Yes, iOS games are being pirated.

For example, 60 percent of Monument Valley installs on iPhone and iPad were not paid for. I’m not a newcomer to the game business, so I know that most of those pirated downloads wouldn’t translate to sales, if somehow we could stop piracy. And for Monument Valley, the problem is even worse on Android, with 95 percent of the downloads there being “illegitimate.”

Our most downloaded iOS game title, Bocce Friends, is being massively pirated, with 97 percent of the downloads during the last year being “illegitimate.”  On one of the more popular “warez” sites, Bocce Friends has almost as many “thumb up ratings” as Angry Birds (1,019 vs. 1,162).  All this for an admittedly simple “niche” game, that sells for the grand sum of 99 cents.

(Note: I have opted to not mention these “warez” sites by name, so as not to contribute to the problem.)

We’ve done some investigating and have determined that piracy is far more widespread than previously believed. Here are some findings:

  • Users don’t have to “jailbreak”: an iOS device to pirate games. Some apps for the PC and Mac enable users to install pirated games onto their iPhone or iPad, even with the latest versions of iOS.
  • Piracy is occurring for almost all popular premium (paid) games.  For the Top 10 Paid Games (as of October 29), eight of them are available on the same “warez” sites we found Bocce Friends on.

Top Paid iOS Games as of October 29, availability on “warez” site:

  1. Minecraft Story Mode: Yes
  2. Minecraft Pocket Edition: Yes
  3. Plague Inc.: No
  4. Geometry Dash: Yes
  5. Bloons TD 5: Yes
  6. Heads Up: Yes
  7. NBA 2K16: Yes
  8. True Skate: Yes
  9. The Game of Life Classic: Yes
  10. Please Don’t Touch Anything: No

So, why was Bocce Friends so heavily pirated?  Here’s our theory.

The game was originally released as Bocce-Ball early in 2011 as a free ad-supported title (single player or pass-and-play). It briefly reached No. 3 for games in the USA (No. 1 in Italy) and then maintained a modest ranking in the Sports and Arcade categories. About 20 percent of the downloads for the game occurred in Italy.

In 2013, we revised to add network play via Apple’s Game Center, renamed it Bocce Friends, and moved it into the paid category, as we were (at the time) dissatisfied with the ad revenue and thought the network play warranted the 99 cent price.

One hypothesis is that existing players of the free game invited friends to play, and perhaps many of them opted to pirate it. We can’t be sure. We do know that Bocce Friends has had uncannily strong retention, with 25 percent of new users still active after 120 days (Flurry Rolling Retention). Which would be great news, if only more than 3 percent of them had actually paid for the game.

So what does this mean to game publishers?

Well, since it is apparently easy to pirate iOS game titles, going the premium route for games is no longer a viable business option. I still believe it makes sense for very young children’s games and most utility apps. We’ll revise Bocce Friends to make it ad-supported and eventually go the IAP (in app purchase) route in future revisions.

My guess is that Apple is well aware of the issue, too. I’m just not sure they can stay that far ahead of the “warez” sites. As bad as piracy was in the days of “packaged games,” it simply doesn’t compare to this level.

Seller beware.

PlayScreen COO William Volk’s career in games spans 30-plus years, starting with “Conflict 2500” (Avalon Hill) in 1980 and including notable works such as “The Pyramid of Peril” (Aegis), “The Return to Zork” (Activision), and “Stick Figure Movie Trivia” (PlayScreen).  

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