Mass piracy is threatening the Mac games industry, meaning some titles may never make it to the platform, industry insiders have warned.

This shocking news emerged after MacSoft's introduction of a v.1.3 update for Halo in January. Along with bug-fixes and gameplay improvements this means Halo will check a Mac's CD drive to ensure that a legitimate copy of the game is present before it lets you play. MacSoft didn't want to do this, the company said, but had to as more copies of the title were being stolen than sold.

MacSoft president Peter Tamte said: "Our wake-up call was when we physically tracked more people stealing Mac Halo online than buying it, even though we can physically track fewer than ten per cent of downloads. This dragged us kicking and screaming into copy protection. Unfortunately, all the methods we can employ need the CD in the drive. We were dragged into this," he said.

And it isn't just MacSoft that's being affected, Aspyr Media's director of PC and Mac development Glenda Adams told Macworld: "Piracy hurts Aspyr just like it hurts the others. Each copy of a game that's pirated takes away a potential sale. Even a small number of sales lost through piracy can make the difference between a game breaking-even or losing money – we don't make so much money from each game that we can absorb that.

"In the long term there could be fewer Mac games," she warned.

MacPlay President Mark Cottam told MacCentral earlier this year: "With less revenue to work with, publishers have fewer resources to invest in licensing and developing games, so not only will the games they work on be of lower quality, but there will be fewer of them too."

The relatively small Mac games industry is concerned. Broadband Internet adoption has opened the door to theft. Freeverse Software vice president Colin Lynch Smith said: "Piracy has always existed on the Mac, but it has become easier, more widespread and more damaging."

Feral Interactive founder David Stephen said: "Piracy never used to be such a problem, but broadband Internet has made it worse. We first saw significant piracy upon the release of Black & White in early 2002."

Ambrosia Software leader Andrew Welch said: "Many top games never make it to Mac because of the added costs for a niche market; piracy reinforces the notion that it isn't worth developing for Macs."

Inside the business

A misconception exists about how the Mac games industry works. To publish a popular title such as Halo, developer/publishers must customarily pay the owner of the PC version of the product a licensing fee. They must then sustain development costs, packaging and distribution costs – and are often required to pay a certain royalty to the original publisher on sales. In many cases, even a minimum royalty payment is set, and Mac publishers may have to pay the balance due under that agreement if a game fails.

Adams said: "Because the Mac is a small market we are always having to make the case that there will be enough sales to make it worth bringing a game to the Mac. If sales shrink because of piracy, it gets harder to make that case."

MacSoft's Tamte said: "Damage is huge: all publishers make decisions about which games to bring to the Mac based on how well earlier, similar titles sold. Stealing games today robs the platform of tomorrow's titles."

Smith observed: "The Mac game market is a small pond. Each lost sale hurts because we sell only a fraction of the games PC developers do. A hit on the PC side can make you rich; a hit on the Mac will pay the bills and bring some capital to get the next game going. If fewer games do well because of piracy, there may not be a next game."

UK games developer Mark Thomas of porting house Coderus said: "If we don't recover costs, future projects can be at risk – users have less titles, and fewer developers risk introducing Mac games.

"We understand there will be piracy, but such massive levels will affect future titles. We are losing money that we need for future games. Mac gamers aren't getting the full picture here."

Stephen explained: "It may end up that only blockbuster games reach the Mac, because they are the only ones that can make a profit despite piracy. This will reduce the number and the range of titles available."

Urge to understanding

However, Smith believes it isn't life or death: "I know there are worse crimes in this world than game piracy. I doubt anyone will starve to death because someone stole a copy of WingNuts. But if you want to see WingNuts 2, then consider paying for games. You'll feel better and we can think about bringing you more titles, rather than how to add more copy protection or how to track you down with lawyers and ninjas."

"Mac users are better than this. Leave thievery to the Windows world, along with the worms, viruses and all the other dirt.

"We want to keep making games for Macs. Piracy threatens that. Many of our programmers make much less money than they could, but they love Macs, and robbing guys like that is low," Smith said.

Thomas spoke as a Mac-loving programmer: "Porting skills aren't widely available. If a developer has been burned with a port then he won't do another – like anyone they have families to feed, and if other areas pay better, what would you do?"

Thomas led the Mac port of Virtual Programming's WipeOut. He said that when they introduced an update that fixed the game while making it harder to steal, the company saw messages appear online warning others not to install these, as they could not then play their stolen games. "This will affect future releases," he said.

Welch stressed: "Software activation isn't about hindering legitimate users, it's about preventing casual, rampant piracy. It's why stores have security, why we lock our doors at night. Theft costs everyone."

Forced to act, Tamte said: "You'll see three initiatives from the industry: information; protection and prosecution."

Necessary measures

Welch added: "More companies are moving to software activation and online serial checks."

Other efforts to make it harder to steal games will include: shipping them on DVDs, copy-protection and posting fake spoof versions of titles online. Adams said: "Aspyr has been forced to examine copy protection for Macs. Education is crucial. Gamers must realise that they can have a huge effect on how many games reach the Mac – the healthier the industry is, the more great games will go Mac."

Like Apple CEO Steve Jobs, most involved agree that honesty exists. Tamte said: "Most people want to do the right thing. Once they understand piracy is theft they'll reconsider whether they want to steal."

Feral's Stephens said: "We need to reduce the number of people who can honestly claim they didn't know they were doing anything wrong."

No one in the industry wants to resort to prosecution, Tamte said: "But the damage now is so severe that this will change – if someone stole from you, wouldn't you want to see justice?"

Tamte said: "It's disheartening after working 18-hour days for many months to see thousands of people steal your hard work. I hope people will ask themselves if it's right to steal games online they would never steal from HMV. Just because it's easier doesn't make it less wrong."

This article first appeared in Macworld UK's March edition, which is no longer available in newsagents. Its been re-published online for readers who may have missed the issue. Macworld subscriptions are available for readers who want the information as it appears.