Will Piracy lead to the death of PC gaming?

I was just wandering through the vast internet world when i stumbled upon a gaming forum, in which a member had asked a question about GTA V’s PC version. This was not your typical “When is the game coming to PC”, “What will be the minimum specs to run this game” or the most common one “Is this game really coming to PC??”. The poster had asked the question that there is no GTA V for the PC version, is that because of piracy?  After all, there is also a petition which requests NOT to make a PC version of GTA V with almost 12,000 backers. The petition was described in one, rather controversial, line stating:

“So PC Gamers learn their lesson and stop stealing games”

Then i scrolled down to the reasons  to see that this petition was supported AND rejected by many. Some trying to explain their point that piracy not ‘only’ affects PC while other were just “personal” reasons or a general hate towards PC gamers for no reason

“’cause PC gaming sucks a**”

“because GTA is for console gaming. f*** pc gaming”

And the best one,

“i dont have a pc so they shouldnt have it”

Anyways, the point is that everyone knows games are pirated on PC. Everyone also knows that games are ALSO pirated on consoles so why is PC always blamed for it? Is computer piracy really as bad as they say or is PC just a scapegoat?

The CEO of Ubisoft had claimed that PC piracy is almost 95% saying,

“It’s a way to get closer to your customers, to make sure you have a revenue. On PC it’s only around five to seven per cent of the players who pay for F2P, but normally on PC it’s only about five to seven per cent who pay anyway, the rest is pirated. It’s around a 93-95 per cent piracy rate, so it ends up at about the same percentage”

What the Developers say:

Since piracy is such a big issue in the gaming industry, many devs have publicly said something about it. Lets take a look at what some leading game developers had to say on this topic

John Carmack, the founder of ID Software, stated in 2008

“It’s hard to second guess exactly what the reasons are. You can say piracy. You can say user migration, but the ground truth is just that the sales numbers on the PC are not what they used to be and are not what they are on the consoles.”

Michael Plater, invovled in Tom Clancey games said,

“The level of piracy that you get with the PC just cannibalizes the others, because people just steal that version ……… Piracy’s basically killing PC.”

Epic Games president Mike Capps said in an interview

”We did one PS2 launch title, and everything else was PC. And now, people are saying ‘why do you hate the PC? You’re a console-only company’. It’s because the money’s on consoles.

We still do PC, we still love the PC, but we already saw the impact of piracy: it killed a lot of great independent developers and completely changed our business model.”

Cliffy B, Lead creator at Epic Games stated 

“A person who is savvy enough to want to have a good PC to upgrade their video card, is a person who is savvy enough to know bit torrent to know all the elements so they can pirate software. Therefore, high-end videogames are suffering very much on the PC. Right now, it makes sense for us to focus on Xbox 360 for a number of reasons”

Stanislas Mettra of Ubisoft. when asked about the console exclusive game (at that time) I Am Alive, was rather straight-forward. It seemed that his tone was saying “You deserve it PC gamers”

“We’ve heard loud and clear that PC gamers are bitching about there being no version for them.

……It’s hard because there’s so much piracy and so few people are paying for PC games that we have to precisely weigh it up against the cost of making it

Are these people just making noise just because there’s no version or because it’s a game they actually want to play? Would they buy it if we made it?” Mettra says sales of 50,000 copies on the PC wouldn’t be enough to justify a dozen guys doing a three-month port job”

However, not all developers believe that piracy is to be blamed for the decline in computer games

According to Marcin Iwinski, the CEO of CD Projekt

“For some people, piracy, it’s in a way trying the games because…some people treat it [like] some kind of a trial. “

Edmund McMillen, involved with minecraft notes:

“If the game gets pirated heavily, if it’s a good game that people really like, they’re going to either buy it eventually or they’re going to tell other people about it. Either way it’s just going to come back to a sale.”

