Pirates of the Game Industry: The Curse of the Saudi Gamer

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            This is dangerous…a little too risky. But I can’t hold back anymore. Everyone needs to know the sad truth.

            Two news bits lit up my desire to delve into this topic. Ironically, both of these reports oppose each other and convey the train of thought of their respective companies. The first of which is a recent quote by David Reeves, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. When the people at Button Masher pressed him about game delays in New Zealand despite English being their primary language, here’s how he bluntly replied:

            "We are a PAL market and we are going to do it in PAL and we are going to do it properly, you can wait for it and you can have it in good quality, you know you can get the stuff from Bittorrent if you want to and download PSP games, it's up to you."

            “Properly,” he says. “Good quality,” he says. How about “inability and negligence”? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to interpret that quote. Furthermore, talking about “Bittorrent downloads” casually doesn’t make anything better. Know how to properly represent your company instead of being an ass, Mr. Reeves.

            On the other side of the spectrum, we have Nintendo battling against what Sony casually talks about. In Japan, Nintendo and many other software publishers are trying to ban the distribution of the popular R4 chip for the DS. While it looks just like any DS cartridge, underneath the surface it’s a magnet for pirated games. There’s a mini SD slot in the same cart which enables you to import downloaded games onto the DS. Walking the walk and talking the talk, indeed.

            Let’s rewind the clock a little bit and get to the core of my piece. For as long as I can remember, Saudi Arabia has been so casual with illegal gaming. I’ve been living here all my life, witnessing just about every type of illegal gaming that you can imagine. Of course, I don’t condone it at all. It’s just that it’s scary that nothing whatsoever has been done to prevent it. I’m pretty sure it’s widespread in the rest of the world, too. Not as casual as here, though.

            Back when I was a kid, my first ‘sighting’ was “Al-A’ila”, the pirated version of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Al-A’ila literally translates to “The Family”, which is derived from the Japanese name of the system, The Famicom or Family Computer. It had the exact design of the Japanese Famicom as well, but with one major difference; over 500 games were pre-installed in the system, some of which were rip-off clones of other games. The ‘seller’ was the number of zeros and it didn’t matter what kind of games were installed. As an example, there was a version of Super Mario Bros. in which you had the ability to ‘swim’ in the air even without water. Another version of the same game enabled Mario’s Flower Power permanently. In addition to Al-A’ila, you could easily find pirated NES games which worked on your original Nintendo console without any modifications. They used to cost around 5 US dollars, the equivalent to the price of current Virtual Console counterparts.

            Then, the SNES/Genesis era came along, associated with pirated games of course. Cheap and affordable stuff as usual, yet surprisingly not as widespread as it should’ve been, in Saudi Arabia at least. That was because of two reasons; a) not every game had a pirated counterpart, and b) most of these games were not perfect, as they occasionally stopped working and/or screwed up your save files.

            The battle between Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation was the next big thing, and here’s when pirates made a huge impact on the game industry we know today. Everything was changed because of the so-called format wars back then. Nintendo was skeptical to follow Sony’s footsteps in adapting the CD format. While CDs had more space, allowing for much more experimentation, they could be easily pirated compared to cartridges. As we all know, Sony’s risk paid off greatly. Sony is where it is today because of CDs. We all tend to look at the positives and forget the negatives, however. Yes, the PlayStation received heavy exclusive developer support because of CDs. Yes, the hardware sold extremely well. But I wouldn’t end this note with, “and they lived happily ever after”. Pirated games plagued the PlayStation, and I mean plagued badly. I would go as far to say that pirates are also why the PlayStation brand stands out today. The CDs’ virtues and vices equally helped the PlayStation empire. There was one big negative with its vices, though; software sales. While there were quite a handful of million sellers for the system, it’s all nothing compared to the PlayStation’s massive library of games. There were so many “niche” games that could’ve performed a lot better.

