With The Witness suffering heavily with issues of video game piracy, we take a look at some of the damaging repercussions that widespread gaming piracy can have.
So far, The Witness has proved to be a triumphant return to game development for indie developer Jonathan Blow. The title was released on January 26, and the puzzle game has already seen a hugely positive reception. The Witness has received strong critical acclaim, and, according to Blow, the game is on track to reach impressive sales to boot.
However, there's one list The Witness is topping that Blow is less than happy about; according to the developer, The Witness has been ranking high on one of the web's top torrent sites. Although the title has been selling very well, it also seems as though the game has been pirated savagely by a large number of PC players. Blow took to Twitter to discuss the issue, explaining that any sales missed through pirated versions of the game could damage the chances of his follow-up game being as of high a quality.
It's not the first time that Blow's titles have suffered from piracy. Braid also became a target, in spite of the game including a large number of features that are said to deter pirates. The puzzle platformer featured a demo version, a low price point, and was free of DRM for those who wanted it. Unfortunately, the project was still a preferred game for those individuals, and The Witness has proved to be no different.
Some people have cited a number of reasons for pirating The Witness, including the game's $40 price tag, which is seen as a little on the high side for an independently-released game. However, this is hardly a moral justification for stealing the title, and the potential financial hit Thekla Inc. has taken may be enough to force him to go to extreme measures for future games. Blow, who was once a staunch opponent of DRM, has admitted that he may have to resort to using the anti-piracy measure as a means of protecting his investment.
If that move does happen, it is bound to get the ire of some within the gaming community. DRM has long been a difficult pill to swallow, for an illness that many claim doesn't actually exist. It puts a barrier between the customer and the item they have purchased, and is an understandable cause of contention for those who feel they should have full ownership and access over their own games. It's worth remembering, however, that Jonathan Blow is hardly a faceless, all-powerful conglomerate of the video game industry. On the contrary, Blow put the money earned from Braid towards The Witness, using the financial success of one game to fund the next.
As it stands, The Witness looks likely to get away with a tidy profit in spite of the piracy it has suffered. However, other games have not been quite as lucky as the latest Thekla Inc. effort. In spite of claims that video game piracy does not have an effect on the industry's success, there can be severe ramifications – particularly for indie developers without the clout of a large publisher behind them.
The arguments that try to dispel the damage that piracy can bring to the industry have always been a little muddled. Whilst some claim that piracy can be used to send a message against high video game prices, the use of unfair industry practices, or simply allowing gamers to play a game they already own on a different device, there is still the elephant in the room of the number of games facing issues with pirates that do no fit any of these justifications. Meanwhile, statements such as "pirates would never buy the game anyway, so sales aren't affected" and "pirates simply try out games before they buy" are alternated without any sense of context.
However, even taking on board the idea that sales are not affected by PC piracy, there are still major problems that can be caused by the widespread pirating of a game. Take, for instance, the issue of the volume of online players. Certain titles, particularly those created by lesser-known developers, can suffer from huge connection problems due to the sheer number of pirate players at launch.
One such example is Demigod, from Stardock. The publisher had always taken a strong anti-DRM stance, accepting piracy as a part of the video game landscape. However, when the game was released, the much-lauded multiplayer mode failed to work correctly. Stardock and developer Gas-Powered Games had stress tested the online for 50,000 users at once, but Demigod was apparently dealing with up to 120,000 connections, of which only approximately 18,000 were legitimate.
The multiplayer issue proceeded to become a problem when it came to reviews, with a number of publications picking up on the connectivity problems and criticizing Demigod accordingly. By the time the issues were fixed, the damage was already done. At first glance, Demigod had a barely working multiplayer, which no doubt will have impacted on future sales.
Demigod is far from the only example where piracy played a part in damaging sales. iOS game Battle Dungeon had a similar experience, but with an even worse outcome. Developer Hunting Cow was forced to shut down the game entirely due to the server load that was being caused by the sheer number of illegitimate users. Offering up a full refund to any user who paid for the game, the developer revealed that due to the technical issues it did not think it could fix the game "to the level that our paying customers deserve."
Equally, some developers trying to put measures in place to stop piracy have had their own practices backfire. Developer Iron Lore Entertainment received damning customer reviews of Titan Quest before the game was even properly released. The title was leaked and pirated online, but the leaked version of the game was a cracked version that still had copy protection in place. As a result, non-registered users would suffer from regular in-game crashes. The end result was poor word-of-mouth – primarily from people who had never played the true retail version of the game.
Then, there is the example of Game Dev Tycoon, from Greenheart Games. The developer uploaded a cracked version of the game, with one major difference: games created in the cracked version would suffer from piracy, leading the in-game studio to failure. Ironically, those playing the pirated version were quick to take to forums requesting help on how to stop gamers from pirating their game, with some even requesting how to research DRM. By the end of just day one, only 6.4% of those playing Game Dev Tycoon had bought the game.
There is something very unnerving about the figures regarding legitimate versus pirated copies of games. Top-selling mobile title Monument Valley had a paying user base of only 5%, whilst the Thief reboot was also heavily pirated in advance of its release. Crysis 2, meanwhile, was the most pirated game of 2011, with nearly 4 million downloads of the game's torrent.
Requesting that creators work on projects for their love of the medium has long been an argument of those expecting quality content without paying. However, there is eventually a tipping point, and there are always ramifications – even when none are immediately apparent. Quality indie developers have already been pushed out of the industry by simply not being able to afford to work on another game, and that trend will likely continue if nothing changes in terms of piracy towards independently-funded titles.
Eventually, it comes down to having respect for the developer in question. Creating a video game is an immense task, and developers deserve to be able to find that effort worthwhile. With countless hours of enjoyment found in gaming, these studios have certainly earned the money of those who have played the game, and there's very little excuse for not coughing up the funds.