Friday, September 12, 2008

A Matter of Spore

From innovative game designer Will Wright, the maker of all the SimCity games, his next new game Spore was heralded as the next great step forward for open-ended gaming. It's cartoony, and not scientifically accurate on many levels, but its goal was to make it fun to grow a creature from a unicellular organism to a space-faring civilization. Lofty ambition!

The game looks great. The problem is, it has a stinkalicious 1 star rating on Amazon. I normally don't pay much attention to reviews if there are only 20 or 30. Even 100 reviews isn't large enough of a sampling. And reviews can often be faked, too, so being a Doubting Thomas is always prudent. Still, though, it got a 1 star rating out of more than 2000 reviews. That put me off from buying Spore.

Then I got curious... 2000 reviews? Seriously? As I skimmed over the 1 star reviews, they all seemed to rant about the DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management. DRM is intended to prevent software piracy, and it's a hot topic now, especially in the gaming community. [UPDATE: This section has been clarified thanks to Dave's comment below.] For movies on DVD, DRM works seamlessly, unless you try to play a DVD made in Europe on a US Region 1 DVD player. DRM also works seamlessly for music on CD—you can play a CD made anywhere on any other CD player. However, when we move over to computers, things get a little more complicated, e.g. it's impossible to play an iTunes-purchased MP3 on any other MP3 player. Since DRM is almost always proprietary, users run into problems when they buy music or movies from a company that suddenly stops supporting any purchased content, as has already happened with Microsoft. [Interesting bit from the DRM wiki: Apple's Steve Jobs has called on the music industry to eliminate DRM... and in March 2007,, one of Europe's largest online music retailers, announced their position strongly against DRM. In an open letter, Musicload stated that three out of every four calls to their customer support phone service are as a result of consumer frustration with DRM."]

For computer games, DRM manifests itself as the authorization code you have to type in when you install a game for the first time. Different software developers treat DRM in their own way, but Spore has the most aggressive DRM yet: three single install authorizations. This means that if you have a desktop and laptop and you install Spore on them, and your laptop's hard drive dies, you have to call up Maxis and prove to them that you aren't a pirate in order to get back one of your authorizations.

Doesn't sound so bad, right? The problem is that it's a relatively large hassle factor compared to what existed before. For instance, when do you want to play games? After business hours. And when is Maxis EA open to take your call? During business hours. By comparison, games like Galactic Civilizations II have an explicitly relaxed DRM and the gaming community has reacted favorably to it.

Fortunately for me, I happen to have friends in the know—I was tipped off that the wave of 1 star reviews were part of an organized protest by some disgruntled gaming communities. The problem is, many people won't know that... and thus won't buy Spore after glancing at its Amazon page. This virtual protest is certain to affect Spore's bottom line.

But will it force Maxis EA to change their DRM?


Dave Roy said...

DRM only works seamlessly for music until MSN or Yahoo shut down their activation servers which almost happened to both recently (both recanted after a massive public outcry). I wouldn't exactly call having to organize a mass protest a seamless way to listen to my music.

And the DRM in Spore is likely the fault of EA, the publisher, not Maxis, the developer.

Dave Roy said...

Mainstream coverage of Spore's failed DRM in The Washington Post and Forbes.