It’s time I stopped lazing about and wrote a legitimate article again, one that delves into an issue that I have strong feelings for that some people are sure to disagree with. Except this time, I promise not to cop out and slack on the actual arguments. Piracy (and to a lesser extend, emulation) has long been something I can’t really get behind. It’s a tricky issue, one that I realize has more shades of gray than a striped tom cat, but a recent event has really raised my hackles and gotten me charged to write about it. I’m not about to utterly demonize those of us who pirate games, but I’m certainly going to be critical. So, let’s get started.
To set the stage for why this issue has sprung up so readily in my mind and lit a fire in my spirit, take a look at a story last week regarding Volgarr the Viking. Apparently, the game was released entirely free of DRM, which people tell me is the leading cause of piracy in order to make a statement or out of convenience or some such, and ultimately, only 4% of people playing it had actually bought it, meaning 96% pirated it. The developers were very open about this, though to their credit, they didn’t point any blame at those pirating the game and instead thanked the 4%, stating that these customers were very valuable to them.
I can really respect a developer like Crazy Viking Studios for taking the high road, because from where I’m sitting, that looks really bad for us as gamers, or more specifically, it looks really bad for gamers who openly pirate and act proud of it. If I can be allowed just a few moments to lose my composure, wow, that’s utterly bananas. I can’t even comprehend the sort of things running through a person’s head when he decides that pirating isn’t a big deal since it’s “a victimless crime” and “developers make enough money anyway.”
Getting back on track and reining myself in, I absolutely can see the frustration with a large publisher like EA or Activision or Ubisoft or Nintendo doing something that seems really slimy or underhanded to the point where their business practices should cause us to shake our heads and stamp our feet. What I don’t understand is how pirating games sends any sort of positive message to these publishers when we’ve already seen that they’re only hearing one message: pirating is a problem and it must be crushed via any means necessary.
Very few publishers, if any, are willing to discuss piracy as anything but a plague that must be defended against and stopped at all costs. Usually, the costs are very restrictive DRM, Day-One DLC, Season Passes, churning out “safe” sequels rather than new IP, or any number of concepts that ultimately harm customers before they harm publishers. Oh, and development studios get hit with layoffs and shutdowns when publishers grow unhappy or frightened, so there’s that, too. To my knowledge, only Valve has really spoken moderately regarding piracy, and their only stance is that piracy exists because it’s more convenient than the current model, hence why Steam bends over backwards to be simple and cheap, thus negating the biggest faults with the system that piracy uses as justification.
So if pirating doesn’t send a strong message to a publisher and it isn’t simpler than a service like Steam, why would anyone do it? Well, other than the obvious “because it is free” argument? I’ve read comments and discussions here and there where people say they pirate because of a handful of reasons:
- Because they wouldn’t have played the game otherwise.
- Because they won’t pay full price for a game unless they can try it out first.
- Because by pirating a game, they can then recommend it to their friends and thus actually help the overall sales.
- Because games are expensive and they wouldn’t have been able to afford them otherwise.
Let’s tackle those claims one by one. First, the notion that you wouldn’t have played the game otherwise is irrelevant and proven false due to you playing the game. Pirated games aren’t like free samples you’re handed in a grocery store. There’s at least a moderate amount of work required to pirate a game, such as seeking out a game you want, finding a safe torrent, and making sure your PC or emulated device can properly run it.
Just the fact that you have to put in the effort to look up the game shows a certain amount of interest in the game. However, I’m not saying that interest equals a full $60 purchase. Please don’t misunderstand me and assume I’m saying that playing a game means you’re on board with everything a game’s price entails. Personally, I very rarely purchase a game new and rely on used game stores other than Game Stop (if you have a small game store nearby and the owners aren’t jerks, you should be supporting it whenever possible). All I’m saying is that when you play a game, you’ve decided that it’s worth your time, so the argument that “you wouldn’t have played this game if you hadn’t pirated it” means nothing, especially not to a publisher since you’ve told them, “not only am I not going to pay for your product, I’m going to act like it’s your fault in the first place.” This is a classic “stop hitting yourself” argument.
Now, the idea of not wanting to pay full price for a game unless you’re able to sample it is a slightly more reasonable concept. But the idea that a “demo” should be “all of the game until I’ve decided I liked it enough to pay for it” isn’t a fair demand of any game, no matter how good. I absolutely see the limitations of reviews and even more do I see the limitations of the demos that publishers put out that don’t really give you a sense of the games, but demanding the game be free until proven worthy is unreasonable all around, especially with services like Redbox and Gamefly being relatively cheap. This doesn’t even consider the deals you frequently uncover during Steam Sales and the like.
No one likes to feel cheated when they purchase a game, and I don’t think you should feel cheated. But there is something to say for patience. Again, I’m outside the norm and I don’t generally get around to the biggest AAA titles until they’ve been out for a year or more (Nintendo excluded here because I’m one of the bad guys that still buys every Nintendo game Day One). During this year, I’m able to spend some time playing through my exorbitant backlog of games while creating a nice hunger for the games that rose to the top of the crop during the year. This is primarily a retro gaming site, so the concept of looking backward for all our gaming isn’t an outlandish notion. If you want to be sure (or at least more sure) that you’ll enjoy a game, give it some time and let the launch-time buzz die down and the warm din of the positive or negative rumblings make their way into your ear canals.
