Piracy is infuriating and upsetting - but never forget that your job isn't to wage war on pirates, it's to seduce your customers
One of the problems with the debate around piracy is the lack of any meaningful figures. The word "meaningful" is important here - after all, the discussion is absolutely chock-full of figures, which are flung around as alleged proof of whatever point their wielder happens to be promoting at that particular moment in time. The reason they can be used so flexibly is because they're enormous, headline figures, designed to shock and awe, with no granularity or research behind them - and usually supported by a fairly questionable methodology in the first place.
As such, it's healthy to maintain a certain degree of suspicion when you're confronted with figures like those released by CD Projekt RED, developers of The Witcher 2, in a recent interview with PC Gamer. The Witcher 2, CEO Marcin Iwinski revealed, has sold over a million copies - but it's been pirated over 4.5 million times.
The first of those figures is broadly trustworthy, of course. Companies know how many copies of their products they've sold, even if it's sometimes to their advantage to obfuscate those figures - witness platform holders who love to blur the lines between "shipped" and "sold" figures, or publishers who have historically (and the practice no doubt continues today) deflated sales figures for software in order to dodge royalty payments to developers.
The point isn't that we should be questioning the "1 million sold" figure - as I said, it's broadly trustworthy - but that numbers aren't the reassuring rocks of factual stability that many of us would like to believe. In the games industry as in any corner of the economy, numbers are just as much a part of the PR narrative as words are; one can twist a number to your ends just as easily as a word.
Watching bits of data move between IP addresses tell us nothing about the people doing the downloading - about their motivations, their finances, their locations
In fact, numbers are an even more powerful tool of spin, since almost every form of education in the world indoctrinates us in the Victorian idea that where words are vapour, insubstantial and unreliable, numbers are bricks - solid, immovable and possessed of an intrinsically factual nature which renders them impervious to the conniving efforts of the spin doctor or the PR man. This has never been the case, but it's a tough belief to shift.
This being the case for relatively simple figures such as sales figures, imagine the size of the pinch of salt with which figures for piracy must be taken. Piracy by its nature takes place in a veiled environment. Files are distributed over many different types of media and connection. The nature of the technology used is itself obfuscatory; BitTorrent, the most popular distribution method, operates "swarms" of users, some of whom are downloading, some of whom are uploading, some of whom can't be seen, some of whom are duplicates of others and some of whom aren't even real. It's a quagmire that produces no truly useful statistics.
Iwinski, to his absolute credit, acknowledges this factor and is transparent about the flimsiness of his statistics. His 4.5 million figure is based on a set of averages and assumptions which hold little water. He knows that and makes no bones about it - all he wants to prove with the figure is that the number of copies downloaded was "a lot". That hasn't stopped the media from breathlessly reporting the results of his paper napkin calculations as cold, hard fact.
It might not seem all that important to acknowledge that a figure like 4.5 million is necessarily an estimate that could be wildly inaccurate in either direction. Plenty of people in the industry are happy to shrug and say, "it's a lot - what else matters?". Yet for years, we've had figures calculated on flimsier evidence than this which have entered into the realms of canonical information; they have been used as the basis for further calculations on things like impact on sales or even job losses, and waved under the noses of legislators and bureaucrats in support of draconian legal reform.
The reality is that numbers like this don't tell us anything worthwhile. They don't tell us how many times a game has been illegally downloaded, beyond "quite a few times". More importantly, rough estimates gleaned by watching bits of data move between IP addresses tell us nothing about the people doing the downloading - about their motivations, their finances, their locations. There's not even the shadow of an attempt to glean more granular data, and nothing upon which to base such an attempt. We don't know how many of those downloaded games went into the hands of children, how many to adults. How many of those who downloaded had credit cards that could be used to buy the game legally online? How many lived in territories where they couldn't access it? Indeed, never mind this kind of detailed information - how many pirated copies of the game were actually installed, and how many still languish, untouched, on the hard drives of compulsive digital media hoarders?
Iwinski and his company understands his job is not to wage war on the pirates, it's to nurture and grow the audience of a million paying customers
I'm not saying that those factors materially impact on the piracy figures - I'm simply saying that I don't know the answer to those questions, and no matter who you are, nor do you. As such, phrases like "lost sales" or "lost revenue" are next to meaningless; they're statements of ideology and PR rather than statements of fact. Of course it's annoying to see work you've done being passed around for free, but if you're in the business of content creation, your job involves rising above the natural gut reaction of "those thieving bastards!" and thinking about how to approach this market reality in a way that secures your livelihood.
This is why it's so exasperating to see self-styled captains of our industry who still haven't moved past spouting off ideological tirades against piracy. Yes, it's illegal, and yes it's wrong, but it happens and it's your job to find a way to adapt your business to cope with that. In a digital world, the unit cost of items which are free to duplicate tends towards zero. That's a flat reality, and your wailing and gnashing of teeth singles you out as nothing more than a dinosaur who doesn't have the imagination to see past that reality. The thing you ought to be scared of isn't the pirates - it's the fact that our industry also has lots of small, intelligent mammals running around, with clever ideas and brilliant insight, and they'll be happy to inherit the world when you're extinct.
Iwinski and his company, happily, are among the mammals. Faced with 4.5 million pirates (maybe, possibly, who knows?) and a million paying customers, he understands his job better than countless others in the games industry do - it's not to wage war on the pirates, it's to nurture and grow the audience of a million paying customers. DRM, which hurts customers and is easily bypassed by pirates, is dispensed with. Ideas which add value to the game for the people who love it - collector's items, special editions, and so on - are promoted. Spending time hating the people who steal your game detracts from the amount of time you have to love the people who paid for it. CD Project RED gets that. So many others in our business have so very much to learn from them.
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