Over the weekend, dozens of reviewers bombarded Amazon.com with one-star reviews of EA’s Spore because of the game’s draconian DRM scheme, which limits consumers to three installations. And that was just the beginning of the bad press for Will Wright’s latest brain child.
How does Spore go from one of the most “eagerly anticipated” casual games of the year to the most pirated game of the year to the poster child for the death of PC gaming?
Search for virtually any casual game plus the words “keygen” or “crack,” and you’ll find dozens of ways to obtain an illegal copy of that game. You know it, I know it, and EA knows it. That’s why Digital Rights Management exists; it’s a tool in the war against piracy, with the goal of preventing illegal copies of software from impacting the bottom lines of the companies hoping to profit off the product at retail.
The problem is, DRM doesn’t really work. As former Universal Pictures senior vice president Jerry Pierce once said, “DRM solutions enable business models, they don’t stop piracy.” And when DRM backfires, it can backfire spectacularly.
That’s the irony of EA’s Spore debacle: The more invasive DRM is, or is perceived to be, the greater the revolt … which leads to increased illegal downloads … which chips away at the profits the company hoped to generate by creating the software in the first place. So what’s a company to do?
Earlier this year, Reflexive’s director of marketing revealed the astonishing 92% piracy rate for one of their games, and what worked (and didn’t work) when they tried to combat those illegal downloads. His argument — with some caution — was to focus on making the DRM strong enough to dissuade pirates without driving honest customers away. A tricky line to draw, and not one I entirely believe in.
Clearly, DRM is not preventing pirated versions of Spore from making it out into the wild. Given that the pirated version of Spore doesn’t include EA’s much-maligned DRM solution, it could be argued that the pirated version is even better than the legal one at retail. That’s lose-lose for Electronic Arts and DRM proponents.
Focusing on the pirates will always harm the legitimate consumers. Always. So, instead of crippling the legal version of the game, take a page from the Web.
Anyone can view a video on YouTube. Want to upload a video? You need to register first. Anyone can create a free Webon site. Want to publish it to the world? You need to register first. This community-oriented model has proven itself again and again online, and it can work in games, too.
My advice to EA — and anyone with a game to sell — is to focus on what’s unique about your game and make your anti-piracy stand there. Don’t harass the legitimate users. Focus on your feature set and use that as your bargaining tool.
With Spore, what makes it cool? Arguably, it’s the online components, so focus on those. Want to upload the Sport creatures you’ve created so everyone can see your handiwork? Want to blast off and explore the worlds created by other Spore players? Prove that you’ve purchased the game, and you’re in the club. No DRM, no malware, no calls to customer service to unlock a fourth install. Simple. Understandable. Easy.
Will this stop piracy? Probably not. But the key to winning the war against piracy certainly isn’t making the pirated version look more attractive than the legit one. Focus on your game’s strengths. Understand your customers’ needs. Make the legal version more valuable than the pirated version, and you’ve won the hearts and minds of the masses. And that’s the first step to winning the war.
— Christopher Cummings
Christopher Cummings, author of DailyGame’s The Left Click columns, is senior product manager for Gamesville.com, where thousands of people compete daily in free, massively multiplayer games to win real cash prizes. You can also join the Gamesville group on Facebook or follow them on Twitter.