Markus Persson, an idie game developer quoted

“If someone pirates Minecraft instead of buying it, it means I’ve lost some “potential” revenue. Not actual revenue, as I can never go into debt by people pirating the game too much, but I might’ve made even more if that person had bought the game instead. But what if that person likes that game, talks about it to his or her friends, and then I manage to convince three of them to buy the game? I’d make three actual sales instead of blocking out the potentially missed sale of the original person which never cost me any money in the first case.”

Ex-CEO of EA games, John Riccitiello said

“By the way, if there are any pirates you’re writing for, please encourage them to pirate FIFA Online, NBA Street Online, Battleforge, Battlefield Heroes… if they would just pirate lots of it I’d love them. [laughs] Because what’s in the middle of the game is an opportunity to buy stuff.

…….While we don’t want to see people pirate Warhammer Online, if they’re going to give us a year’s subscription it’s not exactly a total loss,”

These were the words of some of the leading game developers and its evident that the big companies are certainly no fans of the PC gaming. Now the question arises, is this attitude justifiable?

Is piracy really that common?

Piracy has always existed but now, it is much easier to obtain something without paying for it as compared to, say, 10 years back. This is mostly attributable because of the high speed internet connections and the channels it has opened up. You can now download something using torrents, FTP, file-sharing hosts etc. According a survey conducted by BSA, more than 50% of all the computers in the world use unlicensed software , which is certainly a large percentage.

Reinhard Blaukovitsch of SecuROM said

“Piracy levels, depending on country, range between 40 per cent and 80 per cent,”

Now, before we go in detail, i’d like to explain something that this discussion can not be supported by accurate numbers because of the nature of file-sharing.

For example, suppose that I have a game which has not been uploaded online yet. So I will be the first person to provide the game to the “pirates”. Now, i upload the game to a torrent site say, www.torrentsite1.com and 10 people download that game. Out of the ten people, 5 just play it on their own computer and do not share it with anyone else. As for the remaining 5, suppose that:

  • One person uploads it to another torrent site www.torrentsite2.com
  • The second person uploads it to a FTP server
  • The third uploads it on a file-sharing site and posts the download links on a forum
  • The fourth shares the game with his friends via USB
  • And the fifth person burns the game to a DVD and sells it in his shop

Now, according to my statistics, I would say 10 people have pirated the game but infact, the number would be way higher than that because I cannot account for the number of times the game has been obtained from the above five people. Extending this, the people who downloaded from www.torrentsite2.com might upload it to a third site and thus this sharing-chain is continued. Due to this, it is next to impossible to get accurate numbers on how many times the game has been pirated.

All PC users are pirates?

I feel that another reason PC is blamed for piracy is that ALL computers can potentially run pirated games but the same can not be said for consoles. For example, to play a pirated game on a Xbox 360, here are the steps you need to take

  • Modify your Xbox so that it can play pirated games
  • Download the game
  • Buy a DVD-9 and burn the game
  • Play

The most important thing is modifying your Xbox. Then you have to buy a blank DVD and burn it and hope that there are no errors while burning the game. If you have a stock console, you can only play legit games. There is no such compulsion for a PC user as to play a game, he will need to do the following

  • Download the game
  • Install
  • Crack and play

This seems much easier than the steps for a console and since there is no need to modify a PC, computers are more exposed to piracy as compared to consoles. The developers need to understand that since all PC users can pirate, doesn’t mean they do.

PC vs Console Sales

Even though PC is more common in households but for gaming purposes, console was leading the race as mentioned in an article posted on this site. It was revealed that consoles are leading the industry with 42% gaming share as compared to 37% of PC. A survey conducted by Entertainment Software Association found that in the US, 68% of people used a console for gaming.

Similarly, the software sales also provide a similar picture that is games sell much better on consoles as compared to PC. For example, let’s examine the second best game (in terms of sales) of 2013, Call of Duty: Ghosts.

The game was launched on 5 November 2013 for PC and consoles. The total PC sales according to VGcharts were a mere 0.45 million units. This was a laughable figure as compared to the 7.91 million units on Xbox 360 and 7.07 million units on the PS3. The PC sales were even lower than the Xbox One and PS4 sales which were recorded at 1.28 million and 1.65 million respectively. It should be noted that VGcharts do not take into account digital sales but even then, if the game recorded a shameful 37,420 players on steam on its debut, its hard to believe that the digital sales would be 7.5 million to atleast bring it at par with the Xbox version. It was reported that during the early weeks, the PC version only accounted for a miserly 1% of sales.

