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iPhone Piracy: The Inside Story

November 18, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Many game developers don't think of the iPhone as being a system which has extensive game piracy. But recent comments by developers and analysts have shown otherwise, and Gamasutra speaks to multiple parties to evaluate the size of the problem, and whether there's anything that can be done about it.]

When indie game developer Bram Stolk detected 1,114 copies of his The Little Tank That Could being played online, he suspected something was up. He had, in fact, sold only 45 copies of the new iPhone game.

Stolk had fallen victim to what is being called rampant piracy in iPhone titles, possibly worse than has been experienced for so long on other platforms because of the ease with which it can be perpetrated.

Indie developer Smells Like Donkey has been quoted as saying that more than 90% of users of its recently released iPhone brawler Tap-Fu were playing pirated versions.

And, in a talk at GDC China in Shanghai, Alan Yu, VP at San Francisco-based ngmoco, characterized piracy on the Apple handheld as a big issue, with 50 to 90 percent piracy estimated in the first week on ngmoco titles.

In Vancouver, Stolk was floored. Like most indies, he hadn't gone into the business expecting to have his creations stolen from him -- at least not at the rate he was detecting. For every copy he was selling at the App Store, 24 others were being bootlegged. Most distressing, he admitted, was that legitimate copies of his game sold for only $1.99.

"They were stealing my game for a whole one dollar and 99 cents," he says, admitting being "disheartened" from the experience. "I mean, how sad is that?"


But Greg Yardley confirms that getting ripped off by pirates is the rule rather than the exception. Yardley is co-founder and CEO of Manhattan-based Pinch Media, a company that provides analytic software for iPhone games.

The software gives developers a sense of how their application is performing, how many people are using it, and what they are doing within the game. It also includes a few simple checks to determine whether the game has been pirated. He estimates that about 8 percent of the iPhone app market uses his analytic software.

"What we've determined is that over 60% of iPhone applications have definitively been pirated based on our checks," he reveals, "and the number is probably higher than that."

While it's impossible to estimate how much money developers are losing, it involves more than the price of the game, he says.

"What developers lose is not necessarily the sale," he explains, "because I don't believe pirates would have bought the game if they hadn't stolen it. But when there is a back-end infrastructure associated with a game, that is an ongoing incremental cost that becomes a straight loss for the developer."

"Many developers run servers to provide content dynamically, they run high-score servers, and that sort of thing costs money. If your application is pirated, you quickly find that cutting steeply into your profit margin, especially given the low price point of iPhone games."

What does the typical back-end infrastructure cost a developer?

According to Yardley, it is rare to see developers paying more than 10 percent of what they are taking in, but "you need to consider that a pirated game can be used many times over by multiple pirates, and so your losses are multiplied many times over as well."

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Glenn Storm
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I appreciate the awareness this article brings. The ostrich approach sounds like bad business all around. Even if this is just a hobby, take the business part of the hobby seriously.

My approach [would be] to follow the lead of the Batman: Arkham Asylum team: throw in a check and have the results quietly lead the pirate into a spectacular fail. The effect on publicity was awesome; I'd even go so far as to guess that it effected sales.

At the very least, I'd have a quiet fork in the road, a check into a central database at the first available opportunity could silently send legitimate owners along the straight and narrow, while the pirates' app is flagged to give another experience, with no way to un-flag. Perhaps that means switching to a lite version after an hour, maybe it means triggering a "please purchase" popup every 30 seconds, or how about the framerate gradually begins to slow down, the jump height decreases with each jump, the ammo gets used at x2 rate, the 3D camera tilts and lists like you're drunk, a large pirate flag obscures the viewport during the boss battle, etc., etc.; as long as the difference is trivial to implement, but dynamic (and obviously difficult) to play against. It's like making two experiences: one for the legit customer, one for the pirate.

(Actually, I'd like to see a game pit the pirates straight up against the legit buyers and give the legit buyers a serious advantage. 'Attack of the Pirate Zombies'?)

This kind of unique check for your product is going to thwart the casual pirate this story mentions; at least until the product becomes popular enough to warrant hacker attention. Hopefully by then, an indie could probably eat.

Vinicius Vecchi
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One of the biggest problems is that there are lots of games that aren't available to purchase in Brazil, so even if the people have the money and the will they can't buy games for theirs iPhone, this will make the piracy goes up.

JJ Lehmann
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This is absolutely disgusting. That a pirate could cough up the big bucks for an iPhone and wouldn't pay $1.99 - two bucks, for God's sake - for a game that months of effort went into - it just makes me sick. It's completely unjustifiable. I bid all these pirates a bad day, because they certainly deserve one.

It shows that the common pirate complaints that games cost too much are invalid. We've all heard that "$60 is way too much for a game" and that "if it cost less, I'd pay," but this proves that the pirates are phonies, hiding behind silly excuses. How much cheaper can games get?

It takes a lot of stupidity and thoughtlessness to pirate a two-dollar game. It takes a lot of stupidity to pirate at all, but this case in particular is inexcusable.

Don't people about each other AT ALL?

JJ Lehmann
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That's about the only case in which I can vaguely understand why people would pirate these games.

Jonathon Walsh
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The complaints about costing too much aren't just $60 is too much and $3 is too little. It's about the perceived value the user is getting from the purchase. I have an Android and looking through the market place I can tell you that I find many of the games too expensive even at $1.99 or $2.99. As a customer my perception of their value does not line up with what they cost. It has nothing to do with the absolute cost of the product.

