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As Spore Spawns a Lawsuit, EA Still Misses the Point

 
Complaints about DRM in Electronic Arts’ Spore have now crossed over to the legal arena, as a user has filed a lawsuit for “hiding” SecuROM in the game’s code (http://www.out-law.com/page-9463; there is a link to a .pdf of the lawsuit further down the page).

I’m skeptical that the lawsuit will be successful, but it certainly brings to light the DRM issues in a way that forces EA to, finally, face them head on.

Or perhaps not. After all, after this and, oh, for example, the now 2000+ negative reviews at Amazon and general outrage all over the ‘Net, all EA has so far decided to do to is increase the number of installs of Spore from three to five ( http://www.pcworld.ca/news/article/aeb97757c0a8000601e2d159726a0f6f/pg0.htm.

They are missing a major part of the point—especially outlined by the lawsuit—that the SecuROM software itself is what causes so many people grief. Really, the installation limit is irritating, but despite the hype it’s received, the limit is not the main problem.

After all, game software like EA’s Sims 2 and Ubisoft’s Heroes of Might and Magic V expansion packs didn’t come with installation limits, but they did come with a version of SecuROM that caused its “Emulator detected!” and “Please insert your CD/DVD ROM" errors to pop up on many users’ PCs—never mind that these users were not actually using emulation software and had their legitimately purchased discs in the drive. As an example, here’s a complaint from a user of HoMMV experiencing this problem: http://forums.ubi.com/eve/forums/a/tpc/f/4611096804/m/7471054444. You can find many more like it easily enough, and note most users having these problems are longtime PC gamers, and therefore not strangers to PC functionality (or lack thereof). One major problem (among others) is people who have a single disc drive which happens to be a CD-burner. Depending on how the drive is configured, which could be any number of factory-setting configurations, SecuROM might assume you're putting your game disc in the drive for the purpose of copying rather than playing and refuse to let the thing function.

And of course, you’re lucky if that’s the error you get. Let’s not forget the recent patch for Atari’s Neverwinter Nights 2 comes with a SecuROM software “upgrade” that, oh, apparently can cause your operating system to crash: http://nwn2forums.bioware.com/forums/viewtopic.html?topic=644326&forum=109 (read through the whole thread if you have time).

Interesting, isn’t it, how Electronic Arts’ (or Atari’s or Ubi’s or 2K’s) defenses of their use of SecuROM ignore these tiny details? An increase in installations isn’t going to help if the game won’t run properly to begin with.

True, these errors only show up on some users’ systems. There’s a good chance you’ll install software containing SecuROM and have it apparently run fine. But these errors shouldn’t be happening at all, to anyone. Moreover, somebody’s OS is crashing or disc drive isn’t working properly, that’s indicative that the software’s digging deeply into how your computer functions—and it’s doing that digging into all computers, even if it only causes errors on some. In fact, SecuROM installs itself into the kernel of your OS, superseding your admin rights (go check SecuROM's own Website for info on that, or Wikipedia). For something that’s, on the surface, just checking whether you have a legitimate CD in your drive, that kind of OS invasion is over the top and very creepy. We should not have rootkit software on our computers for any reason, not even for “copy protection.” Flatly, it’s invasive and insidious and wrong.

Even if one thinks the woman making the lawsuit is overreacting, she and her lawyer have a point: if something is driving itself that deeply into your OS, that should be written in plain speech on the box. Or at the very least, on the End User License Agreement (it’s not).

No wonder cracked versions of Spore have been downloaded about a million times, making it one of the top pirated games ever ( http://torrentfreak.com/spore-most-pirated-game-ever-thanks-to-drm-080913). EA was quick to rebut that surely, some of those downloads include copies of the game that don’t work or is virus-infected-software, but the reporters at TorrentFreak say they know better than to count those versions ( http://torrentfreak.com/ea-downplays-spores-drm-081001. And even if that’s not the case, that’s still a huge number of downloads, functional or no.

Yes, of course all games get pirated. Yes, Spore was hyped enough that a lot of people were going to try to get it for free, invasive DRM or no. But asking whether so many downloads is because of SecuROM is a very valid question, one that EA is shrugging off way too lightly. EA might take comfort in the fact that they’ve legitimately sold a million copies of the game ( http://www.gamespot.com/news/6198159.html), but instead, they should be asking themselves why they haven’t already sold two million.

