Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spore (three)

There is a remarkably messy article over at Forbes about the copy protection issues surrounding Spore. I say "messy" because the article does a curious job of making conclusions without evidence, and uses poor logic to reach conclusions even when data is available.

What seems clear, though, as I prepare to use a Spore-related time, is that this time, this issue has "legs."

Let's take a look at this Forbes article, beginning with the lead:
How do you measure the failure of the copy protections that software companies place on their media products? In the case of Electronic Arts' highly-anticipated game "Spore," just count the pirates.

As of Thursday afternoon, "Spore" had been illegally downloaded on file-sharing networks using BitTorrent peer-to-peer transfer 171,402 times since Sept. 1, according to Big Champagne, a peer-to-peer research firm.

So the article's premise is that the DRM has "failed," but it's impossible conclude that, because it's impossible to know how many people would have downloaded the software illegally without using DRM. It would, however, be incredibly unlikely that fewer people would have illegally downloaded it if it had no copy protection at all.

Then it gets stranger:
...not only have those constraints failed, says Garland, they may have inadvertently spurred the pirates on.

On several top file-sharing sites, "Spore"'s most downloaded BitTorrent "tracker"--a file that maps which users had the game available for downloading--also included step-by-step instructions for how to disassemble the copy protections, along with a set of numerical keys for breaking the software's encryption. For many users, that made the pirated version more appealing than the legitimate one.

"By downloading this torrent, you are doing the right thing," wrote one user going by the name of "deathkitten" on the popular file-sharing site The Pirate Bay. "You are letting [Electronic Arts] know that people won't stand for their ridiculously draconian 'DRM' viruses."

Remember, this isn't some guys blog--this is Forbes.

Somehow, people who steal software are now the new Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and dispensing moral lessons. I'm not sure they're "giving to the poor," but no matter. Stealing is now righteous.

Give me a freaking break.

Look. Going to Amazon and giving the game a negative review because of its DRM is an entirely legitimate way for consumers to express their dissatisfaction. Creating funny characters using Spore's creature editor that somehow mention DRM-- and will get downloaded by other users into their game--is a clever, viral way to protest.

Stealing a game and then claiming it's justified, though, is something else, something I like to call "horseshit." There's protest and there's thievery--let's not confuse the two.

Here's a hypothetical situation. Let's say there's a lifesaving vaccine that (theoretically) costs 20X what it should because of an evil pharmaceutical company, and millions of people will die if they don't get the vaccine.

If somebody breaks inyo the pharmaceutical company and steals hundreds of thousands of doses of that vaccine, then distributes it to the poor and underprivileged, then we could have an interesting discussion.

This, however, is not a life-saving vaccine. It's entertainment. Trying to equate stealing a game, a toy, with any kind of "higher purpose" is just ridiculous.

Having said that, though, EA still has a problem here. Consumers are more vocal and expressing their displeasure in far more mainstream ways about game DRM than ever before. They're also more unified, and that is, by far, EA's biggest fear.

Tactically, EA has one goal: fragment the unification. From a marketing honk's perspective, the way to do that is to constantly change the DRM just slightly, but market it each time as a significant benefit for the consumer.

It's not a significant benefit, really, but if executives keep saying that it is, at least some people will believe them.

I doubt the effectiveness of that approach, at least on a large scale, but companies are crazy like that--they'll always try something non-substantial with extra marketing before doing anything substantial.

When they do want to do something substantial, and they want to fragment a unified protest base, then they can make the DRM less restrictive in steps. For example, they can reduce the number of times a product needs verification. They could also increase the number of activations. They could make it possible to play without the CD in the drive.

With each step, a layer of protesters gets peeled back and goes away. At some point, the company hopes that the people remaining are so ideological and hardcore, with so many agendas, that they can't unify. At that point, fragmentation has returned.

EA, to some degree, appears to be pursuing this strategy right now. And as a consumer, I think they succeeded with me. Spore requires a one-time online activation and I can play without having the CD in the drive.

Personally, I have no complaints with that.

However, there is still a very large group of people who are legitimately protesting what they see as a "rent, not own" issue involving online validation. Simply put, if the game requires online validation when installed, what happens if one day the servers aren't available? Am I buying a game, or am I just sort of renting it? What happens 10 years from now when I try to install Spore on my new computer, and the online validation servers don't exist anymore?

To me, as an observer, that's the critical wedge issue. EA has to resolve that if they want to disarm and splinter the consumer base.

Gamers With Jobs, by the way, took a unique approach to this issue: they put up articles on both sides. First, by Sean Sands, is A New, Unpopular Philosophy. Then there's Allen Cook with Windmills Do Not Work That Way. There are excellent points in both, and they're well worth your reading time.

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