Ninety-two percent is a pretty big number. A 92-percent failure rate would make a product totally unfit for public consumption. A 92-percent infant mortality rate would be nothing less than a mass extinction event. So how could a game developer survive if 92 percent of the people who played its game stole it?

That last question isn’t hypothetical – it’s the actual piracy rate of Ricochet Infinity, a casual game by independent developer Reflexive Entertainment. In an article for Gamasutra, Russell Carroll, Reflexive’s director of marketing, detailed his company’s firsthand experience with piracy and how they attempted to staunch the bleeding by modifying their in-house DRM scheme. By his tally, every 1,000 pirated copies of Ricochet Infinity that they rendered unplayable through DRM resulted in approximately one additional sale. For indie developers whose livelihoods depend on customers paying to play their games, it was reason enough to panic.

It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the inherent openness of the PC as a platform: The same factors that have contributed to the rise of independent game development over the last five years – the ubiquity of PCs and the ease of digital distribution – have made these games an easy target for piracy. What’s more, many of the shops developing these titles consist of only a handful of people. It might be easy for a radically anti-DRM gamer to justify pirating a game from a large publisher, where the costs are distributed between thousands of employees. But what if the only people affected by a lost sale are the game’s creators?

Piracy gets personal
“I’ve had people email me and say, ‘Hey, I downloaded your game and it’s awesome.’ And there were many times where I was like, ‘F**k, I’ve been eating hot dogs and Top Ramen for the last two weeks, and this kid’s telling me he just stole 20 bucks from me,'” says Edmund McMillen, co-developer of Gish, Grand Prize winner of the 2005 Independent Games Festival.

Initially published by Chronic Logic, an online casual and independent games portal, Gish was a critical success that didn’t quite break through to the mainstream the way later IGF winners have. It’s also one of the only games that McMillen has bothered selling at all – most of his games, including 2009 IGF nominee Coil, are free-to-play on sites like Newgrounds and Armor Games.

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Perhaps this explains McMillen’s nonchalance toward the idea of anyone “stealing” his work. “Gish was hugely pirated. I think it was one of the reasons why so many people know the game,” he says. Instead of taking offense, McMillen just sees it as a way for more people to play his games. “Ideally, I’d love it if anyone who liked my stuff just had it if they couldn’t afford it.”

“I’m not in this for the money,” he adds. “As long as I can pay rent and feed myself, I’m OK with it. If my goal was to have tons of cash, then I might be upset about how things are going. But I just want to make art.”

That’s not to say that McMillen hasn’t thought about ways to persuade pirates into becoming paying customers. His most recent project, a self-published CD entitled This Is A Cry For Help containing 10-years worth of his games, comics, sketches and animations, is his most autobiographical release yet. “When people buy my CD, they aren’t really buying my games; they’re buying my career, my life for the past 10 years,” McMillen says. “I also sign copies that people buy. It’s a very personal thing.”

It’s a strategy that only an independent game designer can employ: Remind your customers that your game was made by a human being, not a faceless corporation. So far, there are no active torrents of This Is A Cry For Help. Could guilt be more effective at combating piracy than DRM?

Drawing conclusions
Gish may have wallowed in (relative) obscurity, but the 2008 IGF Grand Prize winner, Crayon Physics Deluxe, benefitted from over a year’s worth of hype before creator Petri Purho released the game last month. Nonetheless, Purho decided to self-publish the game from his own site – and without DRM.

“I’ve had really bad experiences with DRM in the past, and no DRM was also the most practical way to go about it,” Purho says. “I don’t want to spend my time working on it, because it screws over legitimate customers and someone will crack it anyhow.”

Unlike Reflexive’s Ricochet Infinity, Crayon Physics Deluxe doesn’t connect to a central server, so it’s impossible to tell how many copies of the game have been pirated. But if torrent trackers are to be believed, it’s a lot. One popular index lists five torrents with over 20 seeders each and one with over 200 seeders. To add insult to injury, some torrents even include player-created levels culled from Purho’s Crayon Physics Playground, a database that requires a registered email address to access.

