July 22, 2006

[Games] The Hidden Cost Of Piracy

I don't think it's any secret that a warez group called Provision pirated "SiN Episodes: Emergence" about three hours after it was released over Steam.

There are lots of comments that people make trying to justify piracy. "A person who pirates wouldn't buy it anyway." "It's try before you buy, so you only support people who deserve it." "I'm poor and can't afford $20." "We aren't stealing from you, we're stealing from the faceless corporation." "We're only stealing the bits, not the merchandise."

Even if you buy all of those, I can still say that you're stealing resources from me. Why? Because you're stealing my time.

When we shipped "SiN Episodes: Emergence," we had two small config bugs that slipped out and affected a small percentage of our users. We spent the next week working on fixes for that bug and others, testing the fixes, and getting the fix up over Steam so that people wouldn't be affected by it. During that first week, I received about 230 support complaints specifically regarding these two config bugs.

The fix was released on May 17, along with several other miscellaneous fixes. The patch was released over Steam and people who owned legitimate copies were updated and were happy.

Between May 17 and May 24, I still had over 200 support complaints about the config bug. It was fixed, the fix was out and released, but I was still getting support complaints.

I E-mailed each one back individually, trying to get additional information. The responses I got back from the people who replied were insane.

"Did you let Steam install the update?" "What's Steam?"

"Where did you buy the game?" "Over Steam." "What is your Steam ID?" "I don't have one."

"Have you tried running the installer?" "Oh, my copy didn't come with an installer. It's in a folder on a DVD. I just drag it to my machine and then run the game."

For the last five weeks, support requests for the pirated version of the game outnumbered support requests from legitimate purchasers. Last week, the pirates outnumbered the true customers by almost five to one. It takes time and resources to track down solutions to people's problems. I spent seven hours searching for answers to one guy's problem just to find out that when I asked him a question regarding a setting, he was checking on his friend's machine for the "right" answer and then on his machine and if the two didn't match, he was reporting the "right" answer so I wouldn't know he had a pirated version.

I really pride myself on the level of service I have been able to provide to our customers, but it is really disheartening to see the number of people who not only stole our game, but then steal my time in an effort to truly get something for nothing.

Mind you, I'm one guy that's been handling support for what could be called a niche product. Since release, I've spent more time handling customer service than I have handling the responsibilities that I have in my department. If I'm getting overwhelmed by the freeloaders, can you imagine what it's like for other companies with more pervasive products?

Support isn't free. Support personnel have to get trained, get paid, get benefits, etc.

The copies of "SiN Episodes: Emergence" that you buy pay my salary. Retail copies of Windows are more expensive partly because Microsoft has to factor support costs into those sales. More and more companies are moving to console games, not only because they make more money (they do because there's less piracy in the console space), but because they save major bank on support costs.

There are companies that love the PC and will stick with it for richer or poorer, but until we can find a way to better reduce piracy in the PC space, I'm afraid that it's only going to be for poorer.

(Edit 7/24, 6:22pm: Fixed typo. Edit: 10/24, 9:20am: Added sponsored links, tags.)