Rights to Spore

Evgeny Morozov
21 September 2008

Spore –"the most hotly anticipated computer game of the year" according to CNN—has quickly become the most controversial game of the year and, quite likely, of the whole decade. Freshly released by Electronic Arts (EA) and designed by Will Wright, the designer of Sims, the best-selling brand in the history of gaming, Spore relies on a vast array of themes from evolution and genetics, a sure way to win the hearts and minds of nerdy gamers.

openDemocracy's collection of DRM links is here

Yet it is not the protests of the creationists or gaming-bashers that have triggered the current round of controversy about the game. In addition to weird creatures and breathtaking graphics, Spore features one of the most draconian systems of digital rights management (or simply DRM), which, in theory, should save the game from illegal distribution. Instead, DRM has earned Spore the dubious honor of being the worst rated game of the year on Amazon, the most pirated game of the year on peer-to-peer networks like The Pirate Bay, and, quite possibly, the most telling example of how DRM hurts companies that promote it as much as it hurts consumers who buy products locked with it.

Evgeny Morozov is the founder of Poymeme. He is an Open Society Fellow and writing a book on how authoritarian governments deal with challenges from the Web.

DRM is not one of those uber-geek terms you could afford to live without; if you ever tried to play a DVD purchased abroad on your laptop, you may have inadvertently run into DRM restrictions yourself. For example, if you have switched between regions on your computer more than 5 times, you may no longer be able to play any DVDs. The opponents of DRM – such as the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation – suggest that it's rather misleading to call such limitations "rights" and that a more appropriate term would be "digital rights restrictions", since they often push beyond what is available under current copyright law and often result in anti-competitive practices.

While DRM has become an integral part of the entertainment industry, many of the enthusiastic gamers who agreed to fork out 50 US dollars and buy a legal copy of Spore were not prepared to live through the extreme DRM hell they got as a bonus. EA stipulated that those who bought Spore could only install the game a limited number of times (three), after which it might stop working. To reactivate it, they would need to call customer support of the EA and plead to extend the game's working life. Given that many gamers regularly reinstall operating systems and switch between computers on a daily basis, imposing any number of limits – three or thirty – would always leave some of them unhappy. Many found this frustrating and proceeded to rate the product with a mere one star on Amazon, citing the game's draconian as the main reason for their actions.

EA countered the numerous complaints by pointing to the fact that the DRM used to lock Spore is quite alike that in Apple's iTunes. True, the latter imposes restrictions on how many times one could move purchased songs between different computers accounts. What EA failed to mentioned, however, is that Apple actually allows one to de-authorize any of those five accounts. Thus, even if one decides to reinstall the operating system or buy a different computer, it would still be possible to transfer iTunes purchases by deactivating previous accounts.

However, this is not the case with Spore; one needs to call EA and beg for rights to more installs. This sense of external dependency is precisely what has infuriated so many gamers: EA wants its customers to believe that the company would stay in business forever. But what if EA were to follow Lehman Brothers into the dead pool tomorrow-- would one still be able to play their favorite game on a newer computer? The gamers are rightly worried about being able to play the game in ten years from now: who would they call if EA goes bankrupt? EA's existing set-up looks more like a rental than a sale; it might even seem inappropriate to call it "ownership" in the traditional sense of the term.

It's not surprising that the anti-DRM movement has grabbed the Spore opportunity to campaign against DRM in general. With the pirated DRM-free version of the game already scoring more than 500,000 downloads on peer-to-peer networks and with many users downloading the game out of solidarity with its true fans, Spore would soon be come the most pirated game in history, bypassing Sims with an estimated 1,000,000 downloads. Feeling the pressure of a few thousand negative reviews on Amazon, EA was forced to increase the number of install limitations from 3 to 5 in its other highly anticipated game The Red Alert. It's hard to imagine any future meeting of EA's senior executives that would approve a decision to impose more DRM on their soon-to-be-released products.

The fundamentals of the gaming business are such that most revenue is made in the first few weeks of a game's release; casual piracy sets in soon after and erodes the sales. At the moment, all that is needed is for EA to release a little utility – a patch – that would remove any restrictions on the number of installs (they have belatedly acknowledged that such a patch is forthcoming "in the near future"). By since pirates have already developed such patches, some consumers are faced with a difficult choice of either using an early but illegal patch from the pirates or waiting for the official one that may or may not appear in the end.

The most fascinating feature of the Spore case is that given how strict EA's DRM regulations are, piracy has become the only way to secure a tiny bit of ownership in Spore. As happens quite often, DRM has only affected those who were willing to pay for a product, while the pirates get away with all features at no cost. EA leaves its dedicated fans no other choice but piracy; this is a very sad prospect for the future of revenue-supported digital entertainment, as this doesn't at all tell us how to pay for expensive activities like game development in the future. It's quite possible that many of those who bought the game nevertheless proceeded to download a pirated version, as it gave them more freedom. For many of them, thanks to EA, this was their first foray into the world of piracy – and many more could easily follow. If even the most dedicated fans are forced to embrace piracy rather than pay if they want to enjoy the ultimate game experience, this means that something is wrong with the entertainment industry.

Spore would probably be widely pirated in any case, but EA's DRM policy ensured that this would happen on a much greater scale, revealing the futility of the restrictions in the process. It remains to be seen whether Spore heralds the imminent death of DRM as we know it, but the links between lost revenues, negative product reviews, piracy and the harshness of DRM have never been exposed more clearly. Given how many other games have tried-- and largely failed – to incorporate powerful DRM systems, EA's experiment may be one of the last ones of the kind. The gaming industry thus follows in the steps of the music industry, where even the giants like Microsoft and Yahoo had to shut down their DRM-heavy online music stores earlier this year.

To understand the changes that might soon occur in the gaming industry, one needs to look no further than Asia, where a different business model is already emerging. Thus, some gaming companies prefer giving the DRM-free and fully-functional version of the game for free and charging the most dedicated fans for extra features (even EA is already experimenting with this approach in games like Battlefield Heroes but arguably not fast enough). This, of course, not to mention the Radiohead auction-like model of charging whatever one is willing to pay for the product. Whatever models would emerge in the future, EA's unsuccessful gamble with Spore suggests that consumers are not likely to stay quiet about the DRM abuse much longer; thankfully, Amazon and other similar sites offer a good platform to document their rage and warn others.

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