Kami on… Piracy Figures, Lost Sales and ‘Honesty Boxes’.

A Vegetable Garden. Because we need to cultivate good faith. Sorry! Bad pun is bad...

After a suggestion today that the 3DS might have been hacked, the issue of piracy has reared its ugly head – and especially piracy on the DS, as rampant as it was, and ‘lost sales’ of games. But if only it were so easy to dismiss them as such, because focusing on these numbers may be part of the problem.

 

Mutant Mudds and Dementium developer Jools Watsham today expressed concern over possible Nintendo 3DS piracy, after a hacker claimed to have successfully gained full control over an unmodified version of the hardware.

Now, Dementium is an important one because it sold something like 100,000 copies and is a decent game. Dementium 2 was better, but sold half of that, and the natural assumption is, of course, to blame the rampant piracy on the DS. Indeed, following the ‘news’, Watsham, (who runs indie developer Renegade Kid) wrote a blog post in which he claimed that rampant piracy could seriously affect developer support for the 3DS. And he’d probably be right, of course, if all you ever looked at were piracy numbers. And many developers do look at piracy numbers, with an almost zealous fixation that borders on the fanatical.

Except, there’s a problem in that, in which the onus is that these numbers can only ever serve to disappoint and frustrate developers.

Look, I am the worlds biggest anti-piracy preacher; I think it’s stupid, immoral and frankly considering the amount of time I spend on games to write this blog and on other sites and forums, if I don’t need to take shortcuts then I think there’s very few arguments in place for others to plead their case either. I’ve written before how I think piracy is spiralling from a legal issue into a murky, moralistic battle that the industry is unfortunately in a position to lose. I’d also suggest that the sheer inconvenience these days of having a machine bricked and made useless by a firmware update if you’ve been dicking about under the bonnet is also a strong and important deterrent in the long run, that regular firmware updates ensuring machines are legit and not being abused will also inherently help to keep actual piracy numbers down a bit, especially if you require an online activation and/or validation for a game; if you have to turn these checks off on a system, then you’re never really going to get the actual game proper, and I think that’s a pirates own damned fault. If in future games can be instigated and activated through this function to ensure piracy isn’t an issue on that machine, all the better!  The market has actual methods available to if not defeat piracy, then to undermine it and deter others from that path. They exist, and can be made to work right now. We have the technology.

That said, staring at piracy numbers can only ever do one thing – and that is convince the industry we’re all pirates.

For you see, the problem with these numbers is they can only ever serve to disappoint, to frustrate and to propagate the myth that all gamers are pirates. Because you can’t have negative-piracy, you can’t remove a tally from the digitally-pirated list because it’s an event that has happened, either by wilful choice or by accident, and cannot be undone. Equally, you can’t have negative sales either, and that leads us into a question as to why piracy figures bother them so much in comparison to there being pleasant, nice figures for them to look at and take comfort in. This issue tends to come in the phrase of ‘Lost Sales’, the belief – however implausible or irrational – that each pirated copy is a lost sale of your game, and something you should be making a profit on. Dementium 2 sold half the copies of Dementium, despite it being a much better game, so the first thing to do is reach for an answer to why that happened, and the easy option to take is to blame it on piracy.

Yes, it’s the easy option to take. For my dislike of piracy, putting the blame for all your problems on a figure and/or force that cannot fight back is perhaps a rather churlish thing to do. No doubt that piracy is a problem, but to claim it is 100% bad is perhaps even for me a little on the extreme side. I am aware of many who have discussed on forums and websites with me that they indeed partook in DS piracy at some point, and GBA piracy, and bought dozens of games as well as having a huge collection of digitally pirated material. Does it make it right? Nnrgh, I’m not wholly convinced but I do appreciate that games pirates are, arguably, also consumers and therefore do actually buy games as well. The excuse of using the download as an extended demo and if its good they will buy it rings a little hollow to me, but I can’t really deny that some people hold true to this promise and to say otherwise is just being offensively rude. But that’s just it – in these instances, however common or rare, the pirated digit can be cancelled out by the sales digit. But we don’t do that because the events have happened, and it’s here we have an issue, because inherently without a means to monitor or cancel out numbers for mistaken downloads, copies that don’t function or work for whatever reason etc, the numbers can only ever increase exponentially. They can never decrease.