I have a complaint with the following: "Our analytic software can measure when an iPhone first uses a pirated version of the game and then a legitimate version is installed over it," he reveals. "I can assure you that only one in 200 people ever do that."

I think that's somewhat missing the point, or at least some key details. If a user expends the energy to pirate the game they have much less motivation to spend the energy and money to buy the legit version. Their reasons for initially pirating could still be that they wanted to try it before spending money on it. The question then is why are they pirating when they want to try out a game? Well... how many of the games that made up this figure have a demo or free version?

Also, what's the expected turn-over rate for downloading a demo version and buying the legit version. If a game releases with a free demo version and only 1 of every 200 people that download the demo buy the paid version then is this piracy number still relevant?

James Hofmann
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Glenn: Defeating piracy by quietly breaking the game can be very dangerous because it can mislead the user of a pirate copy into thinking you made a buggy, unbalanced, unplayable game. If we are in a world where piracy is predominant, that is going to be the majority impression of your development skills.

Stephen Longhurst
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I think the term "ostrich" approach is a little derogatory to developers who choose not to focus on piracy. It's probably not true either, in that these developers aren't ignoring piracy, rather they are choosing to focus their time, money and effort on their true customers. The ones who have, and will, pay them real money.

As was pointed out to some degree, I personally don't think any anti-piracy method has yet been attempted that isn't also a hindrance in some way to legitimate users. Effort spent on pirates is wasted, it's your real customers you should focus on. Guys like Cliff Harris of Positech Games know it, Mark Shuttleworth knew it over 2 years ago, and even the music industry might be getting it these days. We in the games industry need to get over DRM and find new business models and markets that work.

Samuel Batista
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I see a very simple, and very useful approach to solving this problem. One that doesn't upset legitimate customers, and it also doesn't alienate pirates, regardless of their reason to pirate the game.

The answer is Ads. Have a game display an Ad every time it starts, maybe for 10 or 15 seconds. And then make it available for free both in the app store and give it away for free yourself to the pirating community.

Then have a paid version, with no more or no less features than the free version, that disables the ads. This will generate revenue from the legitimate customers and from pirates alike.

Obviously you will need to implement some kind of checks to determine whether the application is legit or not. And a pirate might circumvent this protection if they crack the paid version and never play the game connected to the internet. But if they do that then they don't incur stress on the servers of the developer, therefore no money is lost.

Timothy Ryan
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@Samuel: The non-ad version would be cracked as more accessible than the app-store legit ad version. If the goal is reducing unpaid-for bandwidth on the server, this not a solution.

Checks for cracked copies will have to get smarter, as they have for years in PC games.

Personally, I think Microsoft's recent banning of live access for hackers is the best solution. Apple could do the same by working with AT&T to disable the phone service for any cracked iPhone. It would be an inconvenience that would certainly dissuade many pirates.

Glenn Storm
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James: I do agree with that. I should have made clearer my point that 'the pirate track' of the game be made obvious and difficult to play at the same time; while hinting at the proper play you'd have if you brought it legit. A big pirate flag running past a boss battle fits that bill.

But to explore that point you make a little; in Batman: Arkham Asylum, there is a principle mechanic that is busted if cracked, making the gameplay difficult (gliding), but Rocksteady didn't make this deficit that obvious. The result was still effective to my eye. Perhaps it was the press on the forum gaff by the pirate that made it clear to everyone this deficit in gameplay quality was due to piracy only. I think the key is clarity when the pirate runs into the problem; that they know exactly why. (even if before that, 'the pirate track' was invisible)

Word of mouth is huge; I understand. But it seems that in light of the 1 in 200 legit purchase rate by pirates stated above, we wouldn't be turning off as many would-be pirate buyers as we would be encouraging legit purchases with that kind of tactic. If the pirate does what they do because its relatively easy and there's no penalty, they'll keep doing it. If it becomes less easy (cracking a single title) and the penalty is obvious, the quality of your game could lead the pirate to legitimacy. Maybe not. But at least the smaller indie title's back end systems won't suffer from rampant piracy.

Meredith Katz
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@ Jonathon Walsh

"The complaints about costing too much aren't just $60 is too much and $3 is too little. It's about the perceived value the user is getting from the purchase. I have an Android and looking through the market place I can tell you that I find many of the games too expensive even at $1.99 or $2.99. As a customer my perception of their value does not line up with what they cost. It has nothing to do with the absolute cost of the product."

This makes me wonder more about how people have a double standard on perceived value. Do you get more out of a $1.99 game than eating a chocolate bar? If you had the choice between the two, which has more extended and repeated value to you, a Starbucks coffee or a $2.99 game? Yet the price points on both of those are similar...

Mary Williams
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Off the cuff, your idea to disable service for jailbroken phones sounds like a practical, all-encompassing solution. If they can't connect to the internet or a PC, it'd be tougher for them to circumvent the problem, right? Cutting off voice service would be harsh, but doubtless very effective.

Another idea might be to impose a heavy tariff on service for jailbroken phones. When I was looking at upgrading my AT&T phone earlier this year, I noticed that if you start using an iPhone without notifying them, and they detected this, they can and would charge you for an iPhone data plan without notice. An escalating fee (resulting in legal action after a set "grace" period) for jailbroken phones might work much the same way.

It prompts a question, though, and I don't have an iPhone so I wondered if you could answer it. Would it be possible to run the jailbreaking software on someone's phone without their knowledge, much like a virus? Something to intentionally disable and inconvenience someone else? Some plan would have to be in place for genuine false positives, too -- you know there'll be some, even if it is a comparatively infinitesimal number.