So some multiplatform games are selling better on consoles due to some reasons (more on this later), but the real question is, is this because of piracy?

PC vs Consoles Piracy

Since we don’t have any numbers for 2013, we will use the list of top 5 pirated games as published on TorrentFreak.

The top pirated games on PC were

UntitledSo it brings the total to 17.71 million PC games

Now for Xbox 360UntitledSo the total becomes 3.89 million

And for Nintendo’s consoleUntitledThe total turns out to be 5.05 million.

Since no numbers are given for PS3, let’s assume the numbers are equal to the Xbox 360 since both these consoles had a comparable market share.

To recap, according to the referenced article,

PC Torrent downloads: 17.71 million

Xbox 360 torrent downloads: 3.89 million

PS3 torrent downloads: 3.89 million

WII torrent downloads: 5.05 million

Now, these numbers certainly show that piracy is the worst in PC and the developers are correct if they abandon the computer market. Afterall, CD Projekt claimed in November 2011 that their RPG, The Witcher 2 was pirated almost 4.5 million times whereas, the combined sales for all the Withcer games were 6 million as announced in October 2013

One thing which is not incorporated in these numbers is the install base. As at December 2011, Sony sold almost 60 million units of PS3 as compared to the 65 million Xbox 360s and almost 70 million Wii. So the total becomes 195 million consoles. Now comparing this figure with the pirated downloads presents a better picture. 12.83 million games were pirated by 195 million consoles which represents almost 7% piracy rate.

We do not have an exact number of PCs used for gaming (as compared to the total number of consoles sold), so let’s take a look at this from another angle. If you are a PC gamer, which common piece of hardware will all the gamers most certainly have? Yup, a graphics card. So we will use the graphics card shipment estimates to find that magical number.

After a lot of searching and gathering data provided by Jon Peddie and other sources, the best estimate about the total number of graphic chips in use at 2011 would be around 216 million units. This only includes AMD and Nvidia graphic cards shipped so, besides other brands, the integrated Intel graphics are not considered to properly align these numbers with a ‘gaming PC’.

Using these numbers, the relative piracy rate for PC turns out to be almost 8.2% (and certainly not 95% as claimed by Ubisoft). This number is not as dangerous as we are made to believe by the developers.

Now, these numbers are in no means an accurate representation of the reality. As mentioned above, there are many different channels to share illegal content other than torrents which cannot be estimated. For consoles, the biggest source to obtain pirated games is from their local dealers. There are many countries in the world where pirated games are more common than legit ones which sell like hot cake for almost half the price of an original disc and those numbers can not be accounted for by any company.

So the numbers by Ubisoft are clearly exaggerated for the computer gamers. Last year, Entertainment Software Association of Canada published a report claiming that one-fifth of computer games in the US and Canada were pirated. These kind of figures are always disputed because of the nature of file sharing as mentioned earlier, and a detailed analysis conducted by a group of researchers from different universities, proved that these numbers were not accurate.

The team analysed almost 173 games on bit-torrent and their results were not aligned with those published by the companies. They estimated that with only 12.6 million unique peers sharing the majority of the games, almost 290 million games games are pirated in a year, as compared to Entertainment Software Association’s number of 600 million.

Anders Drachen of Aalborg University (a member of the team) said,

“First and foremost, P2P game piracy is extraordinarily prevalent and geographically distributed. …….However, the numbers in our investigation suggest that previously reported magnitudes in game piracy are too high.”

The report also states a rather interesting point

“The majority of the data available on game piracy originate from the industry (e.g., individual publishers or developers, as well as branch organizations such as the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the Business Software Alliance (BSA). The data reported by the industry are potentially biased, partially due to the interest of the industry to reduce piracy and thus potentially over-estimate the problem.”


