New Research Brings Much Needed Objectivity To Game Piracy Numbers

from the objective-research dept

Thanks to Neppe we have learned of a trio of researchers who took it upon themselves to objectively study game piracy over BitTorrent and determine some quantifiable data on game piracy. (PDF and Embedded Below) The researchers, Anders Drachen, Kevin Bauer and Robert W. D. Veitch, observed a huge lack of objectivity in research from both sides of the piracy debate. They saw a lot of negativity on the side of the industry and positivity on the flip side.

According to, this lack of objectivity has led the games industry to inflate piracy numbers:(from the Google Translation)

These include an influential 2009 report, made by the U.S. trade association for game manufacturers, ESA. It is this which, according Drachen indicate that piracy is two to three times greater – depending on how the ESA press release is interpreted.

The Danish researchers estimate that is 290 million games a year. In comparison indicates ESA figures that 600 million games pirate copies in a year, and because of uncertainties in the measurement method, which is highly secret, the American figures to be considerably larger, according Drachen.

To counteract this subjectivity, the researchers took a sampling of all commercial games from November 2010 to January 2011 and watched the activity of those games on BitTorrent and combined that information with other information on the games, such as genre and review scores. In all, they listed 173 games of interest, of which 127 were found on BitTorrent. Using this data, they came to the following conclusions:

  • The majority of games they tracked had fewer than 50,000 unique peers observed on BitTorrent. At the same time, the 10 most popular games had a combined 5.37 million unique peers.
  • ‘Action’ games made up the lion’s share of BitTorrent activity, comprising 45.61% of unique peers in all. ‘Role-Playing Games’, of which only 10 were observed, accounted for 15.58% of unique peers. However, when they looked at individual games, ‘Action’ games were less popular than ‘Racing’, ‘Role-Playing’, and ‘Simulation’ games, comprising 0.95%, 1.6%, 1.43%, and 1.08% respectively.
  • Aggregated review scores correlated positively with the number of unique peers. Meaning, the higher the MetaCritic score, the more unique peers will be found on BitTorrent.
  • In all, observed about 12.6 million unique peers accessing the 127 games on BitTorrent.

The researchers plan to continue their research by observing other features of games such as the ESRB ratings, marketing strategies and international release dates. They also plan to observe time-frequency distribution rates as well. They had already tested this by looking at 20 randomly selected games and found that games have a high peak around initial launch and then drift down to fairly low levels of unique peers.

This is a great first step in bringing objectivity into piracy debates. Hopefully, what will come of this is more interest in objective studies on piracy not just for games but also for other entertainment such as movies and music. The more information that is available will help content creators and distributors to make educated decisions on how to minimize the risk of piracy and better connect with their fans. Sadly, this study has made no headway on any of the major games industry news sites. One would hope that objectivity and quantifiable information would make for some interesting news.

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Comments on “New Research Brings Much Needed Objectivity To Game Piracy Numbers”

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out_of_the_blue says:

"majority of games ... had fewer than 50,000 unique peers"

So, up to 49.9 percent had over 50,000 peers… Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? At least to those who grasp figures.

If you have a point here — I assume that game industry figures are inflated — then you didn’t throw it very hard.

Taking a random survey on The Pirate Bay for the only game that came to mind, “Call of Duty”, showed one torrent with 402 SEEDS, though only 140 leeches. I say that indicates significant losses. — The bands Mike promotes should be so “lucky” to get that many pirates, let alone buyers.

chris (profile) says:

Re: "majority of games ... had fewer than 50,000 unique peers"

Taking a random survey on The Pirate Bay for the only game that came to mind, “Call of Duty”, showed one torrent with 402 SEEDS, though only 140 leeches

402 seeds isn’t that many. it’s more than enough to get reliable downloads, but it’s nothing compared to something extremely popular and extremely current, like the season premiere of “the walking dead”, which has over 17000 seeds:

Another AC says:

Re: "majority of games ... had fewer than 50,000 unique peers"

So, as much as 0.1 percent had over 50,000 peers… Doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? At least to those who grasp figures.

If you have a point here out_of_the_blue — I assume that game industry figures are under-estimated — then you didn’t throw it very hard.

Taking a random survey on The Pirate Bay for the only game that came to mind (because someone who grasps figures knows a sample size of 1 is all you need right?), “Call of Duty”, showed one torrent with 402 SEEDS, though only 140 leeches. I say that indicates pretty insignificant losses in the big picture.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re: "majority of games ... had fewer than 50,000 unique peers"

Taking a random survey on The Pirate Bay for the only game that came to mind (because someone who grasps figures knows a sample size of 1 is all you need right?), “Call of Duty”, showed one torrent with 402 SEEDS, though only 140 leeches. I say that indicates pretty insignificant losses in the big picture.

