PC Game Piracy
By Jon Rose / December 18, 2008
What is piracy? Piracy is killing the PC game industry, much in the same way it killed the music industry and the movie industry. Piracy is such a powerful force that it can cause massive damage despite obstacles like “baseless supposition” and “lack of evidence”. It’s the Freddy Kreuger of any business: you can’t ever see it because it damages you in your dreams, with the injury magically becoming real -- but then it’s too late. It’s that strong.
You’ll notice that there were a lot of words following the initial question, and none of them conveyed any actual information. This is the state of the discussion thus far. What I intend to do here is look at a few things in the hopes that some progress will finally be made. It took a lot of time and effort, but it made sense to me to do it, since the people who’d potentially be most affected by piracy are too busy fighting piracy to actually look at the issue of piracy. And the people who usually make a living writing about the industry have better things to focus their energies on, what with the mental control it takes to avoid asking themselves how it’s possible for them to be so thoroughly unable to cover their own field in the case of Gerstmann’s firing; you have to really try to fuck that up when all your potential sources are peers, co-workers, and generally people you spend most of your time circle-jerking with anyway.
Sometimes though, the efforts of a videogame writer are expended towards making sure that no developer, ever, will have to back up his Chicken Little bullshit with any solid evidence. This is the case with Tom Chick, who runs an industry watering hole forum at quartertothree.com.
Less sympathetic is NCSoft’s Scott Jennings, also known as “Lum the Mad” from back in the day. He’s basically a myopic dipshit at this point, which makes him a perfect example of why the piracy discussion has been stuck in a rut for years. The stage set for both Scott and Tom is the quartertothree.com forums, specifically this thread on Sim City Societies.
Toward the end of that page, the poster DeepT confessed to pirating the game because there was no demo. This is not entirely a blind excuse either, as the preceding five pages of the thread saw him taking part in the discussion trying to figure out if the game was worth buying. For those who aren’t about to dig through that, the opinions on the game were all over the place, making it impossible to come to a conclusion.
The confession was then followed by a critique of the game. Tom’s response is little more than an excuse to ignore the critique due to said piracy, because if there’s anything a professional videogame reviewer knows, it’s that not paying for a game automatically invalidates anything you have to say about it.
Now, this forum bullshit is admittedly trite and it’s only the beginning at the look on piracy, so I’ll try to finish this part of it quickly. But the gist here is that immediately after bitching about a user pirating the game, citing righteous indignation at this piracy being a lost sale, Tom replies “If you don’t like not being able to play a demo, here’s an idea, Richard: don’t buy the game!”
In other words, if you pirated the game to try it out because there wasn’t a demo, it cost developers money due to a potentially lost sale. But if you decide to not buy it because you can’t try it out, the developers are too stupid to care, so that potentially lost sale is immaterial. The ultimate question here — which the PC game industry avoids like the plague — is “Look, do you want me to buy your fuckin’ game or what?”. The usual response is to inform the consumer that games are non-essential, and then subsequently complain about the dwindling sales in the PC game market when people who already know that games are non-essential decide to stop buying them because of all this bullshit. For all the hot air about piracy, people in the industry are remarkably prone to telling people to fuck off if they don’t like it, as though the industry doesn’t mind losing a customer anywhere near as much as they mind not being able to force people to give them money.
This is a large part of why the discussion on the matter is fruitless. Instead of actually looking at what the consumer wants (a demo) and going “Maybe we should’ve worked harder at giving players a way to evaluate the game we want them to drop $50 on”, the response is “If you don’t want to buy a game at full price sight unseen, then tough shit!” as if the consumers are suddenly the ones damaged the most by that lost sale. Way to score one for the health of the industry, Tom!
Meanwhile, Scott Jennings chimes in:
“I’m not going to get into a pissing match about this subject, or bust out dueling analyst reports, or anything of the sort. Instead, I’ll make two points, and bow out of the thread.”
Mind you, this is in response to two links in the thread talking about the relationship between demos and sales. In Scott’s world, a discussion based on links from respected sources amounts to “a pissing match”, but making his own completely unsubstantiated points and running away is totally productive. Furthermore, good ol’ Scott here has a rather hardline position on piracy even though, by his own admission, he “work[s] in an industry that is 99% piracy proof”. He says with certainty that piracy is killing the industry despite the fact that his experience with piracy is literally just shy of non-existent. Most developers at least try to trump up some imagined first-hand experience, but being an MMORPG developer apparently allows Scott to tap into his sector’s business model of pulling something out of his ass and expecting people to buy it.
The first point here is that when discussing piracy, developers rarely talk about what makes money and what doesn’t. All those devs who get so fired up, do you think it’s because they can see the money actually slipping away? Do they ever give examples of how they, personally, lost money? Of course not, because developers usually don’t know what the hell goes on with the business side. They just make the games, and so what hampers most piracy dialogue involving developers is a base, simplistic notion of territoriality that’s couched in the great, hazy concept of “potential” — potentially this, and potentially that.
What’s most quaint about these hypotheticals is that they’re always so blatantly one-sided. Take Eastside Hockey Manager, for example. You might have heard of the story here (original thread here). Or you might not have, which is the crux of the matter. It’s a sob story where the developers claim they had to stop development due to piracy. But if you check the comments sections of any place that reported on it you’ll see reactions that amount to “Eastside Hockey What?”. Even on their official forums, threads about the topic contain complaints about the lack of advertising from people who are not only big hockey fans who bought the game, but live in Canada, no less. Given the general surprise most people have that the game even existed in the first place, my thoughts on piracy veer toward sheer amazement that anyone actually knew it was available to warez.
And yet, both the developers and the representative from SEGA (who published the game) claim that they’re satisfied with their marketing effort:
“I’m satisfied (as were SI who approved all marketing activity) that the campaigns were well designed and targeted as many people who were likely to get involved in playing the game as we could possibly reach.”
Another point to consider is that the torrents most people could find were actually not cracked at all, and only did away with the “Buy it now!” notification that the usual demo has; it still crapped out after the demo period. On the developer’s forums, answers to this were of the nature of “hey, we can’t point you to a real warez copy, so you’ll just have to trust us”. Understandable, if entirely too convenient, but doesn’t that raise the question of just how people supposedly found this one properly cracked copy in numbers capable of truly dooming the franchise? Especially in light of this:
“Question for Matt SEGA or anyone who knows this. How many copies would EHM need to sold more to be ‘profitable’?
A) Hundreds of copies
B) 1000-8000 copies
C) 8000+ … copies”
To which Matt answered “c”.
And in any case, my own searches turned up one whole cracked torrent, with comments that indicated it maybe, kinda, sometimes works. The developers pointed out that there are supposedly easy instructions on how to crack the eLicense wrapper of the game; in actuality they’re more like whitepapers on how to disassemble the code, and the only thing that says “beginner” about it is literally the author’s own relative estimate of the “difficulty level” at the beginning.
This is a prime example of the piracy discussion’s main hurdle: the game wasn’t specifically killed by piracy, it was killed by not selling well due to any number of extremely poor decisions on the part of both the developer and the publisher. And, as usual, the developers can’t tell the difference between the two. In response to all the posts pointing out the above, the devs in this case go so far into denial that they start bringing up the fact that previous entries in the franchise were pirated, with vague implications that this, too, had a hand in killing the 2007 version. The reality, on the other hand, is simply that the game had large licensing costs (several real-world leagues), a joke of an ad campaign which epically failed to reach its core demographic, and had no compensatory shelf presence (it was an online download only, and not even through Steam).
These are two extreme cases, the first showing just how easy it is for basically ignorant people to fuck up the conversation, the second showing just how far some people are willing to go in order to blame piracy for their woes. The whole piracy thing seems like just one more thing for developers to bitch about. And they love to bitch and whine, don’t they? Game’s late? Not their fault. Game’s buggy? Not their fault. It’s another mind-numbingly derivative WWII shooter? Not their fault. “Market pressures”, don’t you know — if there’s anything gamers push for, it’s late, unfinished and/or hopelessly derivative games. PIRACY BAD!!!GRRRR! Oh, but copy protection that screws over legitimate customers? Yeah, sorry, take that one up with the publisher, our hands are tied.
Yet another, this one from the blog of a developer who worked on Call of Duty 4:
“On another PC related note, we pulled some disturbing numbers this past week about the amount of PC players currently playing Multiplayer (which was fantastic). What wasn’t fantastic was the percentage of those numbers who were playing on stolen copies of the game on stolen / cracked CD keys of pirated copies (and that was only people playing online).
Not sure if I can share the exact numbers or percentage of PC players with you, but I’ll check and see; if I can I’ll update with them. As the amount of people who pirate PC games is astounding. It blows me away at the amount of people willing to steal games (or anything) simply because it’s not physical or it’s on the safety of the internet to do.”
And naturally, the comments on the subject keep coming up with the point of “uh, so if you can track the pirate keys, why don’t you block them like you’re supposed to with a master server CD key check?”. Which, of course, went unanswered. There are some other telling comments about the price of PC games in European countries that I’ll get to in a later segment, but in the meantime you can note the same “we pulled some numbers… but I don’t know if I can share them” line that’s been beaten to death by people in the industry. Apparently he has to check with his bosses to make sure the sharing of solid evidence doesn’t do something dreadfully damaging, like give us a reason to believe piracy isn’t a scapegoat. Also note that while the game had a 1.4 gigabyte single player demo (generously containing one whole level), it didn’t have a multiplayer demo.
