Piracy: Does it matter?

Everyone’s a pirate. (Statistically speaking.)

Years ago, when I was but a wee lad, I dug into this problem with our free-to-play mobile games. In those games, we put our own server into the purchasing loop so that we could detect fraudulent purchases with high reliability. The results weren’t surprising: the large majority of “purchasing” players were using fraudulent means.

  1. Most users are pirates.
  2. Nearly all pirates would prefer to not have the content at all than to pay for it.
  3. Therefore pirates are not costing us significantly in lost sales.
  4. And, further, it is not worth investing in strategies to convert pirates into paying players.

Does it matter?

So then, the question. Does it matter? And, subsequently, Should I do something about it?

  1. How costly is it to prevent enough piracy to have a meaningful impact? The more piracy you want to prevent, the more costly the solution, and the more likely that your solution hurts your paying players. How much development time, or capital (if you’re buying an off-the-shelf solution), are you willing to throw at this problem?
  2. What is the likely rate at which a player who would pirate the game would purchase the game if they couldn’t pirate it? It’s definitely low, but could still make up a meaningful portion of total possible revenue. Will you make as much back as you spent?
  3. How does the existence of pirates impact your other players? If you have a single-player game, probably not much. Multiplayer is a different story. If you have an in-game player economy, or in-game currency that changes the player experience, non-paying players will wreck your economy. Worse, they’ll always have more and better stuff than paying players, who will become extremely resentful of those players. Your paying players will become angry at you for letting this happen.
  4. How adversarial do you want your relationship with pirates to be? Almost all of your potential players are pirates. For a potentially-popular game, that can be an enormous number of people. Can your community management and customer support teams handle the stress induced by a jillion angry people?

Our approach

We don’t want to spend our time and resources fighting piracy. It’s exhausting, expensive, and, frankly, doomed from the start. We want our time going into making games and building an amazing community. Ideally our anti-piracy results are a consequence of the stuff we want to be doing, instead of something we have to put front and center.

Design with piracy as a constraint

If we can’t stop piracy, how can we design around it? For us, that means taking the fact of piracy into account when we design our games and web services. We prefer designs wherein piracy does not matter (e.g. single-player games). When that isn’t possible, we design to minimize its impact.

No open hostility

We certainly don’t condone nor accept piracy, and do explicitly tell our players so when the topic arises. We also don’t allow players in our communities to advocate for or help others pirate games. But when we do discover pirates in our midst we stay friendly.

Minimize support costs

Most of our (and your!) players are pirates. Therefore most of our support resources could go to people who aren’t even paying us. Support is expensive; even without those pirates, minimizing support cost is an essential business goal. We do this by:

  1. Minimizing the need for customer support.
  2. Minimizing the fraction of support issues that require human intervention.
  3. Minimizing the cost of real-human support.
  • My game is up to date.
  • My operating system is up to date.
  • My device is compatible with this game, according to the store page.
  • I know that there is a real person on the other side of this form.
  • I have a legal copy of this game.

Use web services

Because we roll our own web services, the main direct cost of piracy, after support, is non-paying players using our services. Unlike with customer support, which tends to kick pirates out early, pirates will absolutely use every web resource you provide. If you don’t kick them out somehow, most of your web costs will be created by non-paying users.

  • We don’t create antagonistic relationships with pirates, since they still have access to offline parts of the game.
  • Paying players don’t feel like things are unfair, because they get access to more content.
  • Pirates consume minimal web resources from us. Primarily just limited telemetry!

So… does it matter?

Yes! As to exactly how… it depends. Piracy, and its impact, is a nuanced topic. Whether you need to worry about it, or do anything about it, completely depends on your particular scenario. The key things to remember while you’re evaluating all this for your game are:

  • People will try to steal your game. Huge numbers of them. This is just the reality. Treat it as a design constraint.
  • This is a business problem. Do your best to ignore how you feel about it. Yes, this is far easier said than done!

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Adam Coster

Adam Coster

CTO and Fullstack Webdev at Butterscotch Shenanigans