tommy refenes sm.jpgBy Tommy Refenes

I think I can safely say that Super Meat Boy has been pirated at least 200,000 times. We are closing in on 2 million sales and assuming a 10% piracy to sales ratio does not seem unreasonable. As a forward thinking developer who exists in the present, I realize and accept that a pirated copy of a digital game does not equate to money being taken out of my pocket. Team Meat shows no loss in our year end totals due to piracy and neither should any other developer.

For the sake of argument, some of those people that did pirate Super Meat Boy could have bought the game if piracy didn't exist but there is no actual way to calculate that lost revenue. It is impossible to know with certainty the intentions of people. With the SimCity fiasco and several companies trying to find new ways to combat piracy and stating piracy has negatively affected their bottom line I wonder if they've taken the time to accurately try to determine what their losses are due to piracy.

My first job outside my parents cabinet shop was at KMart. KMart, like countless other retailers, calculates loss by counting purchased inventory and matching it to sales. Loss is always built into the budget because it is inevitable. Loss could come from items breaking, being stolen, or being defective. If someone broke a light bulb, that was a calculable loss. If someone returned a blender for being defective, it wasn't a loss to KMart, but a calculable loss to the manufacturer. If someone steals a copy of BattleToads, it's a loss to KMart.

All loss in a retail setting is calculable because items to be sold are physical objects that come from manufacturers that have to be placed on shelves by employees. You have a chain of inventory numbers, money spent and labor spent that goes from the consumer all the way to the manufacturer. A stolen, broken, or lost item is an item that you cannot sell. In the retail world your stock is worth money.

In the digital world, you don't have a set inventory. Your game is infinitely replicable at a negligible or zero cost (the cost bandwidth off your own site or nothing if you're on a portal like Steam, eShop, etc). Digital inventory has no value. Your company isn't worth an infinite amount because you have infinite copies of your game. As such, calculating worth and loss based on infinite inventory is impossible. If you have infinite stock, and someone steals one unit from that stock, you still have infinite stock. If you have infinite stock and someone steals 1 trillion units from that stock , you still have infinite stock. There is no loss of stock when you have an infinite amount.

Because of this, in the digital world, there is no loss when someone steals a game because it isn't one less copy you can sell, it is potentially one less sale but that is irrelevant. Everyone in the world with an internet connection and a form of online payment is a potential buyer for your game but that doesn't mean everyone in the world will buy your game.

Loss due to piracy is an implied loss because it is not a calculable loss. You cannot, with any accuracy, state that because your game was pirated 300 times you lost 300 sales. You cannot prove even one lost sale because there is no evidence to state that any one person who pirated your game would have bought your game if piracy did not exist. From an accounting perspective it's speculative and a company cannot accurately determine loss or gain based on speculative accounting. You can't rely on revenue due to speculation, you can't build a company off of what will "probably" happen. Watch "The Smartest Guys in the Room" and see how that worked out for Enron.

Companies try to combat piracy of their software with DRM but if loss due to pirated software is not calculable to an accurate amount does the implementation of DRM provide a return on investment? It is impossible to say yes to this statement. Look at it as numbers spent in a set budget. You spend $X on research for your new DRM method that will prevent people from stealing your game. That $X is a line item in accounting that can be quantified. Can you then say "This $X we put into research for our DRM gained us back $Y in sales"? There is no way to calculate this because it is not possible to quantify the intentions of a person. Also, there's no way of accurately determining which customers would have stolen the game had there not been DRM.

To add to that, the reality of our current software age is the internet is more efficient at breaking things than companies are at creating them. A company will spend massive amounts of money on DRM and the internet will break it in a matter of days in most cases. When the DRM is broken is it worth the money spent to implement it? Did the week of unbroken DRM for your game gain you any sales from potential pirates due to the inability to pirate at launch? Again, there is no way of telling and as such cannot be used as an accurate justification for spending money.

So what should developers do to make sure people don't steal games? Unfortunately there is nothing anyone can do to actively stop their game from being pirated. I do believe people are less likely to pirate your software if the software is easy to buy, easy to run, and does what is advertised. You can't force a person to buy your software no more than you can prevent a person from stealing it. People have to WANT to buy your software, people have to WANT to support you. People need to care about your employees and your company's well being. There is no better way to achieve that than making sure what you put out there is the best you can do and you treat your customers with respect.

Lets loop back to what's going on with SimCity. I bought SimCity day one, I played it and experienced the same frustrations that countless others are experiencing. For total fairness, I know the always on DRM isn't the main issue, but I can't help but think that the server side calculations are a "wolf in sheep's clothing" version of DRM. I won't claim to know the inner workings of SimCity and this isn't a Captain Hindsight article because that is irrelevant. EA and Maxis are currently facing a bigger problem than piracy: A growing number of their customers no longer trust them and this has and will cost them money.

After the frustrations with SimCity I asked Origin for a refund and received one. This was money they had and then lost a few days later. Applying our earlier conversation about calculable loss, there is a loss that is quantifiable, that will show up in accounting spreadsheets and does take away from profit. That loss is the return, and it is much more dangerous than someone stealing your game.

In the retail world, you could potentially put a return back on the shelf, you could find another customer that wants it, sell it to them and there would be virtually no loss. In the digital world, because there is no set amount of goods, you gain nothing back (one plus infinity is still infinity). It's only a negative experience. A negative frustrating experience for a customer should be considered more damaging than a torrent of your game.

Speaking from my experience with SMB, I know for a fact we have lost a lot of trust from Mac users due to the Mac port of SMB being poor quality. I could go into the circumstances of why it is the way it is but that is irrelevant...it's a broken product that is out in the public. We disappointed a good portion of our Mac customers with SMB and as a result several former customers have requested and received refunds. I'd take any amount of pirates over one return due to disappointment any day.

Disappointment leads to apathy which is the swan song for any developer. If people don't care about your game, why would people ever buy it? When MewGenics comes out, I doubt many Mac users are going to be excited about our launch. When EA/Maxis create their next new game how many people are going to be excited about it and talking positively about it? I imagine that the poison of their current SimCity launch is going to seep into potential customers thoughts and be a point of speculation as to "Is it going to be another SimCity launch?".

This is not a quantifiable loss of course, but people are more likely to buy from distributors they trust rather than ones they've felt slighted by before. Consumer confidence plays a very important role in how customers spend money. I think its safe to say that EA and Maxis do not have a lot of consumer confidence at this point. I think its also safe to say that the next EA/Maxis game is going to be a tough sell to people who experienced or were turned away by talk of frustration regarding SimCity.

As a result of piracy developers feel their hand is forced to implement measures to stop piracy. Often, these efforts to combat piracy only result in frustration for paying customers. I challenge a developer to show evidence that accurately shows implementation of DRM is a return on investment and that losses due to piracy can be calculated. I do not believe this is possible.

The reality is the fight against piracy equates to spending time and money combating a loss that cannot be quantified. Everyone needs to accept that piracy cannot be stopped and loss prevention is not a concept that can be applied to the digital world. Developers should focus on their paying customers and stop wasting time and money on non-paying customers. Respect your customers and they may in turn respect your efforts enough to purchase your game instead of pirating it.

[Tommy Refenes wrote this on sister site Gamasutra's free community blogs.]