[The Witcher 2 was pirated more than 4.5 million times in its first few months on sale. In the same amount of time, the game sold a little over one million units legitimately]
"What if we could eliminate software piracy?" To the average gamer, that probably isn't a particularly important question. To the average software pirate, that sounds pretty terrible. But to the average executive at a big publisher? Well, that's the kind of thing dreams are made of.
For a long time, a kind of consensus has existed amongst creators of digital media, whether it be music or movies or television shows or video games, that piracy is inevitable. The few disastrous attempts by the RIAA and MPAA to enforce their copyright have only cemented this as the case- as song and album sales fall and live TV viewership plummets, content creators and publishers are forced to adapt to earning a (relative) pittance on Netflix and Spotify, if they don't want to lose it all.
Video games have long been seen as similar. 'Make your games cheap, easily available, and unbelievably good', online commenters say, 'or we'll pirate them'. And as for those who simply wish for free content, and who care little about the livelihood of those who make it? 'Well', goes the logic, 'they'll keep pirating anyway, and there's nothing anyone can do about it'. After all, if the colossal movie and music industries can't stop it, what can the fledgling games industry do?
But there is a way to stop game piracy. Forever. Permanently. Full stop. And perhaps most strangely of all, it's been around for years.
Streaming models for various forms of entertainment have existed for more than a decade in various legal states. Several years ago, games joined the fray, with OnLive allowing gamers to play PC titles hosted on its servers on their Smart TV, tablet, or non-gaming desktop. For most of the gamers that tried it, it was little more than a peculiarity. The games played were usually at console resolutions and far from 'maximum' graphics settings, and high latency meant the experience was always slower than on a dedicated PC or console running the title from its own hardware. OnLive failed to catch on, going bankrupt last year. Its major competitor, Gaikai, was bought by Sony, and now forms the basis of the company's 'Playstation Now' service, which is set to allow gamers to stream last generation console titles to their Sony television or PS4.
[The OnLive system failed commercially]
Nothing revolutionary. And besides, "Cim", you say, "it's not like Netflix stopped TV piracy, or Spotify stopped people torrenting music, is it?". And you'd be right. But games are different. Games are interactive. If you open up Fraps and record a show on live TV, you've just pirated it. If you use a Youtube Converter to download your favourite song, you've just pirated it. But if you record a game, all you've made is a particularly uninteresting Let's Play or a bad walkthrough. To pirate a game, you need the code itself, the actual data behind the pretty images on screen. And when that data never even touches your PC, when that data is locked away on some far-off server, and all you do is send it your keyboard strokes so it send you back a video feed of what it does with them, well, you can't pirate anything.
And now imagine that that was the only way to play a certain game. That you came home, turned on your PC, navigated over to EA.com, signed into your account, paid for a game, accepted the 'Do you want to enter full screen?' prompt and enjoyed your title. Unless one managed to hack EA's servers, downloaded the entire code for the game, and then set up one's own private server without being caught, the only way you could everplay the title would be by paying for it.
In one fell swoop, piracy would be eliminated. But that's far from the only thing that would change. No downloads or purchases means no middlemen, whether Steam or Gamestop, to siphon off your revenues. No need for dedicated home hardware means no more paying money to console manufacturers, because players can access your games right from their smart tv or internet browser. And perhaps most importantly, hardcore games would suddenly be opened to everyone with a tablet, phone, or a shitty Dell laptop from 2002. If you've never seen a movie in the cinema before, the cost of a ticket is the same $15 everyone else pays. If you see a commercial for GTA but have never played a game, that'll be $400. Streaming removes that cost, massively expanding the potential audience for core titles.
For the moment, a full shift to this kind of model is unlikely. Internet connections remain spotty in most of the developed world, and latency isn't currently low enough on most connections (given the projected distance from a server) to provide an experience as good as on home console or PC. But if piracy keeps picking up, and if publishers decide to take a stand, it's important to realise that gaming is different to other industries. Gaming is interactive. And that means that if they really, really wanted to, the people who make our favourite games could make sure no one ever pirates them again.