Featured Article: Piracy and the App Store

If you like this post, take a look at my lastest one. It’s a pretty geeky fun experiment with an iPhone, an iPod touch, and the iPhone TV output: Presenting the Tap-Fu game console…

Intro: So you just released a game…

It’s an exciting time when you release a new game for people to enjoy. Especially one that you’ve poured your heart and money into for the past half year. You’ve toiled over and polished it as much as you can and finally it’s ready! Eagerly you submit it to the gods (i.e. Apple) and await their approval…

Finally! It’s approved and you sit back and dream of riches…

A day later, you are devastated when you realize that you are getting totally screwed over. Despite what you’ve heard from others, your game isn’t being bought but it is being played.

A Little About the Tap-Fu…

We at Neptune Interactive Inc and Smells Like Donkey, Inc. just released our latest game, called Tap-Fu, to the App store on Oct 16 2009 for a reasonable price of $3.99 USD (EDIT: it’s now $1.99). Tap-Fu is a pretty high quality title and most legit customers seem to really like it. More information about the game can be found here: http://www.neptuneii.com/tapfu/

The game has some online scoreboards where people have to manually submit scores. When they do submit scores, we also track a few pieces of information (nothing personal though):

  • various score information (score, kills, style points, etc.)
  • game information (map, mode, difficulty)
  • App version
  • OS Version
  • Device ID
  • Pirated Flag

The key ones that we’ll be looking at here are the Device ID and Pirated Flag.

How to be an App Pirate…

EDIT (October 27): grunt sent me another link (via my blog comments) by the AutoTrafego guys on iPhone piracy that describes the process a little better and also addresses DLC: In App Purchase and the state of iPhone Piracy

Before we get into the stats, lets just go over the process of pirating a game. After seeing the stats below, I wanted to understand the actual pirating process. To tell you the truth, I was very surprised (and concerned), at how easy it is.

Note: BTW, I’m mentioning sites here that would take an average person 5 minutes in Google to find, so please don’t get mad if it seems like I’m helping them

Note: I also wanted take some time to say that we have nothing against the Jailbreaking community – there’s some pretty cool things coming out from those developers and some of it looks like some pretty cool nerd fun.

So how easy is it to pirate? Assuming you have a Jailbroken iPhone and Cydia installed, you can simply add a new package source to download the pirating software from Hackulous. This pirating software is simply a kernel patch that bypasses Apple’s DRM system (or something like that).

When you add the package source Cydia is nice enough to give you a message warning you that what you may be doing may be morally wrong (see below). Since I was only intending to pirate our apps, I added it anyway. A quick install of the software and a reboot is all that is needed to allow your phone to run pirated software.

Cydia installer, The warning, and Tap-Fu and 7 Cities cracked versions successfully installed

Cydia installer, The warning, and Tap-Fu and 7 Cities cracked versions successfully installed

Once the phone is rebooted, all you have to do is download a cracked version of the app from one of the MANY places on the internet, add it to iTunes, sync, and you are done. NOTE: Surprisingly this is MUCH easier than actually buying it on iTunes!!

EDIT: As another side note, the wait time for Tap-Fu to show up on the various sites from the time of release was about 40 minutes.

Piracy Stats…

Note: More info coming soon.

So what can we glean from our data? Well, understand that this data relies on the legitimate user or pirate submitting a high score. The app does not phone home at any time without the user explicitly telling it to. Also, we are not in any way crippling pirated versions of the App either. We’d like to also have more samples (and we will over time) so this data may be fairly “noisy”.

EDIT to clarify for Arelius@reddit: This data represents the first week of sales so it’s a pretty small sample. The game is however slowly rising up the charts (e.g. top 100 apps in Japan) so take that into account when judging the number of legitimate users.

As of Friday (a week after release) here’s the list of high scores that we’re confronted with. Red entries are pirated versions, blue are legit.

High score list as of Oct 23, 2009

High score list as of Oct 23, 2009

Here’s the % of the total scores submitted so far: EDIT: Updated graph

Percent of Total Scores from Pirated Apps

Percent of Total Scores from Pirated Apps

If you look at the total numbers, the percentage of of pirated copies of the game submitting high scores is 71.2%.

Now most pirates will tell you that they just like to try before they buy. If it’s a good game, then they’ll buy it: EDIT: Updated graph

Conversion Rate for Pirated Copies

Conversion Rate for Pirated Copies

Well, from this data we can conclude that 0% of pirates think the game is worth buying (which, by the way, is contrary to most of the forum posts we read from legit buyers).

One interesting note is that the most pirate scores are submitted for Story level, then Rounds, then survival. This is the same order that the game types show up in our menus. This may point out that Pirates generally have a lower attention span – they quickly move on to the next game.

Moral Justification of Pirates

I thought it would be interesting to comment on some of the justification for piracy. One of the largest sites for cataloging pirated apps is Appulous and on their FAQ we can find nuggets such as this.

Appulous is a collection of links to allow iPhone and iPod touch users the ability to try out full, unlimited versions of device software before making the decision to buy it.

However, there is an impressive number of people in the community who do honestly pay developers for software they enjoy after trying it.

Having the opportunity to review the sales statistics of a well-reviewed, independently-developed game, the developer experienced a great number of installations by people using the unlimited trial — but over 99% of these installs were by people who statistically would not have purchased it regardless. A single digit of sales were lost to others who may have purchased the game, and with the trial resulting in purchases that would have otherwise not been made, the end result is strikingly positive.

Having seen our data and the fact that not a single pirate bought Tap-Fu after playing it, these arguments all sound a bit delusional to me. It seems like an attempt at trying to be legitimate while hiding the real reason. They should just change their page to say:

We pirate because we can

That seems to be a much more honest statement based on the data we’ve seen.

Future Plans

Because Apple has been fairly slow to respond to this and because piracy is becoming very commonplace, we’re predicting that developers will be taking it into their own hands to try and prevent it. Detecting a pirated app is quite simple to do so I wouldn’t blame them at all. We’re even considering doing a few things.

Probably the first thing we’ll try is popping up a message reminding people that they really should buy the game if they like it and conveniently provide links to do so. It’ll be an interesting test to do so we’ll let you know when it’s done.

Also, the move to DLC seems to be another step in the right direction to combat this. Give away the base app for free and charge for content. This forces the pirates to change their strategy significantly and it might be a while before it becomes feasible to attack this system.

Another option for multiplayer apps is to verify the app online and not allow it to connect to a match making server or something of the sort. Fair is fair and if someone isn’t paying for your app, they maybe shouldn’t be allowed to use your service.

It’s all up to the tastes of the individual developer.


Now that all that is said and done, are we really concerned about it? Maybe a bit. We like to think that it’s not us specifically that is losing sales to these people, it’s every developer that is losing sales to these people. The pirates have essentially removed themselves from the iTunes economy and that hurts everyone.

How much does it hurt? Probably not a whole lot. There’s probably a few of these people that would have bought our game in the first place so it’s not really a big deal.

But as a developer, looking at that high scores chart, it is kind of depressing.  Yet we are glad that there are plenty of paying customers out there, and we will do our best to reach them.