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Piracy on the PC: Where do we go from here?

Mike Doolittle's picture

Just a sampling of the news this month in PC gaming:

  • Epic says that Gears of War 2 will not come to the PC, citing piracy as a primary reason.
  • EndWar creative director Michael de Plater asserts that the PC port of the game (which, incidentally, has not been officially confirmed to be in development) is delayed because of piracy.
  • Bionic Commando, the remake of the 80's hit, is coming to the PC a little later than the console version, again being delayed over piracy fears.
  • Fallout 3 has gone gold, and the XBox 360 version has already been leaked on to torrents. How long before the PC version, too, is leaked?
  • The Witcher developer CDProjekt is struggling to gain publusher support for its DRM-free classic-game service Good Old Games (gog.com).
  • A class-action lawsuit has been filed against EA for its use of SecuROM protection in Spore.

There's little disputing that piracy is a serious problem on the PC. It's also a problem for consoles, but it's certainly more prevalent on the PC. Unfortunately though, there's no real solid data to give us a clear picture just how big of a financial impact piracy really has. A study in 2004 found that music piracy, long blamed by the music industry for a decline in CD sales, was mostly unrelated to the decline. It's difficult to say whether this holds true for the PC as well; most piracy happens in Asia and Eastern Europe, so it's unclear whether game makers are really losing customers to piracy en masse.

But whether or not piracy is actually harming companies' bottom lines, it's clearly having a strong effect on their perception of the viability of the PC market. It's not unlike a bear market, where anxiety over stock viability creates a buying freeze. In other words, developers like Epic, Ubisoft, Capcom and id may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by relegated the PC to a second-class market.

At the same time, whether data supports them or not, developers are quick to blame piracy for any perceived lost sales. Epic, for example, dropped the ball last year with the PC port of Gears of War. The game was released a year late at full price with sparse new content, was not available through any of the many popular digital distribution channels such as Steam and Direct2Drive, and received bad word of mouth due to numerous game-breaking bugs resulting from a sloppy implementation of Games for Windows Live which, to add insult to injury, required a paid subscription to access all the online features. And yet Epic seems all too willing to ignore these factors and just blame piracy. I'm not singling out Epic—similar comments have come from Crytek, Infinity Ward, and many others. While piracy may indeed be an issue, the perception of piracy is clearly just as serious a problem, one that may prevent developers and publishers from addressing more immediate problems in their business models.

The response from developers and publishers to this possibly real, but unquestionably perceived threat of piracy has been to lace their games with more and more stringent DRM restrictions. When I wrote a blog chiding gamers for blowing DRM out of proportion, I was heavily criticized for failing to recognize that DRM really does create problems for a lot of users and, so say many, it just makes piracy worse. In retrospect, I was wrong to understate the impact DRM has on users, as well as wrong to overstate its efficacy. Clearly no DRM scheme does much of anything to prevent piracy—even the most heavily protected games are leaked very quickly; and clearly many legitimate users are inconvenienced by increasingly draconian DRM schemes—I've been there myself recently.

And yet, it's not clear to what extent DRM is hurting PC game sales if at all, or whether it makes piracy worse as some suggest—though both are valid possibilities. Again looking at music sales, some data suggests that Apple's DRM-free iTunes Plus may spur greater sales, and Amazon.com has seen great success with their DRM-free music service. 

I applaud CDProjekt for their ambitious DRM-free Good Old Games service, and I applaud Bethesda for sticking with a simple CD check for Fallout 3. Ultimately the success or failure of DRM-free software will determine whether frustrated developers will continue to get away with blaming piracy for their woes, and whether DRM use continues to be prevalent. Regardless, it's time developers and publishers take a more critical eye toward their perception of piracy's true impact on their business, and start treating their customers a little better. As long as developers treat PC gaming as a second-class market, that's exactly what it will be. 

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PC  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Business   Piracy & DRM  

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That's an interresting topic, which brings up a few questions :

- Is it harder to develop a game for the PC than it is for a console ?
Could it be that if you develop for two consoles, say the PS3 and 360, then you have two machines to learn how to exploit, whereas if you develop for the PC, you possibly have many more configurations to master. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe they don't have to concern themselves with all the different PCs out there, but I wouldn't know.

- If the answer is yes, then could that be one of the reasons, besides piracy ? Making a game can easily become expensive and time consuming, so maybe trying to optimise a game for a "many-in-one" platform just adds to the difficulty ?

This piece contains a

This piece contains a glaring mistake:
The leaked Fallout 3 version is for the 360, not the PC.

I'm a Pir8.

As a proficient pir8, I can honestly say I'm getting fed up with this endless banter from every Tom, Dick and Larry in the industry who thinks they have a right to open their pie hole.
I got excited by this article because it mentioned that Fallout 3 is now leaked.

Is it? Is it leaked there young padawan article writer?
You seem to have forgotten to mention that the leak in particular is FOR THE XBOX 360. THE CONSOLE!
I'm staring at the link right now. There's no PC version there.

