have a huge effect on the industry…here’s how
© 2010 Alex Baldwin – Features Editor
As today’s gamers, we have the great honour of being a part of the first generation of consoles and games where game development has actually been slowed and or even stopped in some cases due to piracy.
Of course it’s not like piracy is a new thing. Since we’ve had computers capable of writing to game media there has been the possibility to obtain your latest game fix via copying legal game media to blank equivalent storage, from floppy discs to CD-Rs to DVD-R and quite possibly BD-R soon. The difference this generation however is that it’s actually changing what games are being released and for which platform and in what order.
The lure of free games has often outweighed people’s morals, but never before has it been so common than present day. Someone who doesn’t know how to attach a picture to an email still knows how to get the latest Sims expansion for free. That’s why I think we should keep up to date with the current state of piracy and see the effect it’s had on each platform.
So here we go, starting with the traditional home of piracy: the humble PC.
Piracy level: Extreme
Current attempted solutions: DRM copy protection, digital distribution (eg: Steam)
No surprises here: the PC is home to by far the highest ratio of piracy compared to legal game sales. It’s quite sobering when you see the evidence. Demigod, a multiplyer PC-only RTS/action game released in 2009 shows how hard a game can be hit. On its release, the game sold around 70,000 copies, a quite decent effort.
There was one small problem though. Magically, there was over 1 million players clogging their servers and dragging connection bandwidth to its knees. Additionally, because of the multiplayer-based nature of the game most reviews of the title were postponed until the game’s release so it could be properly tested. Critic were greeted by horrendous server connection issues and consistent lag caused by over 10 times the intended number of players logging on. The critics were not kind.
Think about that for a second: over 90% of PC gamers had no moral qualms with stealing the developers’ work and then ripping it to pieces online over server lag they themselves caused.
So as a developer or publisher, what do you do to stem the level of illegal downloads? You add copy protection, more commonly known as DRM (Digital Rights Management). Unfortunately, this often just angers many PC gamers with common threats to pirate games if they contain DRM. This leaves the developers and publishers with two choices: either leave the doors wide open, or lock them and have the walls battered down.
Ubisoft took gamers up on their word back in 2008 however: if they saw a significant drop in illegal download of the highly anticipated Prince of Persia by shipping it with no DRM at all, they would remove DRM from all their future games. After all, forums across the web claimed only to pirate games as a protest against DRM.
Unfortunately it appears there are many hypocrites out there and the game was pirated just as much, giving Ubisoft the ability to say ‘We gave you a chance, it’s now your own fault’.
With bittorrent the primary source of game piracy, I had a look on one torrent search site two days after Bioshock 2’s release, a game with extensive anti-piracy measures, and found just at that particular moment over 50,000 people downloading it. No wonder developers are refusing to develop exclusivily for PC anymore if this is the way their games are treated.
PC gaming is by no means dead with services like Steam flourishing and MMOs (which can’t usually be cracked due to online account logins), but it’s unlikely to return to its glory days of the 90s.
Piracy level: Moderate
Current attempted solutions: Banning from Xbox Live, warranty void for modded consoles, DRM copy protection
And now we come to the 360. Game sales are still very strong on 360 which makes it one of the platforms of choice for developers, and due to its architectural similarity to PC many titles are ported to it to provide the main revenue stream that the PC is currently lacking.
There is still a large degree of piracy however. The good news is that Xbox Live can’t be connected to with a modded console without Microsoft detecting it and locking the console out which is quite serious with the extensive online features of the 360.
This was most recently brought to light with reported numbers of close to 1 million modded consoles banned late last year.
While in previous generation the only way to play pirated games was with a physical modchip soldered onto the motherboard of a console, the 360’s security was cracked by flashing firmware (operational software) for the DVD drive that prevented it from seeing the difference between legal game discs and burned DVDs.
A bad blow for Microsoft but one they seem to be handling as best they can with their almighty Live banhammer.
Luckily strong game sales indicate 360 game piracy is not widespread to the point of profitibility dangers for developers.
Piracy level: none (yet)
Current attempted solutions: None needed yet, but firmware updates at the ready
One significant step still remains however: because of the PS3’s use of Blu-Ray for game media many games are over the common dual-layer DVD-R data size which prevents many potential pirates burning games with their home PCs.
We can only hope it stays out of reach of most pirates for as long as possible.
Piracy level: high
Current attempted solutions: firmware updates with better security
Possibly the most pirated of the current-generation home consoles. The Wii has had software cracks for a significant time now with no modchip needed, initially caused by an exploit found using the Zelda: Twilight Princess game which is responsible for the game still selling for high prices both in stores and online as potential pirates seek it out to crack their console.
As the online components of the Wii are mostly throwaway extras, the danger of being banned from online gaming hold zero impact.
