Do not pirate from indie developers

Last night, I watched the fourth and final part of Matt Barton’s interview with Jay Barnson, developer of Frayed Knights. In the interview, I was disturbed to hear that someone had gone to the trouble of cracking the (incredibly minimal and non-invasive) copy protection on the game, then distributing it to a variety of warez sites as a torrent. Even worse was the depressing revelation that Jay’s sales immediately plummeted.

Correlation is not causation, of course, but that timing is awfully convenient, and I refuse to accept the “they wouldn’t have bought it anyway” argument here. This game had a free demo. Clearly, if torrenters went to the trouble of getting the full version, it’s because they wanted to keep playing past the end of the demo. Would they have been willing to buy the full version of the game at the price offered? I guess we’ll never know, because they opted to flat-out steal the thing instead. (Besides, if you’ll recall, Project Zomboid was priced at $5 when piracy forced it offline. Was that one too expensive as well?)

To the people who pirated Frayed Knights, I ask: have we really sunk this low? There are circumstances where piracy is arguably justified, but this is not one of them. Frayed Knights has a free demo, and its copy protection consists entirely of a painless, once-ever, copy-paste-the-code-into-the-box activation. You should know from the demo whether you like the core gameplay, and you can consult reviews to determine whether there is a sudden drop-off in quality later in the game. There is simply no excuse to pirate here.

Maybe the problem is that you thought the game was too expensive. But hey, check this out: you may have heard of these things called “sales,” where indie developers temporarily reduce the price of their games. They generally happen at least once a year. You could have waited. Besides, it’s too easy to consume something without paying and then, after the fact, announce that it wasn’t worth the price anyway. To me, at least, it looks pretty much like this:

Customer: Hello! I’ll have the steak tartare.

Waiter: Right away, sir. (Returns with steak.)

Customer: Thank you. (Eats the entire steak, leaving only a sprig of parsley on the plate.)

Customer: Oh, waiter!

Waiter: Yes, sir.

Customer: That steak was awful. I’d like something else.

But as bad as all this is, it isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is that you chose to steal not from some faceless, mega-billion-dollar company like EA or Ubisoft, but from Jay Barnson. Jay Barnson is one man (and quite a nice one, in my experience). He has a wife and kids. Do you really want to be the person that steals from a nice, regular guy with a family?

Jay has sunk innumerable hours of his own time over the course of five years into developing a (quite good) product, and in a genre that mainstream developers just won’t touch. Most of you out there reading this won’t understand what it means to do that, but I do. So let me explain. Developing a game like this means giving up on your social life. It means going to your 40-hour-a-week day job so you can pay the bills, then going home and, rather than relaxing, instead working your heart out on something incredibly difficult, entirely without pay. You lose sleep and go through your work days tired, trudging slowly through a dim mental fog. You have less time for your girlfriend or boyfriend. You are asked to get drinks after work, and you have to refuse because the effects of the alcohol would cause you to write buggy code when you get home afterwards.

About 60% of the time that you actually spend working on the game is spent purely on fixing bugs. Hours of fixing bugs, day after day after week after week after month. For years. It’s physically exhausting and emotionally draining. Read this interview with indie developer Phil Fish to get a taste of what a five-year development cycle feels like.

After you’ve invested years of your life and/or thousands of dollars of your own money into making a game, there is never even so much as a guarantee that the game will ever be finished. It could (and oftentimes, does) die in utero because one or more developers just can’t keep sacrificing his or her life to making the game anymore.

But when you do finish a game, the fun doesn’t end. Oh, no. You have to release it. Releasing a game is among the most horrifically nerve-wracking experiences you can have short of losing your job, losing a home or facing mortal physical danger. Imagine giving birth, then having to market your baby to dozens and dozens of websites, hoping that they will like it and judge it favorably. If they don’t like it, your baby will die in obscurity. You have no control over the outcome, and no emotional distance from the outcome either. You built every last nook and cranny of your game by hand, by yourself. This work represents you. A bad reception means a repudiation of everything you’ve worked for over the course of years.

You’re going to get feedback from players, and the most vocal ones aren’t going to be considerate with their critiques, even if most players secretly enjoy the game. Gaming news sites might pan your game or ignore it outright. Even if they don’t, you still might fail to recoup the money you’ve invested in it. And by “the money you’ve invested in it,” I am of course talking purely about the out-of-pocket expenses of hiring artists and musicians; you are almost certainly never going to be able to pay yourself for the time you put into it.

