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Friday, February 20, 2009

Adventures In Pirating Part 1

I'm going to just come out and say it: I'm a pirate.

Here's the kicker: So are a lot of other people.

Usually, whenever there's an article about pirating, it is essentially written from the publisher's point of view. This holds true even for "edgy" publications, like the Escapist. Here's a sampling from their "Pirate Week:"

Pirates Anonymous: In which a former pirate reforms and realizes the error of his ways.
Viva La Revolucion: A mocking treatise about the supposed justifications of pirates.
Rob From The Rich, Steal From The Poor: About how pirating from small-time companies hurts their bottom line.

In other words, even when game journalists try and broach the subject, they have to be careful what they say. If they say too much, they risk alienating publishers and developers. They have to talk about how pirating is a "scourge" and it's destroying the industry, all while clucking their tongues at the pirates for being such naughty children.

The problem lies here: There's more to pirating than people who just want free things. It's a complex issue with a lot of variables, and understanding the underlying causes can help alleviate the problem.

Now, I pride myself on being an honest person. I have never stolen anything from a store, except for once when I was five I took a piece of candy from a Brach's Pick-A-Mix stand and felt horribly guilty for years afterwards. I drive the speed limit, I am respectful to my elders, and I treat law enforcement with the utmost respect and dignity. So how could I decide to pirate games?

Above all, remember this: I'm not trying to justify or legitimize piracy. I'm not trying to say that it's right and noble. I'm just spelling out why someone like myself pirates games instead of paying for them. In the next part of this series, I'll be breaking down what can be done to bring former customers like myself back into the fold.

1) The bad economy. I had been working at a computer store for about two years. It paid okay, but it wasn't phenomenal. My wife works too, and we're both in debt to the tune of about 10 grand total. About five months ago, I lost my job. I have since reentered the full-time workforce at my previous wage, but we're playing a lot of catchup. I suspect that there are a lot of people in my position, or worse.

If you have a choice between buying a game or putting food on the table, which would you do? That dovetails nicely with the next point:

2) The price of games. I'm not the only person who thinks this is an issue. There is one person who I consistently agree with: Gabe Newell. He has said that pirates are "underserved customers," which is true. He also says that games are too expensive. Look at this article, where he talks about promotions. He says that during a sales period, an unnamed third-party game went on sale, and the amount of sales went up 36,000% for that title. He also publicly stated that not only did the sales go up during sales on Steam, but profits went up too.

$50-$60 for a new release is expensive. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, especially in a bad economy. When you have maybe $20 left over after you pay all your bills or you have had your hours cut at work, it's very difficult to justify spending so much money for something frivolous.

3) Chiding game journalists. This goes back to the articles I posted at first. The article about the reformed game journalist who decided to give up piracy made my blood boil. He talks about he realized that he wasn't able to really play games when he was a pirate, so he really didn't love them like he does now that he stopped pirating.

That's bull. I love games just as much as the next guy. I have played video games since I was five, and I can't imagine life without them. I am able to dig deep into games because I have such a wide swath of games to enjoy. Don't treat me like a second-class citizen because I don't buy them.

Besides, how many game journalists who consistently chide pirating gamers have a 100% legitimate music collection? Have you ever downloaded a song from early Napster, Kazaa, or Limewire? Congratulations! You're a pirate!

You know what else gets me? When game journalists blame all of gaming's ills on pirates. When a game doesn't sell, they blame all the pirates for ruining it. I can't find the article now, but it blames the R4DS for Nintendo not making any hardcore games for the DS. I would argue that the strategy RPG is one of the most hardcore types of game out there, and the DS is swimming with them. In fact, Nintendo just released Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon on the DS this week. Are you telling me they've abandoned the DS? You have to be kidding me.

When game journalists harp on this viewpoint, it detracts from the real issues in the industry and makes pirates disrespect your viewpoint even more. Instead, it makes pirates defensive and angry. What possible benefit are you getting out of these articles, other than making publishers more happy with you?

