Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Video Game Piracy

Because of a post on the video gaming Shitty Gawker Network Blog™, I'm thinking about it.  While the accounts shown in the article certainly paint a picture of the variety of reasons why people pirate games, it's not nearly large enough of a picture to be an accurate representation.  Indeed, a lot of them cite monetary issues, and the article's author mentions this plenty of times, which I feel unfairly paints a picture of "can't afford it; just torrent it" entitlement fantasy as the major reason for piracy.  In fact, there is a diverse enough set of reasons to bring up some good points on things the industry is doing wrong or is just plain overlooking when they talk about how "piracy is the reason we only made 30 billion dollars last quarter" or whatever.

First, not every region of the world is so lucky as to have legal releases of games.  For people in these regions who want to play games, their only recourse is to pirate them, or pay an arm and a leg to import them.

Second, people often pirate games because of lackluster or nonexistent game demos.  If the demo doesn't have enough content to help the player make an informed decision, or if the demo doesn't exist at all, how does someone know if they want to purchase a game?  Everything you hear from the developer and publisher prior to the release is, of course, carefully crafted marketing information.  While it's still possible to pull objective information from that, it can be difficult since they have full freedom to pick and choose what aspects of the game they want to show to you.  The next logical step would be to turn to reviews, but most review sites can't be trusted to rate things objectively.  Also, when publishers know that the game is horrible, they embargo reviews until the game's release, or simply don't give out review copies until after then.  Video game publishers still rely too much on the blind buy.  I myself am interested in Fantasy Life and Rune Factory 4, both 3DS games, but have held off purchasing them because they don't have demos available.  Also, I recently purchased The Legend of Dark Witch, also on the 3DS, because of my gameplay experience in its demo.

Third would be tacked-on DRM clients such as uPlay from Ubisoft.  These are pretty much universally a headache to deal with and have a tendency to cause more problems than they solve.  The problem is also further compounded by the fact that you can often torrent the game and get a copy where the DRM has been removed.  In that case, pirating the game results in less of a headache than purchasing it legally, so the DRM really only exists to punish legitimate purchasers of games.  I will point to the release of Spore, which was so riddled with DRM issues that the only people who were actually able to play the game upon release were people with pirated copies.  Also, you often see games with these DRM clients on Steam, which is itself a DRM client.  Why the redundancy?

Fourth would be region controls.  I know for certain that a lot of piracy is due to the fact that some games just never see the light of day outside of the region the developer calls home.  While a fair number of people import games and consoles to get around this the "legit" way, doing so is rather expensive.  This is also one of the reasons why people such as myself modify their home consoles.  In my case, I modified my PS2 so I could play the copy of The Rumble Fish that I'd imported.  Region restrictions are an artificial measure put in place because publishers and console manufacturers desire more control than they're due.  It's clear that if the region controls are circumvented, the game will function perfectly, so it's definitely not a true restriction.  It's also clear that people are willing to deal with the language barrier, so that isn't really a valid reason.  Why prevent a person from playing a game that they've legitimately purchased on the requisite hardware that they've also legitimately purchased?

Fifth, and perhaps one of the bigger reasons, is that a lot of games are out of print.  In the interests of preserving gaming history, a lot of older games, including older console games, get pirated.  However, this raises a very important question.  Namely, if the developer and publisher can no longer make money off of the game, does it really hurt them to pirate it?  A lot of times, the legit copies show up on reselling sites like Amazon and eBay for ridiculous prices.  A clear example would be the GameBoy Color cartridge of Shantae, which commands over $300 on such sites, and can only otherwise be purchased for a much more reasonable price on the 3DS eShop.  But if you're sitting there with your old GameBoy Color and don't have a 3DS, then you'd have to buy one just to be able to pay that much more reasonable price, which would result in the game effectively costing almost as much.

Sixth, compatibility is an issue for computer games.  This relates back to the aforementioned problem of games lacking demos.  This also relates back to older games, where just getting a game running was sometimes an exercise in frustration.  I certainly remember the old days of games with DOS setup programs where you had to select your sound card from a limited list and provide details like IRQ, DMA, etc.  Sometimes just getting something working made you feel like a genius.  Computers have come a long way in terms of ease of configuration since those days, but newer computers often can't run games made for older computers because of how those games are programmed.  Often an emulator like DOSBox or a virtual machine of an older OS can solve the issue, but they're somewhat of a hassle to deal with and not every gamer is going to want to put in that much effort.

I guess the point I'm trying to make here is that video game piracy is definitely a multifaceted issue, and you can't simply look at it and chalk it up to one reason in particular.  Services like Steam and GOG definitely make legitimately purchasing games a lot easier, and have won over a lot of pirates on the convenience factor alone, but they're little more than a band-aid on the broken leg that is video game distribution.

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