findings and arguments in this article is actually not that important. The main aim of the article is to open peoples' eyes to the fact that the entire topic is actually quite complex, and that there's a great deal of misinformation currently doing the rounds with regards to piracy. I'm under no illusions that most people will not like this article because it doesn't support piracy, but ultimately my responsibility is to write what I believe to be true, not what I believe will be popular; more and more these days, the two are drifting apart anyway. With the Culture of Piracy so prominent now, it seems everyone is demanding freedom without understanding that freedom does not equal free; everything has a cost, and we need to recognize that if content creators provide us with entertainment, they need to be rewarded fairly for it. We need to demonstrate that we can exercise the freedoms we have responsibly if we don't want to lose them. People can conjure up all manner of excuses to justify rampant piracy all day long, however neither the data nor logic bear any of these excuses out in the end.