01 October 2008

Spore DRM: It's A Bitch, Ain't It?

Digital Rights Management (DRM. Copy Protection, by any other name.) is most definitely the hot topic in the PC gaming scene right now, specifically in Spore. Console gamers... well, they'll just play in the sand, blissfully ignorant, won't they? Somebody who's never had to coax the game out of their disc via installations, driver updates, driver downgrades, and various other ancient voodoo rituals couldn't comprehend the implications of yet another barrier on the road to JUST PLAYING THE DAMN GAME. And that's a shame since, even sheltered as they are playing on their Xbox 360s and PS3s, they're not totally unaffected. A distressingly large portion of the console gaming population can attest to the abomination of copy protection embedded in PSN and Xbox Live downloads. Microsoft, in recent months, has introduced an online tool to allow people to transfer DRM for their 360 downloads between consoles, but even this isn't foolproof (I have my own experience with this, but that's a horror story for another day.). But I digress.

The fact is game publishers have resorted to punishing paying customers for piracy, something they, as paying customers, have nothing to do with. At all. Apparently, the next best thing to shooting yourself in the foot is aiming for the vital cash flow. Furthermore, DRM doesn't obstruct pirates. It barely registers as a hurdle. Most modern DRM is code written by companies who do nothing but DRM work (Securom, Starforce, etc.). If 5 different games all have Securom security on their discs, the groundwork for that code is probably similar, if not identical. Pirates are elite hackers on steroids and most copy protection measures are just another line of code for them to glance over on their way to converting a game from a disc to a digital copy to be distributed online.

So, copy protection doesn't bother hackers. That leaves customers. (Just to clarify real quick, those are the people trying to give these companies money.) Unless you've been living under a rock (or a console), you've probably heard about the DRM controversy surrounding Spore. Spore uses the Securom protection and requires online activation to access all of the game's features. In addition to all of this, EA decided to limit the number of online activations to three(3). This number was later increased, after much bitching from the peanut gallery, to five(5). In addition EA dismissed the whole issue from the start, saying that only 10% of their user base has tried to install more than thrice. This could likened to Toyota releasing a 2009 model car that, when crossing the Ukrainian border, explodes. Then saying "Less than 10% of our customers drive our product in Eastern Europe." It's THAT level of willful ignorance.

Of course, this is only an obstacle if you bought the game. If you acquired the title through a less legitimate source, say, a torrent site, then these little nuisances are conveniently weeded out in the piracy process. So, again we're back to punishing consumers while exalting pirates. Yes, EXALTING. In a world where companies exhibit such flagrant disregard for their "valued customers", pirates take on the role of modern-day Robin Hoods (Maybe, "|20|}1|\| |-|00[)$"), taking it all back for the little guy. Well, thieves are thieves. From a PR perspective, companies like EA couldn't be dealing with this issue any more ham-handed. It ought to be a rainmaker: people are stealing from them. For them to take that and turn THEMSELVES into the villains takes a special kind of incompetence. The kind that usually makes you eligible for government assistance.

Electronic Arts and every other publisher out there needs to make a few vital changes in their position. Firstly, just accept the fact that some people are going to steal your product. If it bothers you that much, get on Congress' collective ass to pass harsher penalties for distributing protected IP illegally. Or, better yet, take a nod from Stardock and assume a much less authoritarian position. i.e. start making it worth more to buy your product than to pirate it. Spore should be a natural in this regard. One of the games biggest selling points is the ability to seamlessly integrate other people's creations into your games, as well as share your creations with everyone else. This is something you need to register with a legitimate copy to do. You shouldn't NEED to saddle your software with viral copy protection (Securom DOES affect system performance. Don't let anyone tell you different.) and draconian install limits. This is paranoia on your part. Nothing more.

Which brings me to my second point: start treating people like potential sales instead of potential criminals. The glass really is half full, EA. A quick glance at gaming forums will tell you that a good portion of people who pirate your game are honest folks who bought the game and are determined to actually PLAY it, despite your best efforts to the contrary. Your attitude towards your customers has done more to drive them to piracy than the price tag ever could have. You've taken the stance of a metaphorical old man, shaking his cane and yelling from his stoop at the kids skateboarding in the street. Stop it. It's not going to change anything and it just makes you look cold and out of touch.

That being said, I'd like to address the individual for a moment here. If you pirate games just to avoid paying for them, or anything else that couldn't be defended as a "legitimate" reason (acquiring out-of-print games, a backup copy for a legally owned game, nonsense like this Spore business), than you are a criminal. A SWAT team's not gonna come bust down your door any time soon, but, morally, you know you are wrong. If you have the money and want a game, go buy the damn thing. Somebody worked hard to make that game and they'll never receive due credit for their work unless somebody buys it. If you just gotta get you some free games, there are other options. Do your part to end this pirate-publisher hostility.

That ended up a lot longer than I planned. Shoudn't be surprised, though. It's a complex issue. The bottom line is publishers need to take responsibility for their role in the issue and generally loosen up, while the pirates themselves need to find something better to do with their talents. Like hacking the e-mail accounts of corrupt political figures.

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