[PC game developers and publishers often cite piracy as a primary reason why the format generally enjoys less success than console titles -- in this opinion piece, Gamasutra's Chris Remo passionately deconstructs the usual gamer arguments that aim to minimize piracy's impact.]
Every time a developer brings up the reality of extensive game piracy on the PC -- and recent examples include not only console-heavy Capcom
but also PC-slanted Crytek
-- there is a huge contingent of gamers that angrily responds with derision, citing any number of excuses ranging from the general ("those people wouldn't be spending money on games anyway") to the specific ("that game was buggy and didn't deserve to be purchased").
Before getting into the meat of those arguments, it should be noted that there are indeed a wealth of factors that contribute to the PC being a difficult platform for developers, completely aside from piracy.
Compatibility and other development issues, the lack of a true central platform-holder marketing role, the perception of the PC as more utilitarian than a dedicated entertainment console, and other such stumbling blocks present their own challenges.
(There are, of course, related benefits, such as the freedom of an open platform, the lack of royalty rates or the need for concept approval and certification, a more direct line of communication to the player base, a wealth of distribution options, and so on.)
Back to the topic at hand, while there is certainly some truth to the notion that not everybody who pirates a game would have purchased it -- "free" is an attractive price point -- it is preposterous to suggest that this axiom can be extended to the full body of pirates.
No Data Doesn't Mean No Impact
No, not everyone who pirates a game would have bought it. But when you can go to any torrent site at any given moment and see thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people downloading a game, even weeks after it came out, how can any reasonable person not accept that there were lost sales?
We don’t know what specific percentage of those pirated copies are lost sales, but a lack of that data does not make those potential sales negligible.
After all, we know from firsthand statements that now-defunct Ritual, just as one example, saw considerably more technical support requests from pirates than from legitimate customers on Sin Episodes
. The tailored excuse for that game was that it was too short, or not good enough.
But if those support-seeking pirates actually cared enough about the game working properly to call up tech support and deal with real people (people who are paid by revenue of game sales), they must have thought it was good enough.
Tech Support And "Deserving"
is just one example. Every time the topic is raised -- be it by a top-shelf developer, or a less prominent one -- a million reasons appear as to why that particular game or that particular developer just don’t deserve the support of the discerning PC gaming community.
It happens every time, with the excuses tuned for each game. At that point, they stop being isolated examples, and they become part of a very clear trend.
Even developers who have done amazing things for the PC community have been ridiculed for daring to point out the obvious -- that piracy is a problem on the platform. In their particular cases, often their games are pinned as being too old and tired, or not innovative enough, or too targeted and demanding.
It isn't that such criticisms are invalid on their own merits, but the reality is that non-innovative games sell well all the time in this industry, and if people do in fact want to play them, developers have a right to take issue with piracy.
Some arguments are more general. ”Nobody wants to play this on PC” or “PC software is buggy and not worth the money” are common. If people genuinely didn’t want to play it or already played it on consoles, they wouldn’t need to pirate it. If they feel PC software is too buggy across the board, they shouldn’t be playing PC games.
The Cultural Environment
The sad and frustrating part is that the main effect this has is that more and more developers and publishers are simply going to stop bringing their games to the PC. Why even bother, if the system has so many challenges to begin with, and the community they are overcoming those challenges for is full of so many stubborn idealogues?
I don’t even accuse the apologists of being pirates, although doubtless some are. But many PC gamers do have an incredibly quick-tempered reaction as soon as piracy comes up, citing numerous potential factors, always the same ones: it’s too buggy, the game sucks, it’s not right for the PC platform, etc.
At the end of the day, if lots of people are still pirating those games, those arguments are basically meaningless, because in those games the pirates see something there worthwhile enough.
There is also the oft-made observation that PC piracy is a platform-specific cultural thing -- that many people pirate dozens of games and don’t even play them. If so, that's hardly a defensible culture. That huge base of potential pirates, whether players or not, only makes it easier and more likely pirated games will be available and accessible for people who actually plan on pirating the game rather than buying it.
Console piracy exists as well, obviously. But I would bet real dollars (the kind you buy games with) that it’s not remotely as much of a problem on home consoles as it is on PC. Take the PSP. There’s a system where piracy is known to be considerably more widespread, and unlike the home consoles it’s much easier to see the effect -- game sales languish, while the hardware itself sells extremely briskly.
Maybe it’s that piracy is less convenient harder on home consoles, or maybe it’s a psychological thing, in which people don’t associate those systems with piracy.
When it comes down to it, if PC software is consistently pirated more than console software, and it obviously is, it’s going to continue to be a disincentive for full-scale game developers to put their games on the system.
We Can't All Be Blizzard And Valve
You can point to Blizzard and Valve all you want, and many do, with good reason. Those PC-oriented developers have clearly not been crippled by piracy. But not every developer is, or can be, a Blizzard or a Valve.
In the real world, that’s just how it works. Other companies can’t afford to sit around and generate twelve years of goodwill while they hope their games turn out to be some of the best-selling titles of all time.
Not all studios are necessarily capable of that, and they shouldn’t have to be stacked up against two of the top few companies in the entire industry every time this topic comes up. It’s utterly unrealistic. If, every time I wrote an article, I was told, “Well, this sure sucks compared to Tolstoy or Vonnegut,” I don’t know if I’d find that very constructive.
PC gamers can be self-righteous and smug about PC games until the cows come home, but it’s not going to be doing anything good for the platform long-term.
For the record, I love the smaller, more niche, lower-budget PC titles, the ones like Stardock’s that eschew DRM and are less affected by this phenomenon. Those are great games, and it’s proper that their developers be praised for them. But I also enjoy the bigger-budget titles that, just by virtue of reality, need to sell more to make it worthwhile to put them on PC.
I like being able to use my PC for a wide range of gaming. I like that companies are starting to take more chances on the PC again these days. I don’t like that when they do, and they run into the sad reality of rampant piracy, they’re met with nonstop snarkiness.
I’m not even going to get into arguing against people who defend the piracy itself (rather than just attacking the developers who cite piracy), because those arguments seem self-evident. I am sure our readers can be trusted to fill in those blanks.
The PC is currently going through a great period of support, with a number of high-quality exclusives and multiplatform games coming to the system. But in many cases, those games are the result of companies seeing bigger market opportunities on the PC than they had previously thought.
If those opportunities are nullified by unchecked piracy -- with salt poured on the wound by the jeers of PC gamers -- those companies will see little reason to stick around, and PC gamers (myself included) won’t have much to feel superior about.