Stephen Tramer
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@Timothy: There is actually a killswitch in the phone that Apple (or presumably AT&T) can activate at any time. But jailbreaking actually allows you to disable this switch (of course), it's impossible to detect when a phone is jailbroken aside from the new firmware signing procedure (which was quickly circumvented anyway), and there are plenty of jailbreak users who break their phone to use a different carrier than AT&T besides. This isn't a real solution to the problem. What you're suggesting would just be extremely bad PR on many levels.

Quite honestly I have no idea what a really good solution to prevent piracy would be, but at least some kind of signing authentication could prevent pirates from using server resources for online games. Not going to bring the revenue in, but it would at least prevent some expanded costs.

Samuel Batista
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@Timothy, Mary: I don't claim to know much about cracked application detection. However there have been successful attempts to find out which users are running a cracked application.

Most methods require that the application sends data to the developers server, the developer can then identify which device is running an unsigned version of the application. If a developer implemented a system where a cracked application would require the user to view an Ad before using it he would still generate revenue from the pirate.

Implementing anti-piracy protection that shuts down or removes features from an application is a waste of potential users. Finding ways to generate revenue from these users is a much better approach to this problem in my opinion. This would require more effort from the developer, since they would have to implement detection algorithms for cracked applications, and put effort into making these difficult to patch. But since piracy rate is so high, developers should be putting considerable amount of effort into ways of generating revenue from these users, not getting rid of them.

Jonathon Walsh
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This is kind of unrelated but personally I think the xbox bans were bad for everyone. After the banning you have less people who can purchase DLC and XBox Live games and you've essentially encouraged people to pirate rather than buy. Here's what I see as having happened from the bans (both through news stories and people I've talked to)

-The pirates I know were people who also owned legitimate software and still purchased many games including Xbox Live Arcade games and games with multiplayer.

-A steep decline in Xbox Live Arcade purchases. This was also related to MW2's release.

-People with banned consoles selling their consoles cheap, people who want to pirate can now buy a banned xbox to do so.

-People buying another 360 and keeping their banned system to use for pirated games

-People pirating more single player games now because there's no reason not to. One friend I talked to basically said, "Well it's not like they can do anything else to me now"

-People buying another system like the PS3 instead. So you've just turned a potential customer away.

Chad Irby
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I keep seeing these huge numbers, and I'm sorry, but they don't make much sense.

If the high-estimate piracy rate (20:1) is anything like realistic, then how could anyone sell hundreds of thousands of copies of ANY iPhone app, much less the more-expensive ones (over $0.99)?

I think the bigger problem is that someone has screwed up their server-side recording, and is multiplying the numbers by a fairly large factor. Look at "Bram in Canada," who claims a 24:1 pirated/bought ratio (for a game that, up until his post, nobody had ever heard of). And that over 1000 people had pirated a game that had been out for less than a week? Sounds fishy.

On the other hand, if iPhone app piracy is overreported to a large degree, it's a big marketing advantage for... a company that helps you track piracy of your app. Hmm.

I know a lot of iPhone users, and only a very few have jailbroken phones - and only one of them had any hacked apps on his at all (until I griped him out and he started buying them). I know, just anecdotal evidence, but so is most of the "evidence" from people who are claiming the "Great iPhone Piracy Spree of 2009."

Sean Lander
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@Jonathon: Some of those problems you listed would most likely either have happened anyway, or will actually be good for the industry as a whole (though that would be a much smaller margin). For example, those people who had owned legitimate stuff might now rethink hacking another system, and any games they do have purchased will still be able to run as well. If they sell their old one, well, people wanting to get hacked xbox's would have gotten them anyway, so that's most likely not going to do anything to the market. If they continue downloading pirated software, well, they were most likely going to do that anyway, and any legit games would still run as well. The drop in Live Arcade games does hurt, I do agree with that, but anyone that ends up re-buying a system or even buying a competitor's system means that they will (hopefully) only get legitimate games from now on.

That is just my own speculation, though. This iPhone thing is much worse overall to developers than what was happening with hacked Xboxs, however (~90% piracy for iPhone games as opposed to 3% of all Live accounts). Look at it this way: if all hacked iPhones were somehow shut off forever completely, no one would be able to play pirated games. The developers would still be making as many legitimate sales now, if not more.

Also, generating revenue from pirates would be nice, however these people are hacking the games and the phones, meaning they'd find a way to disable it or work it in their favor anyway. Putting an ad on the game could inspire the hackers to stick their own links in instead, causing them to end up making money off of your game in the long run.

Luis Guimaraes
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Mark Venturelli
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@Luis: don't cross the trolling line, please. People are making valid points here, and we are talking about piracy of really small games made by very few people.

Jonathon Walsh
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@Sean but if those problems are going to happen anyways then why ban? Has deterrents to piracy like this worked anywhere else? It hasn't seemed to work at all for music or movies.

Also the worst that could happen to iPhones is a denial of service to jail broken iPhones by Apple or AT&T, jail breaking your iPhone is in a legal gray area because of the DMCA but most sources I read say that it's most likely legal. (Such as:
gal ). I also think it's really really unlikely that AT&T would deny jail broken iPhones considering it would cost them a significant amount of money.

I think you also overestimate people's will to hack away an unobtrusive ad or circumvent other revenue models. Most pirates pirate out of convenience and to save money. If what you offer them is convenient, cheap, and worth the investment (if you charge at all) they won't pirate it.