            Back then, I'd seen only one pirated game for the N64 being displayed in stores. With the PlayStation, however, pirated games sold like hotcakes. All you needed was a mod chip installed in your PlayStation and you were good to go. You have no idea how casual it was to walk into a store and mod your system…or buy about ten copied games in the same day. Of course, there were two negative factors about being a pirate. The first of which is that you didn’t have the time to go through the many, many games you buy. I knew many gamers who had been affected by this aspect, and luckily I wasn’t one of them because of my desire to stick with legitimate builds. Less load, more time. Reason number two: shortening your console’s life. I think when you first mod your PS, the original lens had to be replaced so the system could read pirated games. In turn, this lens had to be dusted off every month in order to work well. Sometimes, you would have to replace your lens and/or mod chip for your PS to even work, and it was as if you were paying for a new console.

            Let’s head to the next era. Basically, history would repeat itself once again, for all the basics that had happened in the previous generation carried over to the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube…for all the same reasons. PlayStation 2 reigned supreme, with Xbox coming second, and GameCube a distant third. The virtues and vices of the CD format carried over to the DVD. Again, Sony enjoyed their success because of exclusive games and pirates, and Microsoft caught a ride on their money train for the same reasons. Again, software sales for the PS2 and Xbox suffered and niche titles that could’ve sold more simply didn’t. Nintendo was dead last once again because of their refusal to go with the mainstream format. Their custom mini-DVDs made by Panasonic were just about impossible to crack. Additionally, the Big N was the only company literally fighting against piracy by perusing the source in China.

            The transition was a bit rough in the PS2’s case, however. When the console was first released, DVD technology hadn't exactly caught on. DVD writers were slow and the format was somewhat expensive. Thus, there was trouble producing pirated games for the PS2. To temporarily rectify the situation, PS2 DVD games with big capacities were written into multiple CDs. Disk swapping sucked and didn’t always work. Additionally, the PS2 was hard to mod at first. You couldn’t access pirated games directly. Instead, you had to boot the system with a GameShark-like CD then swap that with your pirated game. Again, this was a pain and didn’t always cooperate. Eventually, time and technology healed all these problems. Sure, the same negatives of being a pirate carried over from the PS1, but at least for these gamers, everything was cheap and user-friendly again. I’ve also recently heard that the PS2 hard drive was taken advantage of, as pirated games can be saved directly into it.

            There were a couple of other phenomena that occurred in this generation especially because of pirates. First off, let’s talk about importing. The PS2 basically popularized this practice of nabbing your hands on Japanese titles that had yet to be released in other regions, or other titles that would never see the light of day outside Japan. Of course, it was and still is an extremely costly practice, because in addition to the expensive Japanese games you would need an actual Japanese PS2 to play, for PS2 games were region-locked. I have a theory on why importing was so popular in the PS2’s case. Want to take a guess on what I’m trying to say? Duh, pirating! You see, by modding a PS2, you were basically making it region-free as well, and pirated Japanese games were as widespread as others. I’ve seen a lot of those here. Making importing so cheap is the one thing that appeals to pirate-free pure hardcore gamers, and no doubt many of them have gone to the dark side once or twice.

            In Saudi Arabia, a big and overlooked issue that stemmed from pirating is the lack of education on appropriate titles for children. This is especially evident with the PS2 because it contains a vast library of games with mature and unsuitable content. The stores that support original games abide with the ESRB/PEGI ratings and don’t sell mature titles to minors, despite not being forced to do so. You should know that there aren’t any laws that are related to gaming in Saudi Arabia. We follow the game’s rating whether it’s US or UK-based (our country has games for both regions). In the case of pirated games, the ratings are all messed up. The box art for these games are usually cheaply produced and either slap on an “E” rating or nothing at all. Moreover, store clerks of illegal stores and parents aren't educated on game ratings. Their basic logic is, “games are for kids anyway, can’t do any harm.” Thus, it’s not uncommon to hear or even see a 9-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto for example. I’m currently struggling with the same problem. I have two brothers, 15 and 9 years of age. They have a lot of friends who casually play pirated games and aren't blessed with an educated brother like me. So they can easily play mature titles together without any form of control. The only thing that I can do is warn my brothers and my parents about this sort of thing. Give the occasional pep talk about how violent games aren’t good for your age and whatnot. Also, I tend not to play or buy extremely violent titles like GTA and its clones in order not discourage them. Obviously, I can at least forbid them to play these titles in our home, even if they’re sneaking some sessions with their friends.

