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The Mobile Gaming Mavens discuss the good and bad of piracy

And the culpability of the press
The Mobile Gaming Mavens discuss the good and bad of piracy
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Prompted by some rather alarming stats on the subject from Mobile Pie's Will Luton, this week we asked the Mavens:

How big a problem is games piracy on mobile, and does press coverage make it worse?

The most striking thing about the Mavens's responses was that they all had specific statistics on how many people were pirating their games.

For example, Andreas Vasen of Machineworks revealed that "for each copy we sell, three to five copies are used by pirates."

Mills™ of ustwo was a little more fortunate "We've had 80,000 downloads of Whale Trail in the last 12 days and 45,000 pirates on top of that. THANKS PIRATES."

This from the man who said he'd never use analytics...

Adam Telfer of XMG Studio was perturbed that its games were more successful amongst pirates than the paying consumer.

“Little Metal Ball was the #1 pirated game for awhile, but not the #1 paid game... weird. We should stop marketing to pirates I guess."

Piracy was so huge on the game, in fact, XMG decided to make it free.

Rowan Corben of Bravo said that ten times more people were playing his games than downloaded them and pointed out it was worse for the "higher-priced, hardcore games. Most casual gamers wouldn’t even know how to pirate."

Football fodder

As is often the case, it was a veteran of game development who provided the long view: Jon Hare of Tower Studios.

"It was the same back in the Amiga days when we did Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder; 10 pirate copies for every one sold - I am sure some of you are guilty. Nothing has changed."

Paul Chen of Papaya pointed out that pirate developers often steal games for overseas markets to unscrupulous app stores.

"Pirated games are usually not of the same quality and performance as the original, hence the branding of the game and developer are compromised," he stated. 

"This is especially true in China as downloads of pirated games continue to grow on the hundreds of app stores available there. The best way we've got around this is to plan out the title’s launch, not only in your key markets but also in markets where piracy occurs. The sooner you upload to these markets, the easier it is to fend off the pirated versions.”

Kevin Dent of Tiswaz had seen the ratio as a high as 40 pirated games for every one bought, as evinced by Vincent Dondaine of BulkyPix.

"On Hysteria Project, released in 2009, we were at 25,000 paid apps after two weeks," he summarised, "and at the same time 110,000 downloaded on Cydia."

Cydia, for the unschooled, being one of a number of portals that enable users to install apps for free on jailbroken iOS devices.

Media muddle

The fact that I, in the course of my duties as a journalist, just told you about one of the major routes to pirating iOS software, raised the second part of the question: does press reportage encourage piracy by informing customers about it?

HandyGames’s Christopher Kassulke didn’t think the role of the media was particularly relevant.

"The press can make it worse if they tell consumers how to get it illegally but, as we are talking about a mass market, no consumer wants to download a virus or trojan," he argued.

"It's up to the developer to show consumers the advantage of downloading content from a trusted source."

Most of the Mavens, though outraged at the scale of the piracy, felt that pirates weren't the types to buy your games anyway.

As YoYo Games' Sandy Duncan said "Talking about 'lost revenues' is naive. I thought most people accepted these days that folks who borrow your game rather than pay for it would never have paid for it anyway!"

Jared Steffes
of Tap.Me agreed; "Piracy exists, so the best thing to do is embrace it."

Jail-broken system

Revolution Software's Charles Cecil resented piracy but "my opinion is that people will feel justified in pirating any digital product if they consider that: they are being charged an unfair price; severe DRM makes it easier to pirate than to obtain legally; and they feel a disconnect with the seller."

For him, the press do a key job in creating that connection between the developer and the consumer.

Cecil also thought that iTunes app delivery was so seamless that a developer with good customer support, fair pricing and good customer loyalty had a good chance of persuading potential customers to buy rather than pirate.

Yet despite Cecil's faith and despite Dondaine's praise for Apple's recent restrictions on jail-breaking, once a device is jail-broken, it's often easier to pirate an app than not.

Wen Chen of Coconut Island followed the old adage that no news is bad news.

"Press coverage is definitely good for marketing a game. And high piracy is just a by-product of becoming famous. You can just not refuse fame in consideration of the badness of its by-product, can you? So we love press coverage, the more the better!"

Bigging the upside

Are there any benefits from piracy for game developers? Mills thought that pirates might be the friends of new IP and premium games, by spreading good word of mouth; "When people aren’t pirating your game, then you need to worry."

Duncan agreed; "We'd LIKE them to pay, we ASK them to pay, but they’re still an asset for us even if they don't. They're just part of the cost of marketing my game… and with zero distribution costs, they're not exactly expensive."

He thought the virility generated from free users was extremely valuable.

"If the average Facebook user has 200 friends, then 100 unpaid copies can reach out to 20,000 people. In turn, if piracy is at 90 percent that means you've touched 2,000 new potential paying customers and 18,000 more advocates."

There was some disagreement over whether freemium developers benefited from the greater distribution of pirated games with their IAP mechanisms intact.

Duncan talked about a Chinese Android games portal multiplying its income tenfold by moving to freemium, but Mobile Pie's Will Luton related some bad experiences with IAP piracy.

Firstly, hackers had hacked his My Star game to credit currency to their accounts on an IAP - he'd solved this by moving item values server-side. Secondly, he noted that a particular program was capable of spoofing Apple's IAPs and provided a (huge) list of titles that it worked with. We've chosen not to name the program here.

Luton commented, "I think it's important that the press have freedom in reporting this, even if it makes the situation worse for developers as the public pick up the technique. Devs also need to be savvy. Nobody on our team knew of these exploits until we saw anomalies in data."

Counting the cost

He recommended taking some time in development to close loopholes.

"We've costed in time for our next game to be hack-tested. It will cost us about a man week which is over £2,000, so possibly that's the real cost."

Luton isn't trying to stop the hackers for revenue reasons though - he doesn't think they'd pay - but to prevent them screwing up the in-game leaderboards.

Similar Adam Telfer, having suffered similar problems, recommended that developers encrypt their users' on-device data, to prevent easy hacking.

"There's not much you can do for pirated downloads," he said, "Unless Apple actually opens up its receipting structure and as a developer we can check its server for the receipt of your game. Then at least we could prevent users from going online unless they paid for the game."

But while few of the Mavens painted the issue as an entirely black or white one, Dent's take on the impact piracy can have on studios was far simpler.

Simpler, and typically a touch extreme.

"Anyone that says that there are any positives whatsoever in terms piracy is a lunatic that should be mocked publicly and 'accidentally' peed on at conference bathrooms," he concluded.

"Piracy as a branding exercise is idiotic and anyone that says it has any positive aspects lacks the sense God gave goats. If I were religious, I would actually pray for them."