SO what does this mean?
The article that circulated sometime ago stated that games meant to sell well, sell well. Quality games do well regardless of who or how they're pir8ed (heavily, lightly, with or without heinous DRM or with or without DLC).
Nothing's safe from pir8ing except good quality games.

I would happily download Fallout 3 for my PC. I've also got the collectors edition on pre-order so eat me.
That means that I will happily, with clear conscience and with great intention to illegally install and play the game from beginning to end, without ever even opening the package that my bought copy came in.

I support my industry, and I support fellow artists.
I don't support crap, and I don't support copy protection.
Copy protection isn't, and it never has been.

Lawsuits aren't drumming up the business like other companies expected.
Now we get articles that define the industry's ignorance of it's own plight.

Trust me when I say: If it's coming out on 360, it's just as pir8ed as if it were on PC. Don't kid yourself. Don't kid us.

It's all about greed

I really think you should update your article to reflect that fact that it's the 360 version of Fallout 3 being pirated. It's easy to think that you mean it's the PC version.

Yes, that's right folks. For a change, the PC doesn't have to take the rap for piracy on a major new game release. One site is reporting that approximately 20,000 copies were being downloaded via BitTorrent on the first day. That's not an insignificant number.

Not that this hasn't always been happening with consoles . . . it's just easier to point the finger at PC, and blame that platform for everything, instead of admitting that there is something wrong with the industry itself. Is there any other industry today, where the business is so openly hostile to even a portion of its customers?

Game publishers hate PC gamers: due innovative laziness, pure unadultered greed, and the fact that those customers are catching on.

PCs require greater tech support, that the publishers don't want to pay for. PC owners who still play high-profile AAA titles on their PC, are more savvy about their purchases. They won't blindly buy any crap the publishers release. They realize that games being released today are mostly flash, and little substance. They're hard to please. So why make games for that crowd any more, when they can get away with mediocre releases for an audience that laps it up.

Game publishers lie about promised game features, bribe reviewers to give glowing reviews, take bribes to keep games or downloadable content exclusive to consoles, release games knowing full well that they are broken, silence or ignore customer criticism, quickly abandon games that don't meet sales expectations . . . I could go on and on. Suffice to say, the games industry is a total wreck and due for yet another crash.

And abandoning the PC isn't going to stop piracy. Have they actually deluded themselves into thinking that will make a difference? The pirates will follow them to the consoles, and the whole cycle will start over again. The leak of Fallout 3 has proven that. Giving the PC the shaft, is not their magic bullet.

But frankly, let them go ahead. There will always be a few, more level-headed companies that know better. Like Valve, Blizzard, Stardock, CD Projekt, and 1C Publishing, for example. Where the other publishers lose out, these companies will make a killing.

Here's to hoping that the

Here's to hoping that the now gears of war two receives the same treatment. Cliffy B can then take his pc piracy comments and shove them far up his rear.

This article is lacking the obvious, IT IS NOT JUST THE PC SEEING PIRACY !!!!!!!

The soon to be played Quake3 thru a browser will transform pc gaming, I for one am looking forward to playing this way.

You've Already Missed the Boat

The tone of this article is just absurd. PC piracy is just a perceived threat? You think that if there was a huge missed market opportunity that these businesses would just miss out on it to make a point? To stick it in the eye of pirates?

You guys have already missed the boat. PC gaming IS second class and has been for a couple years now. Listening to Pirate apologists who say otherwise is like listening to someone exclaim what a great gaming platform Macs are. Kinda funny in a sad and misguided way.

As usual the pro-pirate peanut gallery is even more whacked...Piracy on the console is not the same as the PC. PC piracy does not require hardware mods, or owning another platform to accomplish. You can't effectively pirate 360 games without owning a PC and soldering a mod chip, so the scale of the piracy is totally different...don't even mention PS3 piracy since it doesn't even really exist.

I think it's hilarious that the posters point to companies like Blizzard and Valve as successful PC developers, since they have each instituted the most draconian DRM to date (i.e. you must be on the internet talking to our servers to play), and they each put out fewer than 1 title per year. Stardock is cool, but not exactly a big business in terms of profitability.

game devs should stfu

i really really really want all these stupid game developers to just LEAVE... if they don't think they can make money on pcs, just stfu and GET OUT!

this is pc gaming. there is no fing crying in pc gaming dammit.

there are a MILLION developers just behind them ITCHING to take their place. people who can replace all their frequently execrable products within the blink of an eye... AND figure out how to work it to make money - and probably without ludicrous DRMs.

do they imagine that the pc will ever LACK for games?! ugh.....

seriously - GET OUT! we don't need another UT game, we don't need another B&W. go to your precious consoles and get the f out.

i knew it wouldn't take long

i knew it wouldn't take long before someone who hasn't even done his research would comment on it.

the copy of fallout3 that was leaked was for XBOX 360. ARE YOU READING THIS?

you are clearly anti-pc to have even mentioned it. i would write more but your lack of facts shows you are not interested in the truth.

This is a career breaker

This is a career breaker Mike. Make sure to read up on these things before you use it in a story in the future, yeah? I haven't seen a single article that even remotely indicates that it was the PC version of Fallout 3 being pirated.

