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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.

Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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