The Real Cost of Piracy: An Entire, Paid-For iPhone Game

Ben Kuchera of Penny Arcade has a riveting, yet morbid story about a game that, at first glance, looked amazing: Hunted Cow’s Battle Dungeon.

“It’s been a bit of a nightmare,” Andrew Mulholland said after taking a deep breath. “Most of our iOS games are single-player, they’re doing alright.” Mulholland is a company director of the game developer Hunted Cow, and the company recently launched a multiplayer iOS game called Battle Dungeon. The game was doing well, players were enjoying themselves, everyone was happy.

On Saturday, Mulholland received a Google alert as people began to discuss a pirated version of the .ipa file that allowed anyone to install the game. Once it was installed on someone’s iOS device, the player needed only to set up an online account to play. “Then 90 percent of our sign-ups were coming from pirate copies of the game,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. Running the servers and supporting the players cost money, and the legitimate sales simply couldn’t keep up with the flood of pirates.

It’s easy for a layman to simply say “that’s easy, ban the pirates!”, but that runs into multiple problems. First, this article makes pains to note that their infrastructure never once took into account “our game will eventually be ruined by 90% of our fanbase”; it’s just not something that comes to mind, especially in Apple’s closed garden. Second, that means that it would require individually banning accounts. Good luck with that; not only is it heavily labour intensive for a small company to do to the point of being virtually impossible, but that opens up the potential for false positives, which is even more damaging for a company that needs positive press like oxygen.

No, the real problem is the pirates. When we talk about pirates, it’s usually in the case of how insignificant they are in the AAA world. There’s truth to this – numbers are greatly exaggerated by lobbying firms such as the RIAA, MPAA and ESA to benefit their own efforts, and let’s not forget that the President of the RIAA is former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, who has blatantly and openly used his connections as a bully pulpit for his clients. But when the scale is reduced, the pirates can literally make or break a game, or even a company.

This isn’t even the piracy itself that bothers me – the unstated goal of anti-piracy efforts isn’t so much to stamp it out completely (impossible) as it is to remove the tools from the casual pirate – as much as the sheer, unbridled sense of entitlement that these people have, something that extends in some form or fashion to the vast majority of people who consume entertainment. My comment boards usually light up whenever I say anything about piracy or gamer entitlement that doesn’t equate wholly to “may I please, pretty please suck your dick, sir”, and I’m sure this will be no exception, but we’re really, truly dealing with locusts in this case. They’ve descended on a pirated iPhone game, sucked out its resources, destroyed it, caused a small company to start issuing refunds, and will move on to other fertile lands.

The interesting thing to note is that in this case, pirates have not only broken a game, but a company’s entire way of doing business. In a forum post on the site, Hunted Cow’s future was noted plainly: “In our opinion multiplayer mobile titles need to be ‘free to play’ with a heavy and appealing bias towards in app purchases if you wish to cover the costs of server hosting.” That easily translates to “we’re going to freemium the fuck out of you, even if we hate ourselves while we do it”. Congratulations, pirates: not only do you not have the game to play anymore (because it was taken offline), but you’ve helped drive the industry further towards a future where the vast majority of what we play is a blatantly anti-consumer free-to-play model where the carrot is always attached to a stick that’s beating money out of our wallets at a consistent pace. You broke the toy. Be proud of yourselves, though I’m sure comments on this article will show that the few brave enough to actually admit their crimes are quite proud, indeed.

I wonder if hard lessons like this will eventually change the minds of developers like Flippfly.

Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.