For such an important topic, it's a shame that we can't ever seem to have a real discussion about video game piracy. Any attempt normally goes down like this: people downloading games are painted as criminals, publishers trying to stop them are portrayed as monsters, everyone sticks to this division and nothing ever gets done.
So I recently asked those of you with experience pirating video games to write in and tell me your story, to see if we could inject a little humanity and perspective into proceedings. You certainly obliged. I've received thousands of messages from people all over the world, from all backgrounds, all keen to share their own personal perspective on why they download video games for nothing (or used to, and have now stopped).
Their stories (or excerpts from their stories) are below. I of course haven't pasted replies from everyone; instead, I've chosen those that either present an interesting case or point on their own, or are representative of a position that I might have received dozens or even hundreds of similar messages about.
Before we begin, though, some important notes: What follows is the result of a discussion. It's not science. There was nothing forcing people to tell me the truth (or even part of the truth), and the scale and variety of responses only reflect the stories of those who responded, not the piracy scene as a whole.
You'll also notice some sections of text have been bolded. That emphasis was added by me, not those submitting.
With that out of the way, here's a selection of stories explaining why Kotaku readers have (or still do) download video games for free that they could or should have paid for.
"The reason piracy is so popular is because piracy is, for many people, the only way to be able to get a game..."
Our first series of responses are from people who, well, steal video games.
Poor people should be allowed to enjoy games, music, and movies as well, as anyone else. No one should be denied something because they can't afford it.
I agree that I shouldn't pirate but my situation means I tend not to have the dosh and games are my main method of fun for anything except annoying the missus (that is my favourite past time). Piracy is here to stay and it doesn't make as much of an impact as publishers say and I'm still gonna pirate for games I'm not sure about so yeah that's my two pence :v
What people don't understand is that piracy isn't done out of malice or some desire to destroy gaming, it's done because of poverty. The reason piracy is so popular is because piracy is, for many people, the only way to be able to get a game. A lot of gamers out there know how good it can be to relax with a game after a stressful day, but for those that can't afford games and the increasingly expensive consoles or gaming computers, it's their only outlet.
I'm seventeen years old, and yes, I do pirate video games. Why? Because I honestly just don't have the money.
People who use piracy with an excuse of "I'll buy it, if i like it" should stop lying to themselves and just face the fact they just want to play the game without paying for it. I'm one of those people who just want to play The Witcher 3 without paying, because i'm an arsehole and have better things to spend my money on. Don't get me wrong, I would absolutely love to pay for my games and play online on BF4 or GTA Online but the problem is...
I don't have a card for online purchases.
"There are some games that I cannot obtain legally..."
Next, we reach one of the more contentious areas of video game piracy, at least in its most legal of definitions: the fate of those who are, for want a softer term, "casually importing".
I have pirated, yet I don't do it anymore, at least not in the more traditional way. I do, however emulate games. The games I emulate are usually games that can not be played normally anymore, or that never came out in America (the continent).
For example, as a big Fire Emblem fan, I have emulated every game in the series up to FE7, the first one to get out of Japan. I bought evey other FE game.
I don't see piracy as a problem if buying the game doesn't help the developer or publisher in any way, such as retro games that haven't been remastered or sold on services like VC.
There's two games that I never pirated, but that I played briefly at a friends house. I was reminded of them a few months back and I've been looking for them everywhere ever since. The games I'm talking about is Impossible Creatures and Black & White 2. I've spent hours and hours looking for a place to either buy these with a digital download or where I can order the box online.
The only retailer I've managed to locate is Amazon, but as they don't operate in Sweden (yet) I'm unable to order from them. As a result, I ended up pirating Black & White 2 the other day.
There are some games that I cannot obtain legally, like Suikoden 2 but considering that it's been out of print for years, an original copy costs an average of $US250 and it's the best RPG ever made, emulation does not bother me and to a certain degree i do not consider it piracy since they can no longer be bought from the publisher.
My background with game piracy is mostly summed up in the category of playing games not available in my market. I'm a huge fan of JRPGs, and as that became an unpopular thing to be among US gamers the games I wanted to play simply weren't available. I imagine the first five Atelier games will never come to the United States, and this is heartbreaking to me. I want to pay the developers, I want to show my love for Atelier and the genre as a whole. I can't. It's either import the game and illegally modify my system to play it while relying on my elementary Japanese or get an English-patched ROM. And truth be told, that's a hard decision.
Something I use a lot is emulation for old consoles. A lot of the things I play aren't even available, so why would that even be ilegal? I really don't see why I should wait for something to be made available again so I can play it, and that also applies to some old computer games. If I buy an used copy, how is that gonna help the original creators?
