It's simple to say that piracy is a problem in the game industry, and particularly so in PC gaming. No extra hardware (like a mod chip) is required to pirate a PC game—just a fast Internet connection or a burnt disc. What isn't simple is finding out how many real-world sales are lost due to piracy (a problem that has bedeviled the content industries for some time). The question: if a pirate couldn't get his or her game for free, would he or she pay for it?
The head programmer at Wolfire Games goes by the name of David, and he has some thoughts on the matter. What follows is some heavy conjecture mixed with common sense, but it leads to a single conclusion: pirates may grab a large number of games, but lost sales due to piracy are much lower than everyone assumes.
How much money is lost?
The industry may believe that every pirated game is a lost sale, but that stance makes little to no sense. "From personal experience, I know this is not possible—most pirates that I've met have downloaded enough software to exceed their entire lifetime income, were they to have paid for it all," David wrote. "A more plausible (but still overly optimistic) guess is that if piracy was stopped the average pirate would behave like an average consumer." The truth lies somewhere in between, where piracy does cause developers to lose some money and sales, but not on a 1:1 basis with games pirated.
To illustrate how this works, David turned to iPhone games. iPhone developers claim that 80 percent of the copies of their games on phones are pirated, but only around 10 percent of iPhones are jailbroken, allowing illegally downloaded games and non-Apple-approved applications to run on the hardware. "This means that even though [developers] see that 80 percent of their copies are pirated, only 10 percent of their potential customers are pirates, which means they are losing at most 10 percent of their sales," David concludes.
The reason for the disparity is that pirates download a huge number of games, but apparently play very few of them. On the other hand, gamers buy fewer games when they pay for them, and generally spend more time playing them. If jailbroken iPhone users couldn't get these games for free, they would either not buy them, or simply buy one or two.
Imagine yourself at a restaurant where you could dine for free and eat as much as you want. You may order the highest-priced dishes on the menu, but you're still only going to eat as much as your stomach can hold. The software industry is, in effect, looking at your hypothetical plate saying "If that guy had to pay, he would have bought the pork chops, two steaks, and the lamb!"
So what's the problem with PC games?
David gives a simple reason for the problems in PC gaming: developers do it poorly. "It's easier for these developers to point their fingers at pirates than to face the real problem: that their games are not fun on [the] PC... they are not fun to play with a mouse and keyboard, and don't work well on PC hardware. Their field of view is designed to be viewed from a distant couch instead of a nearby monitor, and their gameplay is simplified to compensate for this tunnel vision."
He points to Blizzard as a success story, a company that focuses exclusively on PC and Mac gaming, and has been wildly successful as a result. "If developers spent more time improving their PC gaming experience, and less time complaining about piracy, we might see more successful PC games."
He knows what he's talking about. Wolfire is hosting the Humble Bundle, a sale of five independent games that work on the PC, Mac OS X, and Linux. No DRM, so you can install each game on all your systems. You pay what you like, and you can split the payment between the developers and two charities. This may not be a strategy that would work for new releases, but it does make a point by putting all the power in the hands of the gamers: if they want to spend one cent for everything, they can. If they want to pirate, they can.
As of this writing the bundle has earned $363,000, from around 46,000 customers—in just a few days. "Would we have seen this much support if the games were console ports that only worked when connected to a secure online DRM server?" David wrote. "We'll never know for sure, but somehow I doubt it."
If pirates truly are gluttons that would never buy most of what they download, and if treating non-console gamers like adults instead of thieves leads to more sales, it may be time for companies to begin reevaluating their stances on PC gaming. Less DRM, combined with more polish, may do a lot to improve their bottom line.
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