Commentary

DRM: Attacking Pirates Or GameStop?

In the beginning, there were games, and there was peace.  Then the pirates came.  Thus began the Arms Race.

The big news this week has been the insanity surrounding EA's recent release "Spore," and the blowback to the included draconian SecuROM DRM protection that shipped with it.  There are more than 2,000 one-star reviews on Amazon.com lambasting the game's restrictive protections, and many comments have legitimate points.

One of the most common and simplest issues consumers mention is the restriction preventing multiple logins.  For a game that emphasizes the total customization of a universe, it seems poor design to prevent a family from allowing separate accounts when playing on a shared PC.  EA's response to these complaints is "buy another copy of the game."  It isn't difficult to see why consumers are now lashing out and labeling EA an "evil empire."  In the gaming world, SecuROM is much like the Death Star -- an imprecise and overpowered weapon that ruins everyone's day, not just the original target.

Which brings up an interesting question: who is EA's real target?  SecuROM does not work.  "Spore" was
leaked online to torrent sites a few days before the official release, with the DRM protection stripped out.  Looking at the comments on the torrent site (which I won't link to here for obvious reasons), two interesting points emerge.  First, many commentators note that they don't normally pirate software, but really want to play the game, and are unwilling to install a company sponsored rootkit on their machines.  Second, many of the other commentators discuss how they want to try out the illegitimate version, but will probably buy the retail version, because they want to experience the online content sharing (which is really the strength of the game).  EA could have easily protected its game from pirating by retaining server-side control over content sharing.  This was not a title where pirated versions were going to cannibalize their profits.  However, it is looking like the DRM may do just that - unfortunately we'll never know how well the title would have sold sans DRM.

So if DRM protection clearly doesn't work, and a less restrictive system could have achieved a better result, who was EA's target?  It doesn't seem like it was really the pirates.  They pirated it anyways.  My theory?  GameStop, and similar business models.  The used game business does not provide publishers with any profits.  In fact, for that reason alone I never buy used games - my money doesn't reinforce the market to make more games like the one I'm buying, it just reinforces the used games market to continue operation.  GameStop can buy and resell games multiple times, and each sale of a used game constitutes a non-sale to the publisher, at what ends up saving consumers only about $5.  With SecuROM and the three-install limit, the value of "Spore" on the used game market is nearly that of a drink coaster.  The same applies to rentals of the game, such as through GameFly.

Pirates are an easy target, and seem to get paid lip service whenever anti-consumer "features" get rolled out by technology companies, like bandwidth caps from cable providers, Sony rootkits on CDs, Microsoft's Vista, and now draconian DRM schemes for PC games.  Perhaps a history lesson is in order.  The Cold War didn't end because we had more missiles or landed on the moon.  It ended because the closed off system sustaining the Soviet Union was a failed enterprise, and crumbled from the inside out.  So in today's arms race between hobbyist software crackers and the closed systems costing corporations millions of dollars to sustain, which side looks to give out first?  Perhaps a shift of tactics is in order

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