In recent years, there has been no shortage of game developers leaving PC exclusivity behind because of the threat of piracy. It’s not hard to see why, with overall PC game piracy rates north of 70% according to some estimates (and running even higher for some individual games), making it hard for even the biggest games to make money on the platform. Consider that Modern Warfare 2 was both the best-selling game of 2009 on consoles (pushing 11.86 million units worldwide) and the most-pirated game of 2009 on the PC (downloaded 4.1 million times from torrents, with legitimate sales “lagging way behind“).
Yet the console market shouldn’t necessarily be any better. The Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 can all be hacked via hardware or software to run pirated copies of games downloaded from torrent sites. So why are download rates for the PC versions of such illegal torrents “often five or ten times higher than the console versions” according to a recent study?
Part of the reason has to do with ease of use, obviously. Hacking a console takes a fair bit of technical knowledge, and sometimes requires hunting down relatively sketchy hardware modifications. On the PC, in contrast, piracy has gotten to the point where many torrents have download-and-play simplicity — no technical knowledge required. Less onerous piracy methods on consoles would no doubt lead to a rampant increase in piracy rates, as seems to be the case with the relatively easy-to-use R4 cartridge for the DS.
But part of the difference is likely cultural as well. Computer gaming grew out of a culture of hacking and sharing data, where early PC games were passed around on easily-copied disks or even through hand-typed code in magazines. Console gaming, on the other hand, was from the outset based around a business model of paying money for a cartridge as a product.
Perhaps it’s a question of expectations. Consider that major game consoles have had some form of digital rights management or piracy protection hard-wired into their designs since at least the days of the NES, with nary a complaint from players. Yet when PC game publishers try to put any sort of DRM on their products, the complaints are loud and angry.
Having a first-party publisher with a vested interest in protecting the platform from the outset surely helps consoles as well. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony can and have gone after manufacturers and distributors of pirated software and hardware, even going so far as to ban pirates from their proprietary online networks. On the PC, there’s no single entity equipped to protect the platform as a whole — even Microsoft’s anti-piracy measures focus on copies of the operating system itself and not the software that runs on it. The patchwork of copy-protection schemes that have sprung up from various publishers haven’t been nearly as effective at stemming piracy (though Steam’s market-unifying position as a major distributor seems to be having some effect).
What’s to be done about this double standard? We’re not quite sure. On the PC, it might be too late to create the combination of technological prevention, social stigma and consumer expectations that seem to limit piracy on consoles. Looking forward, though, platform holders like Apple and Google should do everything they can to prevent piracy from becoming the de facto standard on their mobile systems. Their gaming future may depend on it.