The Digital Sea: Piracy
Note: I apologize for missing my update yesterday. I’m pretty glum about losing track of time, ah well. Onto the discussion.
I was thinking recently about the entire debate over the legitimacy of piracy of digital media. As the cogs were turning I was reminded of a famous quote that anyone familiar with the Civilization video game series or just human history in general should be familiar with.
Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.
- Publilius Syrus
With this in mind. I believe that Piracy may be an adequate measure of the quality of a product. There are first some misconceptions that must be clarified before we move on with this thesis. The first is that when an item is torrented by a new person that it is officially a lost sale. There is absolutely no direct connection between the sales of a product and the amount of people pirating it. There are however connections with piracy and quality.
It is an irrefutable truth that quality sells. There are many real world companies that sell products that at one time were militantly marketed, at this point however they sell primarily on word of mouth, while you will indeed find pepsi or coke commercials they are nowhere near as prolific as they once were. Their products sell by word of mouth and a compounding effect that can be found all over the universe in various forms. Once you hit a certain point in sales you will always see an increase in sales until you over saturate the market.
However there is a strong misconception that the price tag slapped on a product is that products worth. This is only true if people are purchasing it at that price point. If 10 people attend to a product and only 1 person buys it then the price is not indicative of the products worth. A 50 dollar game is only worth 50 dollars if the consumer feels it is, it is in no way decided by the developer. This is true for all products, car manufacturers have tried to slap ridiculous price points on outdated automotive products for a long time and it has more than once hurt them dearly.
You will always be able to find people who will buy something regardless of the price point. However they aren’t buying the product because of its quality or usefulness, in most cases it is a matter of status. Most Apple products aren’t worth half of what they cost when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it all but they sell well to many people because of the status that comes along with them. It’s silly, it’s foolish, but since people traded stones for products we’ve had an unusual desire to put poo on a pedestal.
There are a few major differences between digital products and physical ones. Digital products can be replicated a nearly infinite amount of times for almost no cost. The only literal loss the company suffers from the replication is a loss of time for the employees, which is hard to legislate against because we all cost others precious hours out of their life. We do it by contributing to traffic, by being slow at the grocery store, or simply be not planning things out before we leave the house. Old property laws were put into place not because of the time lost but because of the literal notion of physical products, once someone has stolen your car you no longer have that car. It is no longer a functional option for you, however is someone copies your car screensaver you still have a copy of it.
When a video game is pirated, there are a few outcomes that can result. The people will enjoy the product and will wait until the cost of the product is relative to the quality of the product, which can very well be at its starting price point. They could not enjoy the product and delete it from their PC, which more often than not is the case (more on this later). Finally they could download the product and enjoy it but never purchase it. We’ll start with these folks and work back up.
People who pirate because they want things free are potentially dangerous to an economy. However there is absolutely nothing to gain by fighting them. Since their piracy of a product does not effect the overall number of copies available (as opposed to a corn or car thief) there is no reason to attempt to prosecute. They would never purchase the product in the first place, so if you ended all piracy you wouldn’t gain any sales or at the very least would gain negligible returns.
The next group of folks that pirate a game and then delete it because of its low worth are equally harmless. Considering the state of marketing and the nature of misleading for profit it is unreasonable to assume that people would ever trust a companies description of their product. There are various phenomenon in play as well that cause people to see their own creations with a pretty substantial bias (look at Will Wrights statements on SPORE for instance, he is talking about an entirely different game). These people technically cost you sales because they might have purchased the product, however they only cost you sales because it is almost impossible to return the game. This snatch and grab tactic should never be promoted and it is one of the pillars holding up piracy as we know it.
You can argue for Demos however it is no small secret that Demo’s are about as accurate to the representative nature of a games full worth as the text on the box. They always exaggerate how much more can be experienced with the full game, for instance counting all the renames of a same item to boost the number from 4 unique items to 40 thousand. Not since the mid to late 90’s has a Demo been anywhere near accurate of the full gaming experience and everyone deeply involved with the gaming world knows this.
Finally we have the first group of folks who play a game, enjoy it, and purchase it once the price point matches the worth of the game. These people are incredibly important. They are the strongest estimator of a games actual quality. When a game comes out for 50 dollars and has almost no sales, but later drops to 30 and sells 2 million copies it is quality control in action. The company should spend less time trying to accuse consumers of theft (for reasons stated above) and work more on providing a product who’s worth is accurate to its cost. A thick layer of glitter on a steaming dog turd is not treasure, it is a turd covered in glitter.
The day that we invent means to instantly replenish with no cost physical materials, such as food, or wood, or anything of that nature the rules in the physical world will match this medium. Indeed someone physically stealing a copy of a video game from a store is breaking laws and very literally costing the company money. Not only for the physical costly product but for the reduced quantity to supply consumers. However this is not, and never will be, the case with digital products.
More than likely you will never find a company willing to admit the above. But much like that set of sunglasses on your head that you’ve been looking for for the last half hour, the most obvious information is generally the last information examined. When someone reports the losses they have received from piracy it should be taken with a grain of salt and a shot of bourbon, because it is entirely fabricated. The real damage to their income comes from the glittered turd phenomenon that has swept the gaming world over the last few generations of Consoles (and PC upgrades). The best companies can hope for at this time is that innovative and talented individuals will step forth and bring the next generation of games to a relative quality level that would match the original jumps in gaming. We are in need of another SNES generation, currently the unfortunate truth is that we’ve been stuck in an NGAGE rut for a bit too long and few people are willing to address it honestly.