Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Piracy in the Developing World

After a fairly long break I'm back with another post. I've been busy lately and the fact that I bought a PS3 did not help with me finding time to write anything new. As the topic says, my idea to discuss piracy is fueled by several factors. First of all there is a lot of talk about piracy in the games industry and several radical and controversial DRM methods were used by publishers recently. Also the fact that I bought a PS3 got me to think about piracy as well. This is mainly because PS3 is the only modern console/system that has not been cracked successfully so far, although now it seems that a breakthrough has been made.

When I started gaming as a kid growing in a developing country with very limited access to internet, I did not know anything about piracy. I understood nothing about the concept. I would get a game, install it, and apply the crack and play. I thought they were all part of the installation. Then when I got to know things better, I still could not afford a game. A game which costs close to $50 is much more than my parents could afford for my entertainment. So I resorted to buying the illegal copies from the local market. Apart from that, anyone willing to pay and buy the legit version could not do so as there was no place to buy the original games as well. The digital game downloads did not exist at the time and even if they did, the dial up connections that were available at the time would probably take years to download the game. This is the situation of piracy that existed several years back where almost 100% of the people pirated games not solely to rip off from the developer, but since they had no other option.

Now the situation has changed. Numbers of people who can afford games are increasing gradually. Although there are no shops which sell original games other than few shops which sell PS3 games, people who are interested can get their legit copies either through downloads or get their copies shipped from US or suppliers based in East Asia. However, a considerable section of the gaming community still pirate games. This is due to various reasons. 
  • Some pirate games since they simply can’t afford them.
  • Some want to try out the game before actually playing to buy the game. I know a lot of my friends      who bought Call of Duty 4 after pirating the game previously. 
  • Some just don’t want to pay for something that is available for free which basically is ripping off from  the developer.
In Sri Lanka, majority of pirate copy users belong to the latter category, but the intent differs. Some only want to pay for games that only really good. Best example is COD4, most people, even school children found money to buy a copy. It’s the same story with Heroes of Newerth. After playing the beta, most were very impressed with it and somehow bought the game. But most of these people would not pay for any other game which they would play for a few weeks and throw away.

From the point of view of developers and publishers, they see every illegal download as a lost opportunity of sales. On the contrary, majority of people download the games illegally since they get it for free, not because they like the game. Even if they don’t play the game for more than a few days, they’d download it. If by any chance they happen to like the game a lot, they might actually pay and buy the game. The pirate software in that case acts as an unofficial extended demo/beta for some. People who can’t afford a game would not buy the game anyway, no matter how much they wanted it. From a publisher’s point of view, it’s mostly the 2nd and 3rd type they should think about. If they make a game real good, people would buy it if they can somehow afford it. The real piracy concern is about this 3rd category, since it is acceptable that not all games can be like good and popular like HoN or COD. But bringing in drastic DRM measures is not a solution. In this part of the world, an un-crackable game would not be much popular. Recently I got an extra copy of Uncharted 2 and decided to sell it. When I posted a classified in a forum, some people asked me whether this game is available on PC. Anyone in Europe or US who knows his/her gaming knows that Uncharted 2 is the best PS3 exclusive on the planet to-date. Yet it is unknown to a considerable section of the community in this part of the world since they haven’t played it since it was not pirated. Same goes with most PS3 exclusives. Again, from the industry point of view, it might be of no concern since they may not buy the title anyway. But there is a segment of gamers who would buy the game if they first tried it out and got impressed. I think this is one of the main reasons why PS3 is lagging behind in sales of its consoles. People buy other consolers solely not because they like it, but because they can pirate their games. If they like a game they’d buy and play. In my opinion, the piracy is one of those two edged swords. It can help promote the game and in extreme cases it can ruin your sales as well. But it’s a risk worth taking in my opinion. If you don’t allow the game to pirated, people in these parts will not notice the game and you lose the sales anyway. If people pirate, at least some of them would buy the game if they are interested. I don’t think most people would buy a game because they can’t pirate it. There would be people like that, but that segment of gamers may not be as large as the industry thinks, at least not in this part of the world.  If they really like the game and have a passion for it, they would buy it somehow especially for the online play.

The point I'm trying to make is here is that piracy should not be seen as a hindrance to the gaming industry but as an opportunity to promote the games. I agree, there are both pros and cons to this, but the pros are far more worth considering. Also, it should be noted that the situation might be far more different in Europe and US where the larger market share exists. However even there, annoying DRM methods have annoyed and frustrated legitimate users. The Assassin’s Creed 2 is a good example of the point I'm trying to make.

Gaming is the largest entertainment industry now and the competition has become fierce across all genres of the industry. The industry needs to understand how the emerging economies and potential future markets are dealing with the piracy and DRM issues, in more depth.