Software Piracy: Why it Benefits Video Games

Software Piracy: Why it Benefits Video Games

Piracy is a problem: the buccaneers tend to throw their dead parrots and used-up hat feathers overboard, and it makes a terrible mess. In all seriousness though, digital piracy has been a hot topic since the earliest days of the floppy disc and magnetic tape. Copying a game or a program is much easier than nicking a physical object from a store, and usually carries less consequence than getting collared in the middle of Wal-Mart with a pocket full of PlayStation games.

But are we doing the game industry any favors if we simplify game piracy as an act that’s performed by a pack of jerks who are too cheap to pay for the real thing?

Is there a little something extra at the core of game piracy, something that publishers might want to look at a bit more closely? Is there an untapped ore of benefits that might be mined if they think of game piracy in terms beyond black and white? It’s very possible.

Let’s not fool ourselves, however: there’s no denying that one of the driving motivations behind piracy is simply the desire to own something without paying for it. Gamers are not above acts of sleaziness. Consider the rampant theft of Steam’s Humble Indie Bundle, a bundle of games that’s meant to raise money for charity and give exposure to the industry’s most vulnerable developers: the indies.

To his eternal credit, Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire Studios analyzed the reasons why the Humble Indie Bundle is ripped off so many times–and his reasons are much more thoughtful than “people are cheap and awful.”

Currently, big publishers are waging war on pirates by hobbling legitimate buyers with DRM and mandatory Internet connections. Meanwhile, loyalists are getting irritated at being unjustly punished, while the pirates ease their way around lockouts and continue their thing.

We’re not presenting any quick fixes to the industry’s struggles with piracy, but maybe it’s time for publishers to consider the following positives that can come from the act:

Free advertising via word of mouth: Look on the bright side: even if someone isn’t paying for your game, they are playing it. In turn, more people will learn about your game through word of mouth (or word of message board).

“Sure,” you say cynically, “so a bunch more people will pirate the game. Fantastic.”

But that’s not necessarily the case. It’s perfectly logical to assume that someone who learns about the game on a message board or directly from a friend would go ahead and pay for it, for one of several reasons. He or she might not want to navigate Torrents, or doesn’t have the bandwidth necessary to download games, or simply wants to go ahead and support the game’s developers.

In turn, the game’s new owner might go ahead and tell a network of friends about the game. And while a handful of folks might pirate the game, several more will go ahead and buy the real deal.

This works especially well for retro games that have high-profile installments in the present market. Anyone can pirate the original <em>Legend of Zelda</em> or <em>Sonic the Hedgehog</em> easily enough, and that might be enough to put that person in the mood to buy more current releases that are more difficult to pirate, like <em>Zelda: Skyward Sword</em> for the Wii, or <em>Sonic Generations</em> for the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3.

Piracy can benefit hardware sales–and PC manufacturers might consider working with software devs for that reason: Back in 2008, held an interview with Todd Hollenshead, the CEO of id. Hollenshead suggested that there’s a hidden benefit to piracy: PC manufacturers still have to sell units for people to play pirated games on.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt suggests that game developers and PC manufacturers are missing out on the chance for a fruitful symbiotic relationship.

“[R]ather than somehow blaming [PC manufacturers] for not fighting piracy hard enough, why not (…(…) get PC makers to finance new games,” he asks, “pointing out that if they give out the games for free it will help drive more people to buy the next generation of high powered PCs that are needed to run the games. In that way, everyone can benefit. The PC makers can pay for the game, and then use that to turn in more sales of high powered computers. The video game developers get paid, the computer makers get a great tool to sell more new PCs and users get a free game with their PC. Everyone comes out better off and there’s no ‘problem’ of piracy.”

Considerable money can still be made on microtransactions: Employing the free-to-play model is one way to discourage piracy. What’s the point of pirating something that’s free?

Of course, going FTP isn’t an option for every game developer, but even a traditionally-priced game sold at retail can offer in-game items that are purchasable through microtransactions. Said items don’t necessarily have to be game-breaking, either: people will pay a lot of money for the privilege of dressing up their characters with cool costumes and accessories.

Not everyone will spend tens or hundreds of dollars on these microtransactions–though a surprising amount of people do–but it’s a good way to bring in some revenue instead of suffering a total loss on a pirated game. If item selections are updated consistently, that’s even more potential for continued earnings.

Publishers are motivated into thinking of ways to reach out and reward their loyal buyers: Masnick’s article on Techdirt brings up another good point: when the music industry sought to shut down digital downloads with all its power, it failed miserably. “The money isn’t in the product itself (music),” Masnick says, “but in the scarcities made valuable by the product (concerts, access to the artists, creating new works, etc.)”

In a similar vein, publishers in the fight against piracy are wasting energy and effort cutting off hydra heads that keep growing back. Instead, they ought to be thinking about the “scarcities” they can offer the men and women who buy their game.

And what are those scarcities, exactly? There’s no quick answer for that, either; it’s something that should be considered on a game-by-game basis, and according to the target audience. One thing is certain, though: any attempts at “rewarding” buyers are certain to go over better than punishing them with DRM restrictions.

It gives devs the chance to be a little devious — All right, let’s get down to it. Though it pays to think of game piracy in shades of grey, game developers still have the right to get pissed off when someone steals their game. If a developer and/or publisher still wants to continue the fight against pirates as it exists today, there are lots of traps and pitfalls that might be considered, and thousands more that are waiting to be invented.

One of the best-known cases of pirate-tripping happened with Earthbound, an RPG that was released on the Super Nintendo in 1995. The game ran frequent checks to make sure the player’s cartridge was legit. If things didn’t add up, it pulled one of a number of tricks, such as throwing an endless stream of enemies at the player until he or she just gave up.

More famously, if a player managed to dodge every other lock-out that Earthbound threw at them, the game would freeze right at the confrontation with the game’s final boss–and erase all of the player’s save files.


About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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