I’m not writing all this to convince you to feel sorry for indie developers. I’m writing this to explain to you that indie developers work hard and take a lot of risks, and we are counting on you. We have no publishers: you and your willingness to pay for what you’ve taken are the only things keeping us afloat. The bucket exploit is funny in Skyrim; but for an indie developer, the real-life equivalent is deadly serious. We simply cannot keep making games if you do not support us when we finally release the games that we have made.

And so we come back around to the title of this piece: Do not pirate from indie developers. But come on, now. You already knew better than to do that, didn’t you? Surely I don’t need to tell you not to steal from indies. I might as well write an opinion piece called “Do not punch homeless people in the face.” Indie game developers sacrifice and sacrifice and sacrifice in order to put out games. You are not entitled to play those games for free. Play the demo. If you like the demo, buy the game. If you can’t afford the game, save up a little bit of money, or wait for a sale. Pirated games are free, but so is being a decent human being. Guess which one matters more?

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  • Kyosho says:

    Amen brother. This upset me as well when I heard/saw that. I could almost (though not entirely) see the justification if the game didn’t have a demo, so they could try it before buying. So many PC games don’t have demos these days. But there IS a demo, a GOOD demo. Because of it, I’m planning to get the game myself when I’ve got the money after the holidays.

    Also, Mr. Barnson, if you happen to read this, please get your game on Steam! I actually know several people who pirate all the time, but if a game is on Steam, they buy it there instead. Just because it’s easier.

  • Gazillion says:

    I don’t feel more for these guys because they’re indie developers. Maybe you can justify pirating a game from a “faceless corporation” but those corporation employ real people who work long hours on projects they believe in — and yes those people have families to feed too.

    Piracy sucks but it’s part of the game and it will stick around.

  • Craig Stern says:

    I’m not saying that it’s good to pirate from corporations; I’m just saying that a big company like EA invariably has much more of a financial buffer than a one-man indie operation. A few dozen sales are just a drop in the bucket to a large company; they aren’t going to make the difference between normal operations and a wave of layoffs. To a tiny indie operation, however, a few dozen sales make all the difference in the world. Scale matters.

  • Scott says:

    Piracy has affected independent movies in the same way. Piracy is a given and it’s factored into ticket sales forecasts when movies enter production. Summer blockbusters and sequels to successful franchises have a nice piracy buffer, but for films that take risks, piracy can be the difference between making a profit and losing money. Stealing a game priced at $5-20 is just plain pathetic. If nothing else, $5 is worth avoiding potential malware from warez sites.

    Now sometimes, there are games that are fairly old and aren’t available on any clients like Steam or and even if you did buy a legal copy of the game, you’d be getting it second hand so the developer wouldn’t make any money anyway. If that is the case, you’re crime is comparable to running a stop sign on a country road at 3AM. Otherwise, just pay the flippin’ $5.

  • u9089 says:

    corps deserve to be stolen from as they themselves are thieves. example day 1 -on disc dlc. ADVERTISING IN GAME FOR CONTENT (noble sir shall ye buy the wardens keep and help mua?)

    Codes for online, limited installs, stuff like origins which demands to harvest data to sell or render your purchase useless w/o a real warning/limitation of a FLUID/changing eula either

    So you know what? F THEM. Don’t punch the homeless? Don’t feel bad about poking hitler in the eye either.

    As for indies. My heart goes out. Provided you are innocent of such trickery.

    Do understand a lot of people are in the try before buy concept now especially with software -demos don’t cut it. Not all downloads are potential sales and sometimes it being available for free legally or no leads to creation of fans/sales.

    Money spent trying to wall this is wasted. Everything can be tunneled. Make the wall deep enough it will be flown over. Make results in break always.

    The best thing any indie developer can do is place a donation page on site as well as in the instruction manual/strat guide that comes with your game. Maybe even in the notes/about section in game.

    I hope you are enjoying the game. I’m small,hungry,tired,8 kids,etc.. donations are appreciated address is X paypal, X googlecheckout, X this,X that. (allow user to type amount – preset is very crappy)

    Not all people who dl illegally are bad people who want to wear a 1000$ suit for 2 days and return it to the store.

