Militant Rants

What If Piracy Is Good for Online Games?

by Aaron Turpen, KillerGuides

The entertainment industry, of which gaming is a part, has been embroiled in a philosophical conundrum for some time.  Most in the industry, especially in the music and film markets, have been adamantly anti-piracy and have pushed laws and lawsuits to the extreme in some cases as they attempt to stop pirates at all cost.

The gaming industry is not so united.  Those in the industry who have weighed in on the subject have been harshly criticized by those on the other side of the argument.

The fundamental arguments in piracy are whether intellectual rights are important enough that we’ll sacrifice other rights in order to facilitate their protection.  For example, is my ownership of this article important enough to me that those reading this should allow me to snoop into their computers to make sure they aren’t illegally sharing this article with friends or family?  Or using it in their own self-published newsletters without my consent?  Should I have the power to enforce my intellectual copyrights with abandon?

At the core of it, this is the question being asked when we look at piracy and anti-piracy laws.  Nearly everyone would agree that if you work to create something or work to acquire something, you have a right to own that thing.  For example, my writing of this 1,500 or so words took time, skill, and effort.  Therefore, I have a right to ownership over the content I’ve created.  I then sold parts of this right to Killer Guides in return for payment, which I will then turn into other goods or services over which I will then also have ownership.

When we sit down and philosophize about how we interact with one another as humans, it always comes down to a series of transactions like this wherein each of us trades something for something else.  That trade can be a tangible or intangible item.  Sometimes we trade our time, friendship, goodwill, or even portions of our freedom for something we perceive as valuable enough to do so.  Every human transaction from buying and selling goods to making bonds of marriage or friendship are trades of this sort.

The goal of societies is to create trade balances so that no one can overpower another and take something from them by force but still allow those who have had their items stolen compensated fairly to make up for the theft.  These are what laws are all about, really.  It’s when we start to consider one person’s item or one particular type of item (be it tangible or not) as more important than others that we start to see an imbalance that creates injustice.

So the question of piracy is deeply philosophical: do property owners have the right to trump other’s rights in pursuit of justice when they believe their own rights of ownership have been violated?

The industry largely seems to think that it should and is working daily to enforce this kind of paradigm.  They see all piracy as loss for themselves, but it could be argued that piracy is not always a loss to the creator.  Going back to my writing content for Killer Guides, we can see that if someone steals this article and reprints it on their website, both I and KG have had our rights to ownership over it stolen, since we didn’t consent to the re-printing.  However, because this content has been spread onto another site and therefore reached new readers, it will also boost our own readership intangibly through putting our names in front of a wider audience. (Note: if you do copy this, please link back. Thanks)

With games, it is likely the same.  If a person makes a copy of a game and gives it to their friend, that game has been stolen.  The new player, however, may really enjoy the game and tell other friends about it.  If the game is good enough, many of those players will turn into customers who purchase the game.  Years ago when games were distributed on 5-1/4? and 3-1/2? floppy disks, I did this regularly.  It was illegal, but it was also considered normal.  If the game sucked, I would erase it and use the disk for something else.  If it was a fun game, I’d likely buy it or its sequel(s) to continue playing.

Today, of course, massive multiplayer online (MMO) games are largely converting to Free to Play (F2P) models which, in essence, are this same idea.  You try the game for a while and if you like it, you’ll start spending money on it to make it more fun for yourself.  We used to call this “shareware.”

Stardock CEO Brad Wardell seems to agree with this idea.  In the February edition of Stardock Magazine, he says:

“When Stardock was running Impulse, we got to hear a lot from companies regarding to their feelings [sic] towards software piracy. In many cases, it was clear that the motivation to stop piracy was less about maximizing sales and more about preventing people who didn’t pay for the game from playing it.  I felt this was misguided.

“When I see our games pirated, it definitely annoys me… at the same time, the response to piracy should be, to paraphrase The Godfather, ‘just business.’  Simply put, the goal should be to maximize sales, not worry about people who wouldn’t buy your game in the first place.  I’ve said this in the past but until we were digitally distributing third party games, I didn’t realize how prevalent the ‘stop those pirates’ philosophy was.”

Wardell then goes on to point out the two types of pirates I’ve just alluded to in my examples above: those who will steal regardless and those who steal to try before they buy.  The goal of a game maker should be to get those who “try before..” to buy.  You do this by making good games that people want to play, not by rushing to court every time you think your game’s been stolen.

The parallels in other markets to what Wardell refers to as the “stop those pirates” mentality are obvious.  We see everyone from governments to religions to everyday people on the street using this mentality to blindly strike forth at their perceived enemies, wasting themselves in the process.  Governments lose the will of their people, religions lose followers, and individuals lose credibility when they approach things with this attitude for too long.

Like most players, I’ve signed up for or purchased a boxed or online game only to be disappointed and then angry that I couldn’t return it or otherwise get my money back because the game was nothing like advertised.  Every one of us can recall horrible games we’ve spent $10, $20, $30 or more on only to find out that the developer obviously spent more time on box design than on actual game design.  As a gamer, I did not wantonly sue or demand recompense from those shyster developers.

Yet it seems that many game developers now aren’t willing to act that way in return.  For example, I’ve purchased plenty of Sony games that were, in my mind, crap, but if I were to demand recompense, at most I’d get the money I’d spent on it back.  Yet were I to illegally copy a Sony game, it’s likely they’d want thousands of dollars more than the purchase price in recompense for that.  Sony isn’t the only one either.

Worse yet, when any of us buys, downloads, installs, or otherwise interacts with software (games) from many of these development houses, we electronically agree to contracts that allow them to monitor us in any number of privacy-robbing ways.  Most of us aren’t even aware that it’s happening.

Try unplugging your Internet connection and playing some of your favorite new (offline) games and see what happens.  You’ll likely start seeing popups requesting online access and some games won’t work at all offline, even though they aren’t online games.

It seems that MMOs have largely either gotten the picture or are mostly immune from piracy.  I’d wager it’s a mixture of both.  The MMO has advantages over traditional boxed games in regards to piracy enforcement and with most massives going to F2P models so that players can legally play for free, it’s becoming obvious that allowing piracy (as it were) is actually better for business.

In short, blindly going after pirates large and small seems to be a pointless waste of energy and resources.  That energy and those resources would be put to much wiser use bettering and improving games so that people will want to own them.  As Wardell said: “the goal should be to maximize sales, not worry about people who wouldn’t buy the game in the first place.”