Is Game Piracy, as a form of protest, counter-productive? (A response to the Cynical Brit)

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So the Cynical Brit addressed the issue of the Mass Effect 3 DLC and touched on the issue of Piracy and how it will affect the dynamics of the situation if people Pirate the game rather than simply abstain from playing it. As expected from what I heard him say last time, he is horribly wrong on what effects piracy of Mass Effect 3 as a form of protest is going to have.

But lets take CB’s arguments one by one and see why they are flawed.

First of all, lets address CB’s proposed tactic, which is that people who dislike the Day 1 DLC should boycott the game on launch day and instead buy it later on when it becomes cheap enough1 :

The idea is extremely naïve. It rests on the assumption that people not buying the game, will send a clear message to Bioware and EA that the Day 1 DLC is the problem and they’ll have to change their act to make people buy their game. Unfortunately this ignores the reality of markets and how they are notoriously bad at transmitting information back to the seller. If a boycott was actually organized and it did actually get enough people sticking to it, then EA is still unlikely to understand where the problem lies. The only information they will see is less sales than their expectations, maybe (because it may be the case that their expectations were lower in the first place). This does not tell them anything more than that. Was it because of the Day 1 DLC? Of Technical Bugs? Of Misjudging the market? Of Changed gameplay? Or of Piracy?

You can bet your sweet ass that whatever the real reason of your boycott is, Piracy will be blamed if it succeeds. It doesn’t matter how many letter you send, how many petitions you sign, how many pre-orders you cancel (well, maybe, but pre-orders are the minority of purchases); In the board of directors meeting, the managers will blame Piracy.  You know why? Because it will absolve management of any fault! Managers will declare that Piracy dropped sales and that better DRM and lobbying for laws is needed to combat this disaster.

They will do this even if they have read thousands of letters announcing that it was the DLC (or bugs, or changed gameplay, or whatever else) that caused it and they will waste resources combating a boogeyman. Why? Because they won’t get fired. If a manager were to admit that they misjudged the DLC effect and take it back, they will be blamed for the “disaster”.  Why take the risk, when the convenient scapegoat of piracy is available?

“Geez, our market research indicated that the sales of ME3 would see a 33% increase compared to ME2, we have done market tudies which proved that the Day 1 DLC would only turn away 10% of purchasers but bring in 20% additional revenue. By gosh golly, we don’t know what happened! Look at the stats yourselves dear investors. It must have been rampant piracy! Oh and what do I see here? Here’s a BSA report from of how piracy increased 160% this year. That is surely the cause!”

The only thing that might actually make people stand up and notice a boycott, rather than blame piracy, would be a significant cancellation of pre-orders with an accompanying note informing them of the reason for this decision. Then they might receive the info they need and fix it before it’s too late (as is what happened with BF3, which is a special situation in itself). But if they don’t, piracy is going to be blamed anyway.

This has been shown again and again. The hilarious Modern Warfare boycotts are the most recent examples, where people would boycott, but the games had increased in popularity so much, that the boycott didn’t even register in the radar. Thus people said “fuck it” and bought it anyway. Then there is the boycott of Spore due to its draconian DRM. This even spilled over in Amazon with an incredible amount of 1-star reviews and other kinds of activism. Even in the face of all this, the publisher still refused to acknowledge the real reason why sales of Spore were atrocious (Draconian DRM and bad Gameplay), but rather conveniently blamed Piracy.

The Cynical Brit is incredibly naïve in this regard. He expects that Management of big publishers is both honest and competent and will take an objective look into the situation of a successful boycott and then take the correct action in the future. But except the fact that management is much more often than not completely incompetent (eg see: Bobby Kotick running successful franchises into the ground (among other failures).), they have no incentive to be honest either.

Next, CB addresses Piracy and how “having your cake and eating it”, in other words pirating the game as a form of protest, is actually counter-productive. The argument is that the companies are then going to ignore the boycott and blame it on piracy. It thus makes more sense (according to CB’s logic) to simply abstain from playing the game and show “backbone” in one’s decision, so as to convince the companies to change their ways.

But as I argued before, companies are going to blame Piracy in case the boycott is successful (or simply the game price is below its subjective value for most consumers, thus making them ignore it). A few thousand people boycotting the game on principle and sending impassionate letters are not going to make a difference. In face, this is very likely to lead to many to break their boycott simply because they are too eager to play. This form of tactic is in itself counter-productive, because it assigns the “pain” of the boycott, to the few thousand people who are the most passionate about the game2. This is a recipe for failure, as the Modern Warfare boycotts made painfully obvious.

Piracy however can combat this. People can get their “fix” of the game and avoid rewarding the company for a substandard product at the same time. The “pain” of bad decisions is immediately transferred to the company making them, and thus it allows even more people to participate in a boycott, without having to battle with their own drive to play their favourite franchise.

In the end, pirating the game and simply abstaining from buying the game are going to have the same exact results. Piracy is going to be blamed anyway. Protesting people will “vote with their wallet”.  You can still buy the game later on, when it’s price has dropped to its true value given DLC and DRM restrictions. You can still cancel your pre-order and claim that Day 1 DLC drove you to do so.

If everyone who boycotts the game pirates it instead, you’re going to have a few extra thousand downloaders in the stats. This is among millions that are going to download the game anyway because they can’t afford it or can’t purchase it through legal means. Whether you show “backbone” or not, is not going to make the slightest difference in the rhetoric the publisher is going to use whether the game is successful or not.

So do yourself a favour, if the Day 1 DLC is a deal breaker, vote with your wallet and pirate the game until the price goes down to an appropriate range. Then the only one suffering will be the one deserving it, the publisher.


  1. CB also makes some classic anti-piracy arguments, such as the idea that Piracy is unethical or that it is killing the PC Game industry. I’ve already addressed these in length in my series on Piracy, so I won’t repeat myself in this post. []
  2. and let’s be realistic here, the only people who care about that stuff are the ones who care so much about the story, i.e. the hardcore fans, who are a small minority []
  • Saint Fiasco

    I think, as a form of protest, piracy really is the way to go, because it sends the correct message.
    Game publishers only make money because we allow them to do so, so they better keep us satisfied.