Stealing Thunder

As top developers accuse pirate gamers of robbing them blind, Pavel Barter goes undercover with a wooden leg and scurvy...

Pirates. an Ideal subject matter for hackneyed analogies about sea shanties, dead men's chests and bottles of rum. None of which you shall read here, this being a serious investigative article and all. Let it just be said, it was once rumoured that Chuck Norris lost a fight to a pirate, but this rumour was a lie created by Chuck Norris to lure more pirates to him.

Truth be told, not even the ginger warlord or Steven Segal (or David Hasselhoff in his prime) could stem the onslaught of PC games pirates, currently causing developers to weep like children.

At GDC 2007, id boss Todd Hollenshead blamed piracy for the death of PC games (that old chestnut). As much as 50% of all PC game sales are lost to piracy in the US he said, and up to 90% in Asia. Epic honcho Michael V Capps weighed in, saying that piracy was the reason behind UT3 cross-platforming.

For the most part, PC gamers do not enjoy the finger of blame pointed their direction. "What a load of crap," the average brigand bleats on a forum. "Most people who pirate games don't buy them anyway, so how are publishers losing money?" Another token voice pitches in: "Draconian piracy protection hurts games more and the customers are beginning to get tired." Others moan that piracy has been about for aeons.

The outspoken developers are clearly shocked by the venomous reaction of the gaming community. "I think I already stoked the fires a bit too much on this issue," says Epic man Michael Capps when approached for a comment, although others call it like it is. "PC gaming piracy these days is BAD," announces Jørgen Tharaldsen, Funcom product director. "In many regards, it's easier to get hold of a pirated version online than going to a store to buy it."


Of course, bandits have plagued the information highway for years. In 2004, prior to its release, Doom 3 sneaked onto file-sharing networks and was downloaded to over 50,000 home PCs in the space of a few hours, translating to £1.5 million in lost sales. On the infofilter.net game torrent chart, Command & Conquer 3 is hot property with 1,010 traders, although (weirdly) Backgammon Pro MultiPack pips it to first place with 9,120 traders.

Like the music industry, pre-release leaks are PC gaming's bugbear. Before Funcom's epic adventure Dreamfall reached shelves in Europe, over 200,000 illegal copies of the game had been downloaded.

"We first launched in the US and just days after release it was cracked, so everyone who wanted it in Europe and Asia could download it illegally prior to release" says Jørgen Tharaldsen. "It's a strange feeling being 'download of the week' when you launched in retail only a few days before."

Valve marketing director Doug Lombardi tells his war story. "During the development of Half-Life 2, we had a security breach on our network and the source code for the project was stolen. Gabe (Newell, Valve boss) reached out to the community, asking folks to help us find the person(s) responsible. After a few months of working with community members alongside various international authorities, arrests were made."

PC game publishers try to ward off pirates via CD copyright protection (usually reduced to putty in a matter of days) and many gamers argue that Digital Rights Management is the reason they download illegal content in the first place. "I'm against copy protection schemes because they're bad business. They discourage people from buying PC games," complains a blogger called Draignol.

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