HOIST THE JOLLY ROGER PT.1 - March 2002
Oh no! Look out! Behind you! What is it? It’s piracy killing the games business, of course. But is it, really? PCZ’s semi-fearless investigator Stuart Campbell hisses from the cheap seats and throws popcorn at the villains.
It’s an old standard, of course. But the truth about piracy? “Always start with an anecdote”, it says here in the Feature-Writer’s Handbook, so let’s do. A few years ago, readers, while taking a brief break from the crazy world of games journalism and experimenting with doing something useful for a change, your reporter worked for a now-defunct software development company, called Sensible Software (ask your dad). One of the games I had a small hand in developing was a football title called Sensible World Of Soccer, the long-awaited sequel (all sequels are “long-awaited” in the games industry) to the hugely successful first Sensible Soccer. Shortly after the game was released, a magazine published a feature containing people’s reactions to it. Several of the respondents complained loudly and bitterly that a bug had been left in the game whereby, if you pressed a certain key, you could automatically win every game you played.
The thing was, the so-called “bug” was actually a playtesting feature which only existed in beta copies of the game, and had been carefully removed from the production version. These people, who’d written in to a magazine, giving their names and addresses and everything, were indignantly complaining about a feature which was only present in illegal pirate versions of the game which had been circulating ever since the release. So obviously, we sent some large programmers round with bats and had all their legs broken. (NB We will deny this in court.)
But how did the games industry come to be in such a state, where piracy was so endemic that the owners of illegally-copied games felt able to complain about them on a consumer-standards level? It’s like stealing a car, then suing the owner for having worn tyres when you crash it into a lorry while making your getaway. The truth is that videogames are almost certainly the most-pirated consumer commodity in history, leaving music CDs, videos and expensive French perfume trailing in their wake, and widespread illegal copying is now an acknowledged fact of life within the industry. But why? Well, before we start, let’s get back to basics.
THREE FLAVOURS OF PIRACY
There are actually three rather different areas covered under the umbrella term of “piracy” where the PC is concerned. The law regarding each area is essentially the same, but to most gamers there are pretty significant moral differences. The games industry draws no distinction between the forms, though, and is as dedicated to closing one down as another.
Much like the atomic bomb, the development and rise of emulation came about as the technical achievement blinded people to the legal implications. Coders wrote emulators just to see if they could do it, rather than with the intention of ripping off software companies, and gamers’ subsequent clamour for illegally-copied game files to play on these emulators actually took several authors entirely by surprise (leading to, among others, the withdrawal of the groundbreaking Nintendo 64 emulator UltraHLE within days of its release). The emulation community tends to make a distinction between the emulation of older, defunct formats/games and those which still produce revenues for publishers, but the games industry exercises no such discrimination, closing down websites offering Sega Master System games as readily as it went after Nintendo 64 ROMs. Indeed, so much does the industry hate emulation that, even after losing a number of court cases, Sony leant heavily on retailers to prevent them from stocking the Playstation emulator Bleem, even though to play PS games with it you had to go and buy the originals, increasing Sony’s potential Playstation game-buying audience by millions of people at a stroke. (This is perhaps the only known example in history of the games industry ever putting “moral” values before profits.) Since almost none of these games were ever actually published on PCs, emulation is broadly regarded as the least heinous form of piracy.
An area of the illegal “underground” almost exclusively devoted to PC games, abandonware operates under a molecule-thin veneer of respectability. Offering downloads of games at least five years old and no longer available for purchase (hence deemed to be “abandoned” by their owners, much like a stray dog or Manic Street Preachers guitarist), abandonware site hosts claim, in hurt tones, to be unable to understand how they could possibly be held to be causing the games industry any damage or loss of revenue. And, indeed, they have a powerful case. The industry, unsurprisingly, generally takes the view that intellectual property is intellectual property, regardless of how old it is. (Copyright actually subsists in any intellectual property until decades after the copyright-holder’s death.) The situation isn’t quite analogous to arresting a tramp for stealing rubbish out of your bin, but it’s not far off.
This is the real deal. Warez sites pride themselves on offering brand-new PC games for download on the day of release (“0-day warez”) or even before. Since this is, in theory at least, directly depriving the publishers of sales, it’s generally considered the most serious form of piracy, and is certainly the most widespread.