Purho remains unperturbed. “I’m happy if I make enough to pay the rent and buy food, so I don’t stare at the figures and think about how much money I’ve lost due to piracy,” he says. “Sometimes 20 bucks is a lot of money, and people playing the game is more important to me than money.” He even considered moving to a donations-only revenue model while developing Crayon Physics Deluxe, but ultimately decided against it. His reasoning? “You get very little money (based on what I heard from people doing it), and it’s illegal in Finland, anyway.”

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But he also recognizes that what’s tolerable for him has harsher consequences for the PC platform as a whole. A major publisher putting out a game made by a 100-person development team likely can’t afford to be so charitable. For them, it’s harder to justify developing games for the PC when a cracked torrent is only a few clicks further away than a legitimate copy. Eventually, it encourages developers to cut their losses and stick to platforms where piracy isn’t the norm.

When every sale is pure profit, however, you can afford to take a laissez-faire approach to your work. With the right attitude, it can even be flattering. After all, Purho says, “pirates don’t pirate sh*t – they have standards as well.”

Riding the wave
Dylan Fitterer, creator of the IGF crowd-pleaser Audiosurf, self-published his game as well … almost.

“When Audiosurf started coming closer to release, I ran an open beta. It was sort of an ‘unintentionally open’ beta – I collected email addresses and emailed everybody that was on the list, saying ‘Hey, download it right here, and just keep it to yourself.’ But of course, nobody did.”

That was in late 2007, months before the IGF catapulted Audiosurf into the spotlight and up to the top of the Steam sales charts – an impressive feat for an indie game. But Fitterer never expected Audiosurf to make it onto the download service in the first place, let alone outsell games like Counter-Strike, The Orange Box and hundreds of other titles.

His decision to sell the game exclusively through Steam was partly a matter of timing – he wanted to make sure that Audiosurf made it to market in time for the IGF, where it was sure to receive plenty of attention. But he also identified with Valve’s approach to piracy: “What they’re doing [with Steam] is saying, ‘Well, if you’re a legitimate customer, then you get all this extra stuff.’ And to me, that’s so clearly the way to do it. You want to make sure that paying customers are the ones having the better experience.”

Nonetheless, Steam’s built-in DRM didn’t make the prospect of people cracking and torrenting his game any less stressful. “When it was first released, my blood pressure was completely through the roof about piracy – it was the thing I focused on for maybe a whole month. But it’s just not worth it.”

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Instead of worrying about it after it’s out of your control, Fitterer says, “you need to look at designing your game with piracy in mind.” Before Valve had contacted him about publishing Audiosurf, Fitterer says, he was already looking at incorporating some of the same functionality into the game himself. “You build in your own auto-updater, you build in extra features like Audiosurf Radio – anything extra you can add which requires talking to a server.”

In other words, when DRM stops being a bitter pill to swallow and starts being a way to access features that you otherwise couldn’t, then people are far more likely to pay for your game than torrent it. At least, that’s the theory …

Ninety-two percent, part two
Like Crayon Physics Deluxe, World of Goo won a number of awards at the 2008 IGF long before it was ready for mass consumption. And like Purho, developers Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel opted to forego DRM for their PC release.

But for Gabler and Carmel, it was less an ideological statement and more a matter of practicality. They briefly flirted with using their own home-grown DRM scheme when they released a preview build of World of Goo to customers that pre-ordered the game. “It was kind of a hassle to write and was definitely a tech support headache,” Carmel says. The experience was enough to dissuade them from employing DRM in the retail version of World of Goo.