Most other cases, you get a sob story that’s more along the lines of “Well, someone I knew once made a game and, long story short, piracy destroyed his soul and made him do heroin”. A fine case of this happened in the Shacknews comments with a couple of posts by Mike Russel, the former QA manager for Ritual Entertainment, maker of sIn Episode(s). The first one sees Mikey-boy coming to such brilliant conclusions as “First, we lower our price, but that just means that the customer looks at out [sic] $20 game, and thinks that the $40 game next to it is twice as good, so we end up in the shit bin.”
That statement, while impressively insane, is rivaled by:
“So guess what companies are doing to get away from piracy…they’re starting to work on games that the pirate’s [sic] don’t care about.”
Which is the sort of informed perspective you’d expect from a QA manager. The next day he makes a second post that begins with:
“Is there ever anything as painful as the feeling of despair that washes over you when you feel the futility of flailing against the incorporeal ghost of humanity’s perception of what is ‘true?’ Many feel that my quixotic rails against piracy are directly linked to my experiences at my former employer when they in fact spawn from experiences long ago.”
So right there you know the rest of the post is going to offer plenty of facts instead of being a maudlin play at emotions. True to form, the rest of the diatribe contains as little verifiable information as possible, and the “experiences” actually aren’t even his — the story is about how piracy supposedly affected someone else. Not that it matters to the Shacknews crowd: the first link (containing both of the above quotes) was even tagged as “informative” by the crack mod staff there, and Chris Remo followed up with a typical-for-the-industry softball interview/reacharound. In the wind-up, Remo states:
“For an independently funded developer such as Ritual, these time sinks and lost sales have a clear and measurable impact on the company’s income and, thus, its long term self-sufficiency.”
And then he goes on to show his integrity as a journalist by utterly failing to get anything even remotely resembling “clear and measurable” figures on the impact of piracy on the company’s income. To top it all off, in the comments section for this interview Russel responds to the issue of piracy being copyright infringement instead of theft — a linchpin distinction vital to the discussion — by saying:
“It may be infringement, but even the government is calling it theft.
Besides, I took debate as well, and I remember the lesson: When you can’t attack the evidence, attack the language.”
Which conveniently ignores the fact that he never provided any real evidence in the first place. Apparently he also remembers another lesson: when you can’t offer any evidence, change the the language to something that sounds more dire. A subtle tactic that’s sure to go undetected in today’s political climate.
As a side note, I took Russel to task on both posts. The second one I found to be just flat-out insulting for being a blatant play at sympathy, and at one point I said “fuck you” once (a record low. Have you read the rest of this site?). Never mind anything else I said, those two words (out of a thousand) were enough to have it deleted by a mod, and my account banned. Coincidentally, it was by the same mod who’s only response was to gushingly thank Russel for sharing his tearful story of heartbreak. Funny thing is that his own Shacknews profile contains plenty of “YEAH, FUCK THE RIAA!” links suggesting that he’s one o’ them straight shooters who tells it like it is. Or one of those annoying douchebags who loves to tell people how he’s one o’ them straight shooters who tells it like it is, since despite being onto the RIAA’s tricks, his bullshit-o-meter is unfazed by a developer who posts an unsubstantiated piracy anecdote that contains statements like “His last experience cost him his inspiration…his soul.”
Why, it was almost as if he were trying to protect Russel on a more personal level. Nothing blatantly suspect about that at all, but then again this is the same supersavvy moderation staff that apparently thinks IP addresses can never change hands in the space of two years. You might think this is forum butthurt or whatever. That’s fine. But this is an example of what even the most dimwitted “developers” can get away with — the arena of conversation is almost always stacked against anyone who isn’t a dev. It’s all moot anyway since a breach of integrity would only apply to a proper news site which, if their layout is any indication, Shacknews could not possibly care less about being.
Anyway, what this dramafag QA manager fails to note amidst the eulogy of his friend’s poor life choice is that sIn Episodes: Emergence didn’t have something that might have skewed the piracy numbers a bit.
This kind of oversight extends to absurd lengths, as is documented by one GameSpot reviewer’s journey to the Activision offices so he could play — and subsequently review — Doom 3. Now, Doom 3 got the fuck pirated out of it. Period. Upwards of 50,000 leechers when it was put up. But in this case review copies were apparently withheld due to concerns of piracy despite the fact that it failed spectacularly at stopping it. The first paragraph of the journal paints the perfect picture:
“Doom 3 was officially released on Tuesday, August 3, 2004. Unfortunately for Activision, the game’s publisher, thousands of copies of the game were illegally downloaded during the prior weekend. This was frustrating for GameSpot as well, since we still didn’t have a copy of the game in hand as of Monday, August 2.”
A reviewer for a major site went through all this shit just to get a review copy so he could, you know, do his job and give players some small insight on whether or not it was worth buying. What was behind Doom 3’s massive torrent numbers? Anticipation, hands down. It was, of course, followed up by massive disappointment, but that’s another deal. The point i’m driving at here is that the pirate release was on July 31st, 2004. The official release was on August 3rd. The demo? The first hands-on taste of Doom-mother-fucking-3 that didn’t involve piracy? September 19th, more than a month-and-a-half after release — 47 days to be exact. In fact, people on the “anti-piracy” side love bringing up Doom 3’s torrent numbers, but none of them seem to have ever noticed this. People had good reason to wonder if it’d even run on their hardware, and yet there was no way for them to find out without downloading the pirate release; remember, PC games are generally impossible to return. On top of that, it was released with an MSRP of $54.99. Why gee, Ward, that’s a pretty unique way to harness the hype that was behind the game for those make-or-break release sales.
This wasn’t some numbnuts newb studio either: id has some experience with gamer anticipation from Doom 2 and Quake, if nothing else. I’m sure there are people in the industry who will spout off with some chaff about how “THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT RIGHT BLARGHIFO”, but I’m also sure the rest of us can catch a glimpse of how the industry might just be dumber than we previously feared. As the perfect coda to the whole debacle, the game shipped with copy protection that barfed if Daemon Tools or CloneCD were installed on the user’s machine. The people downloading the pirate copy, naturally, did not have to deal with this.
But despite the record-breaking torrent numbers, this bit from GameInformer claims that Doom 3 was the best selling game for the week of its release in the US, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The last one, of course, being the dastardly host of The Pirate Bay. Maybe that’s all just publisher spin? Maybe it was a slow week in all those countries? And this:
“The game’s momentum would be wide reaching, as DOOM 3’s release has already affected sales of high-end PC rigs, whose makers reported a 10-20 percent sales increase attributed largely to the game. ‘DOOM 3 has already created a noticeable demand for upgrades and new PCs,’ says Rahul Sood, President of VoodooPC.”
Furthermore, this claims that Doom 3 was the second best-selling game of 2004. And this has CEO Todd Hollenshead saying that not only was it their best-selling game to date, but that the sales were evenly split between the PC and Xbox release. And the sales number i could pull up says it’s around 3.5 million, although I can’t find anything reliable on whether that’s PC only, or PC and Xbox sales combined.
Frankly, it seems that without context, 50,000 leechers downloading the warez release sounds like good evidence on the damages of piracy, but in context it sounds like evidence against such damages.
As for the reviews, it’s extremely questionable as to whether or not they would’ve been any use. But the dates for them as might be relevant in a completely hypothetical universe where reviewers aren’t total nimrods:
GameSpot: Aug 4, 2004 - 8.5 “a conventional, derivative shooter” “Don’t expect the actual gameplay to be as cutting edge as the visuals”
IGN: Aug 5, 2004 - 8.9 “I can’t be quite as positive about the gameplay. I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s just not that interesting.”
GameSpy: Aug 6, 2004 - 4.5/5 stars “in many ways, it’s a step backward when compared to most modern first-person shooters.”
JoltUK : Aug 12, 2004 - 9.1 “In other words Doom 3 is not a particularly engaging shooter.”
1up.com: Sep 20, 2004 - B+ “Anyone who expects it to be a technical masterpiece will assuredly come away impressed. But anyone who expects it to be equally amazing in the gameplay department might well wonder where the last four years went.”
And just for kicks, let’s see a few to-date tallies of how much the demo’s been downloaded regardless. No point here since i don’t have to-date download numbers for the torrents, take it however you want.
As of Jan 14 2008, PC version demos only:
AusGamers: 5,935 (most Australians don’t have electricity, plumbing, or mosquito nets for their schools)
Baixaki.br: 145,271 (Brazil, of all places)
Totalling around 2.4 million downloads. Strangely, the GameSpot download is from Dec 2, 2004 on. Who the hell knows. This bit was just a lark, and i’m pretty much surprised their half-assed backend even loaded the fuckin’ page, so whatever. Major site that pushes 700K-1+Meg per page load, none of it useful — welcome to the gaming media. What the hell is image.com.com (nice planning there) loading, anyway?
Anyway, let’s look at a bunch of games released from 2000-2007 and see how many of them had demos.
Alright, so here’s what the deal is. The list itself is composed of titles from GameSpy’s list of released games. The raw list amounted to some 5,000 games — no way in hell that was going to happen, so i stripped out all the card games and shit. Basically, the list is what I deemed to be recognizable games from the past seven years, although I did try to include anything i heard even the slightest mention of that had a retail presence. Expansions were included. MMORPGs (except Guild Wars), collector’s/gold editions, and compilations were not. Oh, and beta demos were listed, but not counted: you can call it a beta or you can call it a demo, pick one.