4) DRM issues. Some people will point to DRM as being the only issue driving pirates. It's not. However, it is an issue. Why should I pay $50 for Spore and be able to install it five times? Why should I wait for CD-checks, Starforce, rootkits and other detritus to start before I can play my game? Why can't I just go and get the game and own it?

Imagine if you were going to buy a blender. The salesman told you that you could only have this blender in five different locations around the house. After that, it would stop working, and the only way to get it to work is by calling the manufacturer. If you lend it to someone else, the blender will stop working for them or you. The company claims that most households will only ever keep it in one spot, so it's not an issue. They want to make sure that everyone has to buy a blender.

There would be mass consumer outrage! There would be a company-wide investigation into why they did this, and who allowed this to happen. It would give anti-blender consumerists the moral high ground.

And therein lies the problem. Draconian DRM is a problem because it gives pirates the feeling of a moral high ground. Whether or not it's true, it doesn't change the fact that people like "sticking it to the man," especially when "the man" keeps trying to stick it to them.

5) No-refund policies. I didn't always used to be a pirate. There was a time when I bought games left and right, amassing a huge collection. There was a reason: Electronics Boutique opened up in our local mall. At the time, they had a policy that you could return games after they were opened if you didn't like them. I didn't take advantage of it much, but I did once after buying Wizardry 8.

Why is a return policy such a big deal? Well, would you buy anything else if you couldn't return it? In other words, you have to know before you buy the game whether or not you will like it. That's impossible to know. For instance, I have a fear of water and swimming. There are no review sites that will point out whether or not a game has swimming portions in it. I have had games that I bought that I didn't like because of that reason. They're good games, but I can't play them, and now I can't return them.

6) The ease of piracy. I download PC games, and I own an R4DS card. I frequently use emulators. I have never modded a system. In the last few years I have owned a PS2, a Gamecube, and a Wii, and I buy games legitimately for all of them. What are the common threads between what I pirate and what I don't pirate?

Piracy on the PC and DS is easy. You can't brick your PC by pirating a game. You can't destroy your DS by using an R4 card. Emulators are simple to use: Download the emulator, download a game. Configure controls, push play. You're done.

On the other hand, piracy on a console is a different proposition. You're usually cracking open the console (thereby voiding your warranty), putting in a chip, and then burning metal onto that chip to keep it in place. It's dangerous, and a huge risk to take with an expensive machine.

7) The game journalism cycle. We, the game journalists, have to stop doing this. When a game is announced, we start rolling out the hype machine. We talk about all the amazing features that Game X will have, and how you can't be without it. Then, when it comes out we try and be the first company to post a review. We maybe talk about the game for another week, tops. Then we move on to the next "must-have" game, and keep the hype machine rolling.

Now, this works great with movies and music. Movies and music require minimal investments of time. You don't have to "learn" most movies or music. You can sit, watch or listen to it for 2-3 hours, and then walk away. Games aren't like that. You need to learn the game and then spend time enjoying it. We whine when a game has only 6 hours of playtime.

Therein lies the problem. It's not just that games are so expensive, it's that there are so many of them. How are we supposed to keep on top of the gaming cycle without piracy? When is there a chance to catch your breath and catch up on games that you didn't play before? When does the hype machine stop rolling?

9) Companies are nameless, faceless corporations. Most companies seem to be just people in suits. We can't imagine them as gamers, since the decisions they make are so frequently wrong from a gamer's standpoint. I mean, mention EA to some gamers, and you get almost a visceral reaction, as if EA had killed their puppy when they were a kid, or bullied them on the way home from school.

10) Habit. It starts with one game. Then the next. After a while, you don't even think about going to buy that hot new release. You just wait for it to hit the torrents and get it. I've even looked for indie fare, like Depths of Peril, but after Shamus Young commented on pirating indie games, I decided against it.

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Once again, none of these reasons make it okay to pirate. I'm not condoning it. I'm saying that people have legitimate reasons why they choose to pirate games. So what can be done? What are game companies doing right, what are they doing wrong, and what can they do to bring pirates back to the fold? The answer is coming on Monday.