Opinion: Criminalising players makes them pirates
When Jas Purewal, a fine lawyer who advises us on occasion, wrote his open letter to "people who defend game pirates", my agreement predisposition switch was firmly snapped to the on position.
Mobile Pie is a small, young mobile developer. We have suffered piracy. In fact some of our early titles have more pirate players than paid ones.
This hurt. If every one of those pirates had bought our first title, a critically acclaimed and beloved rhythm action title, B-Boy Beats, we could have turned it in to a franchise. I felt a great deal of anger and frustration.
Yet Jas' letter should have really been addressed to "people that attack developers that attack pirates". Its core is a defence of CD Projekt's legal actions against alleged pirates of The Witcher games. That is a very different proposition.
Jas makes several points in his letter, which boil down to ease and accuracy of proof piracy has occurred, prosecution as bullying (the "old lady" reason), the commercial impact of piracy (or The Lost Sales Fallacy) and the alternatives to piracy-ravaged business models.
As a developer, I'd mainly like to talk about the last two.
The Lost Sales Fallacy is piracy debate staple: piracy costs developers money because their products are taken without paying. This is wrong. Piracy means developers potentially gain less.
Unlike material theft, game piracy doesn't incur the developer a loss of an asset but instead a loss of potential gain, because the cost of the reproduction is almost free (plus it tends to be covered by the pirate anyway). This might seem like a subtle, nit-picking point, but the distinction has big implications which I'll come back to when I discuss the alternatives.
I like to think of pirates not as pirates, but as people who pirate. Each and everyone has a threshold at which the value proposition (a combination of price, time and ease of access) becomes low enough that they will cross from pirate to paying customer. This is different for each individual, depending on their ethical predisposition and valuation of their time. It's lucky that these factors exist, because you can't battle piracy on cost alone.
Many claim the solution is to provide a better service to players than they would find as a pirate and reduce price. But seeking damages from individuals does the inverse, making the pirating experience less enjoyable and potentially more expensive by adding to it the fear of prosecution.
I see the true intention of these letters as an attempted adjustment of the piracy value proposition. After all, the legal overhead versus the likely return makes the whole process a huge money sink for any company pursuing damages from the individual. Other than some back-of-napkin maths, I have no proof that is the case, and I stand to be corrected. However, neither the music or film industries, despite their victories with Napster or KaZaA, have managed to meaningfully stem piracy. And they have spent considerable amounts of money trying.
I do not dispute any developer or publisher's legal right to pursue damages from individuals, but I do question the tangible worth of the practice. It is wasted money and effort, driving further loss and failing to alter behaviour. Plus, no matter how sensitively they're handled, legal letters are a tactic that runs the continual risk of spurring David and Goliath PR shitstorms. A developer cannot come off well from it. It's too loaded and there are too many variables for it to be clear cut.
There are better options.
After B-Boy Beats got hit, we set it free on the App Store and in four days we did more downloads than it had generated in the previous months since launch. It soon became clear that we had our value proposition wrong. Some wanted to play the game, but didn't want to pay. Those that loved it could only ever pay £2. We found a solution for our next title, My Star.
Since digital has made producing copies free, we've made it free, lest the pirate do instead. Players can play for free forever and those willing to remunerate us can do so with no limit.
Free-to-play addresses some root causes of piracy, but it is not a panacea, and I understand, if not agree with, a lot of the ill feeling towards it. There is, ostensibly, a link between the business model and the game design and experience, but it will slowly evolve and take new shapes over time.
However, many traditional players still want the self-contained paid experience and developers still want to make them. Even without wholesale adopting a free-to-play model, studios can benefit from how non-paying players generate benefit, encouraging them to spread word of the game through Facebook, Twitter, selling them DLC, have them create mods or content and buy merchandise.
I firmly believe the best responses are those that put time and money in to helping grow a loyal fan base, that are fair and allow true fans to spend money on the games that they love. The solutions we attempt should also acknowledge that as an industry our customers, through their actions, tell us a story. We are involved in a negotiation with them at all times. If we withdraw from that, then so do they.
Ignoring, battling or criminalising them only serves to distance you from your players, driving them deeper into becoming not people who pirate, but simply pirates.