Has piracy simply become an excuse for failure among publishers?
In the wake of last week's front-page headlines about certain games companies' adoption of controversial, aggressive anti-piracy tactics in the UK, it's no surprise that piracy is back on the agenda of almost every conversation I've had with industry professionals this week.
There's one big problem with this discussion, however, and it's this - nobody actually knows how much impact piracy is having on videogames. Those who support the kind of action undertaken by Atari, Codemasters and their partners tend to hold the view that piracy is at crisis point, citing enormous figures for lost revenue and "stolen" software.
Those advocating a solution led by business innovation and revenue stream changes, meanwhile, believe that piracy - while still a genuine problem - simply isn't knocking as much off companies' bottom lines as they like to claim.
The distinction is important. If piracy really is slashing hundreds of millions of dollars out of revenue figures, then it represents a problem which threatens the existence of companies and the livelihoods of workers. In that instance, even if the legal recourse isn't the most productive or successful approach in the medium to long term, it's an understandable knee-jerk reaction from businesses under threat.
On the other hand, however, there's the possibility that piracy's numbers don't actually add up - that the number of retail sales, and the dollar value in revenue, being lost by the industry isn't on the scale that many people fear. In an industry where software sales were worth $9.5 billion last year in the USA alone (so probably north of $25 billion, worldwide), even a few tens of millions lost to piracy should be enough to stimulate conversations about new revenue models and business changes, but not enough to trigger widespread panic and high-profile legal actions against consumers and families.
So what's the figure? Someone must know, surely? Actually - no. In fact, nobody has any idea at all, and therein lies the basic problem with this entire debate.
Whenever the industry cites figures for damage from piracy, it follows the lead of music and movie executives by simply adding up download figures (easily enough obtained from BitTorrent sites, and more dubiously calculated by applying various metrics to the number of sharers on peer-to-peer services) and multiplying them by RRP figures. Unsurprisingly, this creates absolutely massive figures, which look great in print and support the idea that the creative industries are bleeding to death thanks to piracy.
The problem with these figures is obvious, however, and it can be summed up succintly as follows - they're absolute nonsense. A complete crock. All they tell you is how much money you'd have made if everyone who downloaded a game had gone out at bought it at RRP instead. That's not a remotely useful figure - what you want, instead, is an estimate of how many people who would have bought the game anyway downloaded it instead, multiplied by the average price they would have paid.
That's a totally different figure. Some publishers have reported significant uplifts in sales from games which weren't posted to pirate services in their first week at retail, but these uplifts tend to be expressed as percentage boosts, not as the orders of magnitude which the ludicrous lost-revenue figures given to the media would imply. Occasional stabs at academic research into piracy (of which a lot more is desperately needed) have suggested some incredibly low ratios for downloaded games to potential purchases - even going so far as to imply that for every thousand games downloaded, only one customer would have bought a retail copy had the game not been available online.
That's probably an extreme figure, but it points to an essential truth. A majority of people who download a game from BitTorrent would not have gone out and bought it at retail. People are naturally curious about new media - games, films, music - but it's one thing to be curious enough to download something for free, and something else entirely to be curious enough to go to a shop and pay money for it. As frustrating as it is to have these people playing your products without paying for them, from a revenue perspective it's a neutral activity - you wouldn't have made a penny from them either way.
This view of "revenue neutral" piracy is supported by the fact that even on the most heavily pirated platforms, hugely anticipated or popular games still manage to rack up impressive sales. Widespread chipping of the PlayStation 2 didn't seem to hurt sales of games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and its sequels, or of the Final Fantasy series. The implication is that many pirates will download games they had no intention of buying, but want to check out anyway - while the big releases they're looking forward to, they'll pre-order and buy like everyone else.
The same seems to be true for other platforms where piracy is rampant, going by the download numbers. The PC can still turn out multi-million sellers - and it's worth noting that the recent apparent decline in PC revenues is heavily attributable not to piracy, but to the fact that statistics firm NPD doesn't track either sales over digital distribution services, or revenues from subscription games like World of Warcraft. WoW alone probably sucks over $1.5bn a year out of the global PC game market - it's only to be expected that that will have a knock-on effect on sales of other games.
Then there's the PSP - a platform which is at the heart of much chest-beating and wailing by the industry's anti-piracy cheerleaders. On the surface, the PSP should be the system that suffers most from piracy. Sony has, in essence, created a pirate's dream. Not only is it relatively easy to hack the system (it can be done without any soldering or even opening the case), but pirates actually get a better user experience than legitimate gamers - thanks to the ability to run pirate games off Memory Sticks, resulting in faster load times, better battery life and less noisy operation.
Certainly, plenty of PSP games end up on BitTorrent, and plenty of people are downloading them. However, the system's top games still manage to sell plenty of units - and those who point to the PSP's relatively low attach rate are seemingly forgetting that Sony has marketed the unit heavily as a multimedia device. It stands to reason that tons of PSPs out there simply weren't bought to play games - but when great games come along, they still manage to rack up sales.
So what's happening here? Are we really seeing a scenario where poor and mediocre games are being pirated - revenue-neutral piracy, which wouldn't have resulted in a sale anyway - but good, popular games are proportionally less affected? If so, doesn't this cast a new light on the industry's statements on piracy - suggesting that some publishers see it as an excuse for poor performance, as much as a persistent problem?
Those aren't rhetorical questions - I don't have the answers, and none of this is to say that piracy isn't a problem. If nothing else, it's totally understandable that those in the industry who work hard to create games feel angry and frustrated at the idea of people playing them for free - even if those people wouldn't have paid for them anyway.
However, if the industry is going to have a strategy on piracy, it first needs to have an internal discussion on piracy - and that discussion needs to move away from the past decade of tedious, repetitive panel debates at conferences, where everyone agrees that it's a terrible problem, that Something Must Be Done, and cites anecdotal evidence that doesn't actually mean a thing while the whole audience nods along.
It's a sacred cow. Nobody dares question the impact of piracy, because it's become one of the founding truths of the industry that it's a terrible thing that's damaging the whole market, a looming crisis whose severity can only be expressed by sucking in your lips, shaking your head sadly, and muttering nonsense about "thieves" and "stealing".
Until that sacred cow is slain, and people within the industry start showing willing to ask real, serious questions about the impact of piracy, nothing of merit will ever be done. Until we appreciate the real scale of the problem (and get over the fact that it's probably smaller than previous estimates suggest), all we're going to see are more pointless panel discussions and more Quixotic assaults on consumers. The industry's approach to piracy will remain, as it has been since the eighties, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.
Rob Fahey is a regular columnist on GamesIndustry.biz.
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