Furthermore, the actual release dates are credible as far as you’re willing to trust GameSpy. As far as that goes, my personal experience is that the industry has done an absolutely wretched job of keeping track of release dates for titles past. Several sites including IGN, Eurogamer, and GamesIndustry.biz have dedicated sections for release dates and seem to put a significant amount of effort into monitoring upcoming releases (much like EB/GameStop does) only to completely discard the info for no apparent reason once the games actually come out. Even a site that should fucking well know better, MobyGames, was completely unusable for this project; although the site keeps track of specific release dates, you can’t actually get an ordered list of them. GameSpy and GameSpot both allow you to list by date but — and this was fucking awesome to deal with — only within the confines of a superceding alphabetical order. 2000-2007 A, 2000-2007 B, 2000-2007 C. So that was fun. Ultmately, the release date data is all kinds of suspect in terms of statistical accuracy, and I used GameSpy’s list over GameSpot’s simply because their sort-by-date function didn’t look like this.
The second thing to know is that the dates for demos aren’t to be considered the actual dates the demos were released. It’s more accurate to say that the dates listed are when a particular site put them up. Which, for all intents and purposes, may as well be considered the release date, but still. Because of that, while the demos for big-name games can be considered accurate, there were some discrepancies here and there. Regardless, all of the dates were checked between FilePlanet and FileShack, with further checks involving FileFront and GamersHell if even one of those failed. The site listed in the spreadsheet is where the earliest demo date can be found, but all were at least double-checked. And as far as that goes, the discrepancies were usually not bigger than a few days.
The most accurate data, and what ended up being most interesting to me, are the demo filesizes and (when I could find it) the contents of the demos. What it amounts to is that while the filesize of the demos steadily went up over the years (skyrocketing once you hit 2006-2007), the content offered largely did not.
Crysis - 1.77 gig demo. 1 map.
Call of Duty 4 - 1.4 gigs, 1 map. No MP demo.
Hellgate: London - 1.46 gigs, 2 classes and “part of 1st act”. Probably because that’s all that was actually working.
Enemy Territory: Quake Wars - 727 megs, 1 map.
Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts - 1.92 gigs, tutorial and the first 2 SP levels.
Medal of Honor: Airborne - 1.3 gigs, 1 level
GRAW 2 - 1.77 gigs, 1 level
Command & Conquer 3 - 1.18 gigs; tutorial, 2 SP maps, 1 skirmish
You can look at the list yourself, but to my eye even the low end of the demos (500 megs, let’s say) offer too little for me, personally, to ever care about downloading. For the sake of the next point, look at the BioShock demo. 1.84 gigs, and the best description of the contents that I could find was FileShack’s “first 30 minutes or so”. Now, keep in mind the fact that it’s not always easy to know beforehand just what a demo actually contains — even that is often a crapshoot. But focus on that 30 minute estimate.
My sob story is that i’ve been stuck with the same 1.5 meg DSL i’ve had since 1999 despite living in a fairly well-off city (B-E-L-L, that spells monopoly!). What this means is that this estimated 30 minutes of playtime would take me just under three hours to download. Alright, so let’s broaden the perspective beyond my suckass connection.
Saying megs are 1024*x, 8 meg being 1024*8
2 meg connection: 2 hours 8 minutes
4 meg: 1 hour 4 hinutes
5 meg: 51 minutes
6 meg: 42 minutes
7 meg: 36 minutes
8 meg: 32 minutes
That’s about enough, since these are estimates. It essentially takes a 7-8 meg connection for the play time to reach parity with the download time. Now, one might think that you just let the download go and do something else. Maybe. But A) I have other shit to do with my bandwidth than just download demos, B) the more demos you add to the pile, the bigger a problem it becomes, and C) 30 minutes of a single player game means nothing. And that’s just for the BioShock demo. I can’t imagine some of those other one-map demos taking that long to play through, especially for a Call of Duty game.
As for the connection speeds, let’s look at the one thing Valve’s good for these days: their user survey.
19.94% unspecified, first off. I’m guessing that includes connections somewhere between the 2Mbps and 10Mbps range, which is real fuckin’ helpful here. 32% at the 2Mbps level. 11.47% at the 10Mbps level, less than both 768Kbps and 256Kbps fields.
To be fair, let’s say a demo is 500 megs.
2 meg: 34 minutes
4 meg: 17 minutes
5 meg: 13 minutes
6 meg: 11 minutes
7 meg: 9 minutes
8 meg: 8 minutes
Now, the thing to consider here is the size of the warez release. The warez version I could find for BioShock is 6.6 gigs. Let’s leave the argument for how hard it was to crack and what a feather in the cap it was for copy protection alone right now, because I’ll get to that later. My view is that I’d need an 8Mbps connection for the demo to look even remotely worthwhile. 1.84 gigs at 8Mbps was around 32 minutes.
6.6 gigs for the warez release:
2 meg: 7 hours 41 minutes
4 meg: 3 hours 50 minutes
5 meg: 3 hours 4 minutes
6 meg: 2 hours 33 minutes
7 meg: 2 hours 11 minutes
8 meg: 1 hour 55 minutes
You can make your own comparisons for whichever games you want based on your own criteria. I started to include the data on warez dates and sizes, but I honestly just don’t have the endurance to complete it. You’ll have to look it up for yourself if it’s not in the spreadsheet.
But for me it’s remarkable that at the 8Mbps i’d need for the demo to be interesting to me, the warez release starts to look a hell of a lot more reasonable. At 8 Mbps, 30 minutes for 30 minutes vs. 2 hours for the full deal with the added ability to really make my own decision. The deal is even more lop-sided for demos that contain one or two maps. Maybe I’m screwy. Maybe those one or two maps could be really long, too, but I can’t tell from the description.
To make matters worse, plenty of demos are given such little care that they’ll come with some horseshit disclaimer that it’s not indicative of what the full version will be like, proving that game developers are too stupid to even understand the concept of demos, let alone the more complex issue of piracy. Basically, even though one could say that a game does have a demo, it’s usually so half-assed that it may as well not exist. In fact, the general feel of demos is such that the only real function they serve is so someone can say “well, there IS a demo”.
“BLAHGEHIOGETHAT DOESN’T MAKE IT RIGHTWNFIEOW:NFWEF”
Yeah. Blow me.
This is another sticking point for most conversations on the matter, this whole attitude of “two wrongs don’t make a right!” when there isn’t necessarily a clear wrong to be found. Again, this is something the hardliners skirt around, but to me it always has the childish subtext of “It’s OURS! We’ll break it if we want to!”. The picture painted by proponents of this argument is not one of pirates and people with morals, but one of pirates vs. people who have no other choice but to put up with the way the industry does things. It leads to things like being called a pirate for going to The Underdogs for games that aren’t even sold anymore. It leads, ultimately, to being made to feel like an asshole for having the temerity to think like a rational human being. In those cases, the question of “who’s being hurt by this?” very much does come up, and is routinely ignored. The childishness continues: do you want a re-release of System Shock 2 so you can buy it? Too fucking bad, because we don’t want to sell it anymore; it wouldn’t make any money. But still don’t download it, because that’s piracy.
Fuck you. Fuck off.
SALES IN EUROPE
Another connecting issue here is copy protection. We all know what a joke it is and, in fact, we all know it has a habit of pissing off the very people who’ve legitimately purchased a game, while those who download pirate copies barely know it was ever there. Yet despite the way it alienates real customers, it’s seen as a necessity instead of — like piracy itself — a contributing factor to the loss of revenue. And yet you don’t see people like Mike Russel complaining about the amount of customer support he has to do in resolving problems created by copy protection, particularly the ones that go against CD or DVD standards. Did that suddenly stop contributing to the overall cost of support? And does it not raise any warning bells that for a customer to avoid hassles with copy protection, he often has to download a crack that was originally developed for use with a warez release? And did no one ever stop to think that this paranoid obsession with people copying a game is actually a contributing factor to the onerous return policy most retail stores have for PC games? Did no one ever think of the long-term effect that would have on the bottom line? Again, it’s not about sales, it’s about territory.
What’s more annoying is that due to the industry’s desire to eat their cake and have it too, the consumer has to eat shit on both fronts. They want to chase the spectre of piracy, so we get copy protection that often gets in our way. And when we download the same crack the pirates use out of necessity, we’re often forced into this ridiculous charade of “Oh don’t talk about cracks, those are illegal, wink wink”.
Not only does copy protection regularly get in the way of legitimate customers, but the industry has taken to admitting that it only stops “casual piracy” and merely delays hardcore pirates from damaging the all-important release sales. These are the only two reasons for it, according to them. And both points are bullshit.
For former issue of “casual piracy”, I don’t think it does much. It may be a rudimentary way of keeping someone from taking a disc to his friend’s house and copying it plain, but it does nothing to prevent that friend from just saying “Here’s the crack, download that”; they’re not hard to find, and they never have been. I’d also wager that awareness of these cracks has grown due to the aforementioned issues with copy protection schemes hampering legitimate copies, not to mention the people who simply want to play without the disc or without their noisy CD/DVD drives spinning up.
