Monday, September 25, 2006

Casual Piracy

I've read a post that seems to imply that piracy is a big deal for casual developers.

Now, no lie, pirating a casual game is skanky. It would be evil in a way that bilking a giant evil corporation isn't. Don't argue about that last bit, it really isn't the point of this essay either way.

But is it actually a problem? Do people actually pirate casual games?

I thought, "That's absurd. People don't pirate casual games. First, they're not popular enough, second blah blah blah blah blah. Here, I'll just prove it by going and looking..."

Cake Mania, a popular Yahoo! game: more than 250 sources on the immediate net - roughly half to a quarter that of major titles such as Playboy: Mansion. (Playboy: Mansion is my yardstick. People love to pirate that game, and the numbers don't seem to go up or down much over time.)

Diner Dash, another popular Yahoo! game: 300-400 sources, although some smell like spam.

Virtual Villagers: ~175 sources.

Aveyond: ~40 sources.

Talismania, switching to popcap: ~125

Bejeweled 2: Motherlode of about 900 sources - more than many AAA games. Moreover, these are "package pirates", featuring dozens of popcap games...

Zuma reveals the same, mostly because it's in the same packages.

I'm kind of shocked. Actually, I'm just flat-out shocked, there's really no "kind of". Some of these games are pirated at rates comparable to Halo 2.

Now, if there are 250 sources for a pirated version of your game, that means that there are 250 computers actively sharing it. The net is vaster than this little region, but we'll be conservative and say that there are only 2500 sources in all the various P2P networks. Chances are, that's an order of magnitude low, because I think this P2P system stops looking at 200 sources.

These are people who keep it actively shared. For every person who keeps it actively shared, there are at least eight who download it and shlep it off to their desktop instead of their shared folders, or delete it when done. So, say, 20,000 downloads.

Now, we can argue about the validity of calling these lost sales until our faces turn blue. But many of the reasons people argue that pirates wouldn't buy are invalid here. There's no faceless corporation: at least a quarter of your payment goes straight to the devs. There's no excessive cost: these games cost, at most, $20. So lets presume that SOME of these pirates would have made legitimate purchases.

If we get standard solid conversion rates, that would be 2%. 400 copies, at $5 kickback to the developer, is $2000. That's a pretty chunk of change, and probably less than a quarter the actual loss... but how much is it, percentage-wise?

Well, Pharaoh's Curse sells about $2000 a year. However, there are NO sources for it. This implies that piracy is not a huge chunk of the profit, or there would be a few dozen sources. It could be that piracy needs a "critical mass", but that critical mass is obviously significantly more than $2000.

Galactic Civilizations 2 is NOT copy protected. How many copies of IT are there floating around?

Checking multiple spellings, there are less than a hundred (most of which claim to be "cracked". Ha!)

If I knew how much Galciv 2 sold, I could use this to frame a likely answer. It could be that Galciv is in a "middle band", not selling as much as a top ten on a major portal, but selling much more than $2000 a year. If it does sell closer to $2000 than $20,000, their unprotection may actually have brought them into a higher piracy bracket than protected games... but is that something which has affected sales, or not?

To end on a standard mainstream media note: the only thing we know for sure is that people pirate casual games.

A lot.


Craig Perko said...

I'd like to know Aveyond's sales, too, and whether it's protected. Its results were in that same weird "middle range".

Come on, play nice, give me some figures. :D

David said...

My guess is that a lot of casual games piracy has to do with their size, which is typically under 25mb for a complete game. At sizes like these, download times and disk storage become rather inconsequential. This doesn't address why people downloaded them in the first place, although I suppose they might just want to have a game for mom, a significant other, etc., or perhaps they just want to have as full of a collection of pirated software as possible, or maybe they just like the games (I hope that's the case!)

Regarding price, I do think quite a few gamers, especially those who might fit the "hardcore" stereotype, feel that $20 for a casual game is too much. Case in point, when Popcap released their library on Valve's Steam, there were numerous complaints on their forums regarding price ($20 per game.) Many posters seemed to be comparing apples to oranges by comparing Popcap's games with others the size and scope of Half-Life 2 and Counterstrike, but some interesting points were made (Popcap sells the same games on XBox Live Arcade for less, as an example.)

Craig Perko said...

I always thought $20 was high for many of them, but that's not really what I was arguing.

The idea that smaller = easier to pirate may have merit, but the thing about that is that these pirates didn't just go exploring for small games to pirate. They typed in a specific name for a specific game.


Thanks for the good comment, David.

Jason O said...

It's really sad because those numbers are just further justification for the large game studios to continue ignoring the PC as a platform.

It's also sad because the developers of more casual games don't have real deep pockets. I don't believe that:

pirated game == lost sale

but it's still some indication of lost revenue. Where's the justification for that? Even when I was a broke-ass college student I could come up with $20 for something I really wanted.

Craig Perko said...

I agree, but it should be noted that XBox and PlayStation games have just as many sources as computer games.

It's not like it has to run on Windows to get stolen...

Jason O said...

True, but as I understand it you cannot simply download a PS2 game and have it work. You either need an emulator, which presents the challenge of console controls on a PC, or you need to burn the data to a DVD and then have a modded console to play it on.

Pirating a game doesn't require much effort outside of downloading the game.

Besides which, the resources it takes to create a console game means deeper pockets than most casual PC game studios will have. It's like stealing from the poor to give to the poor.

Craig Perko said...

Console pirating may be harder, but the payoff is higher: console games are more plentiful and generally more desirable.

Anyhow, that's really not the point. The point is that casual games are also up there on the "things that get stolen" list.

Patrick Dugan said...

After (tangentially) touching on this topic with Troy, it seems like we can cull the majority of the "casual piracy" by adding a basic layer of obfuscation. Someone who wants to go through the trouble of getting the crack (i.e. people like you :P) can still pirate it, but they're a vast minority compared to the mild mannered casualites that wouldn't want to get their hands dirty with all the tech.

The idea is, you make it hard enough to pirate that part of the $20 is "paying" for the service of not having to deal with the hassle.

Jason O said...

That's a good point except that $20 is cheap enough that there is no real justification to steal. All the usual lame excuses "Games are too expensive", "I'm sticking it to the EA execs", etc. only fly with those of the weakest of moral character.

At that point those folks are just plain tightwad thieves and there is nothing more to it. If they can't be bothered to pay $20 for something, not an unreasonable amount regardless of income, then no real security measures are going to keep them away and will likely be a bigger turn-off to legitimate users. That's always been the problem with anti-piracy measures.

What would be better is to do away with this culture of indifference much of the gaming community has towards piracy. I am astounded at the number of defenders there are for pirating games.