    Fact is there is a lot of BS in corpo world that many will not tolerate. There are also a lot of subpar software in games,music,apps,movies,etc… and your not supposed to know until you spend hard earned $ on it. With such a high %age of crapware its no wonder people work around.

    You can’t force people to do the right thing. Nor should you do wrong yourself/hurt your payers to try– it will only fuel the fire more.

    What you can do is stop looking at # of downloads as outright sales (they are not!) and make it easy for people who go wow- I expected crap and it was gold. I’d like to support you I have about 6 I can spare.

    Make it easy for them to do right once they are comfortable that they got the good experience they sought-and wish to have more of. Thats the best you can do.

    Pirates aren’t vikings raping,burning,looting. They are people. Some are very tired,abused,weary. A dog gets beaten enough, it may bite an innocent child who meant it well as it only knows/expects the other bs…so its not people want it free and hate you and yours.

    Its like selling commonly faked high end items. You gotta establish yourself as the real deal before your potential customers will want to trust you with anything. As for every good guy – there are 100 baddies out there. Once they have looked,touched,tasted -with consent or not -have the jar right there. If it was pleasant for them they DO often put a little something there.

    The ones who do not – prob wouldn’t have purchased it in the first place/ wouldn’t have even played it if unavailable as it is now.

    Best wishes to indies. Corpos rot and burn

  • Craig Stern says:

    “demos don’t cut it”

    Why not? It doesn’t take a complete play-through to figure out if we’re enjoying a game and want to play more. You can sniff out “crapware” pretty easily from playing it for an hour or two.

  • […] A bit of a disclaimer: I do not support piracy. (Especially piracy of games from indies.) […]

  • William says:

    Sounds like someone didn’t provide value for their legit copies. Be straight up, give the customer a value and I’ll happily pay. Fail to do so, or make a shitty game and I won’t.

  • Mr. Pirate says:

    Arrrrrrr mate! I like to pirate all games available and release them for free!!

    Games should be for free. LOL!

    Mr. Pirate told me!

  • Darq says:

    When I create a game I want as many people as possible to play it and to know about especially as an indie dev. Because if the game I’ve created is good, and I’m creating a game I would enjoy and if my Idea is a good game gets to as many people as possible eventually influencing the big guys to create games I love to play then all the better. And if my game isn’t worth paying for then maybe I shouldn’t make games and seek a different profession.

    There’s also another pro piracy argument. The more people have played my game, to more people know about my game and the brand I’m creating thus it’s more likely some of them will actually buy my game or a sequel of that game. So piracy is good you just have to adjust to reality and move away from the old business model.

    However creating a game isn’t easy. It’s hard work and takes a lot of brain power and time and motivation, so if you like a game and can afford to buy it pay your respect with money, I am.

    • Craig Stern says:

      Darq: as a practical matter of business strategy, yes, you’re right: no indie developer is going to be able to stop piracy, so we may as well look at the bright side. I don’t disagree with that. As an ethical matter of individual behavior, however–and that’s really what I’m talking about in this piece–taking a developer’s hard work without payment and without their consent is still pretty loathsome.

  • Louis Pitterman says:

    I can only imagine that pirates pirate for a variety of reasons. Granted, thievery is thievery, and is unarguably unethical, but trying to stop pirates from doing what they do is not only futile but probably suicidal as it may attract more of their ‘loathsome’ deviant attention. Piss them off enough and you might regret having ever voiced your opinion.

    I’ve noticed on Pirate Bay that a lot of pirated games listed there now include an admonition for users to buy the product and support the developers if they really enjoyed the experience. It sounds fair and conscientious, but is blatantly not. The obvious question is of course: why’d you pirate the game in the first place if you are so ‘supportive’? Apparently the challenge was so overwhelming they couldn’t resist. Whatever…

    I guess the best you can do is spend a little more extra time in getting to know your customers better and expanding your client base that way. It’s probably tripe to say that a good product speaks for and promotes itself, but there’s a sobering truth to it. I say be indignant, which is natural and your right, but watch what you concentrate on. Don’t afford them more credibility with your attention. You obviously love what you are doing, and in life, that’s more than half the battle won.


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