Has piracy killed ST games?
We reveal exactly what you think of piracy, one of the causes of the demise of ST games and discover what you can do about it. Paula Richards takes you through it.
Piracy is costing the UK computer software industry an estimated £600 million a year, according to FAST, some of which could better be spent on developing — or even just converting — new games for the ST.
Yet despite this, and despite the obvious dropping off of ST games releases, games still continue to be pirated. Here we report what you think about this invidious crime, the effect it's having on the industry and what you can do about it.
New full price ST games releases are at an all-time low — only about one brand new game comes onto the market each month — and the serious side of things isn't much better. There are loads of reasons for this, but the most serious and the one that the software houses are most inclined to blame is the threat of piracy. This means that because there is a minority of people cracking games' code (so you can get into them without any form of copy protection) and then selling them for a fraction of the price of a commercially released game, softies don't get the cash they would otherwise have had.
This means that they don't have as much money to plough back into developing new games, something that is especially worrying in the ST market which, these days, only tends to be blessed with games publishers are convinced are going to be big sellers anyway.
Programmers, too, are also less likely to spend time developing or converting games to the ST when they reckon they're going to lose out to piracy.
Just look back to the words of David Braben, programmer of Frontier: Elite 2 — "I'm in half a mind not to produce any more stuff for the ST because we've been clobbered so much by piracy that there's little point in spending five years of your life doing something for these people to rip you off at the end of it."
And you agree...
In the main you agree with these people — 73% of you agreed with the statement in our recent questionnaire that piracy has helped kill the ST games industry. Looks a bit like you're cutting your own throats, though — you want software for your machines, you're the people who want to know what games you can get for your machines and you're the people who are so interested in your machine that you're willing to spend on a magazine every month.
You want decent new games for the ST but instead of going out and buying them for the full price you're pirating them — according to our latest survey over 34% of you possessed some pirated software — and 98.5% of you knew that it is illegal. So exactly what does over a third of you think you're doing?
The most popular excuse for piracy is that games are priced much too high, but instead of saying to yourself "OK. I can't afford it so I'll do without" you seem to view software as something which is almost something you earned the right to possess when you bought your ST, notwithstanding the fact that it actually costs substantial amounts in terms of both time and money to create games in the first place.
You see it as something which just grows on trees... and certainly as something you'd be completely crazy to consider paying for. There are the stubborn and rather arrogant opinions of some: "I only pirate software because I cannot afford to pay £30 for a game. I am still in school and I have no job. With my pocket money it would take me forever to save up and buy a game.
"Everybody I know who has an ST only bought it because they knew they could get the software virtually for free. If there were no pirated games around there would be far fewer ST owners than there are now. It's all right for you people with jobs to make us out to be criminals, but that's the only way we can get software. If it wasn't for piracy I'd probably still be playing my old Atari 800XL computer."
Right, so we're supposed to feel grateful, are we, that piracy has done wonders for the sale of STs and pleased for you that you've upgraded from your 800XL? Surely if you can't afford the software you do without — after all, you don't eat caviar and drink champagne every day just because you've got a digestive system, you stick to cheaper stuff like er, baked beans and sausages. Likewise with games — there's plenty of decent software on Cover Disks, in Public Domain libraries and on Bulletin Boards to keep you going for ages. Or how about this one? "I own some pirated software. I make no apology for this.
"I was encouraged into the Atari scene by a friend who had some pirated software and he supplied me with a selection of games, a couple of word processors and art programs when I first bought my STE. The illegal software he gave me served as an introduction for me.
"My system has expanded in terms of both purchased hardware and legally purchased software; I would never even have heard of the ST if it hadn't been for pirated software."
Try before you buy
"I have bought 12 full priced games in the last 14 months and only two of them do I play regularly — that's a lot of cash to have paid out for an item that is bought without seeing it and without any idea about its playability. Would you buy a shirt or dress without looking at it first because someone else said it was nice? Or how about buying a brand new car over the telephone?