            Another factor that brought the PS2 to its ‘casual console’ status in Saudi Arabia is the Winning Eleven series (a.k.a. Pro Evolution Soccer). I’ll have to talk about its backstory in order to elaborate further. You should know that soccer is a huge sport in Saudi Arabia. Everyone is a fan. In addition to the hardcore fanbase of our local soccer teams, there are many who watch other foreign leagues and cups, too. Winning Eleven is a testament to these fans. I've not seen this popularity with FIFA at all despite having more licensed teams. It all started with the PS1. Because WE was Japanese-exclusive back then, you couldn’t play it using legal means. Here’s where pirating was necessary to these rabid soccer fans. While I did mention that “importing” became popular with the PS2, WE was an exception that started with the PS1 era. You could say it was the beginning of the illegal import movement here. You could also say that it was the beginning of the PlayStation brand becoming the most casual console ever here. WE's fanbase grew a lot bigger with the move to the PS2. To prove just how big it is here; ask any non-gamer and he’ll say to you that he has a PS2 because of WE. Wii Sports, you say? Hah! Try Winning Eleven for PS2.

            Here’s another baffling example of how huge the series is here. A few years back, a local homebrew movement started solely because of it. A group of fans gathered and modified the game to include our local teams and their likenesses. Logos, faces, stats—you name it! After that version gained popularity, more fans decided to form groups and modify the game their own way. There are SO many different groups and versions of Winning Eleven right now that it’s just impossible to count them all. Variations and additions to the game include: Arabic language, Arabic commentary, popular local cheers during a game, different intros, different menus, different soundtracks, and many more I simply can't recall. If Konami is reading this, I highly encourage them to somehow tap in to our market. Saudi soccer is just so popular and the following of Winning Eleven is extremely hardcore. If somehow Konami can localize the series and cater to the Saudi market with all of the aforementioned features (especially the local teams), it’ll be our fans' dreams come true, not to mention it would sell like crazy here.

            The final phenomenon that the previous generation had was the internet. The rise of Bittorrent has allowed pirates to download and burn their own games for years. Obviously, this factor carries over to our current generation.

            But before I move on to the pirate progress of present, l would like to talk about handhelds. As far as I can remember, the status of handhelds is actually worse than consoles in terms of illegal gaming. It’s been basically the same problems throughout the generations. You don’t need any modifications whatsoever to play illegal games on a handheld. The cartridges have been so easy to copy and pirate. The only disadvantages are the short life of these cartridges and the occasional save file problems. In my case, it’s sad that some official and big name electronic stores proudly display pirated handheld games to this day. I won’t mention any specific ones, but it’s very surprising to see how negligent everyone is with handhelds in Saudi Arabia.

            The original GameBoy and GameBoy Advance had some sort of fad with pirated games; there were a couple that had “5 in 1” on the cover. That number can reach as high as up to ‘50 in 1’ if you looked around well. There were a couple of homebrew versions of Mario and Pokémon that popped up from time to time. Currently, the situation isn’t any better with the DS and PSP as I stated in my introduction. I don’t need to further elaborate on the DS since that says it all. In the PSP’s case, however, homebrew has been extremely popular. Some awesome and original stuff come hand-in-hand with the ability to install your UMD games on memory sticks. Using your PSP as an emulator for classic NES, SNES, and PS1 games is also easy to do. You have no idea how laid-back it is here to go to any type of game store –aside from the few which only sell original stuff—and simply ask the clerk to install a ton of PSP games and emulated software on your memory stick. Sony’s only way of combating this situation is via firmware updates, which are cracked very quickly these days. Again, software sales are falling apart while the PSP itself manages to sell extremely well. In Japan, it’s been the number one selling platform for about a month now, with AAA games and software sales falling off charts like flies. Monster Hunter is the only game which has legs in Japan, while others like the Star Ocean remakes are nowhere to be found. Don’t you think it’s strange for a handheld to be selling well without any software? I mean, sure, the new bundles help, but it’s still weird. The DS has also been receiving a lot of great titles worldwide, especially with the recently-released Dragon Quest V remake in Japan, yet the PSP still manages to keep up and even surpass the DS at times. Sony seems to embrace the fact that pirated software and homebrew makes their handheld keep up with the competition. Their strategy with the UMD format has failed badly with the PSP. Its nature is just too complex to work for a handheld, which is why we haven’t been seeing a lot of million-sellers on the PSP. I’ll give Sony one thing, however; they’ve successfully embraced the positive aspects of homebrew and indie movements. All the unique titles you’ve been seeing on the PSP and PSN are because of Sony’s support of underground developers. Recently, our very own Jarrod Nichol pointed out an interesting homebrew title that has gone to mainstream because of Sony’s funding. It’s a game called No Gravity by indie developer REALTECH VR, which is heading for the PSP in the near future.