On top of that, one must wonder just how many “casual” gamers are still interested in a platform that’s costly and, in terms of graphics cards, confusing (more on that later). Is Joe Average really the one buying the PC version of a new AAA game like CoD 4? People using the “it stops casual piracy” line need to make up their fucking mind in relation to their “console games can sell more” logic: is the PC platform too confined to a small, hardcore audience, or not? More people in the US alone own PCs compared to consoles, an obvious truth. So, is Aunt Mertle not buying a PC game because she can simply download it, or because the entire prospect of gaming on the PC is too costly and complicated? Can copy protection really stop “casual” piracy when even legitimate customers sometimes need to know about weird fixes and tweaks for non-cracked games? I often see people recommend driver upgrades as a catch-all remedy. Is that really any less complicated a task than finding and using a no-CD crack? It wasn’t that long ago one had to completely remove a driver, maybe using an additional utility to make sure it’s gone before installing a new version.
For the latter issue of first day sales, or first week sales, being so important, it’s spin. Pure and simple. It’s a way to avoid admitting just how suicidal their business model is. In their justifications for copy protection, people in the industry will cite the fact that they don’t have multiple income streams like the movie industry does with the progression of sales from theaters, to DVDs, to cable, and finally to network TV. So, a movie that bombed in the US can still break even or manage to turn a profit due to worldwide sales and/or multiple revenue paths. In short, the costs for games have grown, but the market has not.
Traditionally the PC game industry has focused on the US, with other regions seemingly being an afterthought brought on by the charitable notion of blessing Canada, the UK, the rest of Europe, and Australia with their output. The UK in particular often gets treated rather shoddily despite being the #2 market, with games sporting ridiculous prices. This actually is true for consoles too, but we’re focusing on the PC here.
Let’s take a few recent big-name PC games from the latter half of 2007 (in no particular order, prices taken from www.game.co.uk on Feb 13, 2008). Currency conversion from Yahoo! Finance (rate used was 1 British pound = 1.96~ US dollars).
|Empire Earth III||£34.99/$68.68||£14.99/$29.43|
|Need for Speed: ProStreet||£29.99/$58.88||£14.99/$29.43|
|Enemy Territory: Quake Wars||£34.99/$68.68||£14.99/$29.43|
|Medal of Honor: Airborne||£29.99/$58.88||£17.99/$35.31|
|Unreal Tournament 3||£34.99/$68.68||£17.99/$35.31|
|Kane & Lynch: Dead Men||£29.99/$58.88||£17.99/$35.31|
|Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts||£29.99/$58.88||£19.99/$39.24|
|The Orange Box||£34.99/$68.68||£26.99/$52.98|
|Sim City Societies||£34.99/$68.68||£26.99/$52.98|
|Clive Barker's Jericho||£34.99/$68.68||£29.99/$58.87|
|Call of Duty 4||£39.99/$78.50||£29.99/$58.87|
You’ll notice that the MSRP for these games ranges from £29.99 to £34.99, with CoD 4’s MSRP topping out at £39.99. Since the British pound is nearly twice as much as the dollar, this makes the range $58.88 to $68.68, with CoD 4 being $78.50. Are we having fun yet?
So, the special, special sale prices the site currently lists range from £14.99 to £29.99. Converted, this is $29.43 to $58.88. The lower end of the range seems reasonable, but the high end is clearly more than what we pay in the US even for brand new games. Think Orange Box was a great value for $50 (HL2 and Ep. 1 are free, hurhurhur!)? How about the UK MSRP of $68.68? And these are prices for the UK, mind you — the last stop on the game industry’s give-a-fuck train. As you can guess, the UK was the last stop because that’s roughly where it careens into a flaming wreck.
The only data I could come up with for the average income in the UK is from 2005/2006, which pisses me off. You could say that things probably aren’t going to change that much relatively, and it’s not like PC games were much cheaper back then, but at the same time I clearly can’t match that up with prices of 2007 games that were pulled in 2008 and keep a straight face. So this is just a tortured glimpse.
That said, the average income there looks to be around £26,000, which at the exchange rates of May 2006 (1.88~), is around $48,880. The 4th quintile group is around £30,000 and the 3rd is around £22,000. To salvage some aborted fetus of relevance, that £39.99 for CoD 4 would’ve been about $75.18. One thing to note here is that the UK pays a Value Added Tax of 17.5% and, unlike Sales Tax in the US, VAT is included in the sticker price. Most European countries have it, as well. Take that away and it’d be the equivalent of $63.98 — still nearly $14 more than what it costs in the US ($49.99). And that’s in 2006 terms.
Although, it absolutely must be asked if the profit margins for new PC games in the UK and Europe are as slim as they are in the US. And my answer is that i don’t know; it’s like pulling teeth just to get clear information on margins in the US. But the fact remains that bigger stuff like BioShock and Orange Box have both dropped from the MSRP in the UK, while in the US they seem to have maintained their release prices. Are the UK sale prices permanent? Did they ever go on sale in the US? I don’t know the answers to those questions either.
It should also be acknowledged that the US dollar really fucks right now. According to Yahoo! Finance again, 1 GBP was worth about 1.6 dollars at the beginning of 2003. It was at a 5 year high against the dollar at the end of 2007. Make of it what you will.
While i’m at it, here’s some VAT rates in other European countries, according to this:
Why these countries? That’ll be apparent right quick (cheerio!). But doesn’t all this seem to suggest that the industry needs to start putting its collective weight behind working out a better VAT class for games? Or, you know, not making them so expensive even before VAT is applied? I wonder what they’re doing instead…
Recently, the ESA issued a report on the issue of piracy in European countries, basically telling them that they need to tighten their copyright enforcement. “Italy, Spain, Poland and Sweden are among the most problematic countries with respect to online piracy”
What are these countries paying for legitimate copies? Let’s find out, using Crysis, Call of Duty 4, and Unreal Tournament 3 as examples.
Italy - gamestop.it - 1 euro=1.474~ USD on Feb 19, 2008
CoD 4: €49.98/$73.68
Spain - gamestop.es
CoD 4: €56.90/$83.94
Poland - gram.pl - 1 zl=0.411~ USD on Feb 19, 2008
Crysis: zl 119.90/$49.45
CoD 4: zl 79.90/$32.96
UT3: zl 99.90/$41.20
Sweden - ebgames.se - 1 kr=0.158~ USD on Feb 19, 2008
Crysis: kr 299/$47.38
CoD 4: kr 499/$79.06
UT3: kr 449/$71.14
All standing out on the pricey side, except for Poland. Mmmmmm, nearly $90 for Unreal Tournament 3 in Italy. Why didn’t that game sell well? Surely that price point is appropriate. And $73-$83 for CoD 4, the short, on-rails shooter that people mostly want for the MP? Yep, sounds like a bargain. Although, it is amusing to see that Sweden got the memo about Crysis. Sort of.
But this is an interesting situation so far. The hardline anti-piracy jagoffs are constantly whining about “Oh, how can you compete with free?”. What a load of self-serving melodrama that is. Is it really a case of free vs. not free? Would people really look at a game they wanted being sold for a penny, and still go “Nope! I’ll download it!”? Apparently not, since some of their own evidence specifically works against that claim: the pirate markets selling counterfeit physical copies.
Isn’t it more a case of free vs. too much? What about any of those 3 games has proven to be worth €50-€59? Cue the endless loop of logic that sends these people back to the “BUT THAT DOESN’T MAKE IT RIGHTSOESBFUIESBF” line i talked about earlier. Kieron Gillen, in an “investigation” of typical RPS quality, pulled a bunch of torrent numbers, and ultimately came to this conclusion:
“A friend of mine said something that struck me recently: There probably are just as many “traditional” PC gamers as ever; it’s just that they’re not paying for it. Part of me suspects that eventually they’ll end up paying for it in another way. If I were considering making a PC game, looking at the list, there’s not a chance in hell I’ll make an FPS.”
Maybe. The PC is an FPS-heavy platform with users who’ve endured an endless stream of them since Doom hit it big. However, the 360 is also FPS-heavy and they do well there, though it’s still a relatively new genre to the console side. But most noticeably prices simply go from expensive (US, Canada, the UK) to “You know what? We really don’t want you to buy this” everywhere else. And with the PC, one doesn’t even have the option of making up for it in some small way with a screwjob trade-in value outside of Goozex (which is really cool, by the way).
Todd Hollenshead, id Software’s CEO, has even commented on the matter:
“There is about seventy-percent of the landmass of the world where you can’t sell games in a legitimate market, because pirates will beat you to the shelves with your own game. And that is a serious problem,”
And yet the available evidence suggests that the “legitimate market” is largely out of touch with the respective local economies, to the point that it’d still be a significant monetary commitment for someone to buy a game they knew they wanted, let alone take a chance on something they’re on the fence about. The earlier point about demos factors into this. Actually, his comment on pirates beating you to the shelves is rather amusing due to how poorly Doom 3 was handled.
Italy seems to have a host of problems that i’m not sure the industry can do much to change on its own, if this story in the NY Times is any indication. Nonetheless, Italy sounds like the absolute last fucking place you’d expect $70-$90 PC games to sell in any appreciable numbers, judging from quotes like this:
“In a Funk, Italy Sings an Aria of Disappointment” - Ian Fisher, Dec. 13, 2007
“Italy’s low-tech way of life may enthrall tourists, but Internet use and commerce here are among the lowest in Europe, as are wages, foreign investment and growth. Pensions, public debt and the cost of government are among the highest.