"It's not as daft as it may seem since the desperate decline in the high street shops, more reliance has been placed on mail order purchases. Piracy is theft, of that there is no doubt, but I will not be buying any more games until I have played them."
If you can't get to play a game, how are you supposed to be able to tell whether it's worth your while buying the whole thing or not, you argue. The course of action you are forced into taking is to get hold of a pirate copy of a game and then if you like it then you'll go out and buy the full priced thing. Oh yeah? I mean, come on, be realistic — loads of you say that's what you do, but it doesn't actually seem that likely, does it — you've got a game you enjoy playing, what's going to make you go out and spend £25 on the real thing? The best thing to do, surely, if you want to test out a game is to try and get hold of a demo — there are plenty of them in the Public Domain, on Bulletin Boards and on ST magazines' Cover Disks so that you don't find yourself in this ridiculous situation...
And hey! you could even read magazine reviews of the games that come out — and we try and cover all of the budget releases as well — so you get some idea of what a game's like even on its second time around.
And then again...
Then again there are the smart arses, the people who actually pirate games and then sell them off at ridiculously low prices... otherwise known as "just doing it because they can." Some people seem to think it's really clever to crack games as you can tell by the very self-satisfied scrolling messages using really big and clever swearwords, explaining how brilliant they and their mates are and apologising to the creator of the disk formatter who presumably thought he had managed to find a way to prevent hackers getting into his format. Their attitude is encouraged by others who are particularly impressionable:
"I own some pirated software... I copied the games off a friend who did the same. The games on the disks are good, they have things on them called megatrainers that give you all the cheats you could ever want. I have enclosed these disks only I have given you copied versions so that I still have the games to play on." With cracking perceived as glamorous as the author of that missive obviously does, what hope is there?
By accepting pirated games you're encouraging this sort of juvenile attitude and ultimately reducing even further the number of game releases. On the other side of the fence there are the weary and cynical: "I think piracy is just an underhanded opportunity for certain people to try and get something for nothing and usually at someone else's expense. Think of the software thief as someone who would steal a car 'for the fun of it." and "I do not feel that anybody is forced into software piracy, it all comes down to greed and being able to get something for nothing." Or take this emotive example: "You ask 'are people forced into piracy because of the price of games?' Here's my answer. 'I am unemployed, I need a woman, I cannot afford a hooker so I come along and rape you. You report it to the police because you are horrified by my action, but I was only forced into raping you by the high price of hookers. Please tell me, what's the difference between the above and piracy? None." Now surely, there's not a single person out there who would condone rape, so why condone piracy?
What a rip-off... or is it?
There is no way, no how, will I pay anything like full price for a game. No matter what arguments you put to me can I see how games manufacturers can justify such prices."
It's a common argument that ST games are priced too high, so let's just take a look at where the average price of £25.99 goes. First off, the taxman takes his cut of 17.5% — that's £4.55 off the sum to start with leaving £21.44. Before you get to buy the game it has to be bought by the retailers who've got overheads like the costs of leases for premises and staff wages to cover before they even think about putting the game on the shelf. They take a cut of around 29% of the genie's price — £7.50 in this example. Before the game gets to the retailer it comes from the distributor — in the games software industry this is mainly handled by the biggies Leisuresoft and Centresoft — and they take a cut of about 16.5% or £4.29. This leaves 37% of the total figure — £9.65 — to go to the software publishers. But this isn't all profit by any means — there's the cost of the disks, boxes including wrapping, manuals, royalties and other development costs — and remember, unless a game sells a minimum number of copies a softie won't even cover its initial outgoings.
The Federation Against Software Theft
FAST (Federation Against Software Theft) is a non-profit making organisation that exists to protect the interests of software copyright owners, which includes the programmers and publishers of computer games. It was founded in 1984 by Bob Hay and started off, by simply doing anti-piracy work until 1988 when it was made a criminal offence to copy disks under the Copyright Act. From then on they've attempted to discourage piracy by a series of education through awareness campaigns.