And how many of those were people who legitimately purchased Call of Duty, but couldn’t install it because the DRM provider didn’t like how cheap their computer was?

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: "majority of games ... had fewer than 50,000 unique peers"

Taking a random survey on The Pirate Bay for the only game that came to mind, “Call of Duty”, showed one torrent with 402 SEEDS, though only 140 leeches. I say that indicates significant losses.

Because obviously none of those 402 seeds and 140 peers ever bought the game, right? You can be 100% sure of that, right?

Oh wait, you can’t. So we could also say it indicates significant gains (assuming the game is awesome) because all 402 seeds bought it and probably all 140 peers will buy it after finishing the download. Right?

I don’t think game industry numbers are that inflated. But they are obviously mistaken because all of them obviously bought the game after trying. Do I sound delusional? Do they sound delusional when they assume 100% of the torrenters didn’t buy?

Do you really grasp the figures from those crude numbers? I don’t. And if you think you do you should go back to school and learn how to interpret data. Besides, you can’t tell much from this if they are excluding cyberlockers, DC, Usenet, IRC bots and fileservers and so on.

Food for thought.

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Re: "majority of games ... had fewer than 50,000 unique peers"

If you have a point here — I assume that game industry figures are inflated — then you didn’t throw it very hard.

I though my point was clear in the closing paragraph. So for the slow, here it is worded a bit differently:

Look at these piracy numbers that have been found using methodology that is published and detailed as opposed to the games industry’s numbers that are found using a methodology that is proprietary and secret.

If the games industry wants to add weight to its 600 million figure, it should publish the steps needed to reproduce that figure. Then other researchers can determine if the methodology is sound and validate the results.

As it stands, there is no objectivity coming from the games industry or any other content industry commissioned report on piracy.

We need more objectivity and less secrecy in research.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: My interpretation

LOTRO release its game on torrent, for free. In fact, it is now free to play as well, and on torrent still. logic being if people like it, they will upgrade to a premium subscription. some may never do so, but some will. thats $$ in the bank. another benefit of said scheme, is even if some folks dont ever subscribe to premium membership, all the free to play folks will add to the community, further increasing value for those that chose to pay.

A studio giving a game away, to people who may never pay a penny for it?? outrageous!!!

(i wonder if the LOTRO distro was included in this study)

Anonymous Coward says:

Very interesting. We definitely need an insightful button for articles.

I wonder how this data correlates with sales data. I mean, if the most pirated games were also the most sold and how much is the sold-to-pirated ratio.

I also wonder what is the time distribution of piracy and sales. By that, I mean, if the sales start picking up a few days after the piracy rate peaks, which would suggest that people try first and buy later, for example.

Very interesting study.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: The other half

Every EA game I’ve bought lately I also downloaded the “pirated” version–’cause the pirated version will run without the disc and without installed a f**kton of DRM on my computer.

Then, I install the game using my unique legally purchased license/serial number and play.

How many others do the same? What does this say about the accuracy of the numbers?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: The other half

Yep, one of the major issues with the official “piracy” figures is that they count every download as a “lost sale”. In reality, many people do the same as you, so they have this circular situation. They apply draconian DRM that stops legit customers from playing. The customers realise this so download a non-DRM version they can actually use for their legal purchase. Developers notice the downloads, so apply even more draconian DRM. Mobius would be proud!

…and of course, the people who don’t bother paying in the first place and and never see the DRM are not affected.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m not so sure it would be easy to see file sharing bumping sales in a day to a week after trialling kind of way.
Also as is pointed out elsewhere sometimes “pirating” occurs after purchase to avoid having to put up with the limitations/irritations imposed by various DRM methods.

But it would be interesting to see if a sizable majority of the most pirated games had sales figures in keeping with their reviews and mirroring file sharing demand or whether there was a flattening of sales where you wouldn’t expect it.

Another AC says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Of course not, because I didn’t say that.

My point is that using your example, $100 is not much more than $50, relative to all of the money I have. $100 probably is a lot relative to someone who has no money at all.

In case you can’t make the leap, I’ll explain it: the problem of ‘piracy’ is not as big a problem to me as you seem to think it is. Relatively speaking of course.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Hey Masnick, what’s your point?

I didn’t write the post. Learn to read.

That all these lost sales are just fine and dandy because a couple freetards came up with a lower number of infringement incidents?

No. Some of us are actually interested in *truth*. So we’re interested in what the actual facts say, not starting with a pre-determined notion and only supporting that.

I see you feel otherwise. That might be part of your problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

It would appear that the numbers point out a few basic issues, that sort of kick the crap out of many of the “business models” shown here.

Let me put this one alone (others later):

The top 10 games had 42% of the peers (5.37/12.6). This sort of suggests that (guess what) most people are headed for the most popular games – and the popular games tend to all be the high end, “hollywood” stuff. It seems to suggest that people aren’t really “discovering new stuff” with P2P, but rather using it to download what they are unwilling or unable to pay for.