The latest numbers show a nation older and poorer — to the point that Italy’s top bishop has proposed a major expansion of food packages for the poor”
Spain is another one. The cost of living there is apparently quite low compared to most of the EU, but wages also reflect that. In what is surely an international conspiracy to get on my nuts, I can only find figures on the average net income of Spain from 2004: €22,418 (above link, PDF on the quality of life, page 4). The exchange rate from Dec 2004 was around 1.34, making that around $30,000. Someone else will have to fill in the blanks, but it seems like it’d be worth investigating that a country with an average net income of $30k in 2004 currently sees prices that are on par with the UK.
Sweden i’ll leave for other people to comment on. This may sound like a cop-out (it is) but, if it’s not totally obvious by now, I am completely in over my head with this section of the article. I do believe i’ve brought up an honest question with the above comments on other countries, but it’d also be idiotic to ignore the fact that there are tons more related questions that I did not or could not answer. For one thing, the UK and most of these EU countries also have rather high taxes on top of VAT, but it’s beyond me to comment on how this factors in to the PC game market. Likewise, Italy is sort of fucked and has a large amount of people living with their parents until their 30s due to housing costs, but maybe this or the widespread tax evasion somehow translates into more disposable income. Doubtful, but maybe. All that sort of thing. Such is the nature of wrangling with economic data. It’s also a bit of a sticky area, since Sweden plays host to the infamous Pirate Bay and i’ve already broached the issues of territoriality and control.
Poland is the odd one out here. They get screwed on console games, but PC games seem quite reasonably priced and their economy sounds like its doing pretty well. What happened there? I don’t know. My first thought is that the usual piracy concerns, questionable at best with other areas, may actually be valid there. With Poland they might — miracle of fucking miracles — have a point. How else do you explain supposedly rampant piracy in a steadily growing nation with prices that are lower than what we pay in the US? Well, we’ll just have to look at the evidence provided in the ESA study.
First of all, note that there isn’t really any evidence; they punted the ball over to the IIPA study, on which theirs is supposedly based, yet the IIPA cites the ESA as the source on game piracy. Second, it does make some good points, like the fact that the game markets of India and Brazil are strangled by high tariffs. According to this, for example, the Wii debuted in Brazil for the equivalent of over $600 USD. So maybe they do see a problem with the prices of games in the aforementioned nations too. However, wouldn’t this also suggest that the problem is not piracy in and of itself, but the manner in which games are sold to the consumer? Afterall, Sega tapped into a huge advantage when they licensed out their hardware to Tec Toy, and as a result the Master System and the Mega Drive both saw remarkable lifespans in Brazil while piracy soared during the PS2 era, which was expensive and not officially released there. As it turns out, markets respond well when you bother to serve them decently, and fill the need on their own when you don’t. Yet the tone of the ESA’s junk seems confused, as if economic realities like these tariffs are a footnote and the problem at the forefront is one of ignorance, of all things.
“Countries that support computer and video game piracy discourage publishers from establishing viable and legitimate markets. The Special 301 process sends a strong message to them to clean up their act to avoid damaging trade sanctions,”
That’s the sort of phrasing we all know and love. The ESA itself seems to imply that entire nations don’t suffer from piracy due to a number of factors on both sides of the fence, but instead are complicit in ripping them off. Despite a number of questionable tactics, the tone is still “Well, we’re doing everything right. Why aren’t YOU?” — even in trade relations, the industry is antagonsitic in an annoyingly passive-aggressive way. I guess if these immoral countries full of thieving savages cleaned up their act, games would be cheap. You know, like they are in the US.
Thing is, i’m certainly not the first one to point out tariffs and levies. This interesting report on them says maybe they’re not the brightest idea either, although it is from 2004. More interesting is the claim that in Spain at least (one of the supposedly high-piracy countries), the levies on CDs and DVDs surpass the alleged costs of piracy (page 6), but this is from 2003.
Alright, so the ESA’s “findings” are based on the IIPA report. What’s that say?
THE IIPA REPORT
Well, let’s start with Italy. Does it say anything about negotiating a special VAT class, or any other measure on lowering prices for legitimate copies? Nope. Just about all of it is about protecting IP, educating people on how important it is to protect IP, and telling governments to use more resources on protecting IP.
“Entertainment software publishers report that growing online piracy, due to increasing personal computer and broadband penetration, is becoming a significant threat to the industry”
Or at least to the industry’s competetive practices of “pay $90 or fuck off”.
“Industry monitoring of ongoing infringing activity online found that with greater incidence of game piracy through P2P networks, there appeared to be a corresponding and dramatic decrease in legitimate sales of entertainment software for PCs (the estimated rate of decline was 20% over a 12-month period). For example, for at least one popular PC game title, the number of downloads on just the BitTorrent and eDonkey protocols appeared to have exceeded the legitimate sell-through numbers of the same title for the first eight (8) weeks after release.”
Of course they’re not going to say exactly what title(s). What do you think they’re doing here, collecting hard, verifiable evidence? Now, i’ve already demonstrated a bit of the pricing, but that last line raises a very important question that the study, naturally, does not go into: given the way PC game prices go down quickly compared to console games, what did the prices and legitimate sell-through numbers look like after those first 8 weeks? Or beyond?
And to finish it off, there’s some stuff about the console side of things, where the ruling of mod chips as illegal is deemed “a step forward”. Several of these complain about modchips, suggesting that consoles aren’t anywhere near as piracy-free as some would like to think. Although, to be completely honest, i can’t disregard most of the reports as BS only to cherrypick this one thing as being supportive of my point. So maybe the modchip worries are, as i’ve been saying with everything else, overblown and paranoid, having more to do with control than any real threat. Neener nerrr.
First, some general “priority actions” for 2008:
“Achieve in 2008, through the Ministry of Industry, an effective agreement among ISPs an content owners for the immediate and effective implementation of the Graduated Response procedures (contractual or administrative procedures for consumers who abuse their ISP accounts), effective notice and takedown procedures (for sites engaged in copyright violations) and for the use of filtering technology at the network level to effectively prevent protected content from being distributed without authorization (similar to actions being taken in other European countries such as Greece and the united Kingdom and actions being taken by ISPs and User Generated Content sites in the U.S.).”
“Reverse the Chief Prosecutor’s May 2006 official instruction ‘decriminalizing’ peer-to-peer (P2P) downloading.”
“Consistent with the recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision in the Telefonica case, take appropriate steps to facilitate the ability of right holders to obtain the necessary information to take civil actions to protect their rights.”
“Improve interagency cooperation on anti-piracy strategies and actions, resulting in more criminal actions, effective prosecutions, and deterrent sentencing.”
And somehow i don’t get the feeling that “deterrent” is synonymous with either “appropriate” or “proportionate”. Now for the parts specific to game piracy.
“The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) reports that Spain is consistently among the top five countries in which infringing activity occurring online (particularly through P2P networks) is persistently high. For example, a member comany’s monitoring of downloads of four top game titles last year indicated that on average, Spain accounted for approximately 10% of BitTorrent downloads and as much as 35% of eDonkey downloads. A substantial portion of these downloads were hacked versions of the localized version of the game.”
Plus more bitching about modchips.
Oh, here’s where it gets fun. Right off the bat:
“Significant Internet source piracy infrastructure and group membership have flourished in Sweden. Sweden is a notorious Internet piracy safe haven. Illegal file-sharing is widespread and growing, and there are a number of deficiencies in Sweden’s legal infrastructure and enforcement system”.
I absolutely fucking love that part. Swedes i’ve seen on gaming forums seem to know what’s up, so i’m sure they need no help reading between the lines on this one. Seriously, it gets even more awesome.
“We can report a welcome development, however, that on January 31, 2008, after an 18 month investigation of ThePirateBay, the four site owners were indicted for criminal copyright infringement. Despite the indictments, the site continues to operate and prosecution will only cover the time period up until the raid in 2006.”
To the IIPA it’s a “welcome development”. To most of Sweden it was an embarrassing farce. What’s that tell you?
“Swedish ISPs have the dubious honor of being well known for their lack of cooperation with right holders in taking down infringing content upon recieving cease and desist letters. Althrough most ISPs had been forwarding these letters to alleged infringers, most ceased doing even this after the public debate about peer-to-peer (P2P) piracy arose, claiming that they are not obligated to do so by law.”
Sweden: “Look, we have better things to do than your dirtywork.”
American media cartels: “BBBBBBBBBAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWW!”
Ok. Game stuff:
Actually, there pretty much isn’t any. At least, not in the same sense as the Spain and Italy “reports”. It mentions that “Sweden is typically among the top ten countries for which online infringements are consistently high”, then goes on to say
“with respect to four top game titles monitored, Sweden typically accounted for 1-2% of the total number of global downloads monitored on the BitTorrent and eDonkey network. For one popular PC game, Sweden accounted for 6% of the monitored downloads — more than 30,000 downloads in an 8-week period after launch.”
Mind you, this 1-2% is compared to the Spain report, where they claimed 10% BitTorrent and 35% eDonkey. In fact, they seem rather desperate to come up with some sort of threatening statistic, and lump it all in one quick shot:
“The piracy level for entertainment software products is at 53%, for PC, console, and handheld games.”
