Is piracy dead? On piracy and indie devs.

Today, I spotted this tweet from Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell which caused some thoughts to flicker across my brain:

excitement somewhat dulled by the number of 'omg, thomas was alone looks cool! Torrenting now!' tweets.


I was very excited about the release of Thomas Was Alone – the game looked clever and fun and right up my street, and the soundtrack by David Housden, judging by the trailer (voiced by Danny Wallace, no less), was going to be awesome. However, when it came to the release date, it turned out that due to a temporary cash flow failure, I had no spare money.

I did not purchase the game, because I couldn’t.

However, the interesting part is that I also didn’t pirate it. Why not? I don’t know. For some reason (or intersection of reasons) it didn’t cross my mind to pirate it. Perhaps because I KNEW I would love it, perhaps because I KNEW I would buy it eventually, and perhaps because I also knew that Mike is the kind of guy I’d like to support (aka the kind of guy I don’t want to rip off). Maybe none of these reasons. Maybe because the ease of purchasing games via Steam and their frequent super cheap sales (and the lovely Savy Gamer run by the equally lovely Lewie Procter) mean that game piracy rarely crosses my mind these days.

I’m quite intrigued as to why I didn’t think to pirate it, what it means for me, and what it means for Mike and other game developers.

I have pirated games before. Nine times out of ten, after pirating a game, I then made a purchase of said game. There are a couple of examples that spring to mind that can illustrate this.

1. Pirates vs. Zombies – released 2009

Reason for pirating game:
As it was by the same people who did Bejewelled, I presumed it would be a half-arsed casual affair, not worth more to me than 99p if even that. However I wanted to give it a try at least.

Reason for subsequently purchasing game:
It was awesome! I got hours of fun out of it! My preconceptions were wrong and I felt like a tool because of them.

2. Quake 4 – released 2005

Reason for pirating game:
I wanted to play it RIGHT NOW and it was not available to purchase RIGHT NOW however it was available for illegal downloading RIGHT NOW so that’s what I did RIGHT NOW.

The game was obviously on the slow boat over the Atlantic

Reason for subsequently purchasing game:
Even if it was actually a bit crap, I had always loved the franchise with all my heart. I had played it and finished it and wanted to acknowledge that with a purchase. I never even took the physical disk out of the box.

Back to Thomas Was Alone. It was released earlier this year (2012) and there were no silly regional restrictions to prevent a purchase, and no silly DRM restrictions to suggest that piracy would be a better option.

Having not pirated the game, I then did not subsequently purchase it when I had available cash. Why not? There were then no real barriers. I honestly think that had I pirated the game I would have DEFINITELY purchased it by now. Having played it, it would be fresh in my head. Having enjoyed it, I’d be feeling appreciative of the game and actually wanting to show that support with my wallet. I’d be quite likely to purchase extra copies for my siblings.

So. In this case, had I actually been heartless enough to pirate the game, Mike Bithell would have had more cash.

Long live piracy! Long live indie devs!

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8 Responses to Is piracy dead? On piracy and indie devs.

  1. Hugh Osborne says:

    This seems to be one of the main arguments in favour of piracy. “The game gets more interest and that translates to sales eventually.” The fact is though, when you pirate, you’re playing a game without the permission of the developer.
    Your argument above is one for developers to release their game for free then ask for a donation.
    From a financial standpoint, developers do stupid things like have different release dates around the world, DRM etc. People who decide to pirate for these reasons must have some odd sense of entitlement. The developer doesn’t owe anyone a game. People who don’t like the DRM can choose to not buy the game. The developer doesn’t get that revenue and hopefully they’ll learn not to use DRM in later titles. However, having not paid for it, the customer doesn’t get the game.
    Pirating a game “as protest” is merely an excuse. You want to show the developer through lost revenue what you thought of the late UK release date? Great, but you shouldn’t expect to still be allowed to play the game.

    • impeus says:

      Thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree that a “protest” pirate has zero argument. It’s empty and pointless.

      For some reason I feel the need to clarify that where I have a specific problem with a game’s DRM I don’t purchase OR pirate (I didn’t buy or otherwise obtain From Dust, for example, until Ubisoft patched out the always-on DRM), or back in the good old days, I’d buy and install the game then obtain a no-CD crack for simplicity’s sake. I don’t think that’s the point though, and almost regret mentioning DRM as it clouds what I actually wanted to say about the possibility of piracy enabling sales.

      You say that my argument is that developers should release games for free, but ask for an optional donation. I didn’t think that I was saying that at all – on the face of it it sounds unrealistic. Would I make a donation for a free game if I enjoyed it? No, actually, I don’t think I would. I might buy little pointless extras or DLC that I might not actually use (I tend to think of such things as a tip jar anyway, rather than an actual product) – but would I make a donation “for nothing”? No. Why not? I don’t know. I suppose things are given a value by the vendor, (whether that is the developer, distributor or retailer) and that value sticks somehow. I’m sure there’s a proper term for this in economics.

      I should probably clarify that I think it’s different to choose not to pay for something which has a price because it is POSSIBLE to obtain it free through another channel (piracy), than to choose to take a free thing for free and not make a donation. Perhaps you are arguing that these are the same thing, fundamentally. You might be right, but I draw a distinction between the two that is reflected in my behaviour. I can’t imagine I’m the only one. For the record I probably pay only marginally above average for, say, the Humble Indie Bundles.

