THQ Exec Rails on PC Pirates, Hardware Makers, You

By Aaron Linde, Mar 03, 2008 3:37pm PST Prompted by the closure of Titan Quest developer Iron Lore last week, THQ creative director Michael Fitch ranted on the state of PC gaming and rampant piracy in a post on the Quarter to Three forums

"The research I've seen pegs the piracy rate at between 70-85% on PC in the US, 90%+ in Europe, off the charts in Asia," Fitch wrote. "I didn't believe it at first. It seemed way too high. Then I saw that Bioshock was selling 5 to 1 on console vs. PC. And Call of Duty 4 was selling 10 to 1."

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare developer Infinity Ward recently expressed similar dismay at the high levels of piracy for the PC version of its popular first-person shooter.

Fitch explained that piracy doesn't just harm sales—Titan Quest took a big hit in word of mouth when pirated copies of the game crashed after various failed security checks, prompting a negative response by those who had illegally acquired the game. "A lot of people are talking about how it crashes right when you come out of the first cave," Fitch wrote. "Yeah, that's right. There was a security check there."

But piracy wasn't the only thorn in Fitch's side; the developer claims that hardware vendors make PC game developers' jobs a great deal harder, too. Everything from hardware and software conflicts to simple issues like fragmented drives or spyware, Fitch said, are inevitably blamed on the software developers by consumers.

"Put together consumers who want the cheapest equipment possible with the best performance, manufacturers who don't give a shit what happens to their equipment once they ship it... But, it's always the game's fault when something doesn't work."

There are few better examples of the 'it can't possibly be my fault' culture in the west than gaming forums," he added.

Though some development studios have claimed that making a leap to multiplatform development is the only way to offset loss brought on by piracy, not all developers have had such sour luck. Stardock and Ironclad Games recently announced that their PC strategy title Sins of a Solar Empire—which features no copy protection whatsoever—sold over 100,000 copies in less than a month after release.

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  • I think it might actually be about time for PC developers to start cutting their losses and moving to other avenues of revenue.

    Because think about this: Bioshock sold on the consoles 5:1 compared to PCs. Say roughly 80% of the PC versions were pirated. That means that people are playing PC and console versions ONE TO ONE, even if 4 out of 5 of those PC versions are pirated. And that's only going off US sales; if you include Asia and Europe into those equations you've actually got more people playing the PC version.

    This means the PC isn't dead, not by a long shot. It's just that people are obviously becoming less willing to pay for games (Probably due to a combination of prices, ease-of-use with torrents, people scarred by incompatibility issues and to a small part DRM).

    But what this means is exposure. People are playing the game, seeing stuff in it, and obviously enjoying playing it. It doesn't take a marketing genius to realise that exposure, if used correctly, means big money.

    So there are a number of ways to make good financial use off the fact that there are tonnes of people who want to play your game:

    - Don't count on the game to get you money: Bands have operated like this for a long time. CD sales make the artists somewhere between shit and all, they make a majority of their money off merchandise and tours. We have the ability to serve merchandise (And current 'normal people' fashion trends seem to be more and more accepting of gamer and internet culture, almost to the level of band shirts I'd say), but we need to find an analogue for tours. Pay-per-entry press tours would be an awesome start, letting normal people get sneak-peeks at your up-and-coming games. I mean look at E3 in it's later years; people were paying to learn more about your games! It's like advertising in reverse, and surprisingly it actually seems to work incredibly well. So in a sense the whole food-chain gets reversed; games are your advertising, and your advertising is your profit.

    - Halve PC prices. Whoever does this first will probably be doing it on an experimental basis, as there are a few possible outcomes. First off, a game at half price is worth four times as much in the consumers viewpoint, so sales should (But are not guaranteed to) perform more than double what they were, meaning you're earning 100+% of what you would have otherwise. However, should this be successful, it may also take a chunk out of console sales, which may negate any benefit. However the market is wildly unpredictable, so I'd say that this has a 50/50 chance of succeeding.

    - Install ads: Either cut prices dramatically or release your game for free, but make them ad-enabled. Several developers have done this already (With Far Cry, CounterStrike and Battlefield), although I haven't seen any stats on how effective they've been. Primary problem of this method is that it creates a negative attitude towards the game, as people are becoming less and less tolerant of blatant advertising. Product placement, done tastefully rather than blatantly, would be a much better solution, but may not get the same level of revenue, so it's a toss up between better public perception or more guaranteed revenue. However, it's still possible for people to hack the ads out, so it's not much of a better alternative to piracy (Except games with high replay value will continue to pay out with honest consumers).

    - Micropayments: Offer people a cheaper or free cut-down version of the game that they can customise to their liking through small payments. However, more vocal people on the 'net have shown their ire for this method, and a lot of consumers probably wouldn't download anything and write the game off as crap and unfinished, and also still has a high potential for piracy. This method would probably help developer profits slightly, but at the cost of a poorer public reception.