So these developers watch these numbers spiral upwards and despair, lamenting them as profits they should be entitled to, without paying attention to a legion of paying customers and fans who are showering them with love and adulation. They are only ever interested in the dark side of the consumer, the shadowy underbelly of piracy, and as a result when they do look back at the paying mob, they convince themselves that these people must ALSO be pirates! Hence a generation of Day-One DLC, DRM and insulting terminology and Public Relations as legitimate consumers cry and ask why they are being so mistreated when pirates are often getting a better, faster, freer deal than they are. That’s just it. There really is no good answer to that from the industry, except the tired like of “We must protect our content from pirates!”, even when all evidence suggests that actually, in a lot of cases the pirates are simply cancelling out your digital security and enjoying locked content without the need to validate or pay to unlock it. The industry convinces itself that piracy is a rampant issue because they’ve bought into the piracy numbers wholesale, and feel like they are being cheated out of money, money they assume that is owed to them by pirates who might buy the game, therefore – paid content on day one. The industry doesn’t tend to see the fallacy of this approach in its desire to combat piracy, and reduce numbers, even when reducing the piracy numbers on individual games is a mathematical impossibility. It’s already happened. You can’t have negative piracy, they can’t give back that digitally pirated version of the game. And so we find ourselves locked in a conundrum, a stalemate that paid customers are finding increasingly intolerable.

The thing is, if you only ever focus on the bad – you will only ever see the bad. An example I offered is what we in the UK call a “Vegetable Honesty Box”. Basically gardeners with a surplus of veggies will drop their surplus on the side of the street, or a busy road, with a money tin, and ask people to pop some money into the tin and then help themselves to some cheap veggies. Okay, so we have our scenario set up, now let’s also suggest that on the other side of the road, a small hidden camera is set up by the person to count how many people take stuff from the vegetable box and don’t put money into the tin. In three hours, the box is empty and two-thirds of all people didn’t pay.

That sucks. But still, the other third did, and someone even put a twenty pound note into the box! But still, because two-thirds of people didn’t pay, you think it was a stupid exercise and a waste of your time and money, even when you make £64.21 at the end of it. The point is, by focusing on the inherently crappy things people do, all you can ever do is convince yourself how utterly crappy people are. You entirely miss the point that someone took a few carrots and put a twenty pound note into the box. That you still made just shy of £65 from a surplus of goods that otherwise would have gone to waste, on a compost heap, doing nothing but rot. You miss the fact you did a good deed, you trusted people and some people in good faith put money into the tin and did the right thing. You miss all of the good in the situation because all you wanted to do was prove how dishonest people were. Congratulations, you successfully succeeded in proving your own self-fulfilling prophecy correct.

Sometimes, I do worry that the games industry is perhaps looking for things which aren’t there. Sure, okay, there are people out there who aren’t paying for their games. But really, is it worth chasing them down and asking them to pay stupid amounts of money, when it might make more sense to charge them for admin costs and the cost of the game? Get back what they stole, and what it cost to chase them down, rather than demand they ensure you get a profit on their pirated copy – a huge profit at that, and one the person may not be able to pay in the long term. And then when they look back at their paying consumers – and see pirates. Is this really fair? It seems extraordinary to me that we can be in such enlightened times and still see an industry fail to distinguish the two sides of the coin, and punish their paying customers for forces often quite beyond their control. Why should the honest people suffer for the dishonest? The gardener will never put an honesty box down again – which means the honest people who might drive by one day will be disappointed to see no vegetable box, forcing them to go to a supermarket for their goods, wondering why the box hasn’t returned.

There’s always such a focus on the pirates. We put so much energy and focus on pirates, piracy and the figures involved in piracy. Very rarely do we stop and take a moment to think about other important issues – the price of games, their critical status in the market, the actual sales numbers and perhaps the fans of the games who quite possibly would be prepared to part with some extra cash if it meant it was supporting their favourite developer. We don’t think about that because it’s easier to focus on these magical piracy numbers and attempt to surmise how much it is costing them in the long term, and that’s a dangerous road to take.

Let’s take a moment to imagine a world without any piracy at all. None. Let’s say a genie granted me three wishes and one of them was to totally eradicate all digital piracy in the world, right away. Do you really think that if that were to happen, sales numbers would dramatically increase? I’d suggest not, actually. Admittedly, it would be nice to eradicate it, but all I’d likely end up doing is exposing that sales figures maybe often don’t meet expectations, that people are often not that interested in a game and if they can’t pirate it, they’ll likely just give it a miss altogether until it’s either much much cheaper, or they can get it second-hand from someone. I could eradicate one pessimistic viewpoint, but inherently the industry would likely find another to abuse and lay all the blame on. Piracy has become a crutch, a scapegoat, rather than look at other more pressing issues with what might be restricting or turning away sales – Day-one DLC, DRM and always on DRM, lack of advertising or unrealistic expectations to justify an inflated budget or excessive pricing issue – its much easier to pin all the blame on piracy. Because it is an issue. And an awkward issue that they assume we can’t fight back on.

