The effects of piracy   1 comment

The Background

Crysis 2 and Killzone 3’s early leaks were not the only news last week on the subject of piracy. The PC Gaming Alliance (PCGA) reported a drop in overall piracy rates and yet, despite this, PC gaming fans were the first to turn to self-censure and even go as far as accuse the majority of PC gamers of being pirates in some cases. Personally, I know of very little piracy that goes on amongst my own gaming circle and I think digital distribution is largely the cause of the drop in piracy reported by the PCGA.

If this is the case then why is there this gnashing of teeth and wailing of the damned coming from several gaming magazines and electronic publications about piracy? First of all, regardless of the amount, it is still a bad thing as it is ultimately the pirates playing for free something that funds further work by the developers. I will leave aside arguments over whether software should be open or closed source; neither side disputes the idea that if you use a piece of software then the best thing to do is to help contribute to future development and, in most situations, that means with money.

Are gaming publications biased? If so, why?

But the fact that piracy is bad is not the issue, no one except a few people on the peripheries on this debate would argue against that. I think the reasons for an extreme response like my example above are more complex than a simple dislike of pirates. One thing I think has a large part in this is the influence large game publishers have over games journalism.

Around July of 2000, someone at Sony invented a fictitious film critic named David Manning. Manning produced blurbs praising various films from Sony subsidiary Columbia Pictures, which had been reeling out pieces of trash, one after the other. This was all revealed and Sony had to allocate blame and wipe the egg off its face.

One thing Sony never did was threaten real movie critics with bans on attending review screenings in response to bad reviews, but this is not an uncommon event midst the youthful games journalism we know today. A certain magazine starts really criticising a major games publisher? Quite a few publishers are going to make as much trouble as possible for that magazine (my about page mentions the example of Team 17 with Amiga Power in the 90s).

I would like to mention another thing that points to this problem. Look at Metacritic and you’ll see that it has given DC Universe Online, at the time of writing, 73% based on 21 reviews. Metacritic considers this a mediocre score and this is not an oddity of Metacritic. Picking out a film that got 61% on 17 reviews (Cold Weather is my example here), Metacritic gives this a green light, signifying positive reviews overall. Why is that dichotomy happening? Look at the review listings for Eurogamer for your answer.

Eurogamer reports 5/10 as “average” and 6/10 as “above average” in its score key (it scores games on a scale of 1 to 10). Out of the 865 PC reviews, 529 of these (just over 61%) are 7 or above. The breakdown is below.

Total PC games reviews at the time of writing broken down by score.

I’m not the first and I won’t be the last to point this out about professional games reviewers. What does any of this have to do with piracy though? The answer is that it was a rather detailed way of saying that publications could have a very strong bias in overestimating the prevalence and effect of piracy. I argue they make efforts to appease the games industry, reviewing policy shows this when contrasted to things like the Team 17/Amiga Power dispute, and that the vitriol in their reports about piracy is a manifestation of these efforts.

This is what I argue they do, it is not the case that the majority of PC gamers are pirates as was claimed. Yet still, as the articles in the last week in gaming seem to proclaim, we ought to not be surprised that developers and publishers hate PC gamers, we ought not to be surprised if Crysis 2 fails at the marketplace because pirates will make sure that 95 out of 100 PC gamers have cracked, illegal copies of it, we ought to accept that we have to remain constantly connected to the internet to play Assassin’s Creed 2 even when Ubisoft can’t keep the servers up under demand or that we should need an internet connection and a limited number of installs for Spore before we have to contact EA again.

There is a fallacy called the base rate fallacy. It comes in quite a few forms and both Jim Sterling’s article at Destructoid and Miklós Szecsei’s article at Lazy Gamer commit it. A while ago, the author and supposed expert Carole Lieberman told Fox News that sexualised violence in video gaming is responsible for the increase in rapes, even when there is no such increase (the US, like most if not all Western nations, has a low and rapidly decreasing number of rapes per capita). She committed a form of this fallacy because she ignored the base rate. Most games journalists were very quick to point such out, as quickly as some would accuse the majority of PC gamers of being pirates.

So how much piracy is there?

Maybe they are not exaggerating the amount of piracy. One often cited example of the prevalence of piracy is the successful indie hit World of Goo. The developers reported, on their blog, that piracy was around 90%. The method was quickly pointed out by many as flawed and the developers added in some corrections that reduced the rate of piracy to a still considerable 82%.

I still have multiple problems with their stat gathering that lead me to believe the numbers are much lower than their corrected estimate. I won’t list them all here, but my choice problem is the equation of what raises and lowers the rate of reported players out there. It’s extremely crude and such a equivalence blows it out the water as a groundwork for any claim about the prevalence of piracy. Still it gets presented on several gaming websites as near objective despite the fact it doesn’t even remotely approach the vigour of serious statistics.

So I have no clue how much World of Goo has been pirated and neither do the guys at 2D Boy because they don’t have any concrete data. So where do we get the real data from? It’s hard to actually find anything approaching good statistics, even the sources of the PCGA’s claims are obscure in the publications I have checked.

Look at the Seventh Annual BSA and IDC Global Software Piracy Study from 2009 (2010 has not yet been produced) and you’ll see that overall software piracy (not just including games) has risen, on a world scale, “from 41% in 2008 to 43% in 2009.” Already a lot lower than what 2D Boy’s statistics and the prophets of doom would indicate, but the report goes on to say the piracy increase is “largely a result of exponential growth in the PC and software markets in higher piracy, fast growing markets such as Brazil, India and China.”

What does that mean?

These higher piracy markets (the report states software piracy is as low as 20% in the USA) are developing nations with recent growth in the sales of PCs. What is important in calculating the effect of piracy on sales is how much of those billions of dollars in software would be converted to real sales and this data shows that software piracy occurs most in the poorest markets, ones where consumers have the lowest capital to invest in software if it is available and the lowest availability of software legitimately anyway. This certainly matches what the PCGA have been saying as well as the experiences of companies like Valve, who reported much higher sales in nations with high piracy rates like Russia simply by making their games more readily available via digital distribution technology. Further, since pirates are known to pirate more software than their normal incomes would allow as legitimate purchases, that cuts into how much of that piracy can be converted into actual sales even in developed countries (but by how much I would not want to say).

What I am saying is…

What I want people going away from this concluding is that software piracy, while wrong, is not the problem it is presented to be by the media. The age-old problem of the media blowing things out of proportion has reared its extremely ugly head once again and people would be wise to note that games with very noted piracy problems like Spore or Bioshock have still been overwhelming commercial successes. The level of piracy does not justify this almost “Nietzschean ascetic” view of PC gamers; we are not criminals or thieves, nor does it justify the failed attempt at preventing piracy that DRM represents (if pirates are indeed the target of DRM).

Yet piracy does exist and it should be stopped. The answers lies in the sort of responses to it that Valve gave above, or those by Positech or Ice Pick Lodge that I mentioned last week. I am led to wonder, however, if the removal of all piracy would simply rob folks at EA or Ubisoft a much beloved and very useful bogeyman.

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