By John Walker on August 22nd, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun is read by over 92% of the Earth’s population, and our most frequent readers are in the top 15% most attractive people on Earth! Yes, we all love statistics we don’t provide any evidence for. There’s so much fun to be had. Ubisoft have also been revelling in that fun, by telling GI.biz that they experience “93-95% piracy” rates. Which is odd, what with all their boasting that their always-awful DRM has been so darned effective at combating piracy. How incredibly confusing! Anyway, this, says bossman Yves Guillemot, is why they’re heading down the path of F2P games.
Here’s the logic: Only 5-7% of people ever fork out cash for the F2P models that are out there. And that just happens to match the piracy rates seemingly plucked out of the air. You may immediately say, “Er, if it’s the same, why bother doing something different?” But Guillemot explains that with the F2P model, that 5-7% who pay will keep on paying, over and over, making more money for the F2Ping company in the long run. Thus making the F2P model more financially effective.
But the problem is deeper than just believing that piracy rates are 95%. (Because of course you just can’t measure that. You can count torrents and compare it to sales, etc, but it’s still a guess.) Let’s just say that piracy rates are 95%, because I’ve no more evidence to say they aren’t than they likely have to say they are. The issue is determining what it’s 95% of.
There is no hard evidence to show that piracy affects sales. If Ubisoft has some, then they should share it. There is evidence to show that pirated copies almost never translate to lost sales (and as much anecdotal evidence to show that piracy encourages sales as there is to show it discourages them), and we absolutely cannot take the music and film industry’s laughable route of declaring every pirated copy as lost revenue. That’s plain deceitful, and of no help to anyone. So instead you could, if you were actually interested in business and not in scaremongering, say “We sold X hundred thousand copies of game Y”. Or indeed Z hundred copies. And then you could stop saying anything else, since that’s the only useful data you actually have.
Because really what matters is how many you sell, or – in F2P land – how much money you persuade people to give you.
The 95% figure is based on two numbers (one of them guesswork) happening to match up: F2P rates, and alleged piracy rates. It’s a comparison that is completely meaningless, as the two have little in common. When I buy a game, as much as the vile EULAs and licenses we are required to agree to may say otherwise, I do on some vague level have (if not own) a copy. When I play an online game, I am only ever visiting that game’s house, and the moment they switch it off (and they will) all my investment is gone forever. And one of them IS FREE. It says so right in the business model. I’m allowed to play it for free. And in doing so, by Ubisoft’s logic, means I am being compared with a pirate. That is so damned distasteful.
Conflating F2P numbers with piracy “numbers” is a handy way to excuse going down the path of the far cheaper development for F2P gaming, where sticking it in a browser, or cutting it down for a downloadable client, means players have their expectations severely cut down. A path that can, if you strike lucky, find your product catching a very large audience of people willing to constantly fork out small increments in order to be able to keep playing. Most don’t succeed, but one big hit can be enough. They’re cheaper to develop, they also have the potential of having players just keep on paying, and people don’t expect them to be nearly as good as full price boxed games – and hey, they’re free, right? So why would anyone complain?
Of course it’s absolutely fine for Ubi to head off in the F2P direction. It makes business sense for people to leap and grab cash before the fad is over, and the next new thing comes along. You may not like the business model, you may even think the way pay-to-play’s insidious increments work is distasteful. But if you’re a publisher, it’s a revenue stream you’ll want to tap into. But Ubi, please don’t make ridiculous excuses. Honestly, I find it bewildering that the entirety of Ubi’s board of directors hasn’t decreed that Guillemot is never allowed to say the word “piracy” again as long as he lives. Their reputation amongst PC gamers is so utterly terrible right now, despite releasing a ton of great games on the machine. It would just be amazing to see the company, for once, celebrating their PC customers, rather than berating them. Because they have customers. Paying customers. Maybe instead of pointing out that whatever their imagined piracy rates are, they could acknowledge they also have people who pay a huge chunk of cash for their games, and just maybe act like they’re grateful. Just maybe.