Honestly, this is the lowest point. My take is that this report in particular has nothing to do with analysis and everything to do with whining about how the government isn’t doing what they want. Which is what the other reports are too, but with this one it’s pretty thinly veiled and, with the crowing over the PirateBay debacle, just really, really petty.
More superfun general “priority actions”:
“Support the continued cooperation between industry, Polish police, and its IT team to take actions against Internet piracy. This should include using Government resources to arm the police with additional resources for training and IT equipments.”
Under “Legal reform”:
“Amend copyright law’s technological protection measures provisions to correct inadequacies and reduce the scope of the overly broad private copy exception.”
Hmm. That’s not ominous at all.
What’s interesting here is Poland’s apparently large optical disc production capability. According to this report, the plants mainly fill orders for other EU countries. Is this why prices for PC games are so low in Poland? I don’t know.
The main concern here seems to be of console piracy, as the Entertainment Software section again bitches about modchips which, in Poland, are allegedly on the rise. If this is true, it isn’t really that surprising to me. The report makes mention of counterfeit Nintendo titles; Phantom Hourglass retails at ultima.pl for the equivalent of $72 USD, with Metroid Prime 3 at $77, RE4 at $81, Medal of Honor: Heroes 2 at $85, and NiGHTS at $94. For comparison, CoD 4 for the 360 is a staggering $98, and that system’s version of Guitar Hero 3 — without the guitar — is $107. The package with the guitar is just shy of $150 (special sale price, down from $171). Again, maybe i’m wrong as i don’t have the clearest insight to the Polish economy, but this would seem to say the average yearly income for 2007 was around $17,000 gross. The 360 Premium is almost $494, and the Wii is $429 — if I paid that much for either and were expected to pay that much for games on top of it, i’d modchip the shit out of them too.
That’s about the end of this part, but I’ll leave you with what the ESA has to say about their methodology:
“ESA relies on prior year’s reporting as a methodological check on newly-acquired data, and test overall results with the opinion of experts. Conservative assumptions such as the following are employed throughout, producing results likely to underestimate the overall quantity of pirate product present in the marketplace and its value:
- The methodology accounts only for pirated PC games estimated to be present on home PCs, and thus does not include pirated games that may be in use on business computers.
- The methodology accounts only for consoles estimated to have been modified to facilitate play of pirated games.
- The methodology values pirated games in circulation according to localized pirate prices as oposed to optimal or actual prices at which legitimate sales might occur.
- The methodology assigns the localized pirate price to game downloads in lieu of assigning the average price paid, which is often zero and which would result in significant underestimations in high-volume download countries.”
And as sketchy as that is, it still has nothing on the UK’s Entertainment and Leisure Software Publisher’s Association (ELSPA). I shit you not:
“So why then, do otherwise law-abiding citizens choose to line these people’s pockets and put themselves and their children at risk?
Its because people fail to realise that there ARE risks involved. It’s not just copying software that is against the law, owning copied software also constitutes a criminal offence; so anyone buying from these people is also at risk of arrest and prosecution. You may think that saying “piracy harms children” is unfounded, but it really is true. Many pirate compilation discs, mainly for the PC, also contain explicit pornographic material. Not just ‘glamour’ pictures, but anything and everything including paedophilia and rape.
Which leads to the next important issue that consumers may not be aware of. Out of all the raids the ELSPA IP Crime Unit have carried out against offenders this year, over 80% of offenders were involved in other criminal activity; from petty crime to drugs trafficking, money laundering, pornography rings and terrorism. Money raised from the sales of illegal software are more often than not invested into the furtherance of these secondary, and more sinister businesses. The guy that did you a ‘favour’ by saving a few quid on a game today could tomorrow be selling heroin to your son or daughter.”
Your fuckin’ daughter. ASS TO ASS.
Another issue is that of longevity of sales. Simply put: you can still order 4 versions of Casablanca, one even in HD-DVD, yet where do we need to go for the old PC stuff? The Underdogs and such. We do get compilations from time to time, but how much care is usually put into them?
And so we come to things like Steam or Stardock. Let’s just get this out of the way right now: everyone who’s looking to Steam as a solution for piracy is a fucking moron. It’s the litmus test for finding people who haven’t the slightest goddamned clue which end is up, since it’s inherently not much better than any other copy protection scheme we’ve seen previously. HL2 and the episodes — all have been pirated. So has SiN Episodes, which was what started that jackass Russel off on his horseshit. Steam and other solutions like Stardock are potentially awesome for everything they could do other than copy protection. Things that work toward making the terms more appealing to consumers instead of copy protection, which as far as any sane person can tell, only seeks to make the current unappealing terms more inescapable.
Guess what? There’s no shelf space with Steam, so you can keep things around and maybe even let prices normalize a bit instead of following the usual retail pattern of Too Expensive–>Just Right, but no profit for retailers–>Bargain Bin. How much money is lost there? I’ve heard developers argue that even though piracy doesn’t affect them directly, it results in a gradual chain of loss: people don’t buy as much, so stores make less off their purchased stock, which makes them less likely to buy more from devs/pubs in the future due to low faith in the product, which finally affects the bottom line. But what about sale prices? People who wait for prices to go down pay more than pirates, to be sure, but they’re still not paying full price on items that apparently have really shitty profit margins even at full price. How does that affect the attitude of retailers toward having faith in your product?
On that note, it’s easy for us to think that Steam’s prices are so high because big box stores like Best Buy have too much power since every time it comes up that Steam isn’t cheaper than retail, we’re told that Valve’s hands are tied because they want to avoid pissing off big retailers. But according to the people i talked to at local Best Buys, the profit margin isn’t any better for PC games than it is for console games (”maybe $5 for some of the bigger games”), and given the way PC games go down in price more quickly than their console equivalents, even big retailers are forced to eat the cost of a game much sooner than with console titles. The point here is that maybe the whole “loss leader” perception needs to be re-thought slightly: the draw of people buying other stuff while they’re there looking at PC games isn’t the reason they have such power, it’s the only way they can tolerate having PC games at all. And to emphasize this point further, i was told it costs so much to send unsold games back to the distributor/publisher that they lose less money by selling the games at a loss, although i must again state that getting solid corroborative information on this matter is rather difficult.
(Some store workers were lucid, articulate, and willing to admit the limits of their knowledge and it’s their words i’m going by. Others were vague and annoyingly paranoid, and would rather believe that i was trying to commit corporate espionage — these accounts were discarded as they suggested that they didn’t even know, but needed to salvage their fragile sense of self-worth by pretending it was a big secret. The latter also tended to scurry off behind management, which was more of the same but with the addition of an unearned sense of authority; people who wished they were part of a conspiracy instead of merely being ignorant. In any case, the pool of sources from which the above is derived is incredibly small, and thus, this rounds down to hearsay. Maybe N’gai Croal can get off his fat ass and use his credibility to do better.)
But if it is true, then it’s something to think about during the industry’s much-loved Christmas season, when games are both sold the most and marked down the most.
In short, it seems the reason the deal with Steam is so fucked up is not because the retailers are assholes, but because the industry’s retail model is fucked up. Not only is there little money in it, there’s also no security, so it makes perfect sense that retailers would put their foot down when the industry tries to put the final nail in the coffin. To us consumers digital distribution might be the future, but to the retail sector i’d imagine it represents a final ungrateful “fuck you” at the end of a giant shit sandwich. For an industry full of willing victims who cry about piracy, it seems like devs and publishers are the only ones making any sort of money from the sale of new games.
The industry shows no indication of actually wanting to work with retailers, yet Steam’s prices are constantly said to be high in an effort to avoid pissing them off. What the fuck for? The industry clearly has no desire to harmonize with people trying to sell their products, let alone people buying them, so why bother? There isn’t much in it for anyone, yet the industry clings to it as an excuse for not lowering prices even when there isn’t a costly retail middleman. “Oh, we reach more people buying from Wal-Mart”. Really? That’s where the hardcore gamer shops to buy things at full price? That’s why people claim the PC market is too small to be profitable? Does this go for the entire industry, or just those with less expensive games?
This brings up an interesting question: are casual games a more desirable market because more people want them, or simply because you can keep them around at a $20 MSRP and still make a profit, as opposed to $50 games which allegedly cost money to sell if you so much as sneeze on the stickerprice?
Anyway, maybe not being so constrained by a hit-and-run business plan would give people time to really patch up those difficult-to-make games. As it is, you get your one retail shot and then in what i always considered to be perversely self-destructive, us consumers are almost lucky to get a patch after. Plenty of games are still broken, and not all of them small: KotOR 2, anyone? How do you think that affects consumer faith in your product? A dev house can complain about how a publisher wouldn’t pay them to fix their shit, and they couldn’t afford to do it on their own time for free. But who was behind the post-release patch for KotOR 2? Or Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines? People using their own time to do it for free. Actually, not free — they paid for the games they’re trying to fix. So right there gamers have incentive to hold off on a release to see if something needs a patch or not, and in the meantime maybe the price goes down too. Which in turn can spell significant losses as described above. The industry seems to not have a problem shoving out unfinished games, acting like it’s not that big of a deal (Hellgate: London), but the reality is that everyone gets burned by them. PC games have become as synonymous with bugs and patches as they have with any redeeming qualities. As such, the industry has painted itself into a corner where the most prudent option for the consumer is also detrimental to sales.
