An economist would probably call anyone who buys a single-player PC game a fool. That is because the cost of buying a PC game is $20-$60, while the cost of pirating it is nothing more than the time spent downloading an .iso and mounting it with daemon tools.
Pirating PSP or DS games is only slightly more costly. There's the price of the memory stick / writable cartridge to consider. If you're more than a casual gamer, this cost will easily be offset by the library of cartridges and UMD's that you will not have to pay for.
Thus the arguments that piracy would go down if the quality of videogames increased, their price decreased, or DRM became less of a hassle don't hold water. As long as we are rational human beings, we will pirate because piracy is the rational thing to do.
The challenge for the videogame industry is to bring the cost of piracy closer to the price that the game sells for. Online PC games such as Team Fortress 2 and World of Warcraft have managed to do this by requiring the user to have a unique product key to access matchmaking servers. It is possible to play pirated version of these games, but that involves tracking down a fast and reliable pirate server. In general, the time it takes to do this outweighs the cost of buying the game at retail.
While online games are relatively safe from piracy, those that are focused around a single-player component are not. Every method of DRM that has been tried has failed; every popular single-player PC game can be found for free on the internet, without exception.
Theoretically pirating all types of games should have the cost of a federal prosecution. Yet unless you’re running a factory that manufactures bootleg DS cartridges, you’ll receive no punishment. This is where I suggest we in the industry come in. Videogame publishers or a videogame trade group such as the ESA should sue individuals who distribute their products illegally over the internet.
I am suggesting that we implement the same strategy employed by the RIAA in its battle against music pirates. While it failed for them, I believe it could succeed for the videogame industry.
It is a suggestion that is sure to have many detractors. The two main arguments against the RIAA’s lawsuit strategy was that it would generate bad PR for the music industry and that it would be ineffective. I believe these same arguments would pop up if the videogame industry tried a similar strategy and I will address them both.
The basis of the bad PR argument is that the RIAA would earn bad press if it started suing music fans. This would lead to a backlash and fewer sales. I’ve never accepted this argument. Why would paying customers get upset if a company sues people stealing its product? Would people boycott Best Buy if it started prosecuting shop lifters? The shop lifters might complain, but who cares what they think? In the case of the music industry lawsuits, I remember some of my CD-buying friends being glad that I could be punished for all of my smug mp3 downloading.
To believe in the bad PR argument also requires you to believe that your average CD buyer is particularly knowledgeable. The person would have to be aware of the lawsuits, know that the RIAA is behind them, know which record labels are part of the RIAA, and finally know which record label their artist works for. I think this vastly overestimates the awareness of your average Britney Spears fan.
The second argument against the lawsuit strategy is that it is ineffective. Obviously this was the case for the music industry, which has been in steady decline since mp3 downloading began in earnest. Yet the differences between pirated games and pirated music are such that the strategy could be successful if taken up by the videogame industry.
A song, at its most fundamental nature, is sound waves. It doesn’t matter if it’s played off a CD, the radio or streamed over the internet. A song whose raw .wav file measures 80MB when on a CD or 200MB on a DVD can be compressed to a satisfying 3MB mp3.
A videogame, on the other hand, is 0’s and 1’s at its most fundamental level. A user must have every last 0 and 1 in tact (more or less) in order for it to function. The fundamental nature of the two mediums makes music much easier to pirate.
The small size of an mp3 eliminates the need for trust that comes with a pirate videogame transaction. A person can stream a low-quality version of a pirated Beatle’s song from a Russian website to ensure it’s the real thing before paying 10 cents for the download. Likewise, if the person’s using a downloading service such as Limewire, it doesn’t matter if 50% of the mp3s are fake because he can download 20 in two minutes. By contrast the average pirated PC game takes hours to download and cannot be previewed.
Pirated songs are also much easier to distribute. Songs can be compressed and streamed from an ad-supported site like YouTube. A pirate website can afford to sell a 5MB mp3 for 10 cents because the bandwidth costs are minimal. Assuming the pirate website used the same pricing scale for a 3000MB videogame, they would have to charge $60.
Hence most game piracy comes from one place – torrent networks where bandwidth costs are shared between thousands of distributors. It is likely to stay that way because, unlike mp3’s, the size of videogames keeps getting larger.
By targeting lawsuits at those who share pirated games via torrent networks, we could put a sizable dent in videogame piracy. While only a small fraction of sharers would receive subpoenas, many would quit using torrents once word of the lawsuits got out.
It’s true that many pirates would switch to more complicated methods of obtaining pirated videogames such as MIRC or Megaupload. Others would use proxy servers to hide their IP addresses and keep using torrents. Still others would put their fate in the hands of programs that attempted to block out all torrent connections but those from trusted pirates. In all of these cases piracy would be more of a hassle thus driving up its cost.
I would love nothing more if the general public associates pirating videogames with harsh financial punishments. This will only happen if we in the industry make it happen. We have a choice. We can either shape our products around the pirates – taking our focus off compelling single-player experiences and abandoning single-player PC games altogether- or we can fight for the artistic freedom that the medium deserves.