Each case they come across is judged on its own merits — they get information from most parties only tangentally involved in the software industry — members of the public, the police and informants who have inside information to name but a few. FAST'S primary concern is to catch anyone who is committing an offence under the criminal law including people who are in any way associated with the copying and distribution of software — and this includes activities you might consider harmless such as swapping copies of disks between you, giving copies to friends without any expectation of money or distributing them for profit. There are other offences which can be taken up by the copyright owner under the civil law. Criminal offences tend to involve the police when a warrant is required, but most of the time FAST sorts out the evidence and takes the matter to court itself.
FAST considers that it has quite a good success rate, having achieved around 20 to 30 convictions for offences in the past year — and you're looking at substantial penalties, from fines of up to £5,000 per offence to anything from three months to ten years in prison — and that's for first time offenders.
What you can do about it
OK, so you don't want the ST games market to completely shrivel up and die — you've committed yourself in the past to campaigns to get games to be released on the machine and you're committed to your machine. So do something active — don't just sit there! At the very least be aware of what you're getting yourself into and make sure you're not a party to piracy.
1. Be aware of dodgy dealings
Watch out for suspicious ads in trade magazines like these. £1.50 for original games... oh yes?
Check they come with the original manuals and boxes — and ask how the seller can possibly be able to sell these supposed originals for £1.50 a disk.
2. Interesting additions
Look out for anything strange — can you get, say, a copying device with the games... as you can in this advertisement. What a giveaway.
3. Try and play before you buy
If you want to know what a game is like before you buy it, got hold of a demo version. ST FORMAT frequently runs demos of the bigger games on our Cover Disk — just look at the biggies we've had in the last year: Chaos Engine, Civilization, Elite 2 and this month, Cannon Fodder. That way you can tell whether you want to splash out on a game or not. You can get hold of any back issues you fancy from page 94. You can find other demos on Bulletin Boards — including the STF BBS (0225 465977) and in the Public Domain — check out our directory on page 38 of this issue.
4. Work with them before you buy
The same is true for serious software — we put demos of programs on the Cover Disk — take Thought! and UVK v6 that were on last issue — so you can test those out before you buy. If you use pirated versions of software they don't come with manuals so you're bound to be missing out on the potential of programs — you really do need them to he able to get the most out of them. We also put full programs on our disks, making piracy even more senseless.
5. Read the reviews in ST FORMAT
For more information read reviews of games in ST FORMAT. We play each game thoroughly on the ST — and only once it has been completed — so we're able to give you an honest opinion of what it's like. Where possible we compare it to similar releases so you have an even better idea of what the playability's like.
6. Wait for it to be released on budget
If you think a game is too expensive for you when it first comes out, wait until it's released on a budget label. Games are being released on budget labels like Kixx XL and the Hit Squad within months of their first release in some cases, so you don't have to wait as long as you have done in the past.
7. Look out for big discounts
Alternatively have a look through the adverts in the magazine — there are many mail order companies advertising who offer newly released games at heavily discounted rates. Check out the advice on page 44 for some more information on sensible buying by mail order.
8. Don't keep crime to yourself
If you see anything suspicious like sales of disks in markets, commercial games on Bulletin Boards or in PD libraries or for sale through trade magazines, get in touch with FAST. You can contact them on 0628 660377.
9. Don't be a pirate
If you're a pirate and you get a thrill from wasting people's time, ruining their careers and ultimately kicking yourself in the head by reducing the number of software releases, think again. Don't do it; it's not big and it's not clever. If you can crack games you can certainly do something a tad more creative with your talents. Why not try it? As one former pirate said to us: "I am now firmly against piracy as I hope to be a programmer in the sound and music industry, so this industry had better keep going." FAST agree that many people who used to be pirates are now firmly against the idea.
10. Look to the future
Remember there are severe penalties — up to ten years imprisonment — for pirating software...
A few facts and figures
As well as the responses shown in the graphs opposite from our survey, we discovered that a staggering 44% of you wouldn't report a BBS or PDL if they had pirated software and that a horrifying 12.5% of you believe piracy is an acceptable way of building up a stock of software.
This article was originally published in ST Format issue 58 (May 1994) on pages 21-25.
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