Editor's note: A couple of weeks ago, we published a story about people who pirate Halo 4. The game has not been officially released, but people were pirating it left and right. A former video game reporter and critic in Russia named Tim Seyfelmlyukov read that story and reached out to me. There was nothing strange about all this piracy to him: in Russia, he told me, just about everyone pirates games. Intrigued, I asked him to write about his experiences in a country where he'd tell you that anyone who wants to play Halo 4 is already playing Halo 4.
In my former career as a game journalist I wrote quite a few game reviews. I had owned an Xbox 360 since 2008 and had a PlayStation 3 debug console-for reviewing early games-since 2010. I reviewed most games on the 360. Sometimes a week or two before release I'd get a copy with a "Not for Sale" yellow sign. I would play it a little bit, beat it, and then write a review.
Here in Russia while playing a review copy you can be 100% sure that half of your friend list is already playing the game. Some hardcore players have already beaten it (sometimes for full fledged 1000 Gamerscore). So how does the journalist feel when he's writing a review for a game everyone is already playing? It's quite strange and awkward. I think there were about 10 guys on my friend list playing Dishonored a week before release date. Last week there were a few guys playing Halo 4 in co-op sitting in a comfortable Xbox Live party fearing totally nothing. FIFA13 a week before the street date playing online? Sure! Resident Evil 6 a month before the release and with half of the achievements unlocked: check!
What's the problem with the gaming industry in Russia?
First. The games are expensive. Like very expensive. The ordinary price for the console version of Max Payne 3 in a local retailer like "Eldorado" or "Technosila" is $85 (2700 rubles). You can search the web and find some barely legal shops which sell it for $48 (1500 rubles)—mostly imported copies from Europe. If you are truly short on money then it is possible to dig a little deeper and find some forums like Xboxland and Xboxrussia where you can buy a used copy for a super cheap price of $28 (900 rubles). That's how it goes as far as legal way of obtaining games.
But I have to say that all of the above-mentioned ways are applicable only to big cities like Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and alike. If you are "lucky" enough to live in a small city with 500k population you're gonna be stuck with this price scheme: $85 for a new game in local retailer and $50 for a used game. In Moscow the average monthly salary is 52.000 rubles ($1650), according to Moscow officials, but in most of the Russian cities people make their living with 17.000 rubles ($540). Not really suitable to fork out $85 for a game while paying for rent and loans, is it? So most Russian gamers pirate.
Second. Is it hard to pirate a console game? The answer is no.
You have to jailbreak your PS3 or mod your Xbox 360. The average price for such service is about 1500 rubles ($48). There are hundreds of people who do it extremely fast. They don't fear anyone and do it openly in some shopping malls.
Then, you need to get a game. With the Russian Internet being quite good now—a stable 20 Mbps or higher connection is present in almost every city—a console game can be downloaded from thousands of torrent trackers and file sharing sites in 45 minutes or even less. Next, you need to burn the game and upload it to your HDD. So there has to be a PC for this stuff. If there is none, you just go to a local, unofficial gaming shop and buy a pirated game already burnt to a DVD with printed artwork and a box with cover. It's a no-brainer as there are lots of such shops that sell pirated games, music CDs, DVDs and other media almost openly, especially in big "tech" malls such as "Gorbushka" and "Savelovsky" in Moscow. The price is about 300 rubles ($10). And this would be almost legal because the shop even issues a receipt.
And if you want to do it at home, the process is totally simplified. Just buy some blank dual-layered DVD+Rs, download games and burn them with special software. It's even possible to play online. Your Xbox has been banned? No problem, you sell it for $100 on your local Xbox forum or on the Russian Craigslist wannabe named "Avito", buy another one there in nearly mint condition for $160 and mod it for $48. Here you go, until the next ban. Sony and Microsoft do sell their consoles officially in Russia. But nothing stops people from reselling them. Banned Xboxes are really cheap and are often used for offline play and also for Freeboot modding—JTagging and enabling games and homebrew that boot right from harddrive. On forums and through online auctions old Xboxes from 2007 or 2008 cost around 5000-7000 rubles ($160-$224) rubles depending on condition and accessories included. Slim Xboxes cost around 7000-9000 rubles ($224-$288), also depending on what's included, sometimes even with Kinect. The new official Xbox is 10000 rubles ($320) for the 250GB version and 14000 ($450) with Kinect and 250GB. The pricing is quite the same for PS3 - 11000-15000 rubles).