Whether EA wants to acknowledge it publicly or not, they have to realize they’ve lost sales because of this. I know my weakness is not having access to hard marketing data (strangely, EA doesn't tout that information publicly), so let’s accept this with the grain of salt that it is, go grassroots, and just start with me as an example. I’ve been an Electronic Arts customer since the 1980s (when they used code-wheels for copy protection). I’ve bought a lot of EA games in my 20 years of being an avid gamer. Before I learned about SecuROM I was actively buying their titles right and left, and was going to add to that list Mass Effect PC, The Sims 2: Apartment Life, The Sims 3 (when it came out), and, yes, Spore. Now, I don’t own those games, nor will I, ever, unless I can legitimately get a SecuROM free copy. I have friends who feel the same way (to the point they won’t even buy Rock Band II just because it’s published by EA, even though as a console title, it does not have SecuROM). Go read any discussion, Web or otherwise, about DRM and you’ll find at least a few people commenting that they will not be buying the product because of SecuROM. Yes, that still might be a small chunk of the gamer population, but those few here and there add up. There are a lot of us out there, a lot of us who used to fork over a lot of money to EA and won’t any more. When I was trained for customer service in a past job, I was taught that one customer complaint may represent a hundred dissatisfied people. That's common marketing wisdom, and if it's right, we're talking at least several thousand customers who are engaging in boycott.

The bottom line: even if Spore is technically a commercial success, EA could be making far more profit than it actually is. Even a few hundred thousand dollars shouldn’t be shrugged off (and I would not be surprised if the potential losses are actually much higher). And if we factor in less hyped, less anticipated games like Red Alert 3 that will be "infected" with SecuROM, the dissatisfaction with the product could still result in big losses for the company overall. However, EA and other SecuROM-using publishers would rather accept the losses than give up the DRM scheme.

Why is that? They believe DRM is worth it, because it prevents the average user from lending their game to their friend/neighbor/brother/cat.

Yes, for all the incredible hassle that has now led up to a lawsuit, none of the anti-piracy schemes are actually meant to stop real software pirates. They know the pirates will find a way to get around their DRM no matter what they do; all they actually want to do is stop Bobby from lending Jimmy next door his game disc when he’s done with it. Apparently, the idea that Bobby might lend Jimmy his game, and Jimmy might never buy his own copy later leaves EA's leaders shaking in their shiny executive boots.

Is second-hand sharing so harmful to potential sales that it’s worth potentially crippling a customer’s computer to stop it? Is it worth treating that customer like a potential criminal? Is it worth having your customer treat the company like a criminal, complete with lawsuit? Exactly how much worse is the potential loss from second-hand pseudo-piracy as compared to hard core pirate downloads? (And, is it possible to accurately project that potential harm to sales—and particularly moreso, compare that harm done to that caused by pirate downloads?)

I really have trouble seeing how EA can blow off a million cracked copies downloaded as no big deal, but still insists SecuROM is necessary to keep me from sharing my game with a family member, because that is so much worse.

Especially since game sharing has a positive flip-side: free and easy advertising. The way I got into, oh, the original Sims was from borrowing a copy from a friend of mine—and then when I decided I liked it, I bought it. Had I never sinfully, shamefully borrowed my friend’s game disc, I would never have spent hundreds of dollars on Sims products. Likewise for a number of other games—most of the games I purchased often began with me borrowing something from a friend and then deciding I liked the developer so went out and loyally bought their products from then on.

But we can’t have that! Instead, let us not only make sure Bobby can’t give his game to Jimmy (god forbid if Jimmy likes it enough to buy his own copy later), let’s make sure the software corrupts Bobby’s computer so he gives up, never buys another game from that publisher again, and becomes one of the increasing million to get a cracked version of the game from a torrent site. He’s not going to buy a “Mad Cow” when he can get fresh, pasteurized milk for free.

How appropriate is it, then, that this is a popular new creature you can download from the Spore Website in the user-created content section: http://eu.spore.com/sporepedia/view.cfm?id=500003301197&back=sp? In case you don’t want to bother with the link (or it “disappears” from the database), his name is “EA’s DRM Policy,” and he appears to have his head inserted into his posterior.

If fans continue to depart by the hundreds because of SecuROM—in, no less, an era of increasing financial uncertainty—EA’s having an unfortunate spinal contortion will be the least of its problems.

Other Links of Interest:
Top 10 Most Annoying DRM Methods: http://www.edge-online.com/features/ten-most-annoying-drm-methods?page=0%2C1

List of Games Containing SecuROM (as of September 2008): http://reclaimyourgame.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=45&Itemid=11

 


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