Why do people pirate games?

In the conclusion section of the article examining piracy of TweakGuides, the author puts forth his basic explanation on why Piracy happens and it basically boils down to “People are immoral cheapskates” which as far as the rest of his analysis goes is a strikingly shallow and one-sided explanation that simply reeks of his personal bias against piracy. This is based on his frankly shallow correlation that because piracy still exists, even though things like Steam, demos, DRM and whatnot have tried to fight it, people pirate simply because they can.

If you are currently scratching your head on how on earth this follows from the premises, it doesn’t. The author doesn’t even make the effort to explain why the persistence of piracy means that it’s done because of people being cheapskates and not because the available options do not satisfy the demand as the piracy option does.

To this end, I’m going to present a few reasons why piracy still persists and seemingly increases. Starting with the mean reason of course which as you’d expect is…

People Pirate because they can’t afford the games.

It’s really not difficult to grasp the concept that there’s poor people in the world. It’s also not difficult to grasp that because PCs are becoming increasingly necessary or useful during one’s daily tasks, that one will be available for many middle and lower-middle class families. Take places like India or China which have a very very large lower-class populace and yet their PC and internet use is increasing. There’s a lot of people with capacity to play games who can’t really afford them. When one takes into account the price gouging that also happens between countries in the gaming market1 it’s not difficult to understand how legal gaming is outside the budget of those capable of it.

So all those people, who can’t afford the games will still want to play them due to the extensive marketing campaigns around them. And piracy provides this option. Where piracy not an option, these would not become customers. They would turn to something else. This is like the most obvious realization one should be able to make about people who do not have a lot of disposable income really. It is a fallacy of a monumental scale to claim that just because someone got the game for free, they would be willing to buy it if they couldn’t.The reason is simple, people try to find the games that are of the highest quality and within their capacity to buy them. Let me repeat this:

People try to find games that are of the highest quality and within their capacity to buy them.

This means something very specific. If one’s highest quality game is prohibited due to price, they are simply going to go for the next best option. If it ends up that the highest quality game they can afford is an indie game, they’ll play that. if it turns out that it’s a free browser game, they’ll play that instead. At no point will their inability to pirate a game increase their capacity to buy them. This means that even if piracy where to disappear overnight, the sales of PC games is unlikely to increase to any significant degree. The end result (companies not making as much profit as they think they deserve) will really not change.

Are these people cheapskates if they get to enjoy something they wouldn’t be able to afford anyway? Are they cheapskates because they didn’t prioritize games over food, rent or necessary socializing (eg going out for a beer with their friends)? Only by the very tortured reasoning of very privileged people.

It’s the kind of reasoning which assumes that everyone’s situation is similar to one’s own. That everyone has similar opportunities as a middle-class US American. That everyone certainly has enough money to buy their games but are just too cheap to do it. It’s simply ridiculous when you then see this reasoning used with a straight face to make an statement like this:

The purely self-serving nature of the arguments people use to justify piracy has become quite galling, and frankly is an insult to the collective intelligence of all internet users. Whether you pirate games or not is ultimately none of my business, but at least have the decency to be honest with yourself and everyone else about the real reasons why you’re doing it.

It almost sounds like a Theist who’s confidently declaring that the only reason some people are Atheists is because they’re angry at God. And is as convincing.

People pirate because it’s more convenient

If we move to those people who can afford to purchase some their games, it’s quite common to discover that many still pirate because Piracy is still the better option. Whereas a normal buy would require the whole issue of trekking to the shop, buying the game, wrangling with restrictive DRMs and whatnot. Pirating can be done from the comfort of one’s own house, usually within hours for the most popular games. And if it’s not obvious already, people value their comfort as well, especially when it’s about a hobby.

This whole thing can easily be seen in many different ways. Take Steam first of all. In regards to the wealthier pirates, it is the primary reason for them becoming legitimate customers by giving them actual reasons to buy and making their service far more useful than a torrent download. Automatic updates, free re-downloads (at fast speeds), community/social networking services  etc. All of these make buying from Steam a higher convenience than simply getting it for free, and basically smashes the pathetic people-are-cheapskates argument of the author. If people are willing to shell money for Steam even though there’s a free alternative just around the corner, doesn’t that make you rethink that argument? Or are those in Steam only the noble ones?

Don’t like the Steam example? Take good ol’ CD Piracy which is still extremely popular in the poorer nations. Why does this still exist when so people now have the capacity to either download the files directly or find someone who can? Even in the most of the poor areas of the world, you usually find internet stations with high-speed connections which can easily be used for people to download what they like. How can CD/DVD Piracy still be a million, if not billion-dollar industry? The answer again is convenience. Amongst those who do not have a lot of money to spend on gaming, paying something like 4$ is low enough of a price for avoiding tedious download periods, shady cracks and possibly non-working copies. CD/DVD pirates know this and thus provide copies that are generally working out of the box pretty well, which is especially important in a word-of-mouth kind of job they work in.

