PC Gaming is a Donor-Supported Industry with the Pretense of Selling a Product

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:

  1. Download the Steam client
  2. Register for a Steam account
  3. Find the game on the Steam store
  4. Click the buy button
  5. Spend money
  6. Wait several hours for the bajillion gigabytes of game to download

And here are the steps involved in illegally downloading a game:

  1. Download a torrent client
  2. Search for a game on a popular torrent site, such as The Pirate Bay
  3. Sort the results by number of seeders
  4. Pick a result near the top of the list, making sure it’s from a reputable release group such as Skidrow, Reloaded, or Razor1911
  5. Click the magnet button
  6. 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:

Release Dates

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.


  1. Cernael

    I disagree.
    Once installed (that is, for the second purchase) Steam has fewer steps – not to mention that I, as a not very active gamer, don’t have a clue about which release groups are reputable, making the “pick a good source” step that much steeper. Also, given an older, more obscure game, if I find it at all on Steam, I can be confident that it actually is available – if I instead go the torrent way, I’m less confident that it will have seeders, thus making the payoff of the first few steps in the list more uncertain.
    In addition, I have used Steam as a source of information – what games are there, which seem like they might be fun, and do the hardware requirements fall within what my crappy laptop can handle? This is info that I’m not likely to come across on TPB.
    Same with the Humble Indie Bundle – yes, that they are charity, and lead the way to showing the world new ways to get paid for content is ONE reason I support it, but not the only. It is also a package of games that have been chosen because they’re GOOD -I don’t have to find market savvy elsewhere.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      I sorted a list of all the games available on Steam by release date to see if I could find reliable TPB torrents of them (omitting extremely popular titles such as the original Half-Life, because there’s no question that they’re available). My criteria for a reliable torrent was a still-seeded release either from a reputable uploader, or with a comments thread that seems to suggest it’s a good torrent. Here’s what I discovered:

      SiN (1998) – Poorly-seeded, only one commenter seems to say it works: Maybe
      Streets of Moscow (1999) – Skidrow release from VIP uploader, but no seeds: No
      Gothic 1 (2001) – No-name uploader, but well-seeded and positive sentiment in the comments: Yes
      Geneforge 1 (2001), Geneforge 2 (2003), Geneforge 3 (2005) – Not available by themselves, but there’s a decently-seeded torrent of Geneforge 1, 2, and 3; comments thread doesn’t say whether it’s good or not: Maybe
      Uplink (2001) – Well-seeded, comments thread reports success: Yes
      X2: The Threat (2004) – Decently-seeded, but comments don’t indicate whether it works or not: Maybe
      Painkiller (2004): Well-seeded, comments thread seems to like it: Yes
      Darwinia (2005) – Decently-seeded no-name release, mixed reports of quality in the comments: Maybe
      Rag Doll Kung Fu (2006) – No longer seeded: No
      Dangerous Waters (2005) – Decently-seeded, claims to be from a release group but uploader’s a no-name, comments thread is mixed: Maybe
      Space Empires IV Deluxe (2006) – Seeded, but empty comments thread: Maybe
      Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 (2006) – Well-seeded, but comments thread can’t seem to decide whether or not it works with some file-copying or has a virus; since this is about convenience, I’m gonna say: Probably Not
      Shadowgrounds (2006) – Decently seeded, from a Trusted uploader: Yes
      SiN Episodes: Emergence (2006) – The only thing available is a poorly-seeded Cider hack for OS X: No
      Disciples II (2006) – Well-seeded from a Trusted uploader: Yes
      Jagged Alliance 2 Gold (2006) – Well-seeded, comments thread reports success, also I recall using this torrent myself once: Yes
      The Ship (2006) – Barely seeded, but comments thread reports success: Maybe
      X3: Reunion (2006) – Well-seeded, reports of success from the comments thread: Yes
      Birth of America (2006) – Reloaded release, no-name uploader, but no longer seeded: No
      Iron Warriors: T-72 Tank Command – Doesn’t even show up in search: No

      I decided to stop there because it was getting a bit tiring, but you are onto something that older, more obscure games may be more convenient to get via Steam. However, older, more obscure games are hardly what’s driving the industry, so the significance of this finding is probably limited.

      You’re also correct that Steam, Humble Bundle, etc. are useful as encyclopedic resources, but that’s not contingent upon you actually downloading the games through them. You can look up a game on Steam, and then torrent it, for example.

    2. Zacqary Adam Green

      Oh, one other thing I should add:

      In my efforts to debunk the idea that Steam has a significant service advantage over piracy, I neglected to mention how little that actually means, long-term. With older games, we may have, in fact, found an area where Steam and its ilk do provide better service. The caveat is that they do for now.

      All it will take to completely obliterate the service advantage of Steam (and, for that matter, GOG) is for piracy to make it more convenient to download older games. This is only a matter of time. When this happens, if Steam continues to offer older games and GOG continues to exist at all, it will be out of the same goodness of gamers’ hearts that they express when choosing to pay for easily-torrentable new releases.

      Or they might shut down, older games will be considered free as a given, and the only profitable course of action will be for developers to actually create something new instead of sitting on completed work.