So let's dig into some figures. All of them are unofficially provided by my friends and former colleagues in publishing companies, retailers and platform holders. There are about 1.7 million Xbox 360s and about 1 million PS3s sold in Russia. My sources told me that the current install base is estimated as 1.2 million 360s and 700 thousand PS3s (some consoles were broken, some exchanged). There were more Xboxes sold because it was always easier to mod them and still play online. Jailbroken PS3s mostly can't get online. And now check this out: the best-selling games like FIFA and Call of Duty sell 3000-10000 copies per platform. Only 500-1000 copies of games like Enslaved or Shadows of the Damned are sold in Russia. The most popular officially-sold games are the family games (dancing, racing sims, kids and other Kinect stuff) beside such huge hits in Russia as Call of Duty and FIFA.
So my fellows in different retailers are saying the same thing: "The consoles are selling quite ok but the games are treated like an additional commodity, accessories. Nobody is interested in selling them". That's why all the big retailers are filled with such games as Fallout 3, Tekken 6, old Need for Speed installments and other old stuff. People don't buy games at big retailers. And shops are totally uninterested in selling games.
But if you watch forums, gaming sites, ask your friends, look at your friend lists, everyone is playing Call of Duty, Battlefield, FIFA, Need For Speed, Borderlands, GTA. So if people don't buy these games, it's obvious they pirate them. If asked about pirating games almost anyone says: "Games are expensive, I can't afford them but I want to play them." Since there is almost no law enforcement going after people playing pirated games or distributing them on the web, people do it everywhere in Russia. Most of them are even proud of cutting their costs and fucking over "greedy developers/ publishers." The problem, some will say, is industry "greed."
After years of talking to hundreds of people and seeing thousands of forum comments I can say that the majority of gamers who pirate games don't understand that developers don't want to make games for pirates. If they don't get money they don't make games. It's that simple. But everyone is laughing and saying "let the stupid Americans pay for their games."
Things are getting better. My sources in the retail and modding community are saying that everyone is tired of modding their Xboxes and PS3s. So Russians are now cautiously getting into used games. It's really easy to buy some used games for the price from $10 (like Mass Effect or Call of Duty 4) to $48 (Dishonored, Darksiders 2). Gamers are starting to understand and cherish the online services which are unavailable for their modded consoles. (Even those 360s with modded harddrives that are running Halo 4 these days might get banned; so for some it becomes less of a hassle not to pirate.)
If games become more affordable then people are going to buy them a lot. Look at PC gaming. PC games are priced a lot cheaper in Russia (though region-locked ,sometimes), not to mention those legendary Steam sales. For example: Borderlands 2 for PC costs in retail about 600 rubles ($19) and Xbox 360 or PS3 version will empty your pocket for 1800-2600 rubles ($58-83) depending on your luck. That's why PC gaming is really strong in Russia. And that's why barely anybody buys console games.
And you know what happened this morning? Black Ops 2 was pirated because some shops broke street date.
Moscow-based Timur Seyfelmliukov has been a gamer since 1993. He started writing amateur articles about games when he was 15. In 2010 he became an editor of the dedicated gaming section in Lenta.ru, the biggest Russian-language news site. Beside his main job he covered games for Russian media outlets including RIA Novosti, RIA TV, Digit.ru, Games TV, Xboxtra and Gamemag. Now Timur is the head of PR in Boomstarter, a Russian crowdfunding platform created after the huge success of Kickstarter. Though busy at his main occupation Tim is still a passionate gamer and sometimes give his opinion about games to Russian media.
Top Pic: The Kremlin, at sunset, via the Flickr feed of John Leach.