      Having thought more about what you said, would I then make an argument completely the opposite of the one you ascribe to me? I think I would. Games should have a price, because they have a value.

  2. dtConfect says:

    I agree with what Hugh Osborne said somewhat. Piracy as a protest is a lazy excuse. There was a time when a boycott meant something because it actually cost the people taking the action something, proving the strength of their feelings. If you don’t like the way a game is released, and then pirate it as a protest, you prove nothing.

    I’m not against piracy though. When I eventually make something of worth I would love to be able to release it for free, but chances are I’ll need the income when that day comes, so I’d rather release it with a price and put up with the fraction of people who choose not to pay for it.

    • impeus says:

      The “value” of games is such a fluffy concept really. In most industries, a product’s price is it’s production cost, plus a profit margin. Digitally delivered media – not so simple. A game has a cost to develop, yes, but no way to guarantee a particular sales quantity to define the ideal price to recoup costs.

      This is probably the reason many people justify piracy. If I wouldn’t buy it, you’re not losing anything if I download it for free. This is, in a simplistic way, true. If people who WOULD pay for something DO pay for it, then it wouldn’t make any difference if someone else who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay gets a free copy (I don’t want to discuss how close to reality this statement is or isn’t).

      Hugh makes clear a distaste of this argument – “you’re playing a game without the permission of the developer.”

      Some may argue that it doesn’t matter. So what, don’t be precious about it. BUT a similar thing could be said of me wandering into your garden while you are sleeping, looking at your lawn, your plants, your tools. It’s just creepy, and while nobody loses anything, it’s an invasion of privacy. Is that what’s wrong with piracy? Is it trespassing onto someone else’s intellectual property?

      The sense of entitlement that Hugh mentions is interesting too. Imagine talking to a band after a gig, buying their new ep, and them asking for your email address so they can send you a free copy of their earlier ep. I have used this example to illustrate how artists often just want to get their work out there, especially to someone who is clearly a current and future supporter (attending gigs, buying merchandise, staying interested so they will buy the NEXT ep) – but it would be a very smug and self important music fan who then assumes that they have all musicians’ blessings to download their entire back catalogue for free just because they bought the current single and attended a gig.

  3. Hugh Osborne says:

    Really insightful and mature points made by both of you, so thanks very much for that.

    Taking a pragmatic approach, piracy can be (and in my opinion is) a useful tool for the reasons you stated – eliciting interest when starting out, reaching new fans; not to mention more sales.

    In my opinion these pragmatic advantages still don’t excuse the act of pirating a game. Having read your arguments though, I’m convinced that as a developer, if you’re not communicating with (or even condoning!) people torrenting your game, you’re missing out on a major path to increased revenue.

    I’ll be releasing a game in a month or so and I haven’t really thought about pricing or anything. As dtConfect said, I’d love to release it for free but I don’t think I’m brave enough. I was initially thinking I’d just ignore the pirating market (can we call it a market?) as it seems fairly obvious that the developer doesn’t lose sales. After this conversation though, I’ll be thinking very carefully about how to influence it to my advantage.

    • dtConfect says:

      I wouldn’t say the developer doesn’t lose sales. They might lose sales, they might not. That said, piracy clearly isn’t a risk for big developers (though I guess in extreme cases cutbacks may put people’s jobs on the line as a result) or they wouldn’t keep pumping out titles with full knowledge that any precautions they take will be circumvented, and I’ve yet to hear of any indies going bust because of people pirating their games.

      Something else just occurred to me. I can see potential for a developer to claim ‘death by piracy’ when the reality is that they made a shoddy product that didn’t sell. Better look out for that.

      • impeus says:

        I don’t think there IS a “because of piracy” in terms of reasons for going bust. Piracy exists, full stop, if a game is good enough for people to want to pirate it, it’s good enough for people to want to buy it. I imagine piracy rates of different games are fairly static (as in, if it appeals to 30% of the game playing public, 30% of the game buying public will buy it, and 30% of the game pirating public will pirate it).

        The only way that wouldn’t hold true I suppose is if a particular game appealed more to people likely to pirate, and less to people likely to buy. I wonder what sort of game that would be?

        I don’t think arguments like “If everyone who pirated my game had paid for it, I would have broken even,” are valid – maybe it’s true, but it was never going to happen, sadly. Who knows if those pirates played or liked it?

        The comments thread on this RPS post about piracy, incidentally, made me think more about Hugh’s “sense of entitlement”. Arguing that shutting down piracy and shutting down second hand sales and trade-ins is unfair on people who can’t otherwise afford to play games. As if playing games is a fundamental human right that should be protected. I can’t afford a massive mansion and a cleaner – that doesn’t entitle me to get one for free or cheap – why should the same be true of games? Free and cheap games are available, why rip off new and expensive ones just because you feel you should be able to?

  4. impeus says:

    I would like to point out that I have now purchased Thomas Was Alone. Yay!

    The other thing I want to mention, that I neglect to in the post, is that I haven’t pirated a single game since Steam. There’s no point. Piracy for me is dead.

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