Luis Guimaraes
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I just mean, how many talks like this did we all have again and again?

How many times have we all fixed the problem? Do we even know what the problem is?

I'm just giving up the iPhone after looking on these number. If I find another way to go around this picture I will do it, and that's what I look for. But just think about DRMs... The hackers and crackers know what they have to do, know what a DRM is and what we try to do, they have a clear goal. It's doomed that they will always win while we keep playing on their field.

But we're nothing smart, creative or modern anyway, we can't do anything since we're so weak and narrowminded. Or maybe we can make a new, creative, innovative way of spending more and more money on DRM. That's it!! I'm a genius!! o/

Neville Boudreaux
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"If what you offer them is convenient, cheap, and worth the investment (if you charge at all) they won't pirate it. "

I call huge BS on that. Look at the iPhone App Store. Convenient? Sure - it takes one touch to buy whatever. Cheap? Most apps in the $0.99 - $1.99. Worth the investment? It's a dollar...if you get more than 15 minutes of fun out of it, I'd say it's worth it. If you want a 10 hour masterpiece for your 1 dollar, then I think you're being unrealistic. I mean, do you expect a $1 McChicken sandwich from McDonald's to compare to a Thanksgiving feast?

Why ban? Because you're violating the XBox Live Terms of Use by modifying your console (no matter your reason). So you are banned.

If you don't like it, I suggest you simply not mod your console - especially if you're using a service like Xbox Live.

Jonathon Walsh
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I can't fully speak for the iPhone but I know on my android I consider the process inconvenient. Not so much because of the process itself but because of the good to bad ratio of games. I don't want to spend money on any games because I think there's a very very high chance I'll get burned with some crappy game that's not even worth 15min of my time. Most of the demo apps I do play around with entertain me for maybe all of 5 minutes and even then it's a distraction more than enjoyment. The iPhone app store has some real gems but they seem like diamonds in the rough to me.

Isn't that a really roundabout way to explain it? Why is it in the ToS to begin with? They can certainly ban because it's in the ToS, I think that's perfectly fair. I just don't see what they have to gain by banning.

It's not that I don't like it or do like it. I don't mod my console (or pirate games for that matter). Heck I don't even own a 360. I just don't see any benefit to anyone as a result of the bans. It seems more of a vindictive act to me.

Drew Mohr
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@Jonathon not sure if you're aware, but MS isn't banning accounts only Xboxes.

Considering that pirates tend to be avid gamers the chances of them dropping the 360 altogether are pretty slim. So they go out and buy a new console in order to access their profile and play their legitimate purchases, but they're also likely to now buy copies of their favorite online games.

If they keep their old console and use it offline the situation hasn't really changed except they can no longer obtain updates. If they sell to someone who wouldn't mod themselves then that person has the same problem, and they probably don't spend much on games anyway. Most damning of all is the fact that they aren't really turning away customers because those people weren't really customers to begin with.

Pretty smart on MS's part. They basically forced their most rabid fans to buy a new console and more games while garnering positive PR.

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Jeremy Glazman
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@Bob dillan: have you ever bought a game on an iPhone? It's literally 1 button then enter your password.

Somehow it has simply become acceptable in the mainstream to steal games. Given how cheap iPhone games generally are this really says a lot about the state of the high-tech user community, which is now apparently dominated by thieves. Maybe they don't understand that game developers work for a living?

Stealing a $1.99 on a game for your $300 + monthly fees device might appear trivial, but that's money that puts food on our tables. I really don't get it.

Luis Guimaraes
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I give up.

If you really don't care, and your game is going to do online check anyway and your legitimate customers can't play offline at all, the hackers can still make your game subpass or ignore the check, and the check usually happens in the beggining of the program execution.

When you have a car, this car needs a key so you can turn it on. After the ignition you can go anywhere and do anything the car is made for. Thiefs subpass and the key system and stel your car. The car doesn't need the key to work, it needs the key to start working, but it still can start working without the key.

If you take an important piece that the car actually needs due to work, things change a bit.

A Flash game stored on a portal is usually small in it's byte size. When you wanna play it, your client machine, which has the Flash player installed, loads the game onto the RAM memory, then you can play it. The game is not written to your HD, and you need to be online to play it.

Let's say your inventory functions, your loading manager, a piece of some character AI, the HUD, the voiceacting, or any other important function (not variable) that is really important to your game to acctually work, is dowloaded to your ram memory straight from an online server or, the client sends the arguments, the little software runs at the original server and sends back the returning value of the function. Assuming you can still mantain all your legitimate clients happy, and keep a good updated server security. You can (maybe) reach your goal to deny the pirates playing your software.

Drew Mohr
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Neville: "It's a dollar...if you get more than 15 minutes of fun out of it, I'd say it's worth it. If you want a 10 hour masterpiece for your 1 dollar, then I think you're being unrealistic. I mean, do you expect a $1 McChicken sandwich from McDonald's to compare to a Thanksgiving feast?"

What about all the consumers that don't even get a minute of fun out of an app they paid for? I mean, would you buy a $1 McChicken if there was a major chance it had feces in it instead of chicken? How many $1 McChickens filled with turds does it take before you swear off buying them altogether?

The only thieves I see here are the lazy devs that can't be bothered to make halfway decent games and the apple employees that let them. Right now it's just far too easy for someone to spend half a day cobbling together some piece of junk that gets thrown up for .99c with the hope that at least five or ten people pay for it.