Or fuck, maybe you could just let the damned things bake longer, instead of pushing them out broken or unfinished. There are any number of excuses why games keep getting released in such a poor state, and not a single fucking one of them makes any sense unless you base everything on the notion that it has to be that way. If your “market reality” sees you constantly doing things that, in reality, hurt your market, then maybe you need to rethink things. Of course, this means the industry would have to change the hit-driven structure completely. Beyond just the initial burst of sales they’ll have to (oh no!) start making games that are still worth playing several years down the line. What a wild idea, that games should stand on their own merits away from the short-lived hype machine.
We’re starting to see this with things like the Steam release of X-Com, but that’s where the issue of quality comes in. The Steam re-release is basically a typical “Hi, give us money for no visible effort!” ploy. Compare this with the remake of Bionic Commando. Great concept that created great memories for a whole generation of gamers, but the original is a little long in the tooth. So, why not remake it, keeping what was good and updating the rest? Why not indeed. One of the issues with longevity in relation to videogames is that most of them, while fondly remembered, are just not very playable anymore. Steam, like XBLA, gives those an avenue for sales that sidesteps the whole added cost of boxing and shipping them out.
What’s curious is the blind insistence on moving to casual games to make money, yet we have all these games that could do very well with a new paintjob and updated play mechanics — is that much more expensive to pursue than the average Bejeweled ripoff or Sudoku clone? Crysis is a worthwhile effort, but we can’t get a new version of the first System Shock that’s actually playable, even though the majority of the design work is already done? More curious still is that when fans try to revive something like that, they tend to get hit with cease & desist notices from… you guessed it, the copyright holders. If they’re not going to do it themselves, why not reach out to the members of these projects and officially hire them to do the remakes, especially since mods themselves are getting harder to make? What better way to keep old games up to date while giving another entry point into an industry in which it’s getting harder and harder to gain a foothold?
What’s weird is that you don’t even need to go that far back. Far Cry, frankly, is utterly irrelevant after almost 4 years. It had a neat engine, but was yet another “realistic” shooter where everyone could take multiple rounds to the head before dying. It also fell apart with the TriGens, which was yet another “Did anyone stop to think if this was actually fun?” situation. And instead of fixing any of this so that Far Cry might become a game worth buying 5 years down the line we get Crysis, which despite all the resources that went into it, will end up every bit as irrelevant as its predecessor. This ends up being doubly retarded since most of us can’t even play the fucker at its intended visual settings yet.
It’s funny that Uwe Boll ends up with so many movie rights for games (including Far Cry, go fig) not because he’s so bad, but because he’s the perfect analogue to how the PC game industry treats game design. IT HAS PHYSICS AND THAT MAKES IT GOOD, JA? But if you could make money over time with a game that had legs, what sense is there in spending millions on games like Crysis, which are more of a fleeting spectacle? A strong digital distribution platform would seem to be a way to give a financial incentive to make good games. It already makes it easier for me to say “UT3 my balls. Go download Painkiller over Steam“.
Which you should do, by the way. That game proves how an engine only matters when you use it to make creative maps and fun mechanics. It’s only $9.95 right now.
Regardless, another great application is to answer the call of bad or non-existent demos. Valve, in their drive to be as half-assed as possible, seeks to give us an era of shareware without the share, ignoring demos entirely. But what it could be is a revival of the original shareware concept. Imagine this: a new game is released, and you’ve started downloading it. Since everything’s tied to an account, not a CD key, and since you’re downloading it all anyway, they might as well give you a nice long taste — 1/3 of the game instead of one stupid map. After you’ve had a genuinely decent amount of time to play the game, you get a “Buy now?” screen. You like it, so you plug in a charge to your credit card (at a reasonable price, for a change) and that’s it. You go back in, and the rest of the game keeps streaming. They already pre-load shit for new games, don’t they?
Or you could do it like they are now and simply take the shelf version, copy protection and all (good job, BioShock!), and make damn sure there’s no quality control going on anywhere. Or sell CoD 4 over Steam at a price that gouges Euros, then say “publishers set the price”. Way to step up to the plate and take responsibility, Valve. HIHI FRIENDS LIST R HARD TO MAKE TAKE 2 YEARS HACKER STOLE IT.
I gave him shit earlier, but Valve’s Chet Faliszek has a great point: why don’t you just make it more worthwhile to buy it than to pirate it? Absolutely. I think it might even be enough to just create a situation where it’s not obvious that the industry is trying to get more money for pulling the same old shit. In the case of Steam we actually get less, since with a boxed copy at least we could eBay or otherwise sell it when we wanted to, whereas only recently did Steam allow the mere “gifting” of a game.
It could, with a bit of work, be the least risky way to buy a PC game, but due to Valve’s endless incompetence it’s really the most risky. It’s hard to believe that Steam is the answer to piracy when you need to download both, don’t need a CD for either, but get screwed less with a warez copy. In short, it’s hard to say if they really need to add more value compared to warez when it seems beyond them to even offer something that isn’t a negative value to the customer.
There’s also the issue of not being able to play a game without being connected to the internet, but i wonder how big an issue that would be if we weren’t paying the same for a game tied directly to Steam’s online checks as we would a regular retail copy. An even bigger question, which i’m trying to get at with this whole article, is if you’d even need to rule out the offline mode, if piracy would still seem to be such a huge problem if it were more welcoming to actually buy things. People could still warez stuff like they do now, but the industry could truly say that those who do fall into the the stereotypical no-sale camps: no money, no morals, or no interest in the game itself. And if they’re so hellbent on claiming piracy is a problem, they could really get down to finding out just how much of one it really is having eliminated the very problems that make it so hard to determine.
You need not cut the retailers out of the loop so soon either, since not everyone has a fat connection yet. Why not lower the price point of retail games so they’re not taking on such a huge risk, and make up for it with the extra profit that comes with the Steam purchases, if not the people who wait for retail prices to come down anyway? Why not do that, since the current retail situation looks like one of the reasons the PC market is such an all-or-nothing deal? We wouldn’t have huge-budget games like Crysis or UT3? Big fuckin’ deal. In fact, everyone could do with fewer games that eat up both hardware and gamer budgets.
HARDWARE AND EXCUSES
To go back to Italy, the price I could find for the 512 meg 8800GT is €229, or $359. Newegg has it for $249. Core 2 Duo E6850 is €239.90/$376. Newegg’s is $269.99. E6550 is €149.90/$235. Newegg: $169.99. Not the most optimal comparison, first Italian hardware retailer I could find vs. Newegg, but this suggests that something people in the US complain about as being too expensive is even worse elsewhere, or at least in Italy. And you know, it’s not better with consoles either. Worse, actually.
The mindshare it takes to find out which fucking card you want is another thing. It’s not so easy anymore thanks to the brilliantly confusing naming conventions nVidia and ATI have come up with, and plenty of people end up going with solutions that can’t really handle stuff like Crysis anyway. Not only is it expensive, it’s a headache. How many nVidia cards were released, going back to 2000? According to Wikipedia (Ut oh!)
8 cards in the GeForce 2 line, including MX cards. 3 in the GF 3 line. 12 in the GF 4 line, including the MX class which was said to be more on par with cards in the GeForce 2 line. 22 cards in the GeForce FX line. 22 in the GF 6 series. 20 in the 7 series. 11 in the 8 series.
Notice how i started saying “n series”, because in addition to a large number of cards, a higher number doesn’t automatically mean a better card. An 8100 is technically inferior to a 7800 card because the first number is simply the series, while the following 3 numbers are the class of card within that series. Doesn’t that sound inviting?
That was rhetorical, because no it fucking doesn’t. So even if you are interested in those high-end games, you still need to do a bunch of research on which card is actually relevant. And even then, you’re still probably left with a card that sucks a lot of power, produces way too much heat, and uses a loud fan to compensate. Gee, i just can’t imagine why more “casual” gamers aren’t into PC games like they are consoles, especially when you factor in ATI’s line of cards.
Or CPUs. Thankfully, AMD has slacked off to the point where we can just say “fuck it, buy a Core 2 Duo” instead of dicking with their arbitrary rating scheme for CPUs, but even that illustrates how competition can be twisted into something undesirable. Instead of just giving us competitive prices, it’s really had the effect of mucking things up with a bunch of different feature sets. Isn’t that one of the cited reasons for why PC development is so fraught with difficulties, even though games are very much a driving force behind graphics cards? THQ’s Michael Fitch (Titan Quest) whines about this very thing here.
Which is funny in its own way, because Titan Quest had an unnecessarily demanding graphics engine. Why didn’t that sell more? I don’t know, aspie, maybe because you took a genre that was right up the casual gamer’s alley and made it require relatively beefy hardware which still choked on the poorly-coded initial release? Sure, one of the obvious reasons Blizzard hits paydirt with their games is because they run on less than stellar hardware, but go ahead and ignore that. More ironic is the quote “There are few better examples of the ‘it can’t possibly be my fault’ culture in the west than gaming forums”. Which is technically right, since that’s where he just posted his own. Yeah, sporto, Titan Quest didn’t have a rotatable camera because it would require sacrifices in performance. That generally is the case when you hire a web developer to write your engine in Java.
You’ll also notice a poster named cliffski acting like a twat in that thread, if you have the endurance to read it. This is Cliff Harris, indie developer at Positech Games, makers of the Democracy and Kudos series. He’s another hardliner, even going so far as to state a desire for jail sentences for pirates.
