Getting Back in Touch with Your Friendly Neighborhood Pirate


I’m getting bored of blogs and CEOs whining about software piracy. It’s not that piracy is excusable, it’s that the only way I can describe their perspective is “out of touch” when it’s the equivalent of shaking a fist at those darn kids and their skateboards. It’s especially embarrassing when it comes from a game publisher that’s been in the business for twenty-five years and therefore kinda sorta should know better.


In particular, they should admit that the latest DRM strategy du jour does nothing to prevent anyone getting a “zero day” crack just as usual. It shouldn’t be funny when a game that ought to be a huge hit like Diablo 3 or SimCity ’13 suffers because of a publisher’s paranoid reversion to feigned ignorance about the situation. I get the impression from developers like Will Wright that these strategies are often decided by execs who don’t understand computers, like Riccitiello. But indie developers shouldn’t be showing the same kind of ignorance about an issue central to gamering if they’re really driven by a love of great games. It’s as if they once read about software piracy on Wikipedia or something. In any case, I’m perplexed when game makers act so confused about game piracy, and it doesn’t help when a lot of them are lying about it, both to the public and themselves.

So let’s talk about what pirates are really thinking, and how to deal with that, since too many people apparently don’t understand. Actually, if you want to lie about piracy because you’re a GigantaMegaCorp on a mission, OK, I can see that, good luck. You might as well start calling it “terrorism.” But this talk is for people who are sincerely trying to grapple with factors without the media-generated stereotypes obscuring the conversation.

Piracy is effortless; that’s why it happens so much. Maybe it’s not easy to crack a game, but there’s no shortage of guys who see cracking as a game in itself, a game that they can always win. And the chaotic proliferation of the Internet means it’s easier than it ever was to find and download these cracks. Piracy no longer requires access to exclusive “underground” nerd computer networks. Pirates are no longer a secretive, easily categorized group of techno-hermits. Pirates aren’t “those guys” any more, they’re anybody. So from the start we’re going to describe pirates as a series of overlapping grey areas:

  • Some pirates are poor. And some pirates are juvenile. J.M. Barrie reminds us that children are heartless, by which he means selfish. A lack of conscience makes an effortless crime even more effortless. I know a number of people, as adults with jobs, who oppose the act of piracy, even though they used to pirate in the past, mainly when they were kids. The saying that “if people couldn’t pirate a game, they wouldn’t have paid for it anyway” definitely has some foundation.
  • Some pirates live in an “alternate reality.” Although times have changed, it used to be that piracy took place through private, “underground” computer networks, and you had to prove yourself to be granted access. It used to be that you couldn’t just download everything as soon as you see it like you can today; you had to contribute pirated software in order to receive pirated software. The more exclusive the organization, the stricter the rules. Therefore, downloading a game might have been free in terms of dollars, but not free in terms of “credit”. This system of “credit” became a currency in its own right. Furthermore, credit sometimes construed itself as esteem. Many pirates didn’t even play the games they pirated; they collected them solely for the esteem that having them would bring. This alternate value system could be so pervasive among peers as to make the exchange of money for pirated software feel “wrong.” The reason I’m describing this is simply to point out that some pirates are unconsciously thinking in terms very alien to what a business might imagine. The degree to which pirates could rationalize to themselves that money is irrelevant might be an interesting topic, under the right conditions, for a psychologist or economist. I once visited the home of a “pirate for life” in his 40s. He must have had a job since he lived in a house of his own, but the house had nothing in it, no furniture or otherwise normal signs of habitation. All the rooms were bare except for the computer room, where a wall of burned CDs was prominently displayed. No further comment, your honor.
  • Some pirates live in a country where piracy is a normal way of life. It’s easiest to console yourself with a blanket statement like “they don’t have laws in those countries.” But it would be more accurate to point out that, like in the example above, people in other countries are living by values that are totally alien to U.S. business principles. In some countries, a great idea for a new business you could start is to make cheap copies of things designed by Westerners, regardless of how “wrong” this seems to us. I once worked with a guy whose side project was to make a Chinese clone of iTunes for iOS; he had no concern for getting this onto the App Store because he knew that Chinese people all jailbreak their phones anyway. He simply knew that this was something needed in the Chinese market. The whole concept of ideas valued as property that can be possessed by individuals is simply foreign to that culture.
  • Some pirates can’t buy your software in their country because it’s just not available.
  • Some pirates are computer programs. There are “bots” that monitor every single release on the App Store so they can be pirated ASAP, even if they’re not popular. There are sites that strive to collect “everything” in an area, which means that people can indiscriminately download “everything” even if they don’t know all that’s included. Piracy is sometimes so effortless because it’s automated.
  • Some pirates feel their actions are justified when DRM is no longer just a form of copy-protection, but an invasion of freedom. To some people, a game isn’t worth so much when these “always-online” DRM systems are broken or retired early. (Compare how NES cartridges from the 80s continue to be traded today above their actual value.) Ironically, DRM now prompts piracy as a solution for multiple problems instead of just one.
  • Some pirates are willing to pay for quality, despite all of the above. Even the poorest kids will find a way to pay for something they believe is worthwhile.

