Windmills Do Not Work That Way

Creation is a powerful act. Though far less fun than its flip side, destruction, creation has an amazing effect on people. The first time my little bug eyed fly-kangaroo hybrid crawled out of the digital primordial ooze, I was near giddy with excitement. The possibilities Spore affords the armchair god are near limitless. The creations that stream in from my GWJ buddy list have consistently blown me away. The creators of Spore have developed the closest thing to My Little Gene-Splicer that can be safely allowed in the continental U.S.

The ease of use allows plenty of thoughtless creations as well. Plenty of animals don't make it past the Tribal stage because they weren't well thought out before hand. Fortunately in Spore it's pretty easy to get a do-over. You don't have to bear the responsibility for these flawed creations, you can just click the trash can next to their cuddly face and start over.

If only thoughtless business decisions were so easy to erase.

For anybody who has been living under a rock, or for those of you who don't check the front page very often, Spore has Digital Rights Management software embedded in it. It's the SecurROM online activation variety, which the means the rules are you only get 3 installs of Spore, after which you have to call EA customer support and ask them to give you more installs. You can't revoke an install, once you use it it's gone. Hardware configurations can reset your install, causing you to burn an install without actually reinstalling. Uninstalling does not give you your install back. You also have no way to know how many installs you've actually used.

The average consumer has no way to know any of this before purchase. Good luck taking it back, too.

As the resident bearded wordsmith said last week though, why worry? It does work on the first install, and I have actually had no issues so far. Some people have had some issues, but for the majority of users it doesn't really affect them. So there's no real reason to talk about this, right?

This doesn't really satisfy me. Like my lovable Spore critter with no teeth that I accidentally made carnivorous, EA clearly didn't think this through. Where I disagree with Elysium is that I don't think we should accept their irresponsibility towards their customers as a just another part of doing business.

The thing about creation is that it comes with responsibilities for those creations. Just like I should remember to give my Spore critters a fighting chance at survival, EA should be taking responsibility for the games it creates and for the problems it causes customers. My problem with the current situation is not that EA is evil for trying to do implement DRM, it's that EA is being irresponsible towards it's customers by implementing it poorly. It's bad for customers because they can't play the game they paid for. It's bad for EA because for every problem there's one more person who won't trust EA games again. Even from a Freidman-esque perspective, it hurts repeat business. The problem isn't the fact that the restrictions are there, but that the customer doesn't learn about them until it's too late and is powerless to do anything about it.

There are some clear problems that I see with what EA has done here.

  • No Notice

    The only note I see on the package is “Internet Conneciton Required for Product Activation”. I see no mention of having a limited number of installs, nor do I see a mention about having no control over which machines are authorized to install. Really, the criteria of what constitutes an “install” is still somewhat vague, even after doing a fair amount of research on the problem. Hardware changes could use an install, reformatting, anything. Nobody knows and EA isn't telling. Since I only get 3 installs, essentially that's what I paid the $50 for. So why are they not clear about what I'm getting for my $50 up front?
  • No Control

    Despite still being unclear on the definition of “install”, only installing the game three times seems fair for the average user. What about hard drive crashes? Hardware changes? OS reinstalls? Any number of everyday occurrences can happen to a computer to invalidate an install, with no way to reclaim the used install. Even uninstalling does not reclaim an install. Why am I not given control over which machines are authorized? Since I paid $50 for these keys, besides being told about the fact that they exist up front, I'd like to have control over where they are.
  • No Action

    Other companies have made promises to remove their DRM after retail sales have diminished past profitability. Additionally, while some games initially came out with irresponsibly implemented DRM, like Bioshock, they eventually fixed the flaws with their product through patches. Yet so far EA has been less than forthcoming with fixes on their previous products with similar DRM. Mass Effect still has the same DRM with no changes at all post-release. The only response by EA so far to the controversy has been to up the number of installs from three to five for Red Alert 3, which does nothing to address my main concerns. I have seen nothing from EA to address the legitimate concerns of customers to keep their repeat business.

Things like this don't effect the average user every time, but when they do they absolutely murder enthusiasm for PC gaming. Like my huggable carnivore that never had a chance, why are we not acknowledging the long-term harm irresponsible DRM does to the PC gaming industry? Games are about letting people have fun! Irresponsible behavior like this from the publishers just kills fun. It's not that the restrictions are so draconian that gamers will turn away in droves, it's the few hundred gamers that get burned and never come back. This happens with every release.

Piracy is the hockey mask wearing serial killer. It's scary, uncontrollable and is always lurking in the shadows wielding a machete. It's definitely a problem, Jason has an industrial sized dump of dead bodies stuffed somewhere under Camp Crystal Lake. But are irresponsible PC gaming publishers any less fatal to the industry? Someone walking away from PC gaming because it's “too much hassle” is a common complaint. They'll tell their friends and word gets around to just stick to consoles. Unlike Piracy, you're never going to convince someone who's had their $50 investment burned on DRM to come back. It's poison. Slower, but just as deadly.

