Is piracy bad? I’m not really going to debate that with you. It’s a nuanced topic and almost everyone has their own interpretation of what is and isn’t acceptable.
Is it ok to emulate at 20 year-old game that you can’t buy anymore? Is it alright to download a game illegally if you weren’t going to buy it otherwise? Is it alright to download a copy of an unreleased HD version of a 1997 N64 shooter for review purposes? It’s a complex debate.
Yet the conversation has reared its head in recent days following the release of Nintendo Switch masterpiece Metroid Dread, and the subsequent news stories highlighting that a pirated version of the game exists, and not only that, but some of the reporting seemingly supported its existence.
I was mortified at this. Not because I know for a fact that piracy hurts video game sales (we’ll come onto that), but because it’s irrelevant in the eyes of the people making it. And ultimately, when mass piracy exists, it is the gamers who lose out.
Let’s step back a moment. 20 million illegal downloads does not mean 20 million lost sales. But it does mean SOME lost sales.
Sports Interactive is the developer of the Football Manager series. As a PC game developer (a platform where piracy is rife) that makes a game every single year, it’s in a unique position to see how game sales are affected when a game gets cracked. They have even been able to track how many illegal downloads they’ve had.
In 2014, a year where it took a long time for Football Manager to get cracked, the firm found that ten times the number of people pirated Football Manager than bought it.
But that doesn’t mean it lost ten times its sales. In fact, the firm estimates that just 1.7% of illegal downloads would have resulted in a sale. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s still 175,000 games and $3.7 million in revenue. Sports Interactive could have hired a lot of people with that money, and developed even more features for the next game.
Of course, Football Manager is a PC game, and you can’t conclude the same numbers and estimates apply to a Nintendo Switch title. But it does show that piracy, at some level, does have an affect on game sales.
Yet irrespective of that, it doesn’t really matter whether we think piracy is hurting game sales or not. What matters is whether the publishers do.
In 2009, Rockstar released the genuinely brilliant Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. Released for Nintendo DS, the game was heavily promoted by Nintendo and received rave reviews. And then it flopped.
Nintendo platforms aren’t especially known for its adult games, but it under-performed even to Rockstar’s conservative expectations. Perhaps their expectations were too high. Maybe the game just didn’t appeal to the DS audience. It doesn’t matter, because Take-Two had decided what the big issue was: the R4 card.
For those too young to remember the R4 (and other similar products), this was a device that allowed gamers to download pirated DS games and plug them straight into the DS. Not only was it incredibly easy to use, it was even sold by mainstream retailers and had entered the mainstream consciousness.
The numbers on download sites for GTA Chinatown Wars was in the millions and millions. Take-Two had noticed this, they highlighted it in their financials and made the decision to scale back making games for Nintendo DS — particularly games for a hardcore audience. There was no Chinatown Wars sequel.
At the time I worked for a magazine called MCV, and one of the senior directors at Square Enix told us they had experienced similar issues with its Final Fantasy titles, and that the company was also evaluating its support for the console.
The R4 card resulted in publishers becoming nervous around support for DS, and to reallocate its developers to other machines. Nintendo may seem overly aggressive in its cracking down of ROM sites today, but that’s because the impact of the R4 lingers in the memory.
Now, back to Metroid Dread. Metroid is a hugely influential series, but it’s small in terms of sales numbers. The rough estimate is that the series has sold around 20 million copies worldwide since its debut in 1986. To put that into context, Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold more in three months.
If you want to know why there are so many big gaps between games, or why Nintendo keeps experimenting with ill-fated spin-offs, this is why.
“Piracy for games like this will always exist. It becomes a real problem when it becomes mainstream… and publishers start citing it as a reason not to do something.”
If Metroid Dread gets pirated heavily, Nintendo will do just fine. This is a company that can charge us $50 for wireless N64 controllers and we all rush out to buy them. But Metroid is another matter.
I am a business journalist by trade, but I am also a Nintendo fan. I love Metroid. I want another 2D game from MercurySteam. I want the Prime series to return and stay returned. I want to see as many great Metroid games as Zelda titles and Mario titles. Metroid Dread has the opportunity to be a new dawn for the IP.
It’s a relatively quiet year for big games, it’s getting a lot of marketing support, and it’s bloody good. This is the best moment since the Metroid Fusion/Prime days for the franchise to stage a comeback, and the early signs are good.
Piracy for games like this will always exist. It becomes a real problem when it becomes mainstream, like it did with the R4, and publishers start citing it as a reason not to do something. That’s why I get concerned by any risk of the practice being legitimised in the eyes of players.
Whether or not it really hurts sales is subject to some debate. But that’s ultimately irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what we think. If the publishers of the world think piracy is a problem, then the investment dries up, development resources are allocated elsewhere, and games just don’t come back.
And that’s bad news for all of us.