In today’s world, everything digital can, and will, be made available free. They’re non-scarce goods. One industry has reacted to this new reality by sustaining itself with its fans’ desire to voluntarily reward creators — even if it won’t admit that to itself.
The act of physically purchasing PC games is going extinct. More and more gamers are finding it simpler, easier, and more convenient to download their games without leaving home; sometimes, of course, these downloads come from unofficial sources and aren’t paid for. But Valve Software’s Gabe Newell has famously called piracy a “non-issue” for their company. That’s because they sell all of their games via their Steam platform, which he claims competes with piracy on service:
If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24/7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer; and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store; then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customer’s use or by creating uncertainty.
The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from the pirates. For example, Russia. You say, oh, we’re going to enter Russia, people say, you’re doomed, they’ll pirate everything in Russia. Russia now outside of Germany is our largest continental European market.
So, before Steam came to Russia, piracy was apparently the only method of digital distribution without long wait times and inconvenient DRM. Now, with Steam, the legal service is just as convenient as the illegal service.
Except for the price tag. That’s the one fallacy of Newell’s statement: games aren’t purchasable from pirates, they’re free. So what makes it worth the price tag? When you apply a little bit of critical thinking, the service provided by Steam doesn’t actually beat piracy.
Here are the steps involved in getting a game from Steam, including those that a first-time downloader would need to take:
- Download the Steam client
- Register for a Steam account
- Find the game on the Steam store
- Click the buy button
- Spend money
- Wait several hours for the bajillion gigabytes of game to download
And here are the steps involved in illegally downloading a game:
- Download a torrent client
- Search for a game on a popular torrent site, such as The Pirate Bay
- Sort the results by number of seeders
- Pick a result near the top of the list, making sure it’s from a reputable release group such as Skidrow, Reloaded, or Razor1911
- Click the magnet button
- Wait several hours for the bajillion gigabytes of game to download
Same number of steps. Obviously, there are some caveats: first, “spend money” isn’t really an extra step, but I decided to tack it on to account for the fact that spending money is inconvenient; second, with pirated downloads, there’s sometimes an extra step of running a keygen or installing a crack before the game will work, but not always.
But no matter how you slice it, downloading a game from Steam isn’t that much more convenient than pirating it.
You’re not going to get arrested or sued for pirating a game. Publishers generally don’t waste their time chasing people down, and the ones that do use methods based on deniable evidence.
As for your computer’s security, pirated games don’t actually come with viruses all that often, especially if you’re sticking to releases from the aforementioned reputable groups. If, a few days after a game’s release, a torrent is still well-seeded, this is generally because it’s the real deal and virus-free.
Speaking of which:
Popular, highly anticipated games are usually leaked onto BitTorrent before their official release date. Those that aren’t tend to show up within hours of being purchasable.
However, as mentioned, if you’re worried about viruses then it’s wise to wait a few days. Furthermore, Steam allows you to download encrypted versions of many games before they’re released (both legally and illegally), which will decrypt on the release date. So, if you absolutely, positively must have a game as soon as it’s released, Steam may have an advantage. Assuming it’s worth sixty dollars to you, that is.
Pirated games often can’t connect to official multiplayer servers, restricting the player to pirate servers (if they exist). In those cases, yes, Steam does have a clear advantage.
However, many games are single-player only, or perfectly enjoyable without ever touching the multiplayer component. For multiplayer-only or primarily-multiplayer games, Valve already seems to have decided that free-to-play is a better business model than selling the initial download.
One of the other things pirated games can’t access are Steam’s achievement network, allowing you to get nice digital pats-on-the-back for doing particular things in-game. There’s probably only a select few people to whom this is worth any money whatsoever.
So What’s The Point?
In most cases, Steam doesn’t provide any real advantage over piracy. Nor do any other paid digital distribution platforms or methods. So why, then, do people continue to throw money at them? Is it marketing bullshit about convenience? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt about viruses?
No. PC gamers are a generally savvy group of people. They’re probably spending money because they want to.
Valve and other digital distributors don’t make money because they provide a better service than pirates; they make money because they treat their customers with respect. It turns out that it’s enough to simply match the convenience of piracy, and to avoid treating customers like criminals, to get people to pay the higher (non-zero) price.
It’s a fallacy, though, to assume that the price paid is a purchase of a product. Remember, we’re talking about a non-scarce, non-rivalrous digital file here, as demonstrated by the free, inevitable availability of pirated copies. Effectively, these game files are as ephemeral as air. It’s impossible to own an infinitely redistributable digital file, hence it’s impossible to buy or sell it.
The fact that people pay for it anyway doesn’t mean that they’re buying anything. It means that they’re donating.
A “purchase” of a digitally distributed game is a conscious pledge not to download it for free. It’s a decision by the player to financially support the developer, the publisher, and the distributor. Even though they could easily save money and get the exact same experience — or an experience with negligible differences — by pirating the game, the player decides, no, these people deserve my money.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the Humble Indie Bundle, a rotating bundle of independently developed games “sold” at a pay-what-you-want price. Donate at least a penny, and you get a link to download games. Once again, the donors know what they’re doing; it’s not the semantic trick of calling it a “purchase” that helps these bundles raise so much money.
This isn’t cynical pedantry, though. The fact that PC gaming is a thriving digital media industry supported by voluntary donations is a wonderful thing. It’s living proof that creative endeavors can be financially viable based solely on their fans’ desire to reward the creators, assuming the creators treat their fans with dignity and respect. It shows that there’s little need to worry about new business models, new scarcities, new merchandising strategies, or any of that. People simply want to support art for art’s sake.
Someday, perhaps that respect for the fans will extend to dropping the ruse of selling, and the notion of there being any product to speak of. Perhaps creators and fans alike will one day call their monetary transactions what they are: supporting the arts.