What can the average gamer do about the crazy machete wielding thug of piracy? Buy more games, sure, set a good example. Many gaming enthusiasts really do buy their games though. That doesn't actually stop piracy. Short of going around finding 15 year old kids running warez sites and throwing them in dumpsters, I'm not sure what else the average gamer can do. And as much as I love throwing teenagers in dumpsters it's just not practical nor productive for individuals do to this. While I think Elysium has been a little cynical on the points above, here I think he's being a little too naïve about the power of the gaming community. The opinion of the gaming community only matters to people who actually listen to it. Self-righteous indignation against pirates accomplishes little, most of them do it simply because they can. Widespread scorn doesn't stop them now, and never will. The average gamer can't do much more than try to do the right thing.

The companies have a vested interest in fighting piracy and plenty of money to back it up, if it were possible to stop piracy they would be leading the charge. But they're not, they settle for stopping casual piracy and trying to keep the problem from getting out of hand. Which is I think the best anybody can hope for from the current situation.

What can gamers do about irresponsible PC gaming publishers though? Well, that's a different matter. The average gamer is in the best possible position to affect their behavior because when you get right down to it we have what they want. Money and mouths. If you don't like what a company is doing, don't give them your money. More importantly though, let them know what they're doing wrong!

Write them an email. When your friends ask about Spore let them know what they're getting into. Don't be “that preachy guy”, just let them know how it works and let them make their own decision. Several will still buy it, but many won't. The old-school Divx tried to sell their draconian DRM as a positive for consumers, then they promptly went out of business. There's a reason EA has been less than forthcoming about all this. People notice these things when they're explained in a way they can understand. Get people to take notice. The Amazon ratings protest is a wonderful way to draw attention to the problem. When you get the Washington Post writing articles about how Spore's DRM “hurts more than it helps”, you know you have EA's attention.

Contrary to popular internet belief, these companies do like to make money. If they can do that by making their customers happier without sacrificing their copy protection, they'll eventually wise up and do it.

It can't stop at attention grabbing stunts though. It's not productive to just post “EA SUX LOL” everywhere you can. Get specific about what's wrong, be reasonable, but insistent. Try to find solutions that will actually work from their perspective. Draw attention to what you're doing so that reasonable people on both sides can see your side of the argument, even if they don't agree with it. Let people who ask you know what's going on. Don't let EA cover it up, let people know who are thinking about Spore exactly what they're getting into. We're the enthusiasts, when people ask you what's going on, let them know!

Do I think EA is going to do an about face and remove all DRM? No. EA will try to find ways to make their customers happy, though.

It may seem hopeless trying to hold billion-dollar multi-national companies responsible for their actions. But as a wise man once said “You can't give up hope because it's hopeless! You have to hope even more and stick your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la-la-la-la!” So despite Elysium's dreary outlook, I'm going to keep hoping anyway. Worst thing that can happen is it works.

Comments

Dysplastic wrote:

What is this "limited installation" DRM doing to stop casual piracy that these other tools aren't?

Well, it limits it to the user and two other potential installs on other machines. Disc checks can be easily bypassed. Whether or not that gets out of the realm of casual piracy, I don't know.

Removing disc check != piracy. I bought the game legally, forcing me to have the specific DVD in to play the game is BS. As a rule, I've patched out DVD checks. Now, if I removed the disc check, then installed it on fifteen different computers, that'd be different. I've still just got it installed in the one place. But I don't want to have to constantly disc swap my PC.

(Currently, I have FEAR, DMC4, and Oblivion installed. All legally purchased, all installed only on one PC. I'm just too lazy to disc swap)

I was already questionable on Spore. Just, too much gaming goodness. With all of this, I'm not going to buy it. I'll save my $50 for Fallout 3.

Edit: Clicked post instead of preview.

Removing disc check != piracy. I bought the game legally, forcing me to have the specific DVD in to play the game is BS.

Technically it doesn't equal piracy, but it still violates the DMCA clause regarding circumventing copy protection.

I think the DRM system they used with BIOSHOCK is a good model. Limit the installs, keep track through an online validation and then allow recovery of an install by uninstalling as well as running the DRM removal tool. Whether the number of installs should be 3 or 5 or another number should be market tested with a double blind study.

Oh, and regarding disclosure ... fully disclose on the box that 1) this software requires online validation (sucks for those w/o internet) and 2) limits installs to n times in case of crash or HW problems and 3) requires internet connection to recover an install.

This is what I love most of this site. Article and a kinda counter article both on the front page. Nice.

I agree more with this one then the other. In my eyes, Steam is the best anti-piracy system there is. They still have their share of pirated games, but I think the numbers are a lot lower. Steam offer you continued support, no hassle if you ever reinstall your pc and a very easy buy service. That's what consumers want.

Here's a question I have about the DRM, then. At some point on a prior machine, some DRM came in and made the built-in CD burner no longer work--I had to use an external burner to get anything done afterward. Does this latest revision have documented cases of interfering with other parts of the O.S. like that?

Kurrelgyre wrote:

Here's a question I have about the DRM, then. At some point on a prior machine, some DRM came in and made the built-in CD burner no longer work--I had to use an external burner to get anything done afterward. Does this latest revision have documented cases of interfering with other parts of the O.S. like that?

Not that I know of. It is much less system damaging than Starforce.

The Playstation Store implements a 2-strikes-and-you're-out policy regarding video downloads.

Ars Technica reports.

This makes space management quite a concern. I haven't checked on it, but is this the case for games as well? If so, I'd be wary of ever downloading a full game (like Warhawk), especially considering the installs that so many PS3 games are coming with these days (whatever happened to the blu-ray format being necessary for these "huge next-gen" games?).