Piracy is bad. The industry tells us this all the time and I sort of agree in a sense. However, one cannot escape the issue at hand that the war on piracy is one based on ideology and moral values – and on both of these fronts, the games industry is currently losing. And losing very badly at that.
I’ll spare you the speech on piracy. We all know it by now. There’s no point beating a dead horse.
What there is time for, however, is to look at the issue from a different perspective. This is not to advocate piracy, but rather, to appreciate the nuances and the complex arguments that surround this area of Copyright Infringement. For it is a complex issue, with many many layers and many advocating and disparaging the practice already. I don’t really need to add a voice to this – the camps are well drawn and you will know which side you fall on.
You see, the problem is the industry spends a lot on combating piracy in its many forms. Indeed, for some games it can be up to 5% of the total budget of the game itself spent on new DRM and ways of making life somewhat difficult for pirates to crack open their work. When a game can cost anything from a million to ten million dollars to fifty million dollars, you get to appreciate just how seriously the industry takes this fight – and just how much they are often willing to invest in making sure their work is as secure as possible for as long as possible. It is something many do their best to invest in – either via their own work or buying in DRM or SecuROM or other solutions. But, like the seaside, eventually the tide WILL draw in, and that sandcastle will be washed away.
Pirates are a tenacious breed, and they often see themselves as warriors against a corporate machine that has been abusing their customers for far too long. As time has gone on, pirates themselves emply more and more sophisticated techniques and software in order to break a game open, in order to share it freely with the world.
They do this under a pretense of moral obligation – that in more and more cases, it is the morally right thing to do. And sadly, it’s one that is increasingly difficult to argue against.
The industry has only itself to blame for this – DRM has become increasingly invasive and controlling, often making legitimate purchases run slower or hog more and more resources. In the case of EA’s Origin, it even invasively scans your computer for data and clues as to whether you are a potential pirate or not. Locked on-disc content that requires legitimate purchasers to pay more to access is a practice very few of us agree with, and pirates often aim to crack this open too. Games are often laden with other software and issues which pirates also correct before releasing it onto the torrent-sphere. With paid DLC, and an increasing number of PC games coming with other problems and restrictions on how many times a game can be installed, the industry has effectively been punishing their actual customers – and those who download a cracked copy of the software are very often getting a better software experience than someone who has paid full price for their game.
The industry likes to think that it has a moral obligation to protect its work – and it does, let’s not forget that. But they cheapen their stance when innocent users have to suffer the indignities of software that is often slow, and in some cases not fit for purpose.
Of course, the fight for piracy is driving a new future for always-online management and streaming. The idea is quite beautiful – to have more control over a product and therefore negate a piracy issue – but even this is rife with inherent problems that don’t bode well for its future well-being. Blizzard absolutely negated piracy with Diablo 3; but in doing so launched itself into a world of issues. Constantly changing the ground rules, not fixing major exploits fast enough and the famous problems it had trying to get and keep everyone on its online servers whilst they were cripplingly overloaded proved that online validation is only as valid as the ability to run it smoothly. And in the last few days, another issue has stepped in that also lands a sucker punch on the idea of an online-only future. Hacking.
As Battle.net ended up hacked, and peoples data was stolen, Blizzard kept it silent for a full six days before telling people. Thankfully, it appears that passwords were securely encrypted and credit/debit card information was not accessed, but even then, a lot can happen in six days. That data could have been sold, or cracked open, and the results could have proven catastrophic. Hackers are a very real modern-world menace, a menace that jeopardises the fragile relationship between the user and the company providing the service. Without full disclosure in a swift and timely fashion, even the most basic of data mined from a secure server can create serious problems. It’s perhaps one of the greatest threats the industry faces – people who are committing an act with no moral or legal justification for doing so. And yet the industry glosses over it in lieu of targeting pirates instead, convincing themselves they are the bigger problem.
And yet, piracy figures have dropped substantially in recent years. The industry may pat itself on the back for this, but truth is – I doubt it is the industry who is responsible for those dwindling numbers. With more and more sales being digital through Steam, PSN, X-Box Live and Good Old Games, with sales and offers aplenty, the monetary investment on the consumer end for some games is simply no longer as high as it used to be. Hunting through the second-hand bin of your local GAME is a pastime that has died off; games can have a much longer and fuller future than ever before. That the industry cannot see that the lifespan of their games is increasing through the cheap digital sales and easy access is perhaps the greatest irony of them all – they’d much rather kill the game early than let it develop over time. The first four weeks mean everything, and the six to twelve months following it mean nothing. This is no longer the correct model for a healthy industry. People will gravitate to quality in time. Not everything hits the mark immediately, ICO and Beyond Good and Evil two substantial cases in point.
The industry is tied to antiquated ideals of the past. Once upon a time piracy WAS an issue – in the 90s, when it was commonplace to find bootleg PS1 games, and to copy your PC titles to share with your mates. The pirates of yesterday are in many cases the developers of today, who are basing their beliefs on their own experiences and yet oblivious to the marches of time. The pirates of today may be the developers of tomorrow. And they too may make the simple mistake of trying to base the model of an industry on an old, antiquated view of the market and what a pirate is. It’s funny that once you are in a position to control your own product, you’ll commit to the same tired cliches of yesteryear as everyone does.
Piracy is indeed be a criminal act. But it is one that is increasingly being built on the justification that people deserve better – and that many of us would be better off sticking two fingers up at the industry that propagates these devices that punish real customers. When pirates can often access and share a superior and more complete version of the software, this is a war that the industry must know it can only lose. When the moral high ground can lay within the confines of those committing an act of copyright theft, you’re validating and encouraging their stance.
The industry needs to fight back by undoing the many practices that now encourage and enliven the debate over piracy. If they cannot, then the war on piracy can never be truly won. This is an ideological conflict, one based on image and public relations. A battleground where the successes and failures of the industry are exposed for all to see, where we have more access to the thoughts and opinions of the developers – and are far less forgiving of technical and political failings. The only way to win the war on piracy is to effectively ensure that the pirates themselves don’t have a high ground to perch on, to ensure that they have no moral stance to take.
And in many cases this will mean that the industry needs to learn to let go, stop controlling everything and trust in its consumers a little. Those consumers will reward them back with loyalty and love. But as EA, UbiSoft, Blizzard, Activision and others have proven, consumers also aren’t forgiving when they feel they are being branded as crooks in the making; and their response will taint future releases far, far more than any pirate can ever hope to achieve.
The industry has the perfect weapon to combat pirates. A pity then that it keeps misfiring the damn thing into its foot all the time.