Cliff likes to think he’s put in a lot of work and deserves his money, but somehow fails to realize that his games are nothing more than poorly constructed clickfests. Kudos in particular is essentially one of those “click one thing, raise a stat, then sleep for a day” anime dating sims, but without the boobs. In his world, it’s not the outcome that determines what you deserve, but simply the work put into it. The Special Olympics as applied to game development, if you will.
“Why buy a game from us? Because they are fun! That’s the best reason. As a small company, we don’t have much of an advertising budget, but you will find our games just as much fun as some bigger titles you have seen hyped to death.”
No, you won’t. He’s generously put up demos to prove it. They’re all under 20 megs, so go see for yourself.
Cliffski likes to fag up each and every piracy discussion he’s a part of by saying that anyone who tries to discuss the appeal of piracy is making excuses. This is nice, since surely the industry hasn’t tried every excuse in the book when it comes to making things not suck. Better still, since indie devs usually base their entire business model on making excuses. It’s a crappy clickfest with lame Poser models, a few good ideas mired in behind-the-scenes stat wankery? Gee, man, maybe he’d be a better game maker if he only had a big budget. Kindly ignore that when he had a non-indie budget, he was involved with The Movies, another one of those micro-management nightmares that seems more interesting under the hood than it is to play.
The best thing is usually how they explain their price points. See, apparently someone did the math and figured out that they stand to make more by charging $20 and getting relatively fewer sales than to charge an appropriate amount. Some people like to wax poetic about how indie development is going to be the savior of the industry, but that whole scene is really just a microcosmic copy of the same problems the big boys are perpetuating. Rarely you’ll get honest efforts like Aquaria, but mostly it’s about charging prices that are more proportionate to the developer’s inferiority complex than they are to the actual product offered. The only thing they do differently is whine more about how they’re the little guy, effectively attatching an “emo pity-whore” tax to the pricetag, which is probably the only thing more bloated than the European VAT.
Yep. That’s the lesson to be taken from all this. Make it harder to pirate games than it is to buy them, because paying prices that are disproportionate to your country’s economy means you have it easy. Looks like dear old Cliff here is about as good at understanding piracy as he is at making games. Guess where he lives, too? The UK.
But this whole thing of “making excuses” gets trotted out a fair bit, and is another guaranteed conversation-killer. To be perfectly to the point, it’s just really fucking insulting considering how many excuses the PC game industry not only floats, but lives by. The release dates, the copy protection, the bugs, the prices — there’s no end to the excuses made by people in the industry for things they’re all responsible for. The key seems to be that really going after those problems would require accountability on the business end; specifically outing publishers as being run by sociopathic retards, along with themselves for being the rubes who signed up with them. This is anathema to an industry of such courage that someone’s poor wife had to blow the whistle on EA for their unhealthy working conditions. They can play the victim without doing anything, even though it not only perpetuates extremely dysfunctional industry practices, but also negatively impacts the people buying the games.
In short, it seems that even though the industry treats them like shit, they’d still rather take their side over the people who are ostensibly paying all their salaries. Isn’t that the argument that i went through when describing the retail end of it? Reverse that and instead of pirates costing them money in a roundabout way, the people who are buying bug-ridden and/or non-progressive games are the ones putting food in their mouths. It’s a continued show of goodwill from those who do buy games, and it’s not a cheap one either. But when it comes time to pull through for us? Bugs: we were rushed. Doshed patch: publisher didn’t fund it. Fucked copy protection: publisher chose that. No demo: we would’ve had to delay the buggy release if we made a demo. Their hands are mysteriously tied right up until it’s time to start pointing fingers at piracy.
I think that’s the root of it. Piracy is just another thing to blame besides themselves or the publishers to which they’re almost pathologically submissive. Problem is, the people they’d expect to get sympathy from are largely, i now think, the people they antagonize, condescend to, and alienate. Most of the people complaining about piracy are no longer the plucky startups, having instead grown into the perennially clueless who’ve fucked things up for so long that it’s become normalized procedure. When you have complicated problems, you either try to fix them or change in response to them. This would be called “growth”, right? Yet the industry does neither, then complains about a market shrinking.
What’s more mystifying is the sudden change that seems to come over these dumbfucks whenever the issue comes up. Cliff Harris turns into a barely-literate moron with a black-and-white view, yet two of his games are about the complexity of politics where things invariably have multiple factors and the player has to deal with things as they are instead of as he wants them to be. Scott Jennings… well, let’s face it, he’s one of those tools with a blog “about” page that goes on with how snarky and critical he is, which is Web 2.0 for “I am really just a catty faggot who cannot hang in a real argument”. His views and (lack of) discussion on piracy reflect the fact that he’s a little too used to having an audience, if you get my drift. Yet removed from the issue of piracy, he’s clearly capable of reason.
Tom Chick, the guy who runs the forum in which Cliff and Scott both post? Kind of a dipshit, but really not that bad of a person. Or at least he wasn’t when he was downloading a movie from me over WASTE. Yet when piracy comes up, reason goes out the window. Not only that, but Cliff starts getting away with shit that others would’ve been banned for. All because the situation is “Well, yeah, people pirate because” while the industry (with few refreshing exceptions) wants to see it as “well, people pirate” period.
Mike Russel, fuck it. Irredeemable drama queen either way.
But the above is how it always plays out. They seem reasonable one minute, then when this one topic comes up they flip the fuck out and start screeching like never before. Any discussion in progress is trashed, and since the moderators are always unquestionably on the dev’s side, the whole thing becomes about tolerating an emotionally-stunted dev while he has his fucking temper tantrum. And i’m going to wrap this up by returning to the beginning point because i think that instead of being the anti-piracy crusaders they want to be, they’re the ones most complicit in its perpetuation with their stark refusal to talk about it in any sort of rational, informed terms. As far as i’m concerned, all of this shit should’ve been on the table a long time ago. Even in discussing piracy, the consumer is expected to accommodate the industry. How fucking sad is that?
People like Tom Chick and the rest of the writing community are guilty too, since literally the only reason these cries of “Oh! Piracy!” have any fucking traction whatsoever is merely because developers are saying it. There’s no evidence otherwise, and the people covering the industry should’ve blown that wide open by now. But they continue to get away with it simply because keeping devs around gives a site or forum an air of legitimacy that they otherwise have no intention of earning. It’s just another indication that their job, ultimately, is to rub shoulders with the people they would do well to butt heads against.
So the final point isn’t that the issue of piracy should be blown off; it’s that the industry blows it off in its own self-serving way. The thing that usually gets steamrolled over every time some fuckwit developer opens his bitch-hole is that there might just be several factors beyond “BLAH PEOPLE ARE BAD!”. That whole line of thinking is just pointlessly cynical. It’s too easy and non-productive an answer, and to my eye it borders on projection: the industry is greedy and amoral, willing to steal anything that isn’t nailed down with a minimum of effort (See: EULAs), so everyone else must be too.
They like to act like they get personally screwed, and now they’re trying to play that angle with customers who, for years, have had to deal with an industry that will try to lie to us as much as they can. System requirements? Vital information; total lies. The marketing arms do their very best to fuck with the way games are reviewed, which can only mean that the industry is actively trying to rip us off. Yet somehow, they don’t have the time — or the balls — to raise a fuss on that issue. So, we’re on our own facing a constant onslaught of bullshit from the very people we’re trying to give our money to. But those who download a game because they can’t trust reviews anymore? Man, they’re some immoral bastards.
We’re supposed to have sympathy for them too, even though by their own arguments they deserve to die off. Piracy is killing the PC market, but the response to any legitimate complaint is to stop buying PC games if we don’t like it. If we act rationally and refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater and download a game, we’re killing them. What would they rather have us do? “Talk with our wallets” and not play the games at all, and certainly don’t buy them. Which would also kill the industry, but that’s somehow the more moral solution. Either way the industry is basically daring us to kill it.
Most people are talking with their wallets, which is why the market is shrinking. And what message does the industry take from that? That they should do something different? Nope. The message is that they should simply move to consoles due to a shrinking market they surely can’t be responsible for. So even when we do follow the “moral” way, nothing fucking changes. So the decision, from our view, is between "No Games, Dead Industry" and "Pirate Games, Dead Industry".
In other words, if the industry isn’t going to get the message no matter what we do and is going to die either way, why should we deny ourselves the few good games that get released? Should I feel sorry for Ken Levine not getting paid for a good game? Nope. The industry doesn’t care about fucking us over in the name of unproven piracy damages, so I don’t see why we should care if a few decent developers get crushed in the name of taking down an industry that could not possibly care less about doing proper business with us.
In the end, I don’t think piracy magically exists on its own as a manifestation of mankind’s nature or any such tripe. I think it’s largely created by a failure to adequately meet demand. If anything, piracy indicates a continued interest in games that are otherwise inaccessible for whatever reason, in most cases due to excessive prices. That’s the real problem to tackle, but again people seem more interested in using copy protection or DRM to try and force the markets to do things their way, even though everyone will admit that it’s only a matter of time before any DRM or CP is cracked and useless. You can bitch all you want about only being able to sell a game in China for $15 instead of $50-$100 (cry me a river, by the way), or you can shut the fuck up and actually deal with the market situations. It’s called business. Did no one go over this in those University of Phoenix Online classes from which the industry’s CEOs got their degrees?