I gladly pay full price for games like Bayonneta that wont make the sales expected from them, knowing that if I buy it used the developer wont see a dime. But for years I"ve search for a legal way to own games like Einhander, Thunderforce VI, MUSHA Aleste, heck even versions of RType. But neither Sony or Nintendo have them in their US store!!! Yes. They have some emulated games...but considering how easy is to pirate any of this games on a PC, even on a good android tablet; they are just asking for it. In fact, I belive the prefer that. If it not for emulators all those classic arcade games will be lost forever. If you want to know were all games began there is little choice but to pirate all those lost gems.
"Things here are expensive. Really expensive..."
It's easy to point at someone dodging a $US50 game price and call them a thief. But what if that "thief" was being charged $US100 or even $US150 for the same game? And what if, thanks to currency exchanges and their local economy, that $US150 is worth more than it is to Americans?
I personally pirate, and I know my reason are not justifiable, but I live in a third world country (Ethiopia) where we don't get platforms like Steam.
So my only option is to pirate. Sometimes i regret pirating and not supporting the devs.
The first time I tried child of light, was the time I truly felt bad for not supporting them in any way... It was so good.
Piracy was a strong part of my life as a kid here in Brazil. Things here are expensive. Really expensive. Thus, people here pirated games as a norm. There were no original games in stores, only pirate games. I didn't even know what it meant, or that original games were a thing until much later in life.
I'm a big consumer of gaming news and visit virtually every site of repute and I'm aware how piracy is generally loathed by the west. Things are very different here in Kenya though.
Piracy is THE way of life. From Movies to games and even books, it's most of the time the only way to acquire something.
"Now that I'm older and have a real job, I buy my games..."
Just because someone used to pirate doesn't mean they still do. A very common theme I saw in a lot of stories was the way people pirated when they were younger and broke, but as they got older and wiser, replaced torrents with Steam sales.
What made me stop pirating was a little game called The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks for the Nintendo DS (such a good game). I downloaded the game using a torrent file, loaded it onto my R4 cartridge and loaded it up on my DS. I love Zelda so you can imagine my excitement and how that contrasted with my confusion that the train controls wouldn't show up (pirated versions don't have train controls)! I rebooted a few times, thought about whether there was something missing, and spent a good hour wrapping my head around what I could possibly be doing wrong. Finally, I caved, and opened IGN's walkthrough and saw that there must be something wrong with my game since they have train controls! After a little Google search, I got my answer as, "because you are playing the pirated version. Buy the game!" And since then, something clicked. I felt exposed by the developer and I was reading more about piracy and how it was hurting the industry and decided that I should put it all aside and just buy the games I want to play.
Pirating has become too much of a hassle. It is easier than ever to get software from torrents but the source and the file may be untrustworthy. And then there is the trial and error of getting it to work. And you may or may not be able to do any multiplayer due to the online only multiplayer. Gone are the days of local lan play it seems.
So I only buy games on deep sales on steam mostly.
I started pirating maybe 5 or 6 years ago. I never had a great computer, so I missed out on a whole plethora of great games. I had also bought games that didn't end up working on my computer back then. Spent my time and money buying and installing games just to have them not work. So when I got older, I started pirating games to figure out what I could and could not play. It's kind of shitty, but I'm not really knowledgeable on computers and I don't have that kind of money to piss away. After a while, I pirated everything I could. Pirating games actually became more interesting to me than the games I was stealing. I could have it all at my fingertips, from Star craft to the original Deus Ex, to I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. For someone who was never great with computers, figuring out how to pirate certain games was an accomplishment. The rarer and older the game, the more accomplished I felt when I got it to work. I spent hours and hours getting these games, and played most of them for about 5 minutes each, just to see if they worked ok.
Now that I'm older and have a real job, I buy my games.
You mentioned 3.5 floppies and I was definitely part of that crowd, pirating Wolfenstein 3D by copying it onto blank diskettes. As just a kid before the information age really hit, I didn't even realise it was piracy. Even when file-sharing services hit, I don't think I thought of it then as piracy. It was only when I started working in the industry that I realised how much a problem it is and how it can hurt people.
TL;DR: pirated games when I was a kid. Now I don't because I work on them sometimes and realise all of the effort that goes into making a profitable game.
Back in the 80s, my father would travel to Indonesia for business. The trip was a month long, so it was hard on everyone in the house, but my melancholy was tempered by what I knew my father would be bringing home with him...a big stack of floppy disks chock full of games!