YOU GOT LOVE TECHNIQUE
Those, then, are the major forms of piracy. The techniques of it are even more various, and form part of a circular chase of technology which has been going on since the early 1980s. At first, games had to be manually and individually “cracked” using special copier programs, leading the industry to invent special recording and code-encryption techniques to interfere with the copiers. Then the advent of double-deck tape recorders (it’s hard to imagine there was a time in recent memory when such things hadn’t been invented yet) made copying the actual tapes child’s play, forcing the industry to experiment with external forms of protection, such as code books (where you had to type in a special key after loading, before the game would actually play), hardware addons without which the game wouldn’t run, or bizarre distorting lenses through which you had to look to unscramble an on-screen code. (No, really.) Hackers now had to hack out all the protection code by hand, and this fractionally slowed the piracy of the games, but never by more than a day or two, since there’s essentially no such thing as unhackable code. The industry has been using variants and combinations of these two approaches (on-media and off-media) ever since, with a lack of success that’s been more or less total.
ROUND AND AROUND WE GO
Indeed, the primary achievement of on-game protection is to stop the - comparatively limited, and hence less damaging to the industry - “playground” piracy of games between friends, and force those who want illegal copies to seek out professional pirates, hence exposing themselves to an almost infinitely wider range of dodgy software. Much like the argument against sending juvenile tearaways to prison, because it simply exposes them to the influence of far more serious criminals and effectively abandons the possibility of rehabilitation (or the argument for legalising cannabis to restrict people’s contact with harder drug dealers), this is an observation which holds little sway in the face of the Victorian moral approach which the industry generally chooses to pursue where piracy is concerned.
So where does this all leave us? Like the war against crime and the war against drugs, the war against piracy can, fundamentally, never be anything but an eternal one. You can never make code uncrackable, you can never implement a protection system that can’t be removed by a skilled hacker. Neither the industry nor the forces of law have the resources to chase, catch and prosecute the thousands of illegal software traders who can be found all over the country every weekend. And as with drugs, mounting a “war against piracy” has the problem that it comes up against basic human nature. Just as people will always want to get out of their heads from time to time to counter the stresses and tensions of life, so they will always want to get something cheap or for free, especially if – crucially - they consider the “real” price to be an outrageous ripoff. (After all, who bothers to pirate books when you can buy them for a fiver?) Which brings us to the beating heart of the matter.
THE PRICE IS… RIGHT?
Let’s try to be brief with this. Everything about piracy pretty much boils down to the price of games. (While piracy has always been with us, it was pretty much confined to the playground in the days of the Spectrum etc. It didn’t become big criminal business until the 16-bit era, when the price of new games suddenly tripled overnight.) Pirates say they do it because games are a ripoff. The industry says that they’re not, because they cost millions to develop and they offer more entertainment hours per pound than other leisure items. Who’s right?
Well, the industry has a point in that the best games offer a lot of play time for your money. A good game can easily occupy you for 40 hours or more, which at roughly a quid an hour compares very favourably with going to the movies, the theatre or a football match. But be honest, how many games released in an average year could you honestly said you’d had 40 hours of enjoyment out of?
Development cost, also, is a total red herring. Juan Sebastian Veron cost Manchester United enough money to develop at least ten PC games, but it doesn’t cost £400 to go and watch him play. (Well, not unless you buy a programme and at least two meat pies at the refreshment kiosk.) Hardback books have almost zero development cost, yet they sell for the exact same price as a Mariah Carey album that might have cost £20 million to record. Development cost is, let’s be absolutely clear about it, entirely irrevelant to the retail price of just about anything. Games don’t cost £40 because they have to, they cost £40 because software publishers want them to.
The truth is that games are pirated so much because the gap between their physical cost and their actual cost is so huge. When something costs 40p to physically manufacture and sells at £40, the scope for the unscrupulous to come in and undercut the retail version with a cheap but identical copy is so massive, and the potential for profit so great, that they can afford to take a lot of risks and absorb a lot of costs (fines, confiscated stocks etc) to do so. And the gap between the physical costs and selling prices of games is, purely, a policy decision by software publishers. As the owners of the games, they are of course entitled to ask any price they like for them. But by leaving such a huge credibility gap in that pricing (pirated music CDs, by comparison, are far more rare at markets, car boots etc, despite being at least as popular as games and even easier to copy), you’d have to say they were inviting the very problem they say they want so much to be rid of. Could it be that in truth, the industry knows that piracy is actually beneficial to it? That’s a question, unfortunately, that we don’t have room to answer here. But watch this space.
WARRIORZ OF THE WASTEGROUND
Having left the cosy, comfortable surroundings of home (see MY ART WAS THE KNIFE) in search of illegal software, I braved one of the foulest days in living memory to visit a local open-air market, one of thousands set up every week in carparks and bits of waste ground the length and breadth of the country, and see if I’d have more luck. In driving, freezing rain and gale-force January winds, almost all of the market’s usual traders had given up and gone home, but around 20 hardy souls were sticking it out, weighting their tables down with huge rocks and occasionally leaping to avoid sudden deluges of water as the wind whipped up the covering tarpaulins and dislodged the huge puddles that had been gathering in them. Almost two thirds of the market’s remaining stalls were occupied by illegal software traders, and within minutes of arriving I’d managed to obtain over £2,000 worth of PC software for just £25. (Five quid a disc or five for £20 seemed to be the going rate at all the stalls, with application software more popular than games. Dreamcast and Playstation games were also available for £2 each, and PS2 games at the same price as the PC stuff.