Just goes to show you that piracy is more media hype that facts with supporting evidence.

Says who?

where are these millions of developers then? Even this guy, who has no DRM and cheap games with big demos, still struggles to get any attention or sales. If he isn't doing well, what makes you think other small PC developer are?

Its not just the PC

The leaked fallout3 is for the 360 not the PC. The 360 and Wii get just as much piracy. Just takes a little extra work to run them.

Please tell me you're joking

You can't effectively pirate 360 games without owning a PC and soldering a mod chip, so the scale of the piracy is totally different...

Right . . . you think the majority of people who mod their 360s do it themselves? You don't need to be a technical genius. You can take it into a shop and pay somebody to do it. It's cheap, usually no more than $50.

Sure, you risk getting your 360 banned on Live. But a lot of people will be willing to take that chance, when they see their friends with modded 360s playing tons of free games. Or they'll buy a second 360: keeping one that's completely legit connected to Live, while the other is modded to play pirated games.

I think it's hilarious that the posters point to companies like Blizzard and Valve as successful PC developers, since they have each instituted the most draconian DRM to date (i.e. you must be on the internet talking to our servers to play)

Blizzard and Valve use draconian DRM? Puh-lease.

Since all of Blizzard's recent titles are multiplayer titles that require an on-line connection anyway, in order to even play the damn games at all: I see no reason why they shouldn't check if you're actually playing a legitimately bought copy, at the same time. And you can argue whether or not their Warden anti-cheat system is over the top, but they need some kind of anti-cheat program in place or else there would be a plague of cheaters in their games.

And Valve's Steam is one of the most friendly, least restrictive, forms of DRM out there.

Compare Steam:
- Unlimited downloads of the games you paid for
- Games can be played on an unlimited number of machines, but only one at a time using your account (a perfectly reasonable restriction)
- An easy to use, integrated backup feature is included, so you can back up and keep the games, without always having to download them when you move to other machines or need to re-install
- After downloading the games, you can go into an offline mode and keep playing indefinitely as long as you don't care about updates
- Steam doesn't install low-level drivers or services that exhibit rootkit-like behaviour

To SecuROM 7:
- Games can only be played on a limited number of machines, usually five
- At the moment, if you change the hardware on your PC or need to re-install Windows, you lose an activation and have no way of retrieving it
- If you use up your activations, you need to call the game publisher and have to jump through ridiculous hoops to prove you purchased the game. (Name, address, phone number, photo of game disc and manual . . . what if I don't happen to have a digital camera handy, and why do I have to provide them with my personal information? I bought a game, I'm not applying for a bank loan!)
- Long distance charges may apply to the call depending on where you live: costing you additional money for a game you already paid for, and shouldn't have to ask for permission to play in the first place
- Installs rootkit-like drivers and services without the user's knowledge (no mention of SecuROM anywhere on the box, in the manual, or during installation) and is difficult to remove. It's always running: slowing down your machine, and constantly monitors which tasks are running.

Even this guy, who has no DRM and cheap games with big demos, still struggles to get any attention or sales. If he isn't doing well, what makes you think other small PC developer are?

In that particular case, he's been trying to get his games on Steam. Where they would get a lot more exposure and likely sell better. But so far, he hasn't been able to work out a deal with Valve.

Also, when you hear that game magazines and sites are purposely giving indie guys like him and Introversion the cold shoulder rather than help them out: you've got to wonder what this industry is coming to.


To respond to all the above comments:

- Fallout 3 comment edited for clarification

- Any examination of torrent stats shows that PC games are pirated much more heavily than console games.

- My post isn't meant to suggest that piracy is "just" a perception problem, or even to downplay the possibility that it is a very real threat to the financial well-being of game developers. However, empirical data on the impact of video game piracy simply does not exist. Data from the music industry suggests there may be no statistical significance. The takeaway point: we don't know. Until we do, I feel developers should examine other aspects of their business models rather than assuming piracy is solely responsible for any disappointing numbers. And as I mentioned in my most recent blog, plenty of PC games are quite successful — as of July, Crysis had sold over 3 million copies.

- To redrain85: I think we have to be careful about how badly we condemn Securom. I don't like it either, but it's a little misleading to characterize it as a rootkit. While it does not uninstall and is sure draconian and annoying, it collects no user data and functions only during authentication. I fully agree that Steam is probably the best example of DRM we have. It's there, but it's unobtrusive. Recently I re-installed my OS, and was pleased to find that, after moving the files to the appropriate place and re-installing the Steam client, all my games worked without having to be reinstalled. I also appreciate the auto-updating and "verify integrity of game cache" functions.

"Any examination of torrent

"Any examination of torrent stats shows that PC games are pirated much more heavily than console games."

The real reason to this is the fact that there are way more PC computers then consoles in households around the planet.
If there were as many xbox 360's sold as PC's then the companies complaining would all be singing a different tune.

Well of course. But that

Well of course. But that doesn't change the numbers.

Steam is great! Unless you

Steam is great! Unless you want to lend your game to a buddy. Or do PC gamers just not have real life friends? Yeah that's really great DRM there.

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