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Piracy on Steam May Have Tripled in Past 2 Years Based on an Unexpected Source

How Steam’s Hidden ‘Spacewar’ Game Explains the Increase

May 16, 2017 by

Steam’s list of most played games has remained fairly consistent over the past few years. Older Valve games such as Dota 2 and Counter-Strike have remained at the top, while some of the biggest recent third-party launches like No Man’s Sky and The Division have already fallen out of the top 100.

Interestingly, after tracking player counts for the last two years, one game has stood out from the rest… not only for always hovering around Steam’s top 50 most played games year after year, but for also being a mysterious hidden title that almost nobody has ever heard of.

Based on the 1962 space combat computer game of the same name, Spacewar was originally included as part of Steamworks’ SDK as a testing tool for developers and publishers. And although searching for “Spacewar” within Steam will turn up no results, it is in fact a real game that you can still download and play today.

But while a quick Google search answers most people’s question of “What is Spacewar?”, we’re still left with the bigger question: Is anybody actually playing Spacewar?

Spacewar’s Average Player Count per Hour Since April 2015

Spacewar has remained in Steam’s top 50 most played games by recently pulling in daily highs of around 8k players per hour and has seen peaks of over 13k concurrent players. Since GitHyp started tracking the game back in April 2015, we’ve seen the player counts rise as high as 317% and over 86 million total non-unique players have been recorded.

However, despite thousands of players being tracked every hour, if you actually install Spacewar in Steam (Windows key + R then steam://install/480 on PC), you’ll find almost nobody else playing it. The number of hosted servers and lobbies are usually in the single digits, and at times there are literally none at all.

So aside from some developers still using Spacewar to test the games they’re building, it’s still not clear how these player count numbers add up… until you look a little further into exactly how Spacewar is being used online… by pirates.

2007’s Team Fortress 2 remains as one of Valve/Steam’s most played games today. Photo credit: veit

Because Valve uses an automated system designed to detect cheats, hacks, and licenses for games installed on Steam — pirates have found a workaround by masking cracked games using Spacewar’s AppID. In doing so, when an illegally-acquired version of a game that requires Steam is launched on Steam, the game will be reported as “Spacewar” instead of the actual game.

So, chances are if you see an account or somebody on your friends list in Steam playing Spacewar, they’re not actually playing Spacewar. But it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first and only AppID to be used by pirates to trick Steam’s VAC system. And Spacewar is still legitimately used to this day by some developers and played by diehard fans.

Clearly, not every single person running Spacewar on his or her computer is playing a pirated game. Still, with piracy being reported on the rise and publishers such as Ubisoft claiming that it was as high as 95% on PC years ago, keeping an eye on Spacewar’s growth is one unexpected way of viewing the current state of PC gaming piracy on Steam.