Then why the disparity between Consoles and PC sales?

I feel that multi-platforms sell better on consoles than PC, not because of piracy, but because of other reasons. The first factor (as already mentioned) is that consoles are used more frequently than PCs for gaming and that translates to better sales. Another point to note is that digital distributions are not disclosed and they are, at best, a rough estimate so the total sales for PC might be understated.

Now suppose that you play on your PS3 and also PC but most of your friends game on PS3 only. Now you would most probably buy a console version of a game so that you can play online with your friends. Hence the “peer pressure” certainly decides which platform’s sales are better

The delay between the launch date of PC versions and consoles also plays a major role. Usually most of the games are launched on consoles several weeks before the game arrives on computer and hence people with both consoles and PCs would buy the console version to get their hands on the game as soon as possible.

Another factor which might explain better sales on consoles, is the quality of games on PC. A couple of years back, games were developed for the PC and they were ported on consoles but now this trend is reversed. This new cycle has degraded the quality of games as they are not as optimized as they used to be. This results in poor performance and other bugs for the PC users and therefore people might flock towards the console version to have a stable gameplay experience.

Gaming on consoles is much simpler. You just insert the disc and play. The game either runs or it doesn’t. There is no third scenario as compared to PCs when you have to troubleshoot the problem, which people might not  be technically adept to do. Besides that, the dreaded DRM also has the potential to scare away many folks. Due to this, people might prefer to game on consoles.

Another drawback for PC is that the performance of the game is hardware dependent. You will need a better graphics card to play the game without lag. Granted, the graphics are better but for an average Joe, he just cares about playing the game and he isn’t bothered by the lack of eye-candy on console.


Is PC market destined to doom?

Long story short, no. Although consoles are more profitable for companies, but the PC market is certainly comparable to the consoles. Newzoo had published a report comparing the PC market with console market in the six largest gaming markets in the world.


Consoles include the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii and all the older consoles.

Boxed downloads represent retail sales and ‘download’ represent the sales from online stores.

The results were certainly impressive and they have been summarized as follows (Social, casual and mobile gaming are not included) :

PC (Boxed and downloads) amounted to $10 Billion

PC MMO Games amounted to $4.6 Billion

So total PC sales were $14.6 Billion

Consoles = $15.1 Billion

These numbers are certainly impressive and even if we don’t include the MMO games, PC games’ revenue still represents almost 66% of the consoles. This figure certainly becomes more impressive when we consider the fact that PC games are sometimes cheaper than their console counter-parts.

A survey conducted in UK had the following result 


Now if we combine the amount spent on computers  (420 million + 420 million + 330 million) the total becomes an impressive 1,170 million pounds as compared to consoles 1,620 million pounds. This just proves that PC market is not doomed as people claim.

An infographic by Game Technologies confirms the findings above claiming that PC gaming revenue will surpass that of consoles


What people don’t understand about piracy

As mentioned before, The Witcher 2 was pirated a massive 4.5 million times according to the developer. For the sake of discussion, lets assume that this number is accurate so if 4.5 million people played this game without buying, this results in a mouth-watering 270 million dollars loss to the developers (assuming a $60 selling price). If the developers had received this amount from the game, the landscape would’ve certainly been different as 270 million dollars are enough to transform a company.

Now to better understand why I feel that the actual loss for the developer should be much lower than this, let us take a look at the main types of pirates.

  • People who will download the game no matter the circumstances
  • People who will buy the game after pirating (if they like the game)
  • People who have already bought/pre-ordered the game but they wish to play early

The third group can be classified as pirates but they don’t cause any financial loss to the developer. They have already paid for the game and they just need another copy for whatever the reason.

The second group will pirate the game and based on their experience, they will decide if the game is worth shelling out some hard-earned cash for. They play the pirated version of the game as a “demo” to base their opinion on the game. This group of pirates is certainly no myth, since it was found out that pirates own almost 30% more music than legit users. Other studies also showed the same results. In short, pirates are more profitable to companies than their legit customers. The people in this group have a genuine excuse that they want to know what they are paying for since now-a-days, game demoes have been replaced by buyers’ remorse.