Seems that the game players are sticking to the plan as predicted – they aren’t doing anything other than looking for a free ride.

Another AC says:

Re: Re:

So by that logic, 58% of people are discovering new stuff, which sort of kicks the crap out of your opinion 🙂

Your conclusion that people want popular games seems valid, your leap to the fact that’s it’s because they don’t want to pay for anything seems flawed… Perhaps they believe the market is over-priced for example – studies have shown that lowering the price of games leads to less ‘piracy’ and more sales.

cj7wilson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

As a consumer, I can attest to that (the more sales part anyway). $60 is a lot to pay for something that only has entertainment value, particularly when you consider the risk involved in buying something you aren’t completely sure you’ll like. (OK, sometimes you can try before you buy, but that usually means kicking that kid off the Xbox at Best Buy…)

I usually buy at $20, which means I either wait until the game hits the bargain rack or I buy it used (which is quicker for me, but no additional profit for the company). If the game was released at $40, it would be easier for me to spend that little bit extra for that game I really wanted, and it would drop to my price sooner.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes, but you do understand the numbers, right?

If the current price is $60, and you drop it to $40, in order to make the same net money you have to sell at least 50% more units – and that is assuming that you can somehow trim your costs by the same percentage, leaving you with similar net money.

But even if you have $10 a piece of expenses, the numbers get much worse. Your $60 sale (net $50) compares to your $40 sale (net $30) – now you have to sell 66% more product to stay at the same sales figured. At $20 (with a $10 net) you need to move 500% more product to make the same money – it’s ugly.

The market price is “what enough of the market will bear at release time” and goes from there.

Now, the current generation often seems to think that, if the $60 price it too high, they will just pirate the game, play it to death, and if they happen to remember and really feel like it and really enjoyed the game, they will 6 months later buy a copy out of the bargain bins at Best Buy when it’s $9.95.

Lowering the price may lead to less piracy, but does it lead to enough of a decrease in piracy to fill the bottom line?

Another AC says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I have to say I am sincerely impressed, given the negativity of your first post I honestly didn’t expect a well-thought out rebuttal, but there it is 🙂

Your last question is a good one. Price and Value are both at play here, and I think you might have hinted at part of the answer talking about the bargain bin thing. If we assume your scenario is true, then if people download the game at $60 but buy at $20, doesn’t that really say that the price the market is willing to play is closer to $20 than $60?

What it cost you to make the game will help you know if $20 will make you a profit (you should get more sales but like you said, will it be enough sales?), but consumers don’t think in those terms when they decide at what price to buy. My feeling is that if you can’t make a profit selling for $20 when that’s what the market is telling you they’ll pay, then don’t complain when you can’t seem to sell the product at $60 – clearly a better business model is needed in this case.

Kind of a dance around the question I know, but I’m a consumer, not a publisher 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Or they could learn the same lesson that other businesses have learned before.

Have a premium priced product and have a limited market
or by lowering the price vastly expand the market

as with

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I have honestly bought (and rebought) many games of which I have fond memories… masters of Orion, Dungeon Keeper II, and so on. Sure, I pirated KOTRII when I couldn’t find the install disk but could find the other four (WTF, right?)(And Baldur’s gate II when some asshole kid stuck my install disk in the microwave) and I pirated Masters of Orion several times in the ghetto era when it wasn’t on GoG, and the disk no longer worked in my machine. And I tend to buy games only when the price is less then a day’s meal because I’d rather feed myself then play a game.

Actually that’s the big one. So long as it costs them less then $20 per sold copy to make the games(Labor, marketing, reproduction, law), they will be able to sell games directly to me. But if it costs them more then that per sold copy, then I’m really not interested. My favorite games had poor graphics and take up hardly any processor power or memory space. If their game is past my value point, then I’m simply not a customer… I won’t pirate, I won’t buy.

The thing is that I’m not going to form any happy memories of games I’ve never played, so 20 years down the line this year’s big name games will only be bought by me if, at some point, a friend’s loaned me their copy, or gushed about it to me. And even then it’s iffy. Because of that there’s this whole generation of games I’m likely to never be a buyer. Maybe if Piracy was less dangerous for a person who plans to work for the FBI I’d pirate, form good memories, and buy in 20 years. But due to the profession I plan to be in, I really can’t afford to pirate (Except when I can prove I already own the game, say the 4 disks minus the fifth install disk of KOTORII)

So, basically, if the game industries are losing money that means that the market won’t support their product, and they should stop producing. Similarly since banks keep collapsing, I’m suspecting that the market can’t support THEIR product either, and they should be allowed to fail.