What can we learn from this?

  • I think the first step is to stop acting like pirates are black hat bad guys and acknowledge that anybody could be a pirate without even thinking about it. Stop thinking in terms of what “those guys” would do, but instead of what anybody would do. A lot of pirates are just immature teenagers who want to have fun, or people who live in a place where your software doesn’t have monetary value. Can you put yourself in their shoes?
  • Stop theorizing on the impossible. Inevitably people start talking about what should happen “if” piracy weren’t possible, and this train of thought always degenerates into contrived statistics about how much money the game industry is losing. The reality is that piracy has been rampant for decades, and if you’re upset about that now, well, where have you been? If Android sales of your app are stereotypically 10% of iPhone sales, and you don’t know what to do about it, then fine, don’t develop for Android. This has been done before; it’s nothing new.
  • Stop retaliating against your customers by making your games hard to play. Copy-protection has been minimally effective at deterring piracy since the early 80s. If you employ a copy-protection scheme that blocks your paying customers, who wins?
  • Stop treating your customers like they’re stupid. When a game is cracked before it even goes on sale, and that crack becomes available to anyone on the Internet, and the publisher knows about it, what does it say when the publisher proceeds to release the game with broken DRM anyway? It’s like they’re betting that most people won’t be smart enough to do anything about it, except that only the people who paid for a legal copy are the ones being made to suffer. This is a form of “security by obscurity,” a known fallacy. It’s kind of like how gun control laws could be said to affect only people who are complying with the law in the first place. Also, some people like to propagate the idea that piracy is dangerous because you could be downloading virus-infested software, but this FUD has been distributed to the public (at least) as far back as 1994. However, deliberately releasing a broken “pirate” version of your own software has been known to cause confusion among pirates even today, so that might be worth creative consideration.
  • Stop pretending that the “freemium” model defeats piracy. Technically, piracy can’t happen when your software is free. But by adopting a “casual” model, what you’re really doing is appealing to a different audience. Do you really understand that and the players’ perspective?
  • Stop being cheap. Stop hoping to trick people into buying your product. Design something that’s worth paying for. There are many ways to approach this concept. For example, design a game that comes in a box that would still have value ten years from now. Just adding feelies today would make your software stand out.
  • Stop making games that include multiplayer as an afterthought yet use that to justify having to register online. Give players a reason to want to play online. No, I meant a real reason that matters to them. There’s so much potential here that’s being overlooked.
  • Appeal to players. You, the developer, are a real person and not a faceless, evil corporation, right? Then connect with your audience. Make your plight dwell on the conscience once more. I’m being extremely vague about this because there are so many ways to go about it. But a little familiarity could go a long way to invoking compassion for your business.

Well, my objective today is to brush aside some of the stereotypical falsehoods about piracy so that we could start to have an honest conversation. There are ways to nullify piracy that companies are ignoring because they treat it as an unsolvable mystery. Even though stealing isn’t ethical, I hope you’re at least willing to confront some of the perspectives I’m presenting so that the next time I read about someone’s endeavor to defeat piracy, it’s not so blithely ignorant of factors that have existed for decades.

• • •

Maybe this was really a rant about how I miss the days when game companies were run by people who liked games. By the way, isn’t EA‘s reuse of the name Origin meant to bitterly defame Lord British?

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