            Finally, for our current generation era, the tides have been turned. This time around, it’s Sony which has decided to embrace its new Blu-ray format, while Nintendo and Microsoft keep it safe with DVDs for their consoles. On one hand, for a new format, Blu-ray has been very popular with both games and movies alike. Blu-ray is quickly becoming mainstream, recently crushing its competitor the HD-DVD. On the flipside, PlayStation 3 hardware and software sales have been suffering compared to the other next-gen consoles. Aside from just a few hits, Sony and third-party developers are struggling to make money on the PS3. I’m sure that you know what I’m going to say next. At the moment, you can’t make pirated games with Blu-ray. The current technology, sheer size (up to 50GB disks), and expensive price of the format are pirate-proof. The console itself is vulnerable, though. With the ability to install Linux on the PS3, the doors to homebrew and piracy are open…there’s just no pathway yet. I’m sure that Sony has intentionally given us the option to install Linux. They want these doors open. Sure, digital distribution and firmware updates prevent piracy, but I’m predicting that the console will be fully cracked in the next couple of years as technology advances and Blu-ray disks become cheaper.

            In the Wii and Xbox 360’s case, they’ve been enjoying success because of these pirates. Like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft have been encouraging the indie movement using their respective downloadable services, and releasing firmware updates for their consoles to try keeping pirates away. The Wii’s massive popularity is what intrigues me, though. For the first time in a decade, they’ve finally started using a mainstream format. Coincidence? I think not! Pirated DVD software combined with a newfound group of non-gamers is the Wii’s recipe of success. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s very easy to mod a Wii. I’ve heard that many people have been doing so in Saudi Arabia. It’s the same case with the Xbox 360. The only difference between this generation and the last one is that modding comes with a bigger price; the inability to use the online features of both consoles. Using firmware updates and hidden downloads, both consoles can detect whether there’s a mod chip installed or not. I’ve heard the 360 goes a step further in bricking the console if it detects any sort of illegal modification. Unfortunately, there are many people who can go without online gaming…which is why there is no stopping piracy.

            I ask you this, “how do we solve the underlying crisis of illegal gaming?” My answer is simple, perspective. All forms of entertainment have been struggling with this matter, and gaming is no different. Unfortunately, perspective is currently very hazy in the gaming industry. Companies and gamers alike aren’t doing enough to rectify the past. Some of them even embrace the idea of pirates (I’m looking at you, Sony). In Saudi Arabia, most parents and gamers are completely oblivious of the difference between original and pirated games. That’s how bad things are here. I’m sure there are many other countries which are as bad as us. There’s just no desire to educate people on the difference between them. Game companies aren’t voicing their opinions and seemingly lost hope on reaching their consumers. Nintendo is the only one which gives a damn and it shows. Nonetheless, there hasn’t been enough contact with the consumer about what’s right and wrong. Advertisement is a good idea to convey the message, but sadly we haven’t seen that type of aggression compared to the music and movie industries' work. Additionally, game companies need to show their support to the ‘pure’ gamer by including more bonuses with the games he/she buys. How about giving us free points for digital downloads? How about a complete system that revolves around obtaining free bonuses? How about the ability to download the soundtrack of a game for free? More of that sort of thing would entice gamers to support original titles, not illegally obtain them. The whole ‘free bonuses’ idea has been done from time to time, but it isn’t perfect or popular enough...this needs to be on a worldwide and mainstream scale instead of being restricted to specific countries, companies, and games. Prices are also a big issue today. Gaming has become more and more expensive, so people tend to deviate to the cheaper alternative of illegal gaming. Oftentimes overpriced games or peripherals hit, and price drops for AAA titles are few and far in between. There should be more bargains, more bundles, more offers, and more price cuts. Moreover, the issue of region-locked systems should be completely eliminated. In our current generation, Sony is the first to do so with the PS3 and I commend them for that. Another factor that’s important is more mainstream support for indie developers…thank God that this is well under way. The big guns just need to keep doing more of the same, keep chugging in the unique content and advertise these small-time developers as much as possible.

