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Evolving Beyond DRM– Part One

DLB presents a two part case-study about piracy, DRM, and customer's rights. Today's theme: "You're doing it wrong".

The Situation

Piracy is the biggest problem facing PC games. Publishers claim it’s so bad that it threatens the very existence of the platform. Since it’s so easy to copy games, it’s no longer profitable to develop for the PC.

To help stave the flow of lost sales, many newer games come with DRM (Digital Rights Management), a kind of software lock designed to prevent unauthorized copying. It sounds okay in theory. I mean, we can generally agree that companies have a right to protect themselves.

But that’s where the game publishers have gone overboard—putting their rights above their customer’s. And so, instead of profiting as they should be, they’ve created a storm of controversy and actually made things much worse for everyone involved.

A Study in FAIL

I’ll give you a great example: Spore. You’ve heard of Spore, I’d wager. It’s the new world-building game from Will Wright that lets players create and evolve lifeforms. It’s been hard not to hear about it over the past year, as the hype-machine has been in overdrive pending its release. People were excited; they were primed and ready to lay down some cash and play. Then they found out about Spore’s DRM.

An image from the PC game Spore'
Some creatures from Spore. Opposable thumbs not included.

Customers are used to owning something they pay for, but with DRM, it’s more like they’re renting it—for full retail price. In the case of Spore, the game can only be installed three times before the CD key no longer works. If you need to install it more than that, you have to call and explain your situation to EA to get another install (give me a break!). Also, a copy of Spore can only be installed on one computer at a time, so if you’ve got multiple machines for kids or business, you’ve got to buy one for every machine. Spore also requires the player to authenticate the game online upon installation and when the game is run, which begs the question: what happens if the servers go down or the company goes under? Without authentication, the game is useless.

So EA’s DRM is annoying, maybe even draconian. Has it hurt sales of Spore?

You could say that.

Yeah. Spore is the most pirated game of all time.

According to Torrentfreak, as of last week, the game has been downloaded 500,000 times. As of this week, the game has sold 1,000,000 copies. Now, a million copies is still a huge number for PC sales—really any video game. But that just makes the number of pirated copies that much worse.

Now, you say, how many of those are people who would have legitimately bought the game? Aren’t people just stealing it because they can? It’s hard to say, but anecdotal evidence suggests a significant number are downloading it out of spite. People have flooded the Amazon listing for the game with angry one star reviews protesting the DRM policies. The EA discussion boards and torrent site forums are full of similar sentiments.

How can we fix this?

The situation is bad for everyone. EA has lost the battle against piracy. Customers are angry. As a result of this debacle, things look even worse for the industry as a whole.

What’s the right thing to do? How can companies make a profit while ensuring that customers have their right to fair use?

Do nothing.

I’ll explain in Part Two on Tuesday. See you then!

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NickSep 26, 2008

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