One Cliff Harris has recently asked why people pirate his games. Unfortunately, I wrote my entire response to a mischaracterization by the slashdot article that pointed me to his question; they suggested that Cliff was trying to convert these warezers to sales, which on reading the actual article I’ve realized he actually is not. Nonetheless, I coincidentally answered his question during my rant, and then towards the end I take it on more directly. Still, there are a lot of people who want to know the answer to the question Cliff didn’t ask, so I’m leaving it in place.
Assuming that developers are missing out on potential sales from disgruntled pirates
… is a flawed assumption. Mister Harris appears to fail to understand the mindset of the pirate, who is a person who has confused what they want with what is ethical.
I’ve been running and co-running a number of small communities about game development for more than a decade now. Several of them have a real problem with pirates who show up looking for help with piracy. It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a pirate and a kid using the wrong terms for things (“how do I build my ROM”, etc); as such there’s sort of an ongoing competition among the people who run these groups to see who can get these goons to uncover themselves the fastest, usually by feigning sympathy.
As a result, I’ve seen about three times as many warezers as the human population of Earth. Every single one tries to tell me, after they’re removed, how it’s not their fault they stole – the game is too expensive, or they don’t want to feed EA, or they’ll pay for it if they like it. Many of them have already forgotten that during the sympathy phase, they gave us lists of the games they had. Particularly galling are the people who brag that they have ROMs of every single DS game, or what have you, then turn around and pretend that it’s just due to cost.
With respect, Mr. Harris, you’re asking the wrong question. You could be selling your game for a quarter with a change accepting machine in their rooms; they wouldn’t buy your game. They’re out there getting every game they can find, often just for the bragging rights of having stolen more than their peers. Many of the people stealing your game haven’t even heard of it and will never play it. These people cannot be converted into customers; they are too used to theft to recognize it as such, invariably vomiting up the same tripe about a false and meaningless distinction between copyright violation and theft, because they don’t think of themselves as thieves and cannot face the honest nature of what they’re doing. These people will never voluntarily give up money for your hard work, and you cannot get them to stop taking your work.
There are two somewhat more legitimate questions you might ask, however.
The first is “how can I profit from these people.” That’s not the same thing as turning them into customers. For example, though I do pay for my games, I play a lot of free games on the web which I wouldn’t pay for (I’d just play more Civ instead.) DesktopTD is a great example: when it was news to me I would not have bought it because it looks poor, and by now I’ve played it so much that I don’t even play it for free anymore. During my addiction I might have paid a couple of bucks for it, but probably not, and the market doesn’t offer a sales mechanism that hits that phase.
However, DesktopTD has probably made about $3.50 from me by now. I’m not pulling that number out of thin air; I made an honest estimate of plays based on my best guess about when I found the game and how often I play, and ran it through the numbers for MochiAds. Admittedly, I’m not a warezer, so my example applicability is limited, and indeed I do know a few people who brag that they’re running ad blockers so they’re not inconvenienced with ten seconds of advertisement to put money in the developer’s hands, even though the developer is giving their game away. Most of these people, unsurprisingly, are warezers.
The other question is a bit more direct. Say you’re an interior designer. You’re brand new, the ad agency is several weeks from having your commercial on TV, but you have your cards and your flyers and business hasn’t picked up yet, so you decide to go drive around and make some people aware of your services. You have a choice: drive around the lower middle class neighborhood, where your services are needed more commonly, or around the rich neighborhood, where one uptake is worth twenty from the lower middle class neighborhood.
When it comes down to it, there are a huge number of people willing to pay $50 for a game. Those people expect games to have huge production values, grand sweeping storylines, volumes of beautiful artwork, a custom soundtrack and hundreds of cheat codes.
A one-man game designer can aim at the $5 or even $10 niche without problems; witness XBLA, WiiWare, the Apple store, et cetera. Even so, the one-man game designer is clutching at threads to get those sales; they’re just one person, and there isn’t enough time in the day to make what one of EA’s hundred fifty person teams can make.
What you’re going to find is that if you can just barely get the people who pay $50 to pay $5, then getting the people who won’t buy things at $50 to even spend $1 is damned near impossible.
So, lemme ask you a question in return: why are you driving around the lower middle class neighborhood?
I want to know why people pirate my games. I honestly do.
The answer to your question is simple: they do it for different reasons. Some just want to play your game and don’t want to pay for it. Some are collectors. Some pirated your game because their pirate buddy said “you should try this game”; same word of mouth that you’re used to thinking of as driving sales to you. Some do it because in some crowds it is a status symbol to out-pirate other people. Some caught it in a torrent collection with a different item they want. If your game features top of the line theft protection, some will pirate it because they’re offended you should want to protect your work, and see defying that as a way to stick it to the proverbial man.
More germanely, though, none of them face the reason they do it, so asking why they do it is going to get you a stack of excuses and hollow justifications. One thing you’ll find out if you ask a psychologist is that even among the badguys, basically nobody thinks of themselves as a badguy. There are books where psychologists of mafia organizers talk about how their clients have talked themselves into believing that their process of arranging protection and hush money, murdering people and running contraband is somehow necessary or vital to society, how they’re just “giving people what they want.” It’s exceptionally entertaining in moral gray areas, such as when talked about by pimps, who are doing something that large parts of the world, including some parts of our country, see as acceptable. The point, however, is better made with obvious scumbags, such as the people who arrange serial murder.
You can’t ask a person who won’t face who they are what made them who they are. All you’ll get are their self serving fantasies.
They don’t know the truth any better than you do, sir.