Carmel had read Carroll’s assessment of the widespread piracy of Ricochet Infinity, so he was prepared for the worst. And only a month after World of Goo‘s release, he reached a remarkably similar conclusion: 90 percent of the people playing the game hadn’t paid for it. (After an outcry on PC Gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Carmel revisited the numbers and concluded the actual figure was closer to 82 percent.) But where Reflexive was shocked into action by their figures, Carmel and Gabler maintained their composure. “There’s no rational reason to get worked up here,” Carmel says.

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“First, I don’t see someone searching for a game on a torrent site, seeing that it’s not there and then deciding to go and purchase it legitimately. They’ll either keep searching until they find it or not buy it at all. Second, I suspect that most pirates are kids or college students who have more time than money. If I earned nine bucks an hour and had a ton of leisure time, I would probably choose to spend a little extra time getting the game for free and spend my 20 bucks on something else.”

For his part, Carmel recognizes the limitations of the current business model, and like McMillen and Purho, he’d rather people had a chance to play his game whether they’re able to pay for it or not. But weighing commercial concerns against more artistic ones can be a delicate balancing act. “If someone in rural China who is earning a dollar a day plays the game without paying, I’m happy about it,” Carmel says. “On the other hand, if I personally torrent Crayon Physics Deluxe or Gish and not pay for them, then I suck. I can easily afford to pay for those games, and they’re worth every penny. Every dollar is a vote, and by paying for the games I like, I vote in favor of Petri and Edmund making more games.”

What lies ahead
Despite the financial urgency piracy brings for many major PC game developers, the extent of the problem – to say nothing of the possible solutions – is still up for debate. The most precise numbers available to developers are still only estimates – and that’s only if the game in question has a server-side component. Developers of titles without this connectivity are left completely in the dark

“It’s on everybody’s mind,” Fitterer says. He cites the 80- to 90-percent of World of Goo‘s player-base that acquired the game illegally. “Certainly, everybody’s wondering, ‘Well, what percentage of those would have bought it if they couldn’t have torrented it?’ And that’s a good question. I doubt it’s zero.”

If the numbers don’t make it abundantly clear, the way indie developers have reacted to them reflects an uncomfortable new reality for PC publishers: In the minds of end users, paying for content has become optional. It’s a trend completely at odds with the way the PC games industry has operated for the last two and a half decades, but accepting it might be the only way for developers to move forward.

“I used to pirate a ton of TV before Hulu … I haven’t been able to afford cable for years,” McMillen admits. “But that’s the thing – it’s all about realizing sh*t has changed. If you want to do something about it, then grow up and realize that you have to bend a bit and work with the new setup, like Hulu and what NIN and Radiohead have done.”

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At least in this regard, indies may be better equipped to adapt to the “new setup” than the majors. For one, there’s lower overhead – if you develop a game independently, you don’t have an accounting department poring over every balance sheet and trying to figure out how to plug the leaks. And without a dedicated marketing department making sure your game is at the forefront of the gamer consciousness, piracy might actually offer a budget alternative. It’s impossible to measure how many additional sales Carmel generated when his comments on World of Goo‘s piracy rate were reprinted across the internet.

There’s one last area where indies may have a leg up on the rest of the industry – public perception. Carmel offers perhaps the most concrete example yet of the benefits of a cordial relationship between a developer and its audience. After World of Goo‘s release, the first version of the game to appear on torrent indexes was the protected WiiWare version, not the DRM-free PC version (which had already been available to pre-order customers for a week). “If you count the extra seven days of the pre-release, that means the DRM-free version remained un-pirated more than four times longer than the protected WiiWare version,” Carmel says. “I’d like to think that this has to do with the good faith we created with our audience by releasing the PC version without any DRM.”

Will good faith and indie credibility be enough to stem future losses due to piracy? Could the solution lie in more robust download services or new revenue models? It’s hard to say. The only certainty at this point is that indie developers, along with the rest of the PC gaming industry, will continue to be tested by piracy. Many will bend, some will break and the rest will emerge from the ordeal stronger than they were before. Let’s hope the games follow suit.

Jordan Deam doesn’t pirate games. He just mooches off his coworkers.

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