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Customers? Who needs ’em?

Will Wright’s Spore, published by EA, has been the center of a firestorm of late because of it’s “draconian” DRM scheme that some have said amounts more to “renting” the game when you buy it. Quoth Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

Spore uses a modified version of the digital rights management (DRM) software SecuROM as copy prevention, which requires authentication upon installation and when online access is used. This system was announced after the originally planned system met opposition from the public, as it would have required authentication every ten days. Additionally, installation of a copy of the game will only be authenticated up to three times. EA Customer Support, however, states that the user can contact EA and, on a case-by-case basis, have their activation count for Spore reset when the activation limit is depleted.

As a result of the protection scheme, around 91% of the reviews on Amazon.com have given Spore one star, the lowest rating. Electronic Arts cited SecuROM as a “standard for the industry”, and Apple’s iPod song DRM policy as justification for the control method.

Ironically, due to the fans’ backlash, Spore’s DRM has made it one of the most pirated games in history, with an estimated 500,000 illegal downloads as of September 14, 2008.

So, first off, EA paid SecuROM some astounding sum of cash as licensing fee for their software, ostensibly to prevent piracy, just as SecuROM’s other clients do, again and again.

What I’m wondering, is what kind of fucking brain-melting gamma rays does the subject of software piracy give off that cause companies to repeatedly pay for software that apparently does not do what they pay for it to do. This SecuROM stuff does nothing but piss all of their customers off while having no effect on the piracy of the game.

It’s like hiring hiring a bodyguard, and then continuing to keep him on the payroll when he steps aside every time some thug wants to beat you up. But any time a fan wants your autograph, he roughs them up and pats them down to make sure they’re not carrying any weapons. But a crook with a machete gets right by him. Why is he (in this allegory, SecuROM) still in business?

This shit genuinely baffles me.

So maybe it’s not actually about piracy. Taking, as a lemma — although it hasn’t been proven — that the above behavior is some how rational, EA must be getting something from this DRM. The only thing that makes sense here is what some Internet People have been saying: it’s more about making it a pain in the ass to sell the game used.

Even though the open-ended, create-your-own, partially-open-world gameplay has great replayability, maybe EA is worried that not everyone will hang on to their copy for longer than a month. This is a problem for them because, as I understand it, Spore is still in the red despite massive sales, given its huge development costs. It will turn a profit long term with endless expansion packs the same way Will Wright’s last major title, The Sims, did.

This is nothing new for software companies. As a challenge to the First-sale doctrine, some software companies have tried to say that re-selling boxed copies of software is illegal because the customer only licensed the software, and didn’t actually buy it, so they don’t own it in any meaningful way. This is, of course, a load of crap, but some judges are getting suckered into it so that there is case law going both ways on the issue.

The problem is that EA is going about this all wrong. Instead of making it hard to re-sell games, they should make it impossible, just like Valve is doing with Steam. (If you’re not familiar with Steam, I would direct you to the Wikipedia article on it which relates all of its oh-so-convenient genius.)

Wait a second, what? Impossible to re-sell games? Yeah. The funny thing is that not only is it a good thing, but when I have the choice, I will always buy a game on Steam.

See, when you buy a game on Steam, the game is associated with your Steam account, which simply means that you are authorized to download the game from their central servers and execute the game code. Without that authorization, even having the game files makes it a useless blob of bits.

But because all that you own is the authorization to play the game, the situation actually becomes something closer to the above scenario of licensing the software. The difference is that it makes sense that re-selling that authorization, which hasn’t depreciated at all (because it’s not a physical object) means that there would literally be no reason to buy this software new. (On the gripping hand, it occurs to me that this fact would probably raise the market price for “used” copies of Steam games to $.01 below Steam’s price.)

At any rate, the convenience of Steam, of being able to play games on any computer I touch, never having to swap out CDs or dick with CD keys, as well as automatic patching via Steam, and being able to buy games via PayPal from the comfort of my desk makes it an unparalleled bargain.

Steam has architecturally eliminated game re-selling by giving the consumers something in exchange. If cutting down on re-selling was EA’s aim here, they’re simply doing it by taking and taking from customers and treating them all as disloyal criminals.

One of these approaches is sound business.

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