      1. Peter

        It would be easy for steam to offer a back catalogue of millions of ancient titles lying dormant on their servers until they’re needed.

        It would be comparatively difficult for a distributed network of computers based on goodwill to do the same. I strongly suspect that the pirate bay won’t ever make rare stuff as easy to get as it is on steam. But the big stuff obviously always will.

        I do think services like steam offer genuine competition for service though: if I download a game from them I know its going to work. I don’t have to download a keygen from here, a no cd from there and still find that it doesn’t work on a 64bit OS or some such crap. With steam that doesn’t happen, you just download it and go. And if you migrate PC you don’t have to go through all of that again, steam still has all your stuff and it’ll still work.

        1. Zacqary Adam Green

          Freenet handles the problem of preserving less-popular data quite nicely, actually.

  2. Shiva

    One of my favourite independant flash game makers put all of his games up online as Adobe AIR games (for desktop). All of his games can be played for free on sites like Kongregate, so there’s no real need to buy them.


    One of his incentives is that the highest donator gets to be the ‘ruler’ of the fictional land his games are set in – and one person donated 130$, when he didn’t have to pay anything.

    I short – I greatly support your conclusion.

  3. ConZor

    When it comes to Steam and pricing in Europe they are pissing on it’s costumers a bit as Valve think that one Euro equals one Dollar. A rough estimate is that 1 USD = 0.772426 EUR and 1 EUR = 1.29462 USD. Many thread that have been created about this on the Steam forum have been deleted and the user have been banned for raising this point.

    For me (and Rick) that are Swedish it would be cheaper for us to buy games of steam using the dollar but we in Sweden are forced to pay more for a game then we really should. So valve have created a mess that is encouraging people to pirate if people don’t want to get it from Steam or go out and get a physical copy of the game.

    1. Rick Falkvinge

      While this is technically true, I suspect Valve will have to pay EU VAT for end-customer sales to the EU, which they don’t need to do with the US.

      While the EU VAT isn’t a full 29%, the exchange rate fluctuates a bit, and it varies between (I think) 14% and 25%.

      1. Peter

        They don’t have to pay sales tax in the US? Wow, how long is that going to last? I can’t imagine the IRS being too thrilled about that particular million dollars a day slipping through their fingers.

  4. pop

    I agree with your conclusions, and I should note that it’s not necessarily an either/or situation.

    “A download does not equal a lost sale.” Lots of people download the torrent AND buy later, if they believe it’s worth it.

    In other words, Steam is not *competing* with piracy — it’s actually *complementing* the piracy ecosystem by giving a way for gamers to donate to support the developers.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      I’d be interested in seeing some numbers on how many torrenters later go on to “buy” the game, and whether it makes up a significant portion of the developers’ revenue. I agree with the principle, but it’s always seemed like a weak argument to me without any numbers backing it up.

      A download isn’t a lost sale, but it’s far easier to prove that “they wouldn’t have paid for it anyway, so stop worrying”, as opposed to “they’re just trying it out to see if they want to pay”.

      1. pop

        I’d be interested in seeing some numbers on how many torrenters later go on to “buy” the game, and whether it makes up a significant portion of the developers’ revenue. I agree with the principle, but it’s always seemed like a weak argument to me without any numbers backing it up.

        Here are the top 2 Google results:


        Both make reference to the industry’s own research/claims. You’ll find loads more studies that support this position if you go through the archives of TorrentFreak and Techdirt.

        A download isn’t a lost sale, but it’s far easier to prove that “they wouldn’t have paid for it anyway, so stop worrying”, as opposed to “they’re just trying it out to see if they want to pay”.

        You’re probably right. However, if we’re trying to model and understand how piracy shapes the market either of those positions is only half the picture.

        IMHO, the total set of pirates is comprised by people from BOTH those groups. Specifically, the “triers-before-buyers” set and the “stop-worrying” set intersect: of the triers-before-buyers, those who don’t buy are also “stop-worriers”.

        To make money in this model, you need to a) maximise the number of triers-before-buyers (through conventional advertising and also the obvious viral component of releasing an awesome product), b) minimise the overlap with the stop-worriers group (thus having more people willing to pay for your product, meaning the product must live up to the hype), and c) maximise the percentage of “conversions” from the triers group (by making the product awesome, respecting your customers and making it really easy to donate/buy).

        Therefore, I postulate (perhaps incorrectly!) that the convenience offered by Steam is directly contributing to (c), which also partly* explains Steam’s popularity.

        A caveat of the “they wouldn’t have paid for it anyway, so stop worrying” argument is that it implies risk, futility. Artists and investors want to understand how they can make money with the new business model and “don’t worry” won’t cut it. The MAFIAA are trying to reduce piracy thinking it’ll increase sales; in an alternate universe, they would be trying to increase piracy and increase conversion.

        * Let’s face it, some people are still living with the old business models. They don’t pirate just because they don’t know how or don’t want to, and AFAIK there’s no indication that those people are the minority. Obviously, they aren’t “donating”, they are “buying”.