It was like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one big holiday. The stack consisted of probably 30 games or more, often with photocopied manuals as well. They had to be cheap, because my father is notoriously cheap, and for him to bring back 30 or 40 games means they must have been almost giving them away.
As an adult, I can see the issues with what we took part in. Just because my dad paid for the games does not mean we weren't stealing. I doubt my father even thought about it, but I have. On the positive side, getting all of these games helped cement a life-long love of video games. The downside is that the authors and publishers didn't receive the royalties to which they were entitled.
Things are a lot more complicated now. I pay for everything I play, because I have that luxury. But if I were a poor college student, or a kid who doesn't have $US60 just lying around, I'll bet I would steal a game now and again. If pirating didn't take as much effort as it does, I might even steal now.
"When I download a game illegally, I do so to see if it will run on my computer..."
Games are expensive, and the personal computer can be a fickle thing. Until very recently, there was no way to get a refund for something that didn't run on your PC, so in lieu of official demos and testing, some people like to try before they buy. Or, at least, they told me they do.
When I download a game illegally, I do so to see if it will run on my computer before I make a purchase. When a sale comes up, I can purchase it with confidence.
I used to download games because i couldn't afford them. Now that i can afford them, I pirate games because I don't want to spend an average of €60 on a game i might not like, so i'll try it first.
"I...will bear that shame to the end of my days..."
For some, it wasn't enough to simply end their stealing ways. Here's a good example of how complex the piracy discussion is/can be: this guy knows the effects go way past people simply not paying for games. And is very sorry for all the damage he has caused.
I know that people like me caused the new pay-to-play model. Micro transactions and the like. If your audience doesn't want to buy until hooked, it's a very logical transition. I accept that, and will bear that shame to the end of my days as my kids pay per minute on the Holodecks of the future.
"I know that I've purchased it multiple times..."
Here's a scenario many of us can relate to. We've bought a game, sometimes multiple times, only to misplace the disc, or a serial number, or something that stops you actually playing the thing you've already paid for. In times like those, well.
I can't tell you how many copies of Starcraft or Diablo 2 I've purchased, probably a dozen across the two titles. I know that I've purchased it multiple times, at varying prices, over the years. At some point, buying it over and over (this was before Blizzard allowed people to digitally register their purchases for re-download) gets really old really fast.
"While I was out Hong Kong Customs had called my home..."
Most piracy involves little more than downloading some files off the internet. But there can still be an actual criminal element involved, especially when physical copies are involved.
Back during the PS1 era you could buy games printed in Hong Kong for like $US1 per disc. I got a fair number of games that way; mostly Japanese games that I wanted to try. Well, one day I came home from school and my father was waiting for me outside. While I was out Hong Kong Customs had called my home. Turns out the person from whom I was buying games was also dealing drugs and had suddenly disappeared. They had been monitoring the person and knew I had contact with him and wanted to know if I knew of his whereabouts. Needless to say my father was not the least bit amused. Thankfully we never heard from HKC again.
"The appeal was never about stealing the game..."
The impulse that seems to drive most pirates is "I want this thing for free". Some people have multiple impulses.
Back when I was 16 I became heavily involved in an mIRC warez channel (pre-bit torrent days). I helped run multiple FTPs present in the channel focusing almost exclusively on games (PC/PS1/PS2/XBOX). I helped distribute rar files containing ISO images across each server, helped manage the connections to each server and make sure nobody's connection idled for too long, as well as maintained the automated chat bots that ran server advertisements in the channel itself.
For most of us who were actively involved in piracy to this extent, the appeal was never about stealing the game. In fact many of us had significant collections of legally purchased games, most of which were initially pirated to determine their quality. Our problem wasn't that we couldn't afford to buy a game, it was that we didn't trust reviews that rated crap games with near perfect scores, demos that only gave you the tutorial level and expected you to make a purchasing decision off almost no gameplay whatsoever, and publishers that crank out sub-par releases in droves.
"Paradoxically, piracy allowed me to experiment with and acclimate to digital console gaming..."
Many pirates grow out of the habit when they get older, but the process has changed them. Having access to games quickly and easily has weened them off the hassles of physical purchases.
After a while, my newfound obsession with ROMs mirrored my physical video game collection habits. That is, I kept getting games for the sake of getting games. I knew I wouldn't play all of them, even though I wanted to, and I hoarded them anyway. Interestingly, though, the obsession inspired me to be more minimalistic about my physical video game collection, which was previously unaffected. Knowing the convenience of digital games convinced me to embrace digital downloads this current console generation, which ultimately led to me selling nearly all of my physical video games, especially all of the cartridge games for which I could find ROMs.
