Piracy – The good and the bad

03 May
May 3, 2012

Yes, I know it’s been a month, and yes, I know that I should do a proper update now. I’m writing that up on the weekend, I swear.

But I saw a conversation on twitter and had some thoughts I wanted to get down that didn’t fit in the 140 character format, so I’m posting them up here. Call it thinking out loud.

The discussion was the old one, about whether piracy is good or bad for sales. Some developers said that it was good, that sales increased after their game got torrented. Others say that their sales drop dramatically after sales. (Jay Barnson, for example, said that his sales halved the day after Frayed Knights went up on the torrents, and stayed there)

Before I say anything, I want to point out that I have no real experience or evidence to back up anything I’m going to say. I’m guessing, and these gents all have more real-world experience than me (for a while longer at least), so anything I’m writing here is pure conjecture. Bear that in mind.

I suspect that, like most things in life, the answer is not black and white. That piracy is both good and bad, simultaneously, and whether it is a net positive or negative depends on the circumstances, which variables are dominent.

In terms of positive, piracy generates word of mouth. This is something that is worth money to your business, PR, which is why advertising companies will actually pay money to gain it.

Any person who plays your game and likes it, whether they pirated it or bought it legitimately, may go on to introduce your game to friends, to make them aware of it, if not actively encourage them to play it. More people will be willing to try a product that is free than one which is unknown but costs money (as proven in supermarkets where they give away free samples to try to bridge that hesitance).

You could argue that a demo neatly avoids this problem, but a full free game is probably more attractive than a demo, especially these days, and will probably be propagated to a greater extent.

So that’s the positive. What’s the negative?

Well, I believe that each person who pirates your game and likes it has a greater-than-zero chance to keep it without paying, even if paying is within their means. This isn’t going to be everybody, and the people who do it won’t do it all the time. But I think that, of the people who could pay, given the opportunity to have their cake and eat it, some number of them will choose not to pay if they can get away with it.

There is an often-made claim amoungst gamers that a pirated version is like a demo, and that if they like it they will buy it. While this certainly does happen, is it likely to happen in 100% of cases? If, after you watch a movie, I asked you if you would be willing to pay full price to watch it again, would you be as motivated to pay as you were when you were still anticipating seeing if for the first time? No. The sating of hunger reduces desire.

The only logical conclusion is that some percentage of people who would otherwise pay, won’t.

The balance of these two factors is what gives rise to the differing results, I believe. Imagine, for example, that everyone on the entire planet had heard about your game and was intimately acquainted with all its features. This would negate, or at least drastically reduce, the word-of-mouth benefit that comes from each new pirated copy. The word has, after all, already been spread.

(There would still be some positive effect though, from friends and trusted figures enthusing about the title)

Now imagine that you have the worst PR in the world, and literally no one had heard about the game. But it’s free on torrents and some people simply grab anything that is free, compulsively. Now, the word-of-mouth effect is maximized because there is no overlap between people who hear about it from pirates and people who have already heard about it (because no one has lready heard about it).

Now you get maximum positive gain from piracy.

This, to me, helps explain why you see differing results from piracy. If you’ve already managed to inform most of the niche you’re aiming for about your game via traditional means, the benefit from word of mouth may be outweighed by your potential customers discovering a free version.

If, however, your product is not well known or your ‘personal brand’ isn’t well trusted amoungst the consumers you’re targeting, the largest benefit to you may come from word-of-mouth and the positivity of peers, and that may outweigh the percentage of these new customers that you lose to piracy in the process.

This theory may be wrong, or overly simplistic/missing factors, I really have no way to validate it. But that’s my best guess at what is happening. Does that mean you should love your pirates, or hate them?

I…really don’t know.

2 replies
  1. Kimari says:

    My whole opinion on the issue could be summarized by your last sentence: “I…really don’t know.”

  2. Grady says:


    The above linked is absolutely the best analysis of piracy I have ever read. While you’ve definitely hit a chord of truth I believe the reason you’re left somewhat floundering is because you’ve essentially ignored 3 of the ‘currencies’ in the equation.


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