Monday, September 8, 2008

Spore and DRM

Spore, a computer game with a lot of pre-hype for over a year, by the very popular Will Wright (SimCity and The Sims, among others) has finally been released, to a chorus of boos from fans. Although there are some complaints about the gameplay, the most common thread throughout the bad reviews (as I type this, 791 one-star reviews on Amazon, out of 858 total) are complaints about the draconian DRM scheme.

EA has decided that theft is such a problem for them that they need to put some truly ridiculous restrictions on the people who purchase the game. Their target audience is not happy, and is letting them know about it.

First, when you pay your $50 and buy the game, you only get three installs. That is, you can only install the game from the disks onto a computer three times. Uninstalling does not get you an install point back -- three is it, period. So if you install once, and then your hard drive goes blooey and you reinstall, and then you get a new computer so you reinstall again, that's it; you'd better hope your new computer works perfectly forever. And next time you upgrade to a new system, well, hope you were done playing. The $50 is effectively a rental fee rather than a purchase fee.

On top of that, it installs software similar to a rootkit, which opens your system up to all sorts of trouble from hackers. Wow, thanks EA! The software also does an online activation, once when you first install the game, and then again periodically afterward if you keep playing; I think I saw once every week or ten days mentioned somewhere. Even if it were once a month, or every three months, though, what that means is that once you've bought the game, you can only play it so long as EA 1) is still in business, and 2) is still maintaining the activation app on a server somewhere. And they've already had problems with the server.

The main issue, though, is that EA, along with a number of other computer game publishers, is treating its paying customers like thieves. They're assuming that every single person who buys the game is likely to be a cracker and software pirate, and are willing to make playing the game an incredibly unpleasant experience (and eventually impossible) in order to prevent these hordes of pirates from stealing their game.

Ironically enough, the actual pirates aren't inconvenienced at all. There've been cracked copies of Spore available online for days, and the pirates are happily playing their DRM-free game with no hassles whatsoever.

Some players want so badly to be honest and pay for the game, but without submitting to the outrageous treatment EA is handing out, that they're buying a legal copy of the game, then downloading and playing a cracked copy. Check out this comment on Slashdot for example. EA gets its money, the purchaser gets their game and has a chance of actually enjoying the play experience, and of being able to still play it ten years from now if they want to.

I'll admit I'm thinking about it. I've been looking forward to playing Spore since I first heard about it. It sounds incredibly cool, and the gameplay issues some people have with it are frankly the sort which might not bother me. I'm a heavy but not hard-core gamer; I don't want to work that hard when I'm playing a game, and I don't like games which are too difficult. A hard-core gamer's "boring" is often just what I prefer. [wry smile] I'm exactly EA's target audience, it seems, and I've been wanting to hand them money for over a year.

At the same time, though, I really don't want to reward EA for treating their customers like criminals. Giving them money tells them that I think their behavior is perfectly cool, and I don't want to do that. I also don't pirate anything -- ever -- and just downloading a copy and playing it isn't an option for me. So here I am, with my $50 sitting in my wallet and likely to stay there, and without the newest cool game to try.

So what does this have to do with book publishing?

Right now, electronic books are a tiny fraction of the book market. Most people still prefer paper books -- heck, I do myself, if I can get them, and more than once I've upgraded by buying a newly-available paper copy of a book I already had on my HD. And despite the new readers coming out, and the occasional publisher which comes breezing in and announces they're going to revolutionize the e-book industry (every other month or so), that's not likely to change in the near future.

Some day it will, though, I'm pretty sure. Eventually the techies working on the e-book reading experience will get it right. If nothing else, two or three generations from now, most of the population will have grown up in front of a screen and reading text in glowing pixels will seem at least as normal to them as reading it on paper does to us. Something's going to happen eventually and the e-book market will take off.

When that happens, you can bet the publishers will turn their resources to combatting piracy.

At this point, publishers and writers alike hate e-book piracy, but there's not all that much of it (because most readers still prefer paper books, remember) and sending takedown notices to pirate sites as the rightsholders become aware of them combats the bulk of the problem. Also, most of the e-book publishers are small and run on a shoestring; they don't have the resources to devote to R&D in search of a solution.

When the market takes off, though, suddenly there'll be money to throw at the problem, and there'll be enough e-book income that whatever percentage is being thrown around as the official Income Lost to Pirates number will add up to some serious cash, making it much more attractive to publishers to tackle the problem directly.

I'm dreading that time.

The fact of the matter is that nothing the game publishers have done -- nor the MPAA nor the RIAA -- has ever seriously inconvenienced actual pirates. The people caught in the DRM meatgrinder are the legitimate customers who pay for their copies, which is just insane from a customer service point of view.

Shamus Young has written a lot on the subject, and is often hassled for it. I find myself nodding whenever I read one of his posts about DRM, though. For example:

In case there is any confusion, I do not think eliminating DRM will solve all our problems. I maintain that obtrusive DRM is a problem in addition to piracy. I even grudgingly accept DRM, but for it to work, it must ... be as hassle-free as you can make it. CD checks? Codebooks? CD keys? They all have their drawbacks, but they all prevent effortless piracy. (Passing around a CD.) A user must download a crack or make some kind of effort to thwart these methods. This means that users who pirate the game are making a deliberate decision to do so. That’s the best you can hope for. Anything beyond that is needless hassle which only applies to legit users.

