Video game piracy has been around since the dawn of home computing, from the days of bootleg cassettes to the rise of filesharing websites, and it's showing no signs of abating. Sections of the industry condemn anyone who obtains software illegitimately as the spawn of Satan, while others downplay the magnitude of the threat. With no resolution in sight, Digital Spy investigates how significant piracy is in the modern gaming sector, and examines the measure studios are taking to combat it.
In the modern home computing sector, an open platform like the PC is no less susceptible to piracy than its 8-bit predecessors. The rise of torrent sites such as The Pirate Bay has made it easier than ever for gamers to share software among their peers. In a 2009 developer survey conducted by trade body TIGA, a 60% majority of those interviewed said that piracy is a significant problem for their business, with 90% claiming that its influence is growing. However, only 10% of participants thought that it was a threat to the existence of their studio.
There's certainly evidence to suggest that this is a growing problem. Earlier this month, Arma 2 developer Bohemia Interactive shared an alarming statistic highlighting the extent of piracy in the PC sector. The studio told PC Gamer that for every three legitimate copies of the game it has sold, there have been 100 unsuccessful attempts to register a pirated version.
Blitz Games Studios CEO Philip Oliver offered a somewhat different viewpoint, pointing out that the extent to which piracy damages the industry as a whole is "debatable". He went on to say that it is entirely possible that a vast number of those who frequent torrent sites are hardcore gamers who spend every penny of their disposable income in the games market.
It isn't just the PC that is susceptible to software pirates. It may be a less prevalent issue in the console market, but it's no less real. In this sector, the problem began with unlicensed console clones and multi-ROM cartridges in the 8-bit age, and chipped machines following the advent of the CD-ROM. These days, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games end up on filesharing websites alongside their PC counterparts.
While it's certainly true that the majority of torrent users are not in it for financial gain, there are those who profit for piracy, and both Oliver and Southern agree that action needs to be taken against these individuals. "What I do deplore is those who are pirating for profit. Those we should prosecute and stop them from doing it," said Oliver. Southern added: "The worst pirates are the organised ones that profit for it. There the ones we need to combat in the short term. It's an ongoing battle, it always will be and we're all in it together to try and fight it."
"For every barrier for hacking and piracy that we put up, somebody clever figures out how to break it," Southern explained. "I think there are far more issues than just this picture of a war on piracy. You can't justify piracy, but I think you can try to explain it. I think that if, as an industry, we can slowly bring prices down, or make the medium even more pervasive and popular, there may be ways around piracy other than actually fighting pirates."
Valve's Steam service offers studios a less intrusive alternative to managing the problem in the PC market. Sega and Sports Interactive took advantage of this with Football Manager 2012, demanding that gamers activate their copies through the platform. Offline play is then permitted, plus there are the added benefits of cloud-saving support and auto updates.
Another viable strategy that studios are adopting is alternate business models. Some mobile developers choose to go down the free-to-download route and attempt to raise a profit through advertisement. Other developers, particularly MMO firms like Blizzard Entertainment, opt for the subscription model and in-game micro-transactions.
"In the mobile world, you can charge an app for free and go ad-funded, so piracy is not really an issue, which means that the mobile work is less susceptible in some respects," Dr Wilson explained. "In other respects it could even be seen in a positive light as it helps a game go viral as the game is in more people's hands.
Other gaming companies believe that going down the legal route is the best course of action. In recent years, Nintendo has been successful in outlawing writable R4 DS cartridges across numerous territories, and there is mounting pressure from all walks of the entertainment industry on internet service providers to devise a solution for policing illegal filesharers. However, as sites such as The Pirate Bay are non-profit organisations, this is a highly contentious issue.
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