Now on to the most controversial group. This includes people who only play the game because they can get it for free. No matter which excuse they provide you (lack of money, non-availability of games etc) the hard fact is that they will pirate because they can. I am sure many pirates fall in this category and the devs feel that this group of people have the biggest financial impact as they are playing (and possibly enjoying?) the game without paying for it. The game developers are certainly correct but they should ask themselves one question, “were these pirates really their customers in the first place?” I know many people might not agree with me but try to understand that they are only playing the game because they can do it for free. If we suppose that the relevant game could not be pirated, then most of them would simply not play this game (as with the case of H.A.W.X 2 for PC which could not be pirated for almost a year) . Maybe 15-20% of the people would buy it but the majority would not and this 15-20% is the “actual” loss suffered by the developers because of piracy.


Pirates have a heart afterall

Contrary to popular beliefs, pirates might not be so stone hearted as they are made to believe. At the end of the day, they are also humans and if they have a pleasant experience with a game, they are more likely to buy it.

GOG.com’s director Guillaume Rambourg believes

“Piracy is some kind of ghost enemy, and chasing a ghost enemy is a pure waste of time and resources. The only way really is to make the whole gaming experience easy, convenient and rewarding for the users – this is the only way to fight against piracy

If you make an experience troublesome or if it’s a pain in the back for the users, they will be tempted to give piracy a try. You really have to make sure that whoever buys a game, whether digitally or in retail, is starting the game and playing it straight away. Nowadays we’re in a very fast-paced society, and anything taking more than five minutes is seen as a trouble by anybody. If you make the process too troublesome – even if you are a good hearted gamer, you will be tempted to give piracy a try. “

So if the piracy rate on PCs is greater, its only because people do not feel that the product is worth the price tag.

CD Projekt Red’s CEO Marcin Iwinski had the same thing to say but in different words

“Whatever we do, the game will be pirated

…… If you look at it in a very simple way, putting the DRM on the game just makes the life of the legal gamer more difficult. So the guys who really trusted us and went out and bought the game, they have a more difficult life than the guys who didn’t bother and pirated the game. I really think it should be the other way around.

And we strongly believe that this kind of approach will encourage people to go and buy the game, trust us because we trust them. And it will make the gaming experience without obstacles.

…. For some people, piracy, it’s in a way trying the games because…some people treat it [like] some kind of a trial. Some people just cannot afford it in the full price. And ultimately, I believe that if we treat these people right, then at some point, be it mid-price or maybe budget, they will go out and buy our game,”

This might have some truth to it because after the DRM was removed from Witcher 2, its sales rocketed.

“…. in the first two months of release we have sold more units of The Witcher 2 than of any other game on GOG.com in the past. Even when we released Fallout, Duke Nukem 3D or any triple-A back catalogue title, we never sold that many units within the first two months”



Piracy is, without doubt, a big hurdle in this era but to say that computers are the only major victim to piracy is rather naïve. Every system in the world is prone to using unlicensed software regardless of its size or nature.

Using the limited information available on this topic, I have tried to establish that games are pirated on both consoles and PCs. Even though the number is greater on the latter, it is not pervasive enough to claim that computer gaming will die soon because the developers are not getting an adequate return on their investment. If anything, the developers are also responsible for piracy as people do not feel that they are getting a quality product which a 60$ game should have. Piracy will always be an option for a potential customer. It is upto the developers to ensure that they provide enough reasons which forces the person to buy the game (and support future developments) instead of pirating.

I’d close this article with the words of  Robert Florance

“Let me tell you what a pirate actually is. It’s just a word. And that word is a weapon. Corporations and governments will use that word to try to destroy our freedom and halt progress. They’ll use it to try to turn us against each other. When big business talks about a pirate, it’s creating a bogeyman that will be used to justify the continuation of its worst practices. We have to reject it, every time. There are no pirates. There’s only me and you.”

Ali Moin

"There's always a website. There's always a writer. There's always a story"

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