Taking my life in my hands and risking my kneecaps for you, the readers of PC ZONE, I then revealed my secret journalistic identity (“Hi,” I said, “I’m Anthony Holden from PC ZONE magazine.”) and, promising a fair hearing and no photographs, delicately managed to persuade one of the traders, a late-30s man with a Midlands accent, to take shelter from the gruesome weather in a nearby café, and repent his crimes and unburden his immortal soul over a bacon sandwich. For the purposes of identification, we’ll call him Mister Pirate Guy.
PCZ: So, there must be a lot of money in pirate games for you to be out on a day like this.
MPG: Christ, I don’t think there’s enough money in anything to be out on a day like this.
PCZ: If there is, though, pirate games must be it. There’s almost no-one here but illegal software traders.
MPG: Well, the profit margins are certainly bigger than selling broken biscuits or garden furniture, I’ll say that much. So yeah, I guess we’ve got more motive than most. It’s not that lucrative, though. You won’t see any of these guys driving away in BMWs.
PCZ: So come on, how lucrative is “not that lucrative”? How much money do you take in in an average day?
MPG: On a good day we can make a few hundred quid. We were really busy before Christmas, obviously, but there are a lot of stalls here competing for the trade. And then you get days like today where there’s hardly anyone out, no-one’s got any money to spend after New Year anyway, and we’ll be lucky to pay for the cost of the stall and the petrol for the van. Plus you get soaked and frozen and you miss the football on Sky.
PCZ: It’s an out-in-the-open sort of business in more ways than one. Being here so blatantly in public, selling a product that’s obviously illegal to even the slowest-witted policeman, don’t you get arrested a lot?
MPG: Nah, Trading Standards or the police hardly ever bother us. Because, you know, at the end of the day we’re not doing anyone any harm and they’ve got bigger fish to fry.
PCZ: Not doing anyone any harm? I know a lot of people in the videogames industry who’d disagree with you there.
MPG: Yeah, but I don’t see many of them going out of business, do you? All you read in the papers is about games selling millions of copies and making more money than movies and CDs and whatever. They seem to be doing all right. Anyway, they’re just greedy bastards, so fuck ‘em.
PCZ: You could say, though, that they’ve done all the work, so why shouldn’t they get the reward? (Slightly nervously) You’re making a load of cash out of their hard work without giving them anything back, how can you call them greedy?
MPG: Because at least we sell stuff to people at a price they can afford. None of the families I know can afford to get their kids these games at 40 and 50 quid a time. And some of the PC technical stuff costs, like, hundreds of pounds. If they didn’t cost so much, we wouldn’t be here.
PCZ: So what, this is all some kind of Robin-Hood social welfare program, then? Videogames For Poor Kids?
MPG: Don’t be stupid. But like I say, if people thought games were worth 40 quid, they wouldn’t come to us, would they? They’d go to a nice warm shop and get a box and a receipt and stuff. As long as we can sell stuff at a tenth of the shops and still make a bit of money, we’ll always be here. Even when we do get raided, it’s not exactly hard to replace the stock, you know?
PCZ: So where do you get all the games from, anyway? You’ve got boxes and boxes full, I presume you don’t run them all off yourself on a CD burner?
MPG: No, I get them from a guy in town.
PCZ: What sort of a guy?
MPG: Just a guy.
PCZ: A dodgy guy?
MPG: Everyone’s dodgy one way or another, aren’t they? I don’t think he’s especially dodgy, he doesn’t shoot people or anything. Just an… entrepreneur. I’m not talking about him any more, though. If it turns out he does shoot people, I don’t want him starting with me.
Note: To protect journalistic sources, all notes from this meeting, along with all the pirated CDs purchased, have been destroyed. None of them, incidentally, contained any viruses or pornography, though I did draw quite a vulgar doodle on my notebook while the bus was stuck in traffic on the way home.
EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING
The economic driving forces behind piracy are well-documented, of course. But a lesser-spoken incentive, and the biggest difference between game piracy and other kinds of piracy, is that – uniquely - pirated games often actually offer the consumer a tangibly BETTER product than the “real” version which costs ten times the price. Buy knock-off perfume and you’ll get heavily-diluted industrial drain cleaner that’ll strip the gold off your watch. Buy a pirate video and there’s a good chance that it was filmed with a camcorder in the local Odeon and consists mostly of footage of the back of someone’s head and the rustling of sweet wrappers from the next seat.
