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Spore, digital rights, and the future of gaming

Evgeny Morozov
20 September 2008

Spore - "the most hotly anticipated computer game of the year"
according to CNN - has quickly become the mostcontroversial game of the
year and, quite likely, of the whole decade. Freshlyreleased 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
vastarray of themes from evolution to genetics, a sure way to win the
hearts andminds of nerdy gamers.

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

DRM is not one of those uber-geek terms youcould afford to live
without; if you have ever tried to play a DVD purchased abroadon your
laptop, you may have inadvertently run into DRM restrictions
yourself.For example, if you have switched between regions on your
computer more than 5times, you may no longer be able to play any DVDs.
The opponents of DRM - suchas 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
rightsrestrictions", since they often push beyond what is available
undercurrent copyright law and result in anti-competitive practices.

While DRM has become an integral part of theentertainment industry,
many of the enthusiastic gamers who agreed to fork out50 US dollars and
buy a legal copy of Spore were not prepared to live throughthe extreme
DRM hell they got as a bonus. EA stipulated that those who boughtSpore
could only install the game a limited number of times (three),
afterwhich it might stop working. To reactivate it, they would need to
call EA Customer Support and plead to extend the game's working life.
Given that manygamers regularly reinstall operating systems and switch
between computers on adaily basis, imposing any number of limits -
three or thirty - would alwaysleave some of them unhappy. Many found
this frustrating and proceeded to ratethe product with a mere one star
on Amazon, citing the game's draconian re-installation restrictions as
themain reason for their actions.

EA countered the numerous complaints bypointing to the fact that the
DRM used to lock Spore is quite like that inApple's iTunes. True, the
latter imposes restrictions on how many times onecould move purchased
songs between different computers accounts, but what EA failedto
mention, however, is that Apple actually allows one to de-authorize any
ofthose five accounts. Thus, even if one decides to reinstall the
operatingsystem or buy a different computer, it would still be possible
to transferiTunes purchases by deactivating previous accounts.

However, this is not the case with Spore; oneneeds to call EA and
beg for the right to reinstall more often. This sense of
externaldependency is precisely what has infuriated so many gamers: EA
wants itscustomers to believe that the company will stay in business
forever. But whatif EA were to follow Lehman Brothers into the dead
pool tomorrow -- would onestill be able to play one's favorite game on
a newer computer? The gamers arerightly worried about whether they will
be able to play the game ten years from now: who would they call if EA
goes bankrupt? EA's existing set-up looks more like arental 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 movementhas grabbed the Spore
opportunity to campaign against DRM in general. With thepirated
DRM-free version of the game already scoring more than 500,000downloads
on peer-to-peer networks and with many users downloading the game outof
solidarity with its true fans, Spore will soon become the most
piratedgame in history, bypassing Sims with an estimated 1,000,000
downloads. Feelingthe pressure of a few thousand negative reviews on
Amazon, EA was forced to increasethe number of install limitations from
3 to 5 in its other highly anticipatedgame, The Red Alert. It's hard to
imagine any future meeting of EA's seniorexecutives that would approve
a decision to impose more DRM on their soon-to-be-releasedproducts.

The fundamentals of the gaming business aresuch 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 thatis needed is
for EA to release a little utility - a patch - that would removeany
restrictions on the number of installations (they have belatedly
acknowledgedthat such a patch is forthcoming "in the near future"). But
sincepirates have already developed such patches, some consumers are
faced with thedifficult choice of either using an early but illegal
patch from the pirates orwaiting for the official one that may or may
eventually appear.

The most fascinating feature of the Spore caseis that, given how
strict EA's DRM regulations are, piracy has become the onlyway to
secure a tiny bit of ownership in Spore. As happens quite often, DRM
hasonly affected those who were willing to pay for a product, while the
piratesget away with all features at no cost. EA leaves its dedicated
fans no otherchoice but piracy; this is a very sad prospect for the
future ofrevenue-supported digital entertainment, as this doesn't at
all tell us how topay for expensive activities like game development in
the future.

It's quite possible that many of those whobought the game
nevertheless proceeded to download a pirated version, as itgave them
more freedom. For many of them, thanks to EA, this was their firstforay
into the world of piracy - and many more could easily follow. If even
themost dedicated fans are forced to embrace piracy, rather than pay,
if they wantto enjoy the ultimate game experience, then something is
wrong withthe entertainment industry.

Spore would have probably been widely pirated in anycase, but EA's
DRM policy has ensured that this has happenned on a much greaterscale,
revealing the futility of the restrictions in the process. It remains
tobe seen whether Spore heralds the imminent death of DRM as we know
it, but thelinks between lost revenues, negative product reviews,
piracy and the harshnessof DRM have never been exposed more clearly.
Given how many other games havetried - and largely failed - to
incorporate powerful DRM systems, EA'sexperiment may be one of the last
of its kind. The gaming industry thusfollows in the steps of the music
industry, where even giants likeMicrosoft and Yahoo had to shut down
their DRM-heavy online music storesearlier this year.

To understand the changes that might soonoccur in the gaming
industry, one need look no further than Asia, where adifferent business
model is already emerging. Here, some gaming companiesprefer giving the
DRM-free and fully-functional version of the game for freeand charging
the most dedicated fans for extra features (even EA is
alreadyexperimenting with this approach in games like Battlefield
Heroes but arguablynot fast enough), not to mention the Radiohead
auction-likemodel of charging whatever one is willing to pay for the
product. Whatevermodels emerge in the future, EA's unsuccessful gamble
with Spore suggeststhat consumers are unlikely to stay quiet about the
DRM abuse much longer;thankfully, Amazon and other similar sites offer
a good platform to documenttheir rage and warn others.

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