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Cracking EAs Spore DRM: Joining the dots

Is it just me, or is calling this about “piracy” missing the point here? (and, in case this isn’t obvious enough: yes, this is a deliberately very flippant post, but the points are serious :) )

EDIT: just for the record, I actually bought and played the game, quite a lot. Although don’t expect a professional review there :).

(For the 1% of the population who hadn’t noticed, Spore has become – in a very short space of time – one of the most pirated games of all time [c.f. piratebay top list]. Certainly, the most rapidly, prolifically, and unapologetically pirated. And, to make it more interesting, a very large number of people paused long enough to comment – publically – on why they were pirating it, with many of them saying they WANTED to purchase it (or, in many cases, in fact HAD purchased it), but were refusing to because EA had put a nasty DRM solution in there.)


But here’s the funny thing: the DRM mechanisms that EA put into Spore IMHO have almost nothing to do with piracy. As has been pointed out – many many times by now – the pirates had a copy of Spore *before the game launched*, and only the “normal customers” were affected by the DRM.


EA’s not stupid. They knew perfectly well that this would happen. So, why did they do it?

Well, there’s one possible answer that leaps to mind: it’s actually to prevent second-hand sales of the game. This is a place that EA is losing money every year and really wants to cap. As many have observed, many of the “pirated downloads” of normal games are by people who would never pay for the game instead. It includes people who download a game in order to “try before they buy”, and people who never pay for anything. I’m not defending either behaviour, but …

… the second-hand retail sales market is one where every purchaser is handing over real cash when they get the game. And not a single cent goes to the publisher (EA). You can argue all you want over the “true cost of piracy”, but the “true cost of 2nd hand sales” is well known – it features in the annual reports of all the computer-games retailers, who proudly talk about how many bajillions of dollars profit they’re currently making out of 2nd-hand retail sales.


Many of my esteemed industry colleagues believe the solution is simple, yet unpalatable to many a publisher who finds “greed” is part of its corporate mantra: they need to stop overcharging for 1st-hand (new) retail games. None of us expect EA et al to do this for a long time, not until they lose masses of market share more than they have already, because they would presumably see it as throwing away money. (I think the rest of us see it as “accepting that a disruptive change has happened in the market and that if you don’t change you WILL go out of business, so its best to change sooner rather than later”).

Instead, I suspect that some clever people at EA thought they had a “better” solution that would avoid having to lower their prices to a level that the market considers acceptable. They would limit the number of installs you could do of each game. To three. Including hardware changes – like upgrading your graphics card. Hmm.

This is a war.

Phase one – Lawyers: “EULAs declare that you don’t own stuff that you legally own” (failed)
Phase two – PR: “Second hand market is as good as theft; don’t buy second hand games” (failed)
Phase three – Technology: “We’ll prevent you from using the things you’ve already paid for” (unknown, but … doesn’t seem to be going so well, judging by Spore’s Amazon reviews)

I wonder what’s next? Perhaps:

Phase four – Denial: “RIGHT! That’s IT! We’re not making any more games for you ungrateful bastards!”


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