Hell just look at this:

Probably made in less than an hour and priced at .99c. Shouldn't really be a surprise why consumer confidence is so low.

JJ Lehmann
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That concern would seem valid, but it obviously isn't what most pirates are thinking, or else they would buy the games they like after playing the pirated version. Quoting the article itself:

'Pinch Media's Yardley has also heard the argument that pirates steal because they want to try the games before they buy them but, he says, that excuse doesn't hold water.

'Our analytic software can measure when an iPhone first uses a pirated version of the game and then a legitimate version is installed over it," he reveals. "I can assure you that only one in 200 people ever do that.' "

I can't believe that a pirate would see so many poor games without only coming across one worthwhile one in just 1 of 200 cases.

Alex Prach
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Maybe if people researched and looked into games rather than mass-buying/downloading then people wouldn't get burned. As McDonalds and other big industry names, we know we get what we pay for, but for unknown developers we do not. This makes the app store more like a bazaar where people get ripped off all the time, because they couldn't be bothered to see what was actually worth their money.

Do you go to a market to buy your food or a super market. If you go to a supermarket you have a minimum expectations on food quality. But if you go to the market with smaller firms of variable quality offering food which may or may not be good, then is it the person who bought the food at the market even being able to inspect it, but not eat it (remember not all stalls in a market will give you a demo taste of their butchered lamb even if it looks so rancid it could kill an elephant).

A pirate of these bazaar games is like a theif stealing in the market, they steal everything because they don't care about others they are simply selfish, do you really believe if you steal an apple from a market stall just to test if the apple is good? and if it was good would you pay for a dozen? doubtful as you could simply steal more if you wanted.

Pirates are theives in the end, in terms of programming, because most pirates don't know how much effort it takes into creating a game, therefore they believe programmers are magicians and can just create them quickly thats why it takes so little time to copy. But we know it takes sweat, blood and tears to make some games so we value games more. To make the metaphor apply to the market stall, some kids these days believe fruit and meat are grown and cut all by machine automatically, and therefore little effort is needed by the market stalls to make a profit. But doesn't the stall owner have to procure the items, transport the items, yell their voice hoarse in order to sell the items throughout the day? doesn't that require energy and effort.

If any person really believes a game is not really what it's worth then I don't see the issue of not buying it and not pirating it. Do you really feel the urge to go and steal/copy your colleagues work because you don't believe there is any value in expending energy to do your homework/coursework/actual work or stealing a couple items from a supermakert because the owner will make lots of money from the rest of their customers. If you do then I recommend labelling yourself as a theif. Of course some theives are proud of their life, but you can't change their stripes so easily.

Neville Boudreaux
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I definitely agree there are some really pathetic apps on the App Store (especially in the games' section), but every app has user reviews. Apps that are of poor quality are generally the ones people will go out of their way to review and tell you how bad it is. The review score is right on the app's page, so it's not like it's hidden. And if on some chance you do suffer buying a horrible game - you're simply out 99 cents, not $59.99 like today's console games where Buyer's remorse has some real kick.

I simply don't believe the "ethical pirate" exists. People pirate because they can, it's free, and there are (generally) no repercussions. I think any other reason is a thinly veiled attempt at moral justification.

Jonathon Walsh
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@Alex Theft is not piracy. It doesn't make it right under our current law but calling it theft isn't right.

@Neville yeah but for those reviews to show up some poor sucker has to buy it, kind of a poor system for someone in the end. Plus I know on the Android App store at least you'll see a lot of cases where a paid app has 4 to 5 stars while the lite version has tons of 1 to 3 star reviews complaining about bugs, poor quality, and other issues not specific to the lite version. There's probably a host of reasons for this but I know that personally I don't trust the reviews all that much.

I do agree with your reasons for why people pirate and it fits with every pirate I know personally. That's really what it comes down to. The total cost, including time, repercussions and price of pirating is less than the cost of buying the game legitimately. When buying legitimately offers no addition value over pirating then people are going to pirate. The only real effective way to stop piracy is by creating value that can only be had by buying the legitimate version. This doesn't even have to be a game feature, something as simple as connecting with your fans can go a long way (though this is hard to do for iPhone developers I'd imagine).

Chad Irby
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Jonathon Walsh:

That web page relies on agreeing with the concept "theft removes the original."

This is interesting, but not true. "Theft removes value" is closer to how the world actually works. By pirating software, you remove some of the potential value of that piece of software. Ditto for trademarks and copyright issues. Note that infringing on either one of those is covered by laws in most countries, too.

Either way, piracy is wrong, it's just that some piracy advocates desperately need it to be "less wrong" than plain old theft...

The Android App Store is running into the "give the free app a bad review to hurt your competition" problem that has haunted the iTunes version for quite a while now. It's not a "piracy versus paying" issue, it's a "slag your competition" one.

Alex Prach
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@Jonathon Walsh

"creating value that can only be had by buying the legitimate"

You will never ever be able to create this unless you sell a physical product, which is why guitar hero, etc do well. But after consumers get their peripherals they can start to continue their pirating ways.

But I digress in that I may be wrong in that you can create value and that is in the person's conscience, unfortunately showing dieing programmers from malnutrition due to no money will never make a documentary, as programmers are seen as rich/medium people and are never seen as the needy.

Even putting the game online and creating new content daily CAN be broken and made to be copied, although it is much harder for some hackers due to the code being off the software. The problem with this is that you are punishing your legal customers for not actively going onto the online server to retrieve said content.

