Something I've recently taken to doing is keeping one eye on the big torrent sites, just to see what's topping their download lists. I do so because it's illuminating to compare what people are willing to take differs from what people are willing to pay for. However, I thought it'll be an interesting exercise to be a little more rigorous than that. So, hitting the Mininova, I totaled all the separate torrents for each popular game and worked out a chart. This is a snapshot of PC gaming piracy, on a single torrent site, on a single day.
Top 10's here. The rest of the chart, plus analysis and my methodology beneath the cut.
1) Assassin's Creed - 25734
2) Frontlines: Fuel of War – 12688
3) Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat - 8792
4) Dark Messiah of Might and Magic - 8402
5) Lost: Via Domus - 5883
6) Turning Point: Fall of Liberty - 5183
7) Sims 2 - 4026
8 ) The Club - 3672
9) Bioshock - 3489
10) The Witcher - 3121
11) Need for Speed ProStreet - 3061
12) Crysis - 2847
13) Conflict: Denied Ops – 2085
14) Neverwinter Nights 2 - 1893
15) Hellgate: London – 1750
16) World in Conflict – 1531
17) Stranglehold - 1459
18) The Orange Box - 1341
19) Age of Empires - 1099
20) Flat Out 2 - 1074
Methodology first. The numbers are total leechers. That is, number of people who are downloading from a torrent right now. Many of these - and the ones with the highest scores - have multiple torrents, which means it's possible that trying multiples at once to see which one gives the game first. However, since I've only added up the torrents from the PC games sections first page - smaller torrents on the second page with less than 293 leechers have been omitted. Also, these are only torrents on Mininova. It's the largest torrent site, but there's many, many more. Finally, I've counted bundled packs - where the Add ons are added to a torrent - as a single game for simplicity.
Okay - what to make from this? Well, Ubisoft are having a bad time. We mentioned that some code of Assassin's Creed has been leaked before, but it's worth stressing this is only a preview build. The game crashes upon reaching Jerusalem, which has lead to some hilarious hacker whining, immortalised here. Even when this is known, it hasn't stopped people downloading the bloody thing. Lost making an appearance is expected, but Dark Messiah showing up is a genuine surprise - in terms of most leechers on a single client, it's highest. Presumably this is because of the attention gained by the recent release of a somewhat lacklustre console version.
Secondly: The torrent kids will go wild for shooting stuff. In fact, any kind of shooting stuff. They don't even care if it's any good, as the sixth-position for the poorly-reviewed Turning Point demonstrates. While there's more strategic games there, what's also worth noting that the current big game - Sins of A Solar Empire - is absent, despite sitting #2 in the US retail charts. Which you may say is a cute demographic snapshot - though, I'll note, that while relatively few people are downloading it, despite the fact it has no copy protection, it's the second-most seeded torrent - even if no-one's taking, people seem determined to try and distribute it for some reason.
Thirdly, let's try a little really rough - if conservative - maths. Call of Duty 4 has been on sale for 113 days, assuming day zero piracy. A seven gig torrent, assuming a 100k download speed, takes just under a day to download. Assuming that the rate of downloads now is constant across those whole three and a bit months - which is incredibly conservative, of course, as it'd have been much higher upon release - that means 993496 copies will have been illegally downloaded via Mininova alone. Which is the sort of number that makes Infinity Ward sad.
A friend of mine said something that struck me recently: There probably are just as many "traditional" PC gamers as ever; it's just that they're not paying for it. Part of me suspects that eventually they'll end up paying for it in another way. If I were considering making a PC game, looking at the list, there's not a chance in hell I'll make an FPS.