That's it, right there. You can't stop the real pirates. If someone decides they're going to crack your copy protection, they'll do it and you can't stop them. They'll probably do it in about a fiftieth the time it took your coders to develop the protection scheme in the first place. Piling more and more and more restrictions into your files won't do anything more than give the actual pirates an interesting challenge; the only people who'll be left annoyed and frustrated will be your customers, the people who are giving you money. Although they might not be giving you money for very much longer if you keep messing with them, as EA is finding out.

So what to do instead? There's no absolute solution, and most of this problem stems from the fact that the software (music, movie, whatever) publishers are looking for one when it doesn't exist and never will, at least not in my lifetime.

An independent game developer named Cliff Harris decided to see if he could get some actual, honest, straightforward info out of the pirates (as opposed to the snark and mockery pirates are usually known for, whenever the subject comes up) and asked them why they do it. He got a lot of answers.

Some were garbage, of course, but there was some good info too. He summarized the info he got, as well as what he plans to do about it, here. I highly recommend that you read this, even if you don't click any of the other links in this post. Anyone who writes or publishes, or might some day write or publish e-books should read this. I'll quote one paragraph, specifically about DRM:


This was expected, but whereas many pirates who debate the issue online are often abusive and aggressive on the topic, most of the DRM complaints were reasonable and well put. People don't like DRM, we knew that, but the extent to which DRM is turning away people who have no other complaints is possibly misunderstood. If you wanted to change ONE thing to get more pirates to buy games, scrapping DRM is it. These gamers are the low hanging fruit of this whole debate.

What makes me admire Cliff's approach is that he understands that you're never going to get every single apple out of that tree. You're just not. So he takes the realistic approach of going after the ones it is possible to get. If including DRM is losing you customers and eliminating it will gain you customers, then the logical course of action should be pretty clear.

And there's some other positive fall-out from this approach. Shamus linked to Cliff's post, and got some interesting comments.

Comment 22, by Luvian:

You know what I think is funny? Some game companies seem to think their customers are their allies and are on their side in the fight against piracy. That we are willing to tolerate all these hassles in the spirit of fighting piracy.

Well I’ve got some news for them. I don’t care about what the pirates do. I didn’t sign up to right society’s wrongs, I just want to have some painless fun with the product I bought.

I’m a consumer, not an ally and not a sympathizer.

Yeah. That's about it. I exchange money for a product. The money is good and I expect the product to be good, and usable, and not ridiculously hampered by DRM schemes which are useless anyway. I'm not willing to gird my loins and make sacrifices to fight the good fight against the pirates; that's not my fight, and as an honest gamer (reader) who pays for all my commercial games (e-books) it shouldn't be my fight.

In contrast,

Comment 20, by Mari:

Wow. I just dug through his site to find a game I could buy just to encourage the guy for putting the effort in. I like developers that treat me like a customer instead of a brainless bundle of walking cash.

There you go -- that, I think, is the number one thing producers of digital content can do to encourage people to pay for your products. Be cool. Be friendly. Let your customers like you, and get to know you personally. If the customers (readers, in our case) know and like you, they're less likely to want to rip you off, and more likely to be willing to pay for your products.

Will you ever win over everyone? No, of course not. No one ever will, the way the system is set up right now. Some day the folks working on the larger problem of electronic distribution and the compensation of digital producers might come up with something completely new and different which will work for everyone. Until then, though, we have to do the best we can with what we have. Draconian DRM isn't anywhere near our best.

The bottom line is that DRM doesn't succeed at its stated purpose. It doesn't prevent pirates from cracking copy protection or from distributing cracked files. It just doesn't, and no super-duper-blocker-protection scheme is ever going to defeat the efforts of hundreds or thousands of enthusiastic hobbyist crackers. The only people inconvenienced by draconian DRM are the honest customers; the pirates all have copies without any DRM on them.

I'm hoping very hard that the folks who are running the e-book industry at the time it becomes big enough to start thinking about wholesale DRM will be people who've paid attention to just how poorly DRM has worked for the other electronic media industries, and how it's alienated their customers. The mistakes have been made already; we should learn from them.



Anonymous said...

I bought quite a bit of music from a certain source which got bought out by another service. Then I had a lot of computer problems and tried moving that music. "Your license for this material needs to be updated. Click here." Fine. That'd be just swell, except the server that link refers to no longer exists, so my only option is to re-purchase all that music. I'm angry enough to resort to file sharing, but that doesn't affect the entity at which the anger is directed. If it's not punitive, I'll just feel like a thief, so I'll be paying twice.

MS Word also uses that "limited installations" feature, but the "limit" is once. Since every computer I own has had to have the hard drive restored at some point, every computer I own currently has Word open 24/7, and I curse every time the power goes out because I lose one of my limited "unregistered uses" of their precious, precious program. Unlike the music, MS isn't getting an extra dime from me. I'll type in Notepad first.