So in order to provide value we need to punish our customers by drip feeding/streaming content rather than having a single install. This pushes the developers towards the arcade scenario where you pay to play, which can be beneficial (playing part of the game is less costly if you find out your not really interested and people who are interested give more money to the developers), but also have their own set of cons : games will be less explored since gamers will play less of the game due to extra costs, which reduces the amount of work the programmer needs to do since they will concentrate less on the detail towards the game.

Alternatively moving more of the game logic to the server. This has pros and cons as well,

pros : harder to crack if at all, multiplayer games are more easier to handle since it is hosted.

cons: will increase the costs on the developers side due to more processes done by the server as well as potentially greater bandwidth usage.

All the problems with all these scenarios is that the developer will eventually kill the server and people who bought the game now have a client software which does not have all the content/game logic so it may render the software useless. But looking at the future of gaming, the network, and pricing of gaming, this may well be the future for all games. Instead of owning the game or even a license to use the software, now you only own a ticket to use the game servers where the client on your system downloads image/partial game logic, where the game server will eventually be closed down (e.g. bankruptcy, neglect, terrorism, natural disasters, etc).

Robert Crouch
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Thinking about this rationally, why is there 1000 people pirating a 2 dollar game that 40 people paid for? Next, why does the article state that 60% of iPhone apps are pirated. Why is there a much higher piracy rate for one 2 dollar game than there is for others? If Bram's game is pirated at a 90% rate, what makes it more likely to be pirated than others?

My assumption: Nothing.

The article mentions crackulous. It also mentions the habits of that community; one person downloads a game, uploads it to some repository, and a bunch of people download whatever is new. This community is relatively indiscriminate about what they download, because it's free to them. It costs nothing to download 100 games they're uninterested in. Likewise, I'm not implying that they will ever come back to pay for a cracked game.

My guess is that the size of this community is independent of the popularity of the game. You notice also in the article that the ratio of people who pirate the game goes down over time "the piracy rate on the day it went on sale for $6.99 was around 96 percent. It has since settled down to "only" 80 percent after three weeks,"

What this is telling me is there is a fairly static community of people who pirate nearly every game fairly indiscriminately. They are going to be the first people who get the game. They will never purchase the game. Breaking their phones or preventing them from downloading the game will not get you more sales.

What I see happening is

App is released. App gets cracked and posted. Those with a jailbroken phone and into piracy download it. A few people download it legitimately. You have 1000 pirates and 40 legitimate players using your app (96% piracy). 3 weeks later word of mouth gets around regarding your app, and your sales go to 1100 pirates and 275 legitimate buyers (80% piracy).

Ok, so you have a lot of piracy. One thing to note though is that in this example, the number of paying users must increase faster than pirating users if you're going to go from 96% to 80% piracy over a 3 week period. What that's leading me to believe is that the people who are likely to pirate your app are going to do it the day it's released. Those are lost sales. You're not going to get them ever. Get over it.

For a pirate, the cost and effort of getting your game on release date is pretty much nothing, so most pirates who are interested are going to get it right away. For a legit user without a jailbroken phone, the cost and effort of getting a cracked game is actually fairly high. You'd have to go through the process of jailbreaking your phone (and the ethical or security concerns that might raise), you'd have to have the knowledge to know that was an option, you'd have to learn about where to get these cracked games, etc.

So yeah, your first rush of users are going to be the pirates. They've got access to your game fast and free. So why not consider using them instead of locking them out. Here is a situation where you have 40 reluctant users who have taken a risk and purchased your game. They may like it, they may not. But you also have 1000 other users who've taken no risk and pirated it. You also have an unknown number of users who are considering the game, but haven't heard anything about it.

Leverage those pirates. You could do something like add twitter integration into your game. You keep a high score list? When someone beats their personal top score, let them tweet what their score is. "Rob has achieved a new high score in super bram ball! 34,059 #59!" Let them compete with their real life friends. Use those non-paying players to generate interest in your game. They're lost sales. All those players who learn about your game from them, however, may not have jailbroken phones. They may not know about that cracking community. And they might not care about the $1.99 that it costs them to push the button on their phone.

Brit C
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@ Chad Irby: "I keep seeing these huge numbers, and I'm sorry, but they don't make much sense. If the high-estimate piracy rate (20:1) is anything like realistic, then how could anyone sell hundreds of thousands of copies of ANY iPhone app, much less the more-expensive ones (over $0.99)?"

I think you're confusing two different things. Let's imagine that 20% of all iPhone users use cracked apps 100% of the time, and 80% never pirate software. Let's also say that iPhone pirates are 20x as likely to download and try an app. (This is because getting a pirated copy is free, so there's zero resistance to downloading everything. Also, people who are really interested in apps are more likely to pirate because it saves them a lot of money.) What would your numbers say? Well, it would say that the ratio of pirated to purchased copies on iPhones is 5:1 -- 83% of all copies were pirated. When people sell hundreds of copies of iPhone apps, they are selling to the 80% who are non-pirate iPhone users.

Also, to answer your question about how anyone can sell hundreds of thousands of iPhone apps: there are tens of millions of iPhones sold. And, you also have to ask *when* those apps were sold - was it before the widespread use of cracking applications?

"I think the bigger problem is that someone has screwed up their server-side recording ... I know a lot of iPhone users, and only a very few have jailbroken phones - and only one of them had any hacked apps on his at all..."

My example shows how the percentage of pirated apps can be very high even though the percentage of pirating iPhone users is low.

