I’m sure you’ve noticed that this column is called “Experienced Points”. Since I suffer from an RPG form of substance abuse, this seemed like a good thing to call the column. Lately it’s been looking like I should have called it, “Shamus Young won’t shut his fat stupid mouth about DRM oh God he’s doing it again I think my eyes are bleeding someone please make him stop please oh please”. That might be a nice change for me, since I’d have my weekly column halfway written by the time I finished typing the title.

But one conversation leads to another, which is how we ended up here. These articles on DRM, piracy, and DLC have led to numerous conversations about business, economics, consumer rights, torrents, and a bunch of other peripheral issues. What’s always been frustrating is that we’re always grasping for information on which to build some sort of opinion. Piracy leads to DRM which leads to stupid and annoying hassles. Is it worth it? Does it help? Does it make sense for the publisher? Would making it more annoying make games more profitable, or less?

These are questions that might go through your mind while you’re sitting at the installation screen and waiting for the activation servers tell you you’re allowed to play the game you just bought. On one side the publishers are almost always tight-lipped about the subject. (Except to say that it’s RUINING THEM!!!!) And on the other end, it’s not like we can tell a great deal about the underground, formless, peer-based, anonymous world of piracy. But after a few years I think there are gems of wisdom we can sift out. I’m not offering hard answers, but I think what I offer here is more useful than the random guesses we’ve been using up until now.

How rampant is piracy?

In 2008, Reflexive looked at the people who submitted high scores for Ricochet Infinity and found that 92% of all players were using pirated copies of the game. Also that year 2DBoy reported 90% piracy on World of Goo. Last year developer Beautiful Game Studios’ claimed that Championship Manager was the victim of a 90% piracy rate. During the week the Demigod was released, publisher Stardock found that 85% of all players looking for a game were pirates. All of these are PC titles.

It’s very interesting how close all of these numbers are, despite the diversity of the games themselves. Casual and hardcore. Esoteric and mainstream. Indie and big-budget. DRM and DRM-free. Newly-launched titles and and games which have been been out for a year. All of them are from different companies. Yet the piracy numbers are within a few percentage points of each other. I think that, unless we’re going to imagine that all of these disparate parties are somehow forming this conspiracy to over-hype the effects of piracy, we can be very confident that the 90% figure is a pretty reliable number.

How many people own the game but pirate it to bypass the DRM?

I don’t actually like to call these people “pirates”. If you own a game then I don’t think it’s possible to “pirate” it in a moral sense. If the DRM is giving you problems, then getting a DRM-free version is arguably self-defense.

But in any case, these people can’t make up a large part of pirate crew. Even if every single person who bought the game also downloaded it, then that would still only account for one in nine of all pirates.

How many people use the pirated version as an extended demo?

Assuming someone tries a game and then goes out and buys it, they are basically indistinguishable from the previous group who buys it and then “pirates” it. They’re just doing it in a different order. In any case, these two groups combined simply can’t account for more than one in nine downloads.

However, if you’re willing to entertain an anecdote (which is the only thing we have to work with in a situation like this where nobody will show their cards to anyone else) then the story of iPhone game Tap-Fu is fairly instructive. The creators tracked both pirates and customers as they submitted high scores. They even kept track of how many people (as identified by their device) played as a pirate and then later as a legit customer. The result:

Not one. Ever.

Remember that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. One case doesn’t describe the industry in general. Also remember: None!


How many sales are lost to piracy?

Most people discussing this have to realize that not every download is a lost sale. A few pirates will be people who buy the game and then also pirate it. Some are people who are too broke to afford the game. Some are people who don’t really want the game, they’re just obsessive hunter-gatherers caught in an environment immune to scarcity.

So how many sales are lost, then? What if it turned out that I was totally wrong and that it is possible to enact perfect DRM on an open platform? How many of the 90% would buy if they simply couldn’t pirate? This is very tough to measure. The Ricochet story I linked above talked about the publisher adding some DRM and finding that they garnered an additional sale for every 1,000 pirates they stopped. I can’t distill their numbers without spending a thousand words on warnings and qualifiers, but in the end we have no way of knowing how well these results would translate to other titles.

If the 1 in 1,000 number was at all indicative of the rest of the industry, then it would be almost worthless to fight pirates at all. “Perfect DRM” would only result in an additional 0.9% increase in sales. Less than a single percent.

What we would need to really judge this figure would be some data from the big-name publishers.

How much does DRM help stop piracy?


Well, “none” if you’re talking about widespread torrent-based internet piracy, anyway. We don’t even need to cite a number for that one. All we need is to think about it. The process of pirating Galactic Civilizations II (DRM free) and Spore (extra-zesty DRM) is exactly the same: You find it and download it. How can the DRM impact the rate of piracy when the DRM doesn’t exist for the pirates? (Unless we’re talking about DRM adding to piracy by causing people to pirate out of protest, which is another whole can of worms.)

The only possible impact DRM can have on net piracy is to (maybe?) slow down the cracker and delay the game from appearing on the torrents. But that number seems to have more to do with how famous the title is. Spore was available to pirates before release day, so it’s pretty hard to imagine the DRM ever did anyone any good. If the game was released DRM free and appeared on the torrents (say) a day earlier, would that have changed the sales numbers?

But the kind of piracy it can stop is casual piracy. Simple friend-to-friend sharing of discs and installs can be thwarted by a simple disc check. Most gamers don’t have the skills to edit an executable and bypass even something as simple as that, much less tangle with SecuROM.

But it’s important to note that the 90% figures we see above come from both DRM and DRM-free games.

How sick is everyone of this entire piracy argument merry-go-round?


How many pirates are jerks?


Shamus Young is the guy behind Reset Button, Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels. Don’t forget that DRM-pushing publishers are jerks, too.

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