The honest consumer is the one who ends up paying, over and over. Being an honest consumer, that makes me angry at both the companies (which are ripping me off) and the pirates (who are provoking the companies into ripping me off).

Thanks for the heads up. Spore has officially been stricken from the Christmas list, and all anticipation of The Sims 3 is gone because I expect more of the same there.

Charles Gramlich said...

I was looking forward to SPore, but this install thing and priority stuff really makes it sound dangerous. Oh well, I don't have time for another game anyway.

Angie said...

Kerry -- that happened to my husband too, and he wasn't pleased at all. [sigh/nod]

And major suck about Word! I've never had trouble with mine, knock on silicon wafer. [wry smile] At this point I'd have a very hard time getting used to a new word processor. But I agree that paying MicroSoft over and over and over for a copy -- and an expensive copy, too -- of a program I already own isn't acceptable.

Charles -- well, yes, I certainly don't need another time-sink either, but that's not really the issue. [rueful smile] I mean, I've had a Civ4 game in progress the last couple of days, on and off, and I have a couple of Sims2 neighborhoods I've been working on, on and off, since the game came out, and I still have a Morrowind character running around, and every now and then I'll fire up Tropico or one of the Might and Magic games. And that's not even listing all the little freeware and shareware games I play -- the ones that only take a few minutes each? Not buying Spore won't really give me any more working time, because I have games to fill whatever time I feel like playing games in.

But I know what you mean. And I'm incredibly disappointed by this, and I'm really feeling torn. This is the biggest piracy-tempation I've ever felt, and I don't like it one bit. I keep thinking, "Maybe I could just send a check for $50 directly to Will Wright -- after all, he and his team did the actual work, and it's EA I'm mad at, so...." [headdesk]

It's just so ridiculous! I want to give them money, but I don't want that rootkit thing on my computer. At this point my only option seems to be to wait until Spore shows up in a sale bin for eight bucks or whatever, buy it, and then download a cracked copy. Or maybe look for a used copy? There are enough people who don't care for the gameplay, in addition to the DRM, that there should be some showing up for sale soon. EA doesn't like resales either, but that's too bad. Once I've got an authentic disk, that I've paid money for, downloading a crack feels more like it's in the possibly-illegal-but-not-immoral column. I think I can life with that. :/

I don't know, we'll see. Maybe a miracle will occur and EA will decide to pull the DRM and re-release. I'm not holding my breah, of course, but it'd be nice.


Spy Scribbler said...

Let me tell you, I don't mean to steal, but as soon as I get a Kindle, I'm downloading a pirated Eat, Pray, Love.

I bought it in Adobe format specifically so I could convert it to my Palm Pilot or my Kindle when I get it.

Instead, I got this DRM disaster of a pdf file that won't convert at all. I paid for the book, and I want to read it where I want to read it. I paid money!

So, yeah. I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about searching for a pirated file.

The sad thing is, once you force consumers to learn HOW to get their hands on pirated copies, it chips away at their standards. Pretty soon, a number of them will just start using pirated copies of things they don't buy.

And the DRM is to blame for driving them there in the first place.

Angie said...

SS -- that's exactly it. [nod] The difficulties caused by the DRM schemes are forcing people who'd never have considered acquiring a pirated copy of whatever to start looking around for one. I can't even blame you; you getting a cracked copy of the book you've already paid for is just like a gamer getting a cracked copy of Spore after they've bought one. You have your book, the publisher has your money, so there you go -- on a purely moral basis, it's not even all that ambiguous.

You're correct, too, in that once people have lost their "pirating virginity," it'll be a lot easier to do it again the next time. A certain percentage of those people who did it "just once" because the copy they bought was unusable or severely problematic will end up getting into the habit.

I think most of us want to be honest. We need the publishers to deal honestly with us in return, though.


Steve Malley said...

Somehow, I doubt they'll learn. Publishers in *all* media have a notoriously difficult time accepting that, ultimately, what we do is busking.

Books, movies, music, dance, mime, whatever: If you're entertained, you drop some change. If you're not, you move on.

Publishers bring entertainment to an audience in a certain format, and they've been able to charge a fixed fee up-front to cover their costs and ensure their profits. While they controlled the only access to that media (printed the books and the films, pressed the records and burnt the CDs), they made fortunes.

The more they lose control over that access, the more audience payment becomes voluntary.

Which doesn't mean fortunes can't be made. Some have, and more will. It's just a hard concept for the ones who've already made fortunes the old way to grasp.

Angie said...

Steve -- I like your "busking" metaphor. :D Yeah, that's a pretty good description. And it might well end up somewhere along those lines, with more people just putting their content up for free, along with a donation button. A few web-comic producers make a decent living off of donations, along with sales of dead tree collections.

And unfortunately I agree with you; it's unlikely the suits will learn anything significant in the near future. My one major hope here is that it'll probably take quite a while for e-books to become a major chunk of the book market; at least that gives us more time for some other workable compensation model to develop.