This blog post is about the bright side of software piracy. It's about the times when not only is it OK to steal my games, but, in fact, I get something out of it. Perhaps an unusual topic for a blog post from a game developer.
I admit to being a little bit nervous about writing this. The sad truth is that, these days, it is so easy to pirate single-player PC games that most gamers only have to pay for them if they want to pay for them. And there is strong evidence (links below) to indicate that they usually don't want to pay for them. So giving people ammunition they can use to convince themselves that they shouldn't pay for my games seems perilous, especially since they are, after all, how I support my family. But I got into the blogging game to write about the reality of the game biz from the viewpoint of my shadowy little corner, and piracy is a huge part of it, so here we go.
Of Course, Piracy Is Almost Always Wrong
I think that the best way of evaluating the morality of an action is to ask, "What would happen if everyone who wanted to do it did it?" Littering and dumping toxic waste into rivers are wrong because, if everyone who wanted to do those things did them, our streets would be choked with refuse and our drinking water would be half benzene. And pirating PC games is wrong because, were it not for that minority of worthy souls who actually chip in, the industry that makes the games we love would descend into a shadow realm of tiny ad-supported Flash games and Farmville. Some people would be cool with that, but I'm looking forward to playing Starcraft 2, thanks.
And I've now set myself up for 50 comments of increasingly overwrought and implausible justifications for why pirating games is a good, noble thing to do. No. Sorry. You don't get everything you want in this world. You can get piles of cool stuff for free. Or you can be an honorable, ethical being. You don't get both.
Most of the time.
Because, when I'm being honest with myself, which happens sometimes, I have to admit that piracy is not an absolute evil. That I do get things out of it, even when I'm the one being ripped off.
Computers Exist In the Third World
Every so often, I get an e-mail in broken English from some kid in Russia or southeast Asia or India. He says how how he is playing my game in a cyber-cafe, for fun and perhaps to practice English. The disparity in the strength of the currency between our two countries makes it impossible it is for him to get the 25 or 28 hard US dollars to buy my game. (It's entirely possible in much of the world to not be dirt poor and yet to be entirely unable to scrape together a chunk of hard U.S. dollars.) The message ends with a sincere and heart-rending plea for a registration key.
Now, you're probably thinking, "Yeah, the kid is probably making it up." I doubt it. Remember, my games are easy to pirate. Anyone who wants to steal my games can grab them any time he or she wants. Maybe some of these pleas are fake, but I'm sure that most aren't.
When I get one of these message, what I want to respond is, "PIRATE MY STUPID GAME!!!" I mean, seriously, the time used drafting that e-mail would have been much more profitably spent figuring out how BitTorrent works.
But I don't say that. I delete the e-mail unanswered. Because, the truth is that these games are how I feed my family. Asking me for free keys is simply not a behavior I want to encourage.
But I really hope those kids pirated my game. And I am sure that, for every such e-mail I received, a horde of others in faraway lands pirated it on their own. Sometimes, thanks to the vagaries of the international monetary order, my games are just out of reach any other way. And, when people enjoy my work, it gives my life meaning, which bring me to ...
I Want My Life To Have Meaning
I consider myself a reasonably bright person, who works hard to make something people like. When I'm old and crumbling, I want to be able to feel that I had a successful life in which my work brought happiness to a lot of people.
I feel fully financially compensated for my time when one of my games (which usually takes a year or so to make) sells 5000 copies. However, from the game industry perspective, 5000 copies is nothing. Even the crappiest flop from a real publisher sells a ton more than that. So am I wasting my life? If I really care about the number of people I reach and the amount of happiness I bring, shouldn't I try to get a job somewhere where my work has a chance of reaching far more people?
But then I remember that for everyone who buys my game, dozens more just tried the demo. And a lot of those people will play the whole demo, have fun, decide they had enough, and move on. That counts as providing fun for people, sort of.
But, more importantly, the percentage of people who pirate PC games seems to be very high. It's possible that 90% of the copies of my games out there are pirated. There is definitely solid evidence that the piracy rate for PC games is that high, and believe me, there are a thousand ways to get my games for free. It happens a lot. And, if that figure holds, that brings the player base for each of my games to 50000. That is a number that can keep me from lying awake at night.
Of course, a lot of those people could have bought it but decided to pirate it instead. In other words, jerks. Which brings up a good question. Am I satisfied that my life's work went to make a jerk happy? Does that give me Life Value points? Is it a worthwhile thing to bring a jerk pleasure? This is generally the point where I force myself to think about something else.
But not everyone who steals a game has money. Some of them are legitimately poor. Which brings me to one final point.
The Recession Is a Thing That is Happening
These days, some people are legitimately poor. Many people, through a mix of poor fiscal choices and ill fortune, are in bad shape. Foreclosed on, or facing foreclosure. Trying to pay down a mountain of credit card debt. Unemployed for a long time. Lacking health insurance. Some people brush this growing population off, saying, "Oh, they brought it on themselves." And sometimes that is true. They made mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. I make mistakes. It's just that some people are unlucky enough to be savagely punished for their mistakes.
Someone who is facing long-term unemployment and bankruptcy probably should not pay for my game. And, in that case, if stealing my game gives them a temporary reprieve from their misery (and there's a lot of misery out there right now), I'm cool with that. I'm happy to help. These are my fellow citizens, and I want to help out how I can.
Now here is what I am NOT saying. If some kid has to actually save his allowance for a few weeks to buy the game, stealing it is instead of paying is not cool. I'm not OK with that. If you can pay, you should pay. But I understand that some people can't. It's reality. As for whether someone can truly pay or not, I have to trust them to be able to tell the difference. It's probably unwise to trust so many strangers so much with my livelihood on the line. But it's not like I have a choice.
How I Will Now Single-Handedly Solve the Problem of Piracy
I just have to add one thing, and then I can hopefully go without writing about this ugly topic for a good, long time. The way the economics of the business work right now, if you want good PC games, someone has to pay for them. You can't support a project like Starcraft 2 with ads. The money just isn't there.
If you like PC games but you usually pirate them, I want you to start actually paying for one game a year. Just one. Please. You should do it because you need to do it to help something you like to continue to exist. Sure, you might find that doing the virtuous thing feels surprisingly good. But, in the end, you should do it for the reason anyone ever really does anything: Because it is in your best interests to do so.
But what game should you pay for? It's tempting to say you should support some small Indie, like me, who is just working hard to support his family. But I don't believe that. The people who made Starcraft 2 have families to. No, buy the game that you feel most deserves to be rewarded. Who gave you the most fun, or carried the industry forward, or that you felt treated you fairly.
Maybe that game is Starcraft 2. Maybe it's Avernum 6 or Aveyond or Eschalon 2 or World of Goo or one of a million tiny games. It might even be Assassin's Creed 2. Could happen.
And, before you post flaming me because Piracy-Is-Always-Good or Always-Bad, remember that all I'm trying to do is pay a little visit to reality-land. And while I do get something out of piracy, all things being equal, it's better to pay for the thing you use. Again, with PC games, you can get cool free stuff, or you can be honorable. You don't get both. Once in a while, be part of the solution.