            When it comes to searching for the right perspective in the gaming industry, I also call for a worldwide mass market appeal. Everything seems to be so focused on North America, Europe, and Japan. While that was fine in the old days, it can’t stay like this for long. The quote by David Reeves in my introduction isn’t just Sony’s view on things; Microsoft and Nintendo are also guilty as charged. One of the main reasons why illegal gaming is evident in other countries is because of the industry’s inattention to these other international fanbases. I find that the Middle Eastern market has huge potential to become the mainstream some day. Surely you’ve noticed by now how passionate Saudi gamers are from this article. With all this passion, however, our fanbase still feels abandoned by the industry we helped create. Many of you readers who do not live in ‘the big three gaming countries’ surely understand what I mean.

            Other than the various examples I’ve previously mentioned in this piece, the best evidence of how passionate Saudi gamers are traces back to our origins. Did you know that the fad of gaming in my country started off in the mid-to-late 80s as simply importing consoles and games from the USA? That’s how I received an NES as a birthday present from my parents. Once the early 90s hit, what started off as personal ventures turned into a successful business. Consequently, the first local game store chain opened in Riyadh, then my home town of Jeddah with flying colors. Computer House is a name that Saudi fans love to this very day. You could say that it’s the equivalent of the US’s EB Games or the UK’s GAME chains. What is the chain’s main catch phrase, you ask? “The first original videogame stores in Saudi Arabia”. That just says it all. Back in the 90s, the store mimicked Nintendo’s “seal of quality” with its own insignia in order to differentiate itself from illegal stores, and I think it worked so well. Despite how insanely popular piracy is right now, ‘original gaming’ is still as healthy as ever here thanks to Computer House. As a result, the chain subsequently had grand openings in two other cities. Keep in mind that US imports are more expensive here, yet many gamers like me are still buying from this store.

            Yet again, Sony has taken the initiative and become the first to open its arms to Saudi gamers with the PS3. Sony’s competitors haven't done anything to appeal to the Middle Eastern market, specifically Saudi gamers. So far, Sony has: a) created a PlayStation Store for Saudi gamers, which is based on the UK store; b) marketed various PS3 games for Saudi gamers by adding Arabic descriptions in the box art, and c) delved into various game tournaments for Saudi gamers, starting with GT5 Prologue. In Microsoft’s case, Xbox Live is limited to only a handful of countries and Saudi Arabia is sadly not one of them. Well, at least I see a lot of European-based consoles and games, unlike Nintendo. While the Big N’s European branch is the official distributor in the Middle East, I've never seen any UK-based Nintendo systems and consoles whatsoever from when I started gaming until today. Talk about support. Also, like the 360, there is no “Saudi Arabia” region in the Wii’s settings. To make matters worse, United Arab Emirates, the only Middle Eastern region represented in the Wii, does not have any support. Even if you pick it as your default region, the system tells you that the Wii Shop Channel and WiiConnect24 are currently not available for this area. What’s the point of the other regions if there’s no support?! That is just absurd.

            In closing, I can’t help but wonder about what the future holds. Will digital distribution be the only sure-fire way of preventing piracy? Will the industry finally embrace the concept of uniting all markets together, giving each and every region equal content and support? Will we ever see companies set up headquarters in the Middle East? Will we ever see Middle Eastern developers rise to fame? As technology develops, the good tends to come with the bad. There will be more security and international support as well as more ways for pirates to ignore it all and bypass these so-called walls. Let’s hope this ongoing struggle comes to an end sooner than later.

Ahmad Mosly- Senior Staff Writer