Monument Valley isn’t particularly a difficult game, and it only lasts for a couple of hours, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. It’s a mobile puzzler in which players guide a princess through a fantasy kingdom, navigating isometric mazes comprised of optical illusions and M. C. Escher-like landscapes. With gentle colors, soothing music, and a striking minimalist aesthetic, Monument Valley isn’t something you play as much as something you experience. There’s no other game quite like it.
The public’s noticed, too. Only seven months after release, Monument Valley had already sold over 1.5 million copies. Apple named it the best iPad game of 2014, and the title was a finalist for both “Best Independent Game” and “Best Mobile/Handheld Game” at Geoff Keighley’s Game Awards, where it ultimately lost to Shovel Knight and Hearthstone respectively. Monument Valley currently boasts an 89 average on Metacritic – one of the best scores of 2014.
Unfortunately for developer Ustwo, Monument Valley is also extremely popular with pirates. According to figures released by the studio, roughly 95% of the copies of Monument Valley on Android devices are “unpaid” installations. On the iOS platform, which is more tightly controlled, just under half of the installations are legitimate.
Now, Ustwo is quick to point out that not all of the unpaid versions of the game are necessarily pirated. “Unpaid” doesn’t mean “stolen,” and an unspecified portion of the Monument Valley installs likely came from promotional or review copies of the game. Additionally, Monument Valley was free on the Amazon App Store for a single day last November, although Ustwo claims that these copies aren’t included in the Android sales data.
Even if half of these unpaid installations are legal – which seems like a stretch – that’s still a staggering number of pirated games. Ustwo director Neil McFarland has a theory as to why this happens. According to McFarland, the current mobile marketplace undervalues apps, and users expect to get complete experiences for either cheap or free. When a title like Monument Valley comes around, users feel that the $3.99 price is too high; hence, many users turn to piracy to get a “fair” deal.
Ustwo has dealt with this issue before; last fall, they released a $1.99 expansion pack that added eight new levels to Monument Valley. Gamers weren’t happy. Monument Valley’s App Store page was flooded with one-star reviews, claiming that add-ons should be free, not paid. The game’s review score plummeted. Eventually, Monument Valley’s fans flocked to the rescue, and the review score has since stabilized; still, the entire episode remains a sobering reminder of what happens when developers’ hard work goes unappreciated and users feel unduly entitled to take what isn’t theirs.