John Hahn
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As another alternative business model:

Someone suggested that you could have an ad just before the game starts that lasts 10-15 seconds. If the user purchases the game then the ad goes away.

How about using the business model of "The Truman Show". For those of you that haven't seen it, it's a movie where a TV network creates a fake city with hidden cameras everywhere. The network adopts a newborn baby, and the baby lives in the fake city until he is 30 years old, oblivious to the fact that the city isn't real or that he has been on camera in front of millions of viewers his whole life. All the citizens of the city are paid actors. This show is broadcast to viewers 24x7. To make revenue the show has inline advertisements. Not like an ad bar at the bottom like a stock ticker, but actual in-show ads where the actors use a particular brand of oatmeal or drink a particular brand of beer or whatever. The ads are subtly interwoven into the TV show. I think this might be a good business model for a video game. There is no paid, ad-free version of the game. The game is totally free to everybody, but there are subtle ads dispersed throughout the game world. This way the ads don't take away from the game experience, but the developer still has revenue coming in.

For instance, in Grand Theft Auto 4, when you are driving in your car and listening to the radio. Instead of having all spoof radio ads that are meant for laughs, they could have mostly spoof ads, but then have a random real ad (that's actually been paid for) thrown in occasionally. This would obviously work best for an online game like an MMO because you could have dynamic ad feeds pushed down from the server periodically so that the ads would get changed every once and a while. This way the game company would have a constant revenue stream coming in from new ads, much like TV and Radio companies.

Brit C
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@ John Hahn

> To make revenue the show has inline advertisements.

There are some companies doing that. Part of the problem is that it has to be consistent with the game-world. In a medieval/fantasy or sci-fi world, what ads could you show? It works fine for games set in the modern world. I'd be doubtful that it generates much revenue compared to normal sales. Some of these articles seem very optimistic, but their projections always seem to be 5 years in the future. For example:

From an April 2006 article: $1.6-$1.8 billion by 2010

"Massive Inc. CEO Mitch Davis predicted that in-game ad spending would land somewhere between $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion in the U.S. by 2010"

But then Massive reduced their expectations and pushed-out the date even further:

From an October 2009 article: $1 billion by 2014

"Contesting some media reports that in-game advertising is facing tough obstacles, Microsoft's JJ Richards -- general manager of in-game ad subsidiary Massive -- has said the market is "thriving" and will reach $1 billion by 2014."

Notice that the projections are always 4-5 years in the future, and there's seems to be a reduction in ad-revenue expectations.

For comparison to actual numbers, wikipedia claims that: "In 2005, spending on in-game advertising was US $56 million" ( Current revenue for the game industry is around $57 billion.

See also:

Jeremy Glazman
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I wonder how it is that Crackulous hasn't been taken down under the provisions of the DMCA?

Oh and the "piracy isn't theft because you're only copying, not removing" argument is hilarious, and actually makes me feel better about the whole situation; at least pirates KNOW what they are doing is fundamentally wrong, else they wouldn't try so hard to make themselves feel better about it. (this is ignoring of course the fact that the argument is totally false when considering server costs for supporting those stolen games)

Daniele Benegiamo
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I would like to know what is the official position by Apple on the piracy issue.

Apple is the only subject that can allows an application to reach regular iPhone/iPod devices, as they have to be properly encrypted/decrypted. This encryption is what make impossible to distribute applications without passing by the App Store, and the way Apple counts its 30% fees. Its position is the same as classic console owners (Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo).

Exists simple hardware solutions that Apple seems to have decided to not use. Can Apple provide a feedback?

If the ratio 1:20 is right, is more simple to sell directly for jailbroken phones: no fees, no constraints and at least you can build some custom DRM... ;)

Benjamin Marchand
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@Richard Ybarra : Your intervention is brilliant.

Victor Soliz Kuncar
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"this is ignoring of course the fact that the argument is totally false when considering server costs for supporting those stolen games)"

There is a series of approaches done to prevent piracy, most of them are ineffective, but if the game requires a server and pirates are still using it, then it is really the developer's fault...

Of course, pirates would just get their own server, like what happens with World of Warcraft, this is assuming the game is worth playing/paying for which happens very few times anyway. But in that case, no, company wouldn't incur in extra costs due to pirates.

It is absurd to assume that pirates would actually buy the game if they were unable to pirate. It is also absurd that it is possible to make it impossible or hard to pirate. In real life, theft is preventable by putting policemen and alarms and guards and making it very difficult and punishable. In regards to piracy, it is not even theft... It is very easy. Attempts like DRM and making the game require access to a server are simply not effective.

These methods to attempt to make piracy hard do not have an effect on piracy rates. Notice how iphones require jailbreaking the phone and other things yet they get these high piracy rates. What's worse is that at the same time, these methods simply annoy the real costumers who paid for your game.

Another reason is that only a subset of iphone owners actually can purchase your product. If you live outside the fairyland being the US, EU and Japan, you actually purchase the iphone already jailbroken, and getting the apps illegally is the only way :). Maybe, that should be the focus rather than increasing annoyances against users.

The real effects of piracy are often overestimated. These are people that are pirating 99 cent games. If they were unable to pirate, do you really think they would pay for the game?

Also, what the heck? How is jailbreaking the iphone an 'ethical' concern? We are talking about a device that artificially locks you from being able to use it the way you prefer. Piracy is not the only think jailbreaking allows.