Paradoxically, piracy allowed me to experiment with and acclimate to digital console gaming and, as a result, I now almost exclusively purchase digital copies of games instead of waiting for their physical counterparts to drop in price.
"This showed me that the hassle of updating custom firmwares, and learning to pirate, wasn't worth it..."
Many will argue the driving force behind software piracy is that it's a matter of service, not stealing. People pirate because that's easy, not to commit a crime. I heard from quite a few people who saw Steam's progress in this regard as a win.
I started realising that I simply wasn´t enjoying gaming as much as before. There was too many games available and I simply would play something and then move on to something else. I must have played only 10% of what I downloaded thru the end. Pirating was becoming a hassle, specially on Wii and PSP. I had less and less time to play as I grew older. Then, Steam sales came along, and I realised that I could buy most of the games that I wanted for a fair price, if I could wait a little longer after release.
This showed me that the hassle of updating custom firmwares, and learning to pirate, wasn't worth it anymore.
As a game developer I've never worked on a game that has had to deal with DRM at all. I think I agree with Gabe Newell on the issue of piracy in games, it's a service issue. Steam makes it super easy for me to buy and acquire games, so I use it. Once a game service makes it really hard to buy and play their games, I might consider piracy.
I also think that developers largely don't care about piracy, they have sort of accepted that a pirated game isn't a real sale lost. But publishers worry about it a lot. I'm just happy people are playing my game!
We used to make games for kids. Every now and then we had some rude parent calling our tech support wondering why the fuck their game didn't work. Our first question was always; Have you checked if the disk is damaged? In 9 out of ten cases, it turned out the adult had downloaded a ripped version of the game and couldn't run it cause they had never bought the game and didn't have the disc.
The increase in digital market have worked wonders, cause its so much EASIER to pay for a game. Yes, people still rip games and download them illegally. But the sales have gone up since our kind of games became available at the touch of peoples fingertips in app format.
"I try to follow a moral code..."
Pirates don't just get games for themselves. Here's an example of an educator resorting to piracy in order to get their job done.
I teach video game design to middle school students. Once a week, I have my students play a game that is in some way relevant to the game design work we will be doing that week. High quality free games are certainly getting better, but there are still classic games, or game with fantastic conceptual ideas, that deserve analysis. However, I can't buy 30 consoles and 30 copies of a particular game for a 30 minute play session. Instead, I buy single copies of DRM free games, or I use emulated console games. I try to follow a moral code: no emulations of anything PS2 or newer, no emulations of games I could otherwise obtain through DRM, and no multi-copies of DRM games if I can find a reasonable price for the game.
"...do I fork out $US50 of my hard earned and struggle with uPlay..."
It's all well and good to have a nobler purpose driving your piracy, but sometimes, you just want to get around something that sucks.
When presented with the option of buying or pirating this years version of Assassins Creed, do I fork out $US50 of my hard earned money and struggle with uPlay, or do I make a brief stop at Piratebay, click on a link or 3 and get the new and improved uPlay-less version for a grand total of free?
"I never paid for TES 5 Skyrim..."
If pirating a game is a crime, pirating one then making money off it is a...sin?
TLDR - I never paid for TES 5 Skyrim. But I made $US600 off the mods I wrote the first couple months it released
"I'm too fucking stupid to know how to pirate..."
To pirate a game, you need to know where to look, download it, unpack it, crack it, get it running...it's not rocket science, but it's not the easiest thing in the world, either. Something Steam and console marketplaces will always have going for them.
I prefer to buy games. It's not out of some misplaced sense of moral superiority, but rather because I'm too fucking stupid to know how to pirate em without being caught.
"I somehow decided he didn't deserve money..."
This person is the worst.
After reading terrible things about Phil Fish (yes him again) I somehow decided he didn't deserve money and torrented Fez.
"If there was a legal way for me to pay a few quid for Dolphin-compatible ROMs, I'd gladly do so..."
Nintendo has long been a company at the very centre of the piracy conversation, both because its games are so popular, but also because the company's reactions to the challenge (and the world piracy has created, for better or worse) have often been...not the greatest.
I use Dolphin Emulator for playing GameCube and Wii games on my PC and I've pirated about 20 games. I use Dolphin partly because I really enjoy the enhanced graphics, especially when the gaming community produces excellent HD texture packs for games like Xenoblade Chronicles. I also use Dolphin out of sheer convenience - I simply can't be bothered to dig out my Wii and GameCube, connect them up to my monitor/TV etc.