This is the first console in this list where piracy has actually affected game development in a significant way. Many of the mature or ‘hardcore’ games for Wii have seen quite simply shocking sales but high download numbers online, credited with the increased knowledge of hacking or modding many experienced gamers hold.
While casual gamers aren’t as prone to having modded consoles and combined with a lesser level of game knowledge are attributed to the high game sales of casual titles and mini-game collections or bad licensed titles on Wii, many of the hardcore games targeted at experienced gamers are also unintentionally targeted at people more likely to be able to pirate them.
It’s a lose / lose situation that has resulted in developers such as Capcom having to abandon the Wii for any of their mature series such as Dead Rising and Resident Evil.
Piracy level: moderate
Current attempted solutions: new hardware iterations, new game DRM
The DS situation has many similarities to the Wii. The large number of casual gamers keeps sales of casual titles high while more gamer-oriented titles don’t see high sales numbers. The massive userbase for the DS has helped to keep this in check as the low development costs of the DS has ensured mature games can still generally be profitable.
Piracy on the DS is done via ‘flash carts’, cartridges visually identical to regular DS games that have a small slot of an alternate memory card that stores the downloaded games. These are quite common which has prompted Nintendo to recently begin using DRM on their high-profile games.
The most recent example of this was Zelda: Spirit Tracks, a game that would appeal to many experienced gamers who may partake in piracy. The DRM held uncracked for several days after the game appeared online which was enough to ensure strong sales in addition to advertising for the game being aimed directly at casual gamers (less likely to be pirates).
Piracy level: Beyond Extreme
Current attempted solutions: PSPGo, hardware iterations, firmware updates, PS Store forced updates, digital distribution, legal action against hackers
It’s quite sobering that for the third-highest selling platform this generation it hasn’t had a single game in the top 100 highest selling titles across all formats for several years. That’s right – top 100, not 10.
God of War: Chains of Olympus, one of the most anticipated PSP games didn’t even break the top 150 in its release year. No wonder third-party developers abandoned the PSP in droves.
It all started quite early for the PSP. Due to its use of a Memory Stick Pro Duo for multimedia purposes and game saves, ripped games could easily be stuck on and played. While initially using custom UMD emulation programs on the PSP to make ripped games work, it then turned to custom firmware to get pirated games running happily.
This involved navigating the security on Sony’s official firmware updates to make changes that prevented it knowing the difference between a UMD in the drive and a ripped game file (ISO) on the memory stick.
Since then it’s grown to the point where almost every PSP owner uses custom firmware on their PSP. While there is a small minority who simply use it to play ripped copies of their own store-bought UMDs without having to carry a pile of discs around with them, the low sales of PSP games suggest this is a very small percentage.
Sony’s new PSP hardware iterations released each year have had the primary focus of changing the internals to make them harder to crack until the PSP-3000 (the current regular-style PSP) and certain PSP-2000s where custom firmware stopped working. That is until a few months later when an exploit was found that would allow custom firmware to be used until a reboot of the console.
More recently the failed launch of the PSPgo has said much. While people complain everywhere about not being able to play their UMD games on the PSPgo, the UMD game sales tell a different story.
Very few people actually have any number of UMD games, so the reason is more likely that a crack for PSPgo still hasn’t been released. In the past the games Lumines, GTA: Liberty City Stores and Gripshift had exploits used with new firmware versions to crack security, and on the release of these cracks sales of the game across the internet went up often past 4000%.
If history is anything to go by, on the day a crack for the PSPgo is released that allows ripped games to be used sales for the console will skyrocket. You can quote me on that.
SO WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
It’s all well and good for developers and publishers to have noble intentions of supporting consoles despite horrible game sales, but it reaches a point where the developers need to actually make a profit to stop them going bankrupt.
We’ve seen that recently with the mass exodus away from the PSP and Wii, and even the announcements by traditionally PC developers such as Epic and Crytek that they will NEVER make another PC-exclusive game. At best they can release it on PC alongside the console versions so the sales on console can support the losses from the PC versions.
Another common practice we’ve seen is the delaying of PC versions until after the console release so they can get some guaranteed sales before the temptation of easy pirating on the PC takes those away. Examples include Red Faction: Guerilla, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Devil May Cry 4, Burnout: Paradise, Ghostbusters, Fable, Halo 2, and Assassin’s Creed II which is launching long after the console versions and after the key Christmas period.
The best weapon developers and publishers currently have is Collector’s Editions, with materials such as art books, figurines, comics and more that can’t be downloaded and help provide a tipping point for those on the fence about whether to pirate or not.
That, and multiplayer modes as it’s always harder to crack when a game checks its unique ID online such as playing with others. Is it any surprise we’re seeing multiplayer put into games that don’t usually seem suited to it such as Bioshock 2 and Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena?
I’m not intending to get all preachy on anyone who pirates their games, but try to remember the future of the industry is based on sales, and if your favourite developer goes bankrupt or your console loses game support whose fault is it really?