Sean Francis-Lyon
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@Victor Soliz Kuncar, a couple points:

"It is absurd to assume that pirates would actually buy the game if they were unable to pirate."

Why is it absurd that a gamer that wants to play a game would buy it if that is the only way they can play it? While, of course, not every pirated copy is a lost sale, it is just as absurd to say there are no lost sales due to piracy.

"It is also absurd that it is possible to make it impossible or hard to pirate."

What is the piracy rate on WOW? Very low because it is hard to pirate.

Paul Im
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The bottom line for me is, All game developers are competing against free products that make our industry weaker. Regardless of your individual apps are hacked or not.

[User Banned]
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Mark Morrison
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Many of us realize this conversation is missing the one (already mentioned) essential input: Apple. Until Apple, or someone else credible and connected to the official Apple sales process can validate these speculative piracy numbers that individuals, developers, or self-serving analytic software vendors keep claiming, it's just speculative rumors in my opinion. I know a lot of game developers, and they're just not experiencing these type of numbers yet.

Most of us seem to agree piracy isn't a positive thing. Most agree that creators deserve something for their creations, if they want. Now what? We're arguing over ancillary issues in my opinion. Pirates are pirates in everything they do, and they comprise a minority share of consumers, at best. It's Apple's store, and they protect the iTunes inventory how they want. Developers and publishers voluntarily sell their software through iTunes. No one is forced to make games or apps.

Using Bram Stolk as the case study only makes me feel sorry for Bram. Only 45 copies sold? If I was in that spot, I'd be worrying about a ton of other things before the unregistered 1,114 people who are playing my game without paying.

There's so little transparency, quantified data or meaningful case studies with regards to this subject that it would be nice if journalists, forum moderators, and developers would provide a more professional foundation for interfacing on piracy. In the mean time, this type of rumor mongering just adds time explaining to clients and prospective clients what the piracy facts actually are.

Why don’t we spend some community time on improving intuitive solutions like: more ubiquitous platforms to monetize on, better security or user cross-check features for developers, easier porting/localizing tech; and, finally, how about more competitive carrier monthly fees for all consumers worldwide, with better options for a la carte features and add-ons. Yeah, call me naïve.

John Rotoloni
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Quick question guys 'cause I don't develope for the iphone. Can you create a backend database and just verify that they paid? Can the apps you write send the phone number of the phone playing your app? if it can this is your key. If a hacker removes this then you need to provide some incentive to login, like record a high score.

Daniele Benegiamo
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No, you can't. You have no access to the App Store back-end to know if the person have payed. This is a problem also with the In-App Purchase APIs: it seems you have no way to know if the purchased item have been *really* purchased...

But also those checks can be simply cracked, as they store the result of the check somewhere in memory. With the right tools, it's not difficult to find where they are.

Gil Beyruth
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Can't you record UIID on your server on the buy process and check it later?

Is there any way to encrypt the code after compilling, as SWF encrypt does for flash?

Benjamin Marchand
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@Gil : that would be a good solution actually. Apple sending UDIDs of buyers to the devs would let them check that.

Reminder : every dev can access the UDID from Xcode. So there is no harm here.

Daniele Benegiamo
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@Gil: You can't hook in the buy process, and Apple don't send you any UDID. Usage of UDIDs is also wrong, because a customer can have multiple devices.

Benjamin Marchand
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@Daniele : but each time you install a new instance of a purchased game on a new device, you got to connect to appstore and let Apple check if you already bought it. That step would be the one where Apple would send the new UDID.

Daniele Benegiamo
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@Benjamin: Apple don't send the UDID, it's a serial number stored into the device. However, as I've already said, Apple don't send validated UDIDs to developers, so a cross-check is impossible.

And as side-note, seems UDID can be faked:

Benjamin Marchand
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Yeah, it was only if Apple could send it.

Also, UDID faker won't have any impact on the method we're talking about, just because the dev can check cloned UDID in personal databases.

Brandon Van Every
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I've got the answer. We need to return to the standards of Roman law. Thieves are punished by death. Now, um, I guess we couldn't actually do that. But we could write a *game* about doing that. Or maybe I could. Yeah, I like ancient stuff. Roman law, punishing thieves...

Neil Balharrie
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@Chad Irby with our experience rates of 90% are very realistic, we saw with our game Bear Paw that the number of users jumped on the day of release even though the sales were consistent and within three days of being available on the pirate boards the rate for Bear Paw was over 80% and increasing.

To be honest I'm not surprised, and to that end my philosophy has been how can we exploit them to get the game seen by as many people as possible, and hence pull in as many buyers as possible.

Aaron Burton
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Game Designers have 2 think outside the box and expect to be pirated. Especially if its a good game. Its a compliment. You could actually use it to your advantage.

Take for example Battle net. If you didn't have a serial key you wasn't playin' online ill tell u that right now.

*Their should be an incentive to buy the game besides content. Therefore the pirates will be left with the dry version of the game while buyers will have the fruitful version.*

I'm sure Game developers would not feel " disheartened " if they actually catered to pirates and buyers alike. Take note that not everyone can't pay for every single game that comes out. I'm sure once they can afford to pay and actually like the companies that make their favorite games they would have no problem dishing out cash for quality content.

If that sounds to hard to swallow than i suggest arresting everybody who has ever downloaded or played a pirated game. including me XD.

But i can totally understand all the effort going into a game and not having people pay for your content. There's a season for everything and you have to change with the times or this will happen to you unfortunately.

Someone once told me you should be "pro" people buying games and not "anti" piracy.