But buy a pirated game and not only will the code and the graphics and the sound and the gameplay be identical in every respect to the shop-bought version, but it’ll also be free of annoying protection systems (ironically employed to deter piracy, but which only legitimate buyers actually have to suffer), will probably come complete with any required patches already applied (because it’s a lot easier for pirates to replace stock with “fixed” versions than it is for shops), may have various cheat and training options added, or will simply be out three months before it’s due to be officially released in this country. (Though this last is more often seen with console games than PC titles.) This is a difficult area for the industry to address, and one of the reasons it’s so hard for it to persuade the public that pirates are nasty criminal ripoff merchants.
PIRACY MYTH 1. You’re allowed to own a pirate copy of a game for 24 hours for “evaluation” purposes as long as you delete it after that time.
TRUTH: No you’re not. It’s possible that this extremely-widespread misconception derives from an exception in the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act that allows intellectual property rights to be waived for “purposes of review”, but the clause in fact is only intended to enable, for example, the quoting of bits of dialogue in a movie review. Try telling a judge you have an illegal copy of Return To Castle Wolfenstein purely for “purposes of review” and he’ll laugh you right into jail. (Unless you’re a games journalist, of course.)
PIRACY MYTH 2: Pirate game CDs are often riddled with viruses, extreme pornography and similar unpleasantness.
TRUTH: I’ve been writing articles about piracy for around 10 years now, and in that time I’ve had cause to examine literally hundreds, probably thousands, of pirated games. You know how many times I’ve found a virus or extreme pornography on one? This many times: None. Pirates, including internet warez sites, want their “customers” to come back just as much as any legit business does. Ironically, the only people who’d have anything to gain from distributing virus-infected pirate games are software publishers, and even they’re unlikely to do it since a court would look very unfavourably on them taking the law into their own hands by destroying someone’s data.
PIRACY MYTH 3: It’s illegal to make copies of software you legitimately own.
TRUTH: In fact, various UK and international laws explicitly permit the making of a backup copy of any legitimately-owned software, as long as the copy and the original are never in use at the same time. In fact, it’s an extremely wise move to do so, as most publishers will either try to charge you an exorbitant “administration fee” to replace copies of a game that’s stopped working (usually more than it would cost to just re-buy the game, given how quickly game software depreciates), or simply shrug their shoulders and say “We don’t make that any more, we don’t have any copies we can give you.” (Such shoddy customer service is the norm rather than the exception with games firms – try ringing up the publishers of any game you own that’s more than, say, 18 months old, and tell them the disc’s gone wonky and can you exchange it for a new one, please?, and see how far you get.)
MY ART WAS THE KNIFE
“Here’s an idea,” said PCZ as they commissioned this feature. “Why don’t you spend, say, one afternoon on the Net and see just what you can download in that time? Oh, and if anyone asks, you ain’t seen us, okay?”
So I gave it a try. But the truth is, the days of the Web being the home of piracy are over. Games nowadays are so absurdly vast (1GB installs are far from uncommon) that the massive bandwidth required to host and transmit them leads to sites being closed down almost as soon as they open. If you look for “warez” on the WWW, what you’ll actually get is sites offering lists of other sites, which offer lists of other sites, which offer lists of other sites. Almost none of them actually have working game downloads, and almost all of them will open at least half-a-dozen browser windows for hardcore porn sites while you browse. Once, as an experiment, I didn’t close down any pop-ups while I looked for a copy of Medal Of Honor, and within just three minutes of starting the search, I had an impressive 56 browser windows open simultaneously, at which point my PC keeled over and crashed under the strain of animating 350 XXX-rated banner ads. (And needless to say, I never once came within sniffing distance of a working download link.)
Even Usenet or peer-to-peer Napster-style services, where you can still find actual files rather than invitations to watch “100% GENUINE” footage of Britney Spears having sex with dogs, creak to the point of collapse under the massive weight of today’s PC games. Files have to be chopped up into so many hundreds of pieces to fit onto news servers that they get shoved off by the next game in line long before even a broadband or cable connection has time to get all the parts. The truth is, despite the hype, in the 21st Century the Net is a completely rubbish place to get hold of pirated new PC games. What the games industry couldn’t do with policing, it achieved with the silicon equivalent of steroids, pumping up games until they were simply physically too much for the Web to cope with. By far the most likely source of dodgy games is the one rather closer to home. (See WARRIORZ OF THE WASTEGROUND for more of the filthy truth.)