However, if there was a legal way for me to pay a few quid for Dolphin-compatible ROMs, I'd gladly do so. The fact is that pirating the ROMs is so easy and convenient vs the alternatives.
"Hardware is failing, physical media is frail, and some of these games will simply be lost..."
If piracy is stealing, how can you steal something that isn't actually available to buy? And what will happen to that game if everybody stops sharing it and it simple ceases to exist?
Many games are disappearing into history, and many developers and publishers are doing little or nothing to preserve them. Hardware is failing, physical media is frail, and some of these games will simply be lost. Digital distribution is making it worse (see P.T., a game I'm terrified will vanish). From what I've seen both in the business and out on the internet, it seems like the pirates are the most effective at preserving this history. I'm not talking about people off ripping Xbox 360 and PS4 games, I'm talking about organised efforts like TOSEC, Redump, etc.
I applaud the efforts of groups like the Strong Museum, they're the kinds of people I would most like to see spearheading this effort, but their hands are tied by the law and there's only so much they can do.
I've also "pirated" many old PC games that are out of print and only "legally" exist on Ebay or Amazon for "Collector Prices". Granted, with services like GOG and to a lesser extent, Steam, old PC games are becoming easier to obtain legally, but there are still many, many more obscure and classic titles that have been lost to time and collectors.
I'd hope that by reading through the above you've gained a more diverse, human perspective on video game piracy. Yes, some pirates are thieves, regardless of their attempts at justification.
But in many other cases, it's not so black and white! Is downloading a game you literally cannot buy a crime? Is pirating a game to make up for customer service shortfalls a crime?
Where do you draw the line between a pirate and a fan? A pirate and an educator? A pirate and a historian? A pirate and a hardcore lover of foreign games?
Each case is affected by so many variables, from where the person lives to what they're pirating to how they're obtaining it to what they're doing with it, that to throw everyone under the same banner and approach them in the same way is ignorant at best, and destructive at worst.
Yet that's exactly what happens. Publishers treat everyone downloading a game, regardless of their circumstances, as the same class of criminal, and in the end, we all suffer. We're lumbered with intrusive DLC that affects everyone, not just pirates. We've seen entire segments of the video games market shift or even disappear as developers and publishers pivot to games and genres (like MOBAs) that cannot be pirated.
Worse, we've seen legitimate efforts to educate, preserve and learn from video games thwarted not by the failings of physical media or ignorance from fans, but from outdated laws. I'm reminded of this 2012 piece by Technologizer, which highlighted the triumph of piracy in the fact of inept laws and short-sighted publishers:
If...copy protection schemes had been foolproof, as intended, and copyright law had been obeyed, most of the programs published on those fading disks would now be gone forever. Many cultural touchstones of a generation would have become extinct due to greed over media control.
What's needed is a greater understanding of the myriad of reasons and circumstances causing people to pirate, and a more nuanced approach to tackling its dangers and addressing its needs. There's never going to be a single, silver bullet that ends video game piracy. Only through engaging (and learning from) the many root causes of the problem can the industry and those making games hope to get on top of it.
Some companies know this, and should be applauded! Riot Games has shown that even broke-arse teenagers can enjoy a game, become super-fans and spend money (when they can) with League of Legends. Steam's design and sales strategy is clearly beating piracy at its own game, both in terms of acting as DRM and encouraging purchases through ease of use.
But there's still so much work left to do. Nintendo's back catalogue pricing is out of step with a world accustomed to $US2 remakes on a mobile store, as is their insistence on charging you for the same game on different platforms. Publishers trying to implement their own forms of DRM may be stopping a few pirates, but they're testing the patience of many more legitimate customers. The massive discrepancies in the pricing of digital goods around the world needs to stop. As does region-locking. And concessions need to be made, whether by lawmakers or publishers, to the needs of historians and educators.
As you've seen above, those factors (and many more), are what have turned the piracy debate into a mess of causes and explanations. What should be a simple matter of punishing those breaking the law has instead become a mess of excuses that range from "100% understandable" to the absurd.
This story isn't going to contain a "fix" for piracy. If there was such a thing, then people smarter and richer than me would probably have thought of it by now, especially if they could fit it into a single internet story.
But surely the answer lies somewhere in answers like those above. By cutting through the stories of people frustrated by the failings of the industry and the law to meet the realities of a 21st-century fanbase, and singling out the actual pirates, maybe we can live in a world where the criminals are punished and the rest of us are free to buy and play games when we want, how we want.
Illustration: Sam Woolley