        (NB: this is the first time I put these thoughts into writing, so be gentle)

        1. Zacqary Adam Green

          I do recall seeing study after study like that reported on TorrentFreak. They’re nice as political tools to help get old media-types on our side, but there’s still something off about them for me. It’s possible that I’m biased by the fact that no one in my circle of friends has ever bought something after pirating it, so the fact that I haven’t seen it with my own eyes makes it feel less real. Let me see if I can explain it more rationally, though:

          The correlation between pirating a lot of media and spending money on a lot of media doesn’t necessarily imply try-before-you-buy behavior. Gamers, for example, may decide to spend money only on the games which interest them most, and pirate those they’re less excited about. That’s even more likely with movies, where for years people have only bought tickets for movies that they’re very interested in, and rented less interesting ones later; the difference now is that they can be accessed free instead of rented.

          In other words, they might not be paying for the same things they initially pirated. There probably are a great deal of people who regularly pirate things and then pay if they like them, but I haven’t seen evidence that they make a significant impact. This research merely suggests that there might be a strong try-before-you-buy culture.

          What it suggests more strongly is that interest in media in general leads to spending money on media in general.

          Let’s face it, some people are still living with the old business models. They don’t pirate just because they don’t know how or don’t want to, and AFAIK there’s no indication that those people are the minority. Obviously, they aren’t “donating”, they are “buying”.

          Yes, I do have the tendency to assert things as if it’s already the future, don’t I? Of course there are still a great deal of people who don’t see it this way, but we can’t take that as a given for much longer. It’s better to plan for the future before it happens, then to show up there running around like headless chickens.

          1. pop

            For what it’s worth, my experience is the opposite of yours: I and my circle of friends usually download a variety of things, try a bit of everything and pick out what’s worth spending our limited money on. It’s basically a way to be informed consumers and see through the marketing hype.

            Btw, here’s a Slashdot comment I think is worth reading:


            I didn’t write that, but I think it accounts for both your idea of pirate (2) and my idea of pirate (4).

        2. Zacqary Adam Green

          I have a confession to make which proves your point about people who still live with the old business models. This exchange happened between my boyfriend and me the other night:

          Him: “So, did you torrent Lion?”
          Me: “Nah, I bought it. I really didn’t want to give money to Apple, but it was only 30 bucks, and it’s worth the hassle of not having to worry if the next update’s gonna work.”
          Him: “But weren’t we just discussing the fact that if I used your Snow Leopard disc, there’d be no DRM and I wouldn’t have to worry about updates?”
          Me: “……..fuck!”
          Him: “Looooool.”*
          Me: “Fucking App Store…”

          *Yes, he actually said “lol” out loud. He’s one of those people.

  5. ForskarGurra

    There is no “buy” in the case where you can get old work for free. In that case it all boils down to choosing which ones you want to support in their future work. Be it computer game companies, musical artists and so on…

    If you’re not ready to help support it, suit yourself if nothing new is created. Protecting old works in the sense of stopping piracy however, seems almost impossible…

  6. DrakeGaming

    I agree to an extent, but steam is just so easy. With pirated games, maybe they are reputable. Some take a very long amount of time to get running correctly. The files are all over the place. Steam offers convenience. I would rather pay 5 dollars for a game and click one button than waste an hour of my time. When sales are going, any game over 6 months old is usually under 20 bucks if not under 5. Worth the time saved.

  7. 6.941

    I’ve always found it a fallacy in pro-piracy arguments that the ‘product’ is data (a file or files). The dissemination of that data is not the investment that companies expect a return on, their R&D is; and I think that, while technically correct, it’s disingenuous to refer to the compensation for that very real effort by the word donation (making it sound like charity), even if it is effectively (and/or legally) optional.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      Donors aren’t compensating anyone. “Compensation” implies entitlement. Unless you’ve been commissioned to do it, you’re not entitled to compensation for R&D no matter how much effort you put into it. Even the purchase of a physical product isn’t compensation in any sense of the word; you’re not compensating the producer for all their hard work, you’re exchanging your money for a product which they’ve convinced you that you want.

      The mere act of working hard and producing something doesn’t earn anyone the right to anything if other people don’t find value in the result. The fact that this makes it difficult for artists and creators (not companies; fuck companies, nobody cares about them) to earn a living is a symptom of an entirely different problem.

      1. 6.941

        I never said that the producer should get rewards when no one values its product. But when they do, it has every right to its capitalist gains. This does not mean that it gets to control most of the (non-commercial) use of its product, including file-sharing etc.. But paying for a by-nature commercial thing when you don’t have to (but you are well able to, and find the price just) is not grace, it’s integrity.

        1. Zacqary Adam Green

          Semantics: making human beings falsely believe that they disagree with one another since 100,000 BCE.

  8. Buglord

    also, note that steam supports auto-updating of the games, that way you can get bug-fixes, content expansions and such easily, without having to keep up to date on what is the latest patch.

  9. Get FREE Xbox Live Gold Membership Codes!

    Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative.
    I am going to watch out for brussels. I will appreciate if
    you continue this in future. Numerous people will be benefited from
    your writing. Cheers!

Comments are closed.