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[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."