What really startled me was when I heard a comment that said something to the effect of, “I didn’t buy this game right away, but after pirating it and playing it, I discovered I loved it and then bought not only a copy for myself but also for four of my friends. Therefore, one pirated copy equaled five purchases.” Yes, in that one instance, you’ve proven yourself to be the shining example of a “good” pirater. But that’s an anecdote.
Many piraters come out and say something very similar, claiming so be the good guys who do the early grunt work reviewing or scouting ahead for their friends before recommending a title. I don’t have the raw numbers for either how much money publishers lose to piracy (I don’t think it’s as bad as they claim) or how many games piraters ultimately purchase after pirating (I don’t think it’s as many as they claim), but I can say that in the instance of 96% of players having pirated copies, one pirated copy did not turn into five purchases, otherwise the number of pirated copies would be closer to 18% or so.
With all these excuses out of the way, we get to one of the most popular and sympathetic: “I only pirate games because I can’t afford them.” This is a really cruel one to deal with, because there’s no kind way to get around it. Video games are not essential to your life and therefore aren’t on par with stealing food or finding shelter in an abandoned house. Video games are a luxury that have maaaaaaaaaaaany options for maaaaaaaaaaaany income types.
Some games are for those of us with a lot of money, like Battlefield 4 on the PS4. Some games are for those of us with slightly older consoles, like something on the Wii. Some games are priced at a couple of dollars and offered on pretty much any phone with a touch screen. And some games are even entirely free and can be accessed at your local library if you’re to the point where your family can’t even afford a PC (I suggest Newgrounds.com for some really high-quality Flash games).
Overall, stealing a AAA game isn’t a heroic act. It’s not a selfless act or a way to stand up against a system that’s beaten you down. You’re not Robin Hood and you’re not in dire need for that thing that some other people have and can pay for. If you really believed this is a fair way to act, I would like you to walk into a Target or large retail store and just walk out with a AAA game. Or even better, grab one from the cheap games section, that shelf with games out in the open, unsecured. You know, a game you wouldn’t have played otherwise. Go right in and take that off the shelf, then walk home. It’s the same exact concept as pirating. If you have no problem doing the former, then I’m not going to fault you for having no qualms with the latter. At least stick to your guns as a thief.
The one large exception I can see to this is Latin America. While I’m not about to suggest that it’s OK for someone from Latin America to pirate to his heart’s content, I at least understand his or her situation a bit better. The markup video games receive anywhere south of the United States is outlandish to the point that the only options there really are either be rich or pirate games (or get really good at bargain hunting). If you live in a Latin American country, please hop in the comments and let me know your situation and the situation of your friends in this regard because honestly, you’re probably the only people I’m legitimately interested in hearing from on this matter of piracy when it comes to cost and feasibility, and you probably have a very unique perspective on the matter.
If I may shift gears slightly, I do also want to touch on emulating retro games. Emulation is something I’ve never been OK with, specifically because I believe it ruins the whole point of the games to begin with. With emulation, the reasons are somewhat different from piracy as people claim they emulate because the games are no longer in print, the games are ludicrously expensive to purchase otherwise, and that in a way they’re just keeping gaming’s rich history alive in some way.
I truly believe that that last point is such a mealy-mouthed way of making yourself sound somehow special and above it all. You’re not the savior of retro games. An emulated copy of Final Fantasy 6 is not a real copy of Final Fantasy 6 (though I’m open to the debate about whether any of the legitimate ports are lesser or not. Certainly a topic for another day).
This is where I show my age more than ever, but retro games are meant to be found and played on their originally intended system (I’m considering a port as being made for a specific system as well). A game like Mega Man 2 doesn’t feel right when you’re not holding a NES controller in your hands, and even a port like Mega Man Anniversary Collection feels weird since the GameCube controller is not the NES controller. Call me a snob in this instance, but I want a game to be an experience and part of that experience comes with having to track down a cartridge and a system, sometimes clean one or both to get them to work, and then hooking them up to a TV built to play said game (in most cases I mean a CRT).
The thrill of the hunt gets completely lost when you emulate. Cutting out that real-world personal connection devalues what you could have with your game. There’s just something more emotional about discovering a hidden gem somewhere in a game shop and playing it as soon as you get home rather than downloading the entirety of the SNES library and never playing more than one or two games. If emulation becomes the norm, we lose our culture.
Others are still going to claim that emulation strengthens our culture and keeps these historic games from being lost forever. But I have do disagree yet again. Older games are never going to disappear altogether, thanks in part to guys like Pat or the Game Chasers. These are people who understand what it means to keep our culture alive, and more specifically what our culture even is to begin with. I don’t necessarily think emulation is the worst thing in the world, but I do feel that your gaming experience is lesser and as a result, you as a gamer are lesser in my eyes. Again, I’m snobby about this, though I’m very curious to hear your reasoning behind emulation (convenience or data backup to games you already own, perhaps?).
Overall, I don’t want to end this article with my typical snarking and hostile attitude. I legitimately want to open the discussion here and dive deeper into the topics presented. I offered a few arguments here, specifically the larger or louder arguments, but I want to know what reasoning you have for either piracy or emulation. Or why you’re against either. We’re a community and a culture, so let’s continue building it with courteous debate.
Also, did you guys see that recent Super Mario 3D World footage? Dat game’s gonna be off the HOOK.