Except inherently we must, if we are to undo the mistakes of the past and the mistakes of the present. Even those of us against piracy need to argue to the industry that piracy is not their most real and present threat, it is not the thing that will destroy them in the end. In some cases, it will be the expense of fighting them which proves to be their undoing. Pirates need relatively few tools and smaller budgets to crack open a DRM lock that might have cost a million dollars to develop, and they will break it open. So why spend the million? Surely that money could be saved, or better yet, ploughed into ensuring more content is in the package to give consumers the motivation and the inclination to support them. It’s important that when we discuss piracy, we must be aware that fighting it is arguably just as damaging as ignoring it, if not moreso because you’ll try any number of expensive concoctions to make the problem go away, rather than let nature take its most rational course.

And if the industry really wants to have an idea of how to offset these ‘lost sales’, then perhaps, just perhaps, that honesty box isn’t such a bad idea after all. A digital honesty box, for people who maybe want to donate money because they enjoyed a game or because they want to offset some of that guilt. No questions, no accusations, no assumptions. Just money, money for arguably nothing much at all, with no expectations so that they don’t immediately feel despondent when it doesn’t bring in lots of money. Digital honesty boxes, like the Humble Indie Bundles where users pay what they feel like, are about trust in the consumer. And yes, some will pay pennies. And some will pay over the odds to offset that, because they feel indebted or perhaps even grateful for the option to pay what they want, paying extra as a sort of “Thank you for trusting in me and not assuming I’m a massive, cheap douche who only wants to pay fifty pence for their gaming needs.” A place where I could go for example to pay an extra twenty quid to FROM Software, for the fact I’ve enjoyed hundreds of hours in Dark Souls, way in excess of what I thought I’d partake in, for giving me a game I love and really want to see them base a profitable and bright future on. Because I am grateful. Heck, I’ve bought the X-Box 360 version, then later the PC version (glossing over how badly that went wrong…) and then the Artorias content for the 360 again. I’d happily throw an extra twenty quid their way as a thank you. The reasons we might want to donate will differ, but it doesn’t matter. Because inherently, it’s about trust and trusting that things will work out alright in the end, that universal karma will see you through.

People tend to respond better to trust than when they’re being blanket-accused of being crooks. People respond better to praise than ridicule. We like to be treated nice, and we’re not so happy when we’re treated as bottomless pits of money.

Perhaps then, in the dying embers of this generation, we should take note of UbiSoft’s decision last year to drop always-on DRM. UbiSoft have been perhaps the worst offenders of this practice, even in games where it wasn’t necessary at all, such as single-player titles that shouldn’t inherently require an Internet connection. The world is changing, and we change with it. If all you ever want to see is the scum of the earth, then you can find it. But it’s a bit sweeping and it misses out the good things in life, the good people can offer you and the good you can do in the long-run. Consumers won’t forever tolerate being treated like crap, and perhaps the falling sales numbers – aside numbers suggesting that piracy numbers are also slipping – are a demonstration of the beginnings of a revolution, the fight back as consumers turn away from companies which disrespect them and their worth for companies which, perhaps, do better things. Not that they always do – there are ways of authenticating games and bricking consoles that have been modified or hacked, which in turn leads to the debate of whether it’s convenient and financially viable to spend money on something that can eventually be broken quite legally by the firmware and/or software updates required to play games. But these are small issues, and arguably good discussions to have, because they’re not that intrusive and for legitimate customers, shouldn’t really provide much inconvenience, rather adding new features and content that those hacking and downloading their games will invariably fail to enjoy.

But they might – if they download a new, updated pirated copy. Same person, same game, but pirated twice. There is no negative piracy count. It counts twice. Whereas a legitimate buyer will likely only ever count as one mark on the tally. There is no way to increase that either. So you have a tally of a pirate downloading a file multiple times as it is updated, versus one copy updating itself many times. It’s likely no wonder piracy figures often look so inflated. There’s no logic or reason applied to the numbers – they are paraded as numbers. And that is all they are. Apply some reason and rational thinking to them, and odds are you might actually be ‘pleasantly surprised’. I say might. Unless we did an anonymous survey like an amnesty or something we’re unlikely to know. But it’s worth considering, that really those piracy numbers could do with a little more common sense applied to them.

So yeah, perhaps we should just relax and ask the industry next time to tell us how many people bought their game, how much they made, whether they feel it was worth the effort in the end to achieve their artistic goals in this fashion. Money is a dirty beast, but treated well, consumers might be more willing to part with their money – some may even want to donate more, but it’s not a necessity. Knowing there are fans there, legitimate consumers, good people, and believing in the good that is inherent in all of us might in some way help us to get beyond this issue of piracy, and focusing on piracy figures, to a fundamental truth – you can drive yourself mad if all you attend to are the piracy numbers, the bad side of your business, believing that these people owe you money, that it is somehow a right to claw that money back, that they are entitled to recouping those costs.

There are people out there still buying these games and desperately hoping the industry might one day believe in the goodness in their hearts, their honesty, their love.

Perhaps that’s something to cultivate, because not everyone will honestly use an honesty box. But it’s still nice to know there are people trusting in the good of mankind. Uplifting, even…

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