Pocket Pirates

By Peter Allen Clark


This week cast a rare sneak peek into the reality of mobile gaming piracy.

Monument Valley developer Ustwo took to Twitter Jan. 5 to reveal the vast extent of both Android and iOS pirating on their award-winning game.

Ustwo qualified that initial tweet by saying not all of the unpaid installs were pirated and, also, those numbers did not reflect interaction from the Amazon App store.

Monument Valley, which released in April, passed one million downloads only a few months later, as revealed by TechCrunch.

While it’s safe to assume the regularly $4.99 game made its development costs back, the spectre of piracy looms heavily over mobile developers. This has, in turn, affected what types of games developers produce.

We reached out to mobile and desktop games developer, Big Fish Games, to get a sense of how they anticipate or plan for piracy in the market.

“The vast majority of our mobile titles now are free to play,” Creative Director John Cutter said, referring to games that initially cost nothing, but include various paid additions that add to the experience. “And it's much more difficult to pirate an in-app purchase than to download a pirated game.”

He said the prevalence of piracy shaped their decisions on the direction and the implementation of future game development.

“Most of our games are server-based, which pretty much shuts down any piracy,” Cutter said. “Popular client-based games are going to get cracked no matter what.  I do not believe there is ANY way to protect a client-based game.”

...it's much more difficult to pirate an in-app purchase than to download a pirated game.

As exemplified in the numbers Ustwo revealed, Android tends to have a higher rate in piracy. Monument Valley’s creator is far from the first to report it.

For instance, Dead Trigger developer Madfinger Games took to their Facebook page in 2012 to explain why ended up offering the game for free.

“The main reason: piracy rate on Android devices, … was unbelievably high,” the post read. “At first we intend to make this game available for as many people as possible - that's why it was for as little as buck. However, even for one buck, the piracy rate is so giant, that we finally decided to provide Dead Trigger for free.”

Google has repeatedly addressed the piracy problems of Android. It released a study in 2013 which outlined how it actively attempts to fight it.

“Google strives to implement anti-piracy solutions that work,” the report reads. “The best way to battle piracy is with better, more convenient, legitimate alternatives to piracy. By developing licensed products with beautiful user experiences, we help drive revenue for creative industries.”

Apple also regularly speaks out on the company’s piracy policy.

“The illegal copying of software programs is a crime!" the Apple legal policy reads (exclamation point theirs). “Because software is valuable, and it is easy to create an exact copy of a program from a single computer, software piracy is widespread. Apple aggressively enforces our company’s proprietary rights under the U.S. copyright laws, but we know that poor software asset management often keeps people from complying with the law.”

Google developed Android as an open source platform, while Apple maintains strict control over the iPhone’s operating system. Many developers hold the opinion that developing for Android will lead to a greater amount of piracy and so focus on iOS.

Surely, exposure and audience heavily affect how many users will pirate a game. Apple named Monument Valley one of its best iOS games of 2014 calling it, “Equally accessible and engaging to gamers of all levels, the start-to-finish experience is akin to a walk through a museum or listening to a music album.”

The heightened exposure, which included featured status on the App Store and elsewhere, could have also affected the demand for pirated copies of the game.

On the other side of that coin, Cutter said that many of Big Fish Games' audiences do not readily turn to piracy.

“A lot of our mobile games are targeted at a demographic that barely understands how to use a phone/tablet,” he said. “So piracy is well beyond them.”

Regardless of the many reasons why users seek out free software, this peek into the statistical pervasiveness of piracy will continue to inform the future of mobile game development.