Piracy is working so well against normal purchases because it provides some very good advantages other than price. It allows people without credit cards to get their games online. It provides quicker service (not have to wait for weeks or even months to get the game in your own country). It avoids having to mess with physical items or DRMs. Services that wish to compete with Piracy for the people that can afford to purchase legally need to also hit on these points as well or alternatively provide other advantages to give people a reason to buy instead. Services like Steam and Impulse understand this and the fact that they also drop their prices temporarily to grab all those without a big gaming budget as well does not harm either.

People pirate to avoid unnecessary restrictions or delays

Compared to the previous two reasons, this is a relatively minor cause and most often than not, it does not change the number of people who buy (i.e. those who pirate for such a reason are likely to have already bought the game as well). Still it does increase the number of perceived downloaded copies which is used by people like the Author to boost their anti-piracy arguments.

These are the people who download a game in order to be able to play it in an uncensored version (with blood. With sex etc). If you consider how many countries, even rich ones like Germany, have ridiculously restrictive policies on this, it’s not hard to understand how it matters. I’ve done it quite a few times on games I have legally bought, just because I hate having to play a lobotomized game because some politician listened to the puritan lobby.

Then there’s those who can’t wait until companies get off their restrictive butts and release worldwide when the capacity exists. Some can’t wait until the game is translated or censored first and just want to play with their friends ASAP. Some know that the game is never going to be brought to their country because of ridiculous laws (coughAustraliacough) Most often than not, they end up buying the game when possible in order to get all the legal features as well.

People pirate on principle

While the author is quick to dismiss and belittle this attitude, it is not only true but getting stronger the more annoying the anti-piracy measures and lobby becomes. People pirate to teach companies a lesson.

You see, price does not give a complete signal to the companies, when the number of copies sold for a particular game are low, the company has no idea what the reason was. Perhaps the game was too bad. Perhaps people didn’t have money in that period. Perhaps it is because everyone’s a cheapskate pirate. And because companies don’t know why the game didn’t sell as much as they expected (or as much as they wished) they cannot fix the issues with it. However, when their customers explicitly and in very clear terms point out before-hand that they will refuse to buy the game if their favourite features are taken away (dedicated servers, lan play etc) or restrictive measures enforced (eg heavy-handed DRM) and the companies still go ahead and do it, how can they act surprised that their piracy rates skyrocket?

If you notice the top pirated games of the last years, you notice the same trends. Spore at the top of 2008 with its heavy DRM. CoD:MW2 at 2009 with its lack of dedicated server support. It’s not difficult to imagine that many of those pirated copies were done as a punishment for the companies from people who refused to buy. The more companies insist on going against their customer’s wishes, the more those customers will refuse to deal with them and will go to the next best alternative. And this is good.

Consumers have very small bargaining power compared to the megapublishers of games. Thus by refusing to play the games at all, they punish themselves just as much. Piracy provides the alternative which makes only the companies feel the pain of their bad management and provides a miniscule advantage (in the grand scale of things) back to the consumer. And even that is usually not enough as hardcore gamers are enough of an addict to shell their money even when they swore they wouldn’t. Thus the amazing success of MW2, even with a severely lacking multiplayer and a hostile PC community.

Piracy, much like union funds or other social nets, provide a needed counterbalance to corporate power.

In Conclusion

Speaking from myself, as someone who wholeheartedly supports the existence of piracy while currently doing very little of it myself, I can easily fit in all of the reasons I provided above. I was a heavy pirate when I was younger, poorer and without a job and this helped me actually develop a far better personality than I would have without it. Once I started having some more money, I used cut down on piracy heavily, unless it was more convenient to do so and with the advent of Steam, even that was basically reduced to zero and any times I do it now, it’s because I’m trying to get around restrictive bullshit laws of the country I’m in, for games I generally buy anyway.

I could probably list or expand on the reasons for piracy if I wanted to, but my main point was to show how amazingly short-sighted and downright insulting is the author’s analysis for the motives of pirates. It’s an extremely black&white view of the issue of piracy which is a handy way to ignore the real reasons why it happens. It’s far easier to decide there’s a good side and an evil side and those you do not like belong in the evil side. It’s like tribalism 101.

  1. Basically it goes like this: If the country’s currency is worth more than dollars, the game is priced in the local currency the same amount as in dollars, no matter the exchange rates. This is what commonly happens in Europe where 1 dollar = 1 euro for buying games. Now if the country’s currency is worth less than the dollar, more likely than not, the game is still sold in dollar price-range, making it far out of reach of most people. Sometimes you get the even worst results as is the case of Australia []

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