The latest installment in the award-winning Call of Duty series, Call of Duty: Black Ops was one of the top video game releases of 2010. Released on November 9, 2010, the game quickly smashed sales records, racking up more than 7 million worldwide sales in its first 24 hours. Current sales of the game are estimated at between 18 and 20 million copies – not bad for a game that’s been on shelves for less than 2 months.
Call of Duty: Black Ops isn’t just successful in terms of sales, however. According to torrent-centric blog TorrentFreak, it’s also 2010’s most pirated PC game. At the time of this writing, CoD: Black Ops is priced at $49.99 per copy on Amazon.com. Assuming 20 million copies sold at that price, this means the game has earned nearly $1 billion. TorrentFreak estimates that over 4.2 million copies of the game have been illegally downloaded (as of December 26th, 2010). Using the same $49.99 price point, that’s over $200 million in lost revenue for Activision (and Square Enix, who publish the title in Japan).
According to TorrentFreak’s data, several other games have been pirated a million times or more this year. Call of Duty:Black Ops‘ closest competitor was the PC version of fellow war game Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which was released back in March of 2010. Sequels Mafia 2, Mass Effect 2, and Starcraft II rounded out the list of the top 5 most pirated PC games of the year. Though PC games are more commonly distributed via illegal downloads, other platforms are still affected. Super Mario Galaxy 2 was the most pirated Wii game this year, with nearly 1.5 million illegal downloads as of December 26th, 2010. Dante’s Inferno took the top spot for Xbox 360, with over 1.2 million downloads. Call of Duty: Black Ops also appeared as the 5th most pirated Xbox 360 game for the year, with 930,000 downloads. Considering the Xbox 360 and PC versions come at the same $49.99 retail price, that’s another $46 million in game sales lost.
For the time being, there appears to be no “cure” for video game piracy. There is always the threat of prosecution, just like with “bootlegging” movies or illegally downloading music. Media publishers are constantly trying out new measures to make their products “uncrackable,” but are generally ineffective. The sole saving grace in some cases is that many pirated versions of games offer limited access; features like online game play may be inaccessible with an unregistered or illegally downloaded copy. This hasn’t deterred millions of gamers around the world from seeking out free copies of the latest games. Part of this is because piracy continues to be a divided issue. Many see it as a victimless crime – after all, who does a download really hurt?
When most of us think about illegal downloading, we think back to the controversy surrounding services like Napster and the subsequent backlash in the music industry. Pirating games is a slightly different animal. Musicians often have access to several revenue streams from their recordings, not just album or song sales. Radio play, live shows and licensing songs for use in commercials and movies also generate income for recording artists. For game publishers on the other hand, nearly all revenues are tied directly to game sales. This means paying the programmers, writers and other professionals who develop the game, plus all the advertising, production and other costs. Some argue that this makes pirating games a much more serious offense, since it could go as far as putting a developer out of business.
The high cost of games is part of what drives illegal downloads to the fever pitch demonstrated in TorrentFreak’s data. Most new games cost between $40 and $80 each, substantial prices for a market dominated by the (notoriously underpaid) 18-34 crowd. Many avid gamers are students or underemployed, and don’t have the cash to blindly invest in their hobby. Unlike most products, video games typically can’t just be returned if you don’t like them. As soon as you remove the cellophane from your shiny new game, you’re looking at a highly diminished resale value at stores like GameStop – and some stores won’t even return games, only offering a one-for-one exchange for a defective copy.
Though these policies are in place to avoid people “gaming” the system, it also makes gamers more cautious about the games they buy. For this reason, many gamers rationalize illegal downloading as a way to get a free test drive. Pirating a copy allows gamers to see if they like a game before shelling out $50 or more. This is where the honor system comes in, however – if you already have a free copy of something, how likely are you to go out and buy it? Unless the game you downloaded is affected by limited playability due to anti-piracy measures, this is difficult to measure.
No matter which side of the gaming piracy issue you’re on, the figures from TorrentFreak prove that illegal downloads cost the gaming industry a significant chunk of change this year. Though Call of Duty: Black Ops and the other big titles of the year have generated billions of dollars worldwide, the revenues lost through illegal downloading are too big to ignore. Whether in 2011 or as the 8th console generation looms closer, it’ll be interesting to see the new anti-piracy measures undertaken by publishers to avoid the sales lost via illegal game downloads.
“Black Ops Most Pirated Title of 2010.” IGN.
“Call of Duty: Black Ops Most Pirated Game of 2010.” TorrentFreak.