Jay (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Valve Fanboy Part II

“If the current price is $60, and you drop it to $40, in order to make the same net money you have to sell at least 50% more units – and that is assuming that you can somehow trim your costs by the same percentage, leaving you with similar net money.”

You are absolutely, positively wrong on that.

“Lowering the price may lead to less piracy, but does it lead to enough of a decrease in piracy to fill the bottom line?”

This is a confirmed yes.


Both of these q’s are answered through a look at the digital market. Now I admit, I’m a Valve Fanboy, but I’m also interested in the economics of piracy and how you use them.

Your unit thinking is a throwback to the days of retail sales. What was included in the final price was the cost of shelf space, brokerage fees, among a number of different variables that are not issues in the digital space. You don’t have to sell more to make less, as your math seems to imply. You can increase sales by dropping the price temporarily, which increases the numbers by a substantial amount.

In fact, it looks like a big part of the problem facing the industry is that they charge way too much for their products. Here are the numbers Newell shared from Valve’s experiments with “sale” pricing:

10% off = 35% increase in sales (real dollars, not units shipped)
25% off = 245% increase in sales
50% off = 320% increase in sales
75% off = 1470% increase in sales

Something that just caught my eye on this article is how Mike said he can’t figure out the math involved. I submitted this as an article a while back, but it seems that Mike didn’t run it (The Youtube, not the giantbomb link). However, here is a very good write up on insight into how Valve’s marketing plan works, and how the market can bear a cheaper price. In particular, I would suggest paying attention to the 07:20 – 09:37 section.

This is where Gabe describes the elasticity of price. What Gabe tells his partners is to knock as much off the game as possible. So a game at 75% off in a retail store would cannibalize your sales, hurting your profits, and wouldn’t do much to help you. Online, however, you see your gross revenue increase, generating 40x as much revenue. Then, when the price returns to normal, more people buy the game at the new price. How this works is increasing demand for the game.

My guess is that most people felt the game was worth it at the cheaper price. They might buy it for friends, or tell friends that “this game is a good one for you to play”.

There’s more I can say, but the second link is probably the best at explaining how to compete with piracy.

Chargone (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

if you lower it by the right amount, sure. in some cases that amount may well be zero.

generic shooter 50012 is probably not one of them.

actually, with so many shooters who’s main difference is how crappy the control setup is or isn’t, at this point, it might help sales more for half those companies to make something else people actually want instead…

E. Zachary Knight (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This is the sad thing about research. No matter how objective the researchers are, there will be people who try to mold that research to fit their preconceived notions in order to prop up their own side.

I made no claims about what these numbers mean, only that the numbers are different from the games industry in two important ways:

1) The numbers are less than half what the games industry is reporting.

2) The methodology to reach those numbers is published and verifiable as opposed to the games industry’s proprietary and secret methodology.

What ever you are reading into the numbers is your opinion and does not necessarily reflect reality.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

news flash! not everyone who downloads is a malicious thief. I have often had to go to TPB to get fresh copies of games I have purchased. Some reasons for this are..

1. Scratched disc.
2. Lost CD key.
3. wanting a hacked version to play when no internet connection is available.
4. Lost CD.

I have done this for most C&C games, which I have purchased many times, and recently, for Fallout New Vegas, which I lost the disc to.

Am I not paying for the intellectual property, not the medium? Isnt that what IP and copyright are all about, the content not the medium? So if im forced to by a silly medium that requires a disc to play, and if its scratched or missing the case with the key, your SOL. so yeah, people sometimes pirate games they already own, or lease, or whatever the heck you wanna call it.

I understand that if I support companies that make products I like, they will be around to continue doing so. If I just steal from them, they probably wont be.

Side note. Note how pirating rates are related to popularity. We are not talking about some indy developer going broke because people stole their $10 dollar game. We are talking major players in the industry, EA, etc. They are not gonna go bankrupt because a few thousand PC users are stealing their $60 a pop games, when there are millions of copies still sold for PC, xbox, and PS3.

Travis (profile) says:

Piracy = Demoing

I’d like to also point out, that not in every case is a pirated game a loss of revenue. For the really GOOD games out there, honest people feel motivated to reward the developers by purchasing a proper retail version. Demos almost never really give a proper “feel” for the game, but an actual downloaded copy DOES.

And less face it, not all the games out there are REALLY worth owning. There’s got to be a way to seperate the wheat from the chaff.

Digitari says:


yes, I waited 12 years for DNF, it was orginally to come out on my Birthday, then it was delayed a month, well, the wife said I could have it, I wanted it, I really didn’t care if it was “good” or not, I LOOK like him, and even more betterer, I SOUND like Duke.
I went to buy it, but the price almost made me faint, I didn’t pirate it. I didn’t borrow it, I DID get the Valve demo, and finally last week got it for 20$, sure it SUCKS, but it’s Still Duke…….

“damn I look Good”

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