How Spore and DRM Have Changed PC Gaming Forever

Friday Sep 19th 2008 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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Amid the firestorm over limited activations of the popular Spore game, users are finding other alternatives – creating even bigger problems for Spore’s maker.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars with your fingers in your ears then you’ve undoubtedly heard about the backlash by consumers against EA’s long awaited game Spore.

In a nutshell, the hostile response centers around the DRM (Digital Rights Management) mechanisms built into the framework of the game, which means that users can only sign up for one account per serial key and that users can only activate the game on a maximum of three PCs. After three activations users are denied further activations and have to phone up EA to beg for another activation.

[Editor’s note: as of September 19, EA has announced that it has expanded the installation limit to five machines. Additionally, EA is moving forward with a system that will enable users to deauthorize PCs and move Spore to a different computer without calling EA.]

The attack on Spore in the review pages on Amazon.com was swift and savage. A game that had been widely talked about for two years plummeted to a single star rating within hours of release.

Spore reviews on Amazon

Recently it had 2,713 reviews on Amazon.com, out of which 2,368 give the game the lowest rating possible. Spore Galaxy Edition is also suffering from negative feedback, though nowhere near as many as the standard edition of the game.

The complaints all revolve around the same issues – restrictive DRM, restrictive policy on accounts (even the manual mistakenly told users that they could have multiple accounts for a single CD key) and the feeling that for $50 you're really just renting the game until the DRM decides that you've had your fifty bucks worth and locks you out of the game.

To be honest though, sinking Spore because of DRM isn’t really fair. Plenty of games prior to Spore have had restrictive DRM models (BioShock springs to mind) and I feel that Will Wright’s Spore bore the brunt of years of gamer frustration.

Certainly, after reading most of the user comments I get the feeling that users are venting over more than just the DRM on Spore. As a gamer myself, I've grown tired of DRM on games and run into several difficulties in getting games to run properly that were down due to the DRM, in particular issues such as system instabilities and even not being able to play the game at all. (I've always managed to fix these issues, but time fussing over problems is lost game time.) I still buy games, but not as many as I used to.

Now, the idea behind DRM is to stop people pirating the game, but many people mistakenly believe that this mechanism is in place to prevent widescale piracy. It isn’t. In fact, despite being kitted out with draconian DRM, Spore was leaked onto the Internet several days before the official launch, complete with a way around the DRM.

Given that, you’d think that EA would label DRM an epic failure and remove it. That’s not going to happen, and the reason is that the DRM is there to prevent average users (those who are law-abiding, honest or who don’t know that you can get pretty much anything that’s in digital form for free if you know where to look) from being able to casually pirate the game.

The “three installs and you’re out,” along with the rule that you can only have one user account per CD key is there to hit people who’ve already paid $50 for the game, and hope that when they run into the DRM wall they’ll eagerly flip open their wallet/purse and toss EA another handful of Benjamins.

Got two kids who want to play Spore and each have an account? That’ll be $100 please. Three kids? Forget about it!

Now, just a moment ago I said that the DRM used in games is there really to lock in honest people and those who don’t know about shady places like The Pirate Bay. Well, DRM improperly applied can lead to people either suddenly deciding that honesty isn’t the best policy, or exposing them to a game crack site.

This is what happened with Spore, as it quickly attained the status of being the most pirated game in history. EA, along with other game publishers and studios, need to think about:

A) How many of these people had never looted a free copy off a torrent site before?

B) How many, having now been exposed to torrents, will never buy another game again?

This means that DRM has turned from being a mechanism that protects an industry into one that works against it.

Personal note: I want to make it clear that I am, in no way, condoning piracy. I’m a firm believer in paying for what you want and in my opinion if you don’t like the DRM, don’t play the game. Looting a free copy just because you oppose the DRM just isn’t justified and doesn’t help the anti-DRM movement.

Some gaming companies are starting to realize that DRM isn’t the answer. One such company is Stardock, and this company has gone as far as to publish a Gamer's Bill of Rights. A partial list of Stardock’s proposed rights:

• Gamers shall have the right to demand that download managers and updaters not force themselves to run or be forced to load in order to play a game.

• Gamers shall have the right to expect that games won't install hidden drivers or other potentially harmful software without their consent.

• Gamers shall have the right to re-download the latest versions of the games they own at any time.

• Gamers shall have the right to not be treated as potential criminals by developers or publishers.

• Gamers shall have the right to demand that a single-player game not force them to be connected to the Internet every time they wish to play.

• Gamers shall have the right that games which are installed to the hard drive shall not require a CD/DVD to remain in the drive to play.

As a gamer, I’d love to see game studios embrace the Gamer's Bill of Rights and treat customers with the respect they deserve. If they don’t, I wonder whether the PC gaming industry will exist in a few years.

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