Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Coming DRM Storm

When EA announced 'Spore' a few years ago, video game enthusiasts everywhere were pumped. Here was a game that promised what video games had only hinted at throughout their existence - a fully immersive and interactive world were the user literally created their own race and evolved them into whatever they wanted.

The game itself has failed to live up to it's massive hype, which isn't a large surprise. What's (unfortunately) even less surprising is EA's decision to use this particular title as the spearhead of its DRM campaign. EA is hardly the first to try to ensure that pirates don't siphon off any potential profits, but they (along with 2K and their infamous Bioshock DRM) are at the forefront of a disturbing new trend in removing any sense of ownership from the end user's hands.

First and foremost, the problem with DRM is that it doesn't have its intended effect. Those who are absolutely set on stealing any form of digital media will find a way to do so. There's no way to stop them, and in trying this hard to dissuade them, you punish legitimate customers.

The larger problem with this can be found in comments from EA's CEO:

"There is a longer-term transition from a disk-based model for retail sales to an “average revenue per user” model. Five to seven years from now, investors will look at EA as how we have 100 million customers where we have an ARPU relationship that amounts to so many dollars a month. It’s different from selling so many disks a month at wholesale prices. It’s a gradual evolution. But we need the tools to be able to do that. The ARPU model is a better margin business for us. It’s less cyclical. It’s a better business. Some of our businesses have characteristics like that: EA Mobile, Pogo.com, and The Sims. We want to move in that direction. People predicted the demise of the DVD rental model for Blockbuster a long time ago. I don’t want to be the guy with a retail store renting DVDs in a world that has moved to Netflix and pay-per-view. We want to innovate and drive along that front, whether it’s with FIFA Online or Pogo or The Sims. Nucleus is a positive step in that direction. Spore has a download model. We could wait for someone else to eat our lunch or we could do it ourselves."


This would seem a sound business proposal, except for the fact that his examples are totally skewed. Netflix succeeds because there is a large contingent (myself included) who don't want to buy every single movie that we want to see. Quite often, one viewing is enough. Certainly there are games like this, but there are already services out there for this sort of thing (Gamefly, etc). He's not talking about game rental, he's talking about game leasing. It's akin to the idea of buying a DVD, and then having to pay x amount of dollars a month to continue to buy back the right to view something you already purchased. World of Warcraft gets brought up in these discussions, and I suppose that's fair, but they're charging for the right to connect to their servers. EA is hoping to charge you for the right to sit down and use your purchased product at your own computer (and, if they had their way, your console as well).

Reaction to this has been mixed. There are plenty of people who trot out the old "it don't apply to me since I'm not doing anything wrong" line. That, in my view, is a mistake. Most of us have already not been doing anything wrong, and we're being punished for it. The pirates are one thing, but they are simply being turned into an excuse to add this self-crippling software (which will require you to re-activate it if you do something so simple as change your video card). In effect, they hold your product - the one you spent your money on and purchased - hostage. Who's to say they won't start making you pay to activate it? Who's to say that this trend will stay limited to video games?

Meanwhile, there are a large number of people who have had understandable problems with this. Enough of them have flooded Amazon.com to the point where Spore's current customer rating is 1.5 stars (an unheard of low rating for a major release), and EA's forums are buzzing with questions as to why software - which not only cripples their product, but often causes sizable issues with the user's computer - is being installed on their system without warning. EA, of course, been deleting these questions as fast as they can. This is a not a matter they wish to discuss, and while they have relaxed their activation policy (from 3-4 activations to unlimited), they would very much prefer you to buy their game and shut up about it.

Sorry, I'll pass.

For more information, check out the following links:

"Wired" discusses the Amazon rating attack
Amazon deletes all customer reviews (predominantly negative) - Oops.
The Register talks about EA (sort of) easing up the restrictions
The Kicker: Talk about DRM, have EA threaten to deactivate your product