Lie Down With Dogs

Item: a seemingly huge number of people (including me) can’t play Spore online because the copy protection breaks the game.

Item: as of this writing, the average review score for Spore on Amazon is 1.195: 27 5-star reviews, a smattering of 4s, 3s, and 2s, and nine hundred sixty-three 1-star reviews. Most of the 1-star reviews focus on the copy protection of the game.

Item: the average score of the Metacritic user reviews of Spore is 6.8, stunningly low for a AAA title.

All of these items are completely orthogonal to whether Spore the game is a fun game to play. But they are an indication of two things: customer dissatisfaction with the out-of-the-box experience, and a level of frustration at publisher incompetence that has reached, perhaps, a tipping point.

A frequent refrain I hear from developers is that they have no power to influence their publishers’ decisions on copy protection. In a word: bollocks. If you put your name on the box, your reputation is on the line. Maybe you don’t get to decide, but to just throw your hands up and claim you have no influence is false. Anyone who develops software should be concerned, and, indeed, completely obsessed with the “out-of-the-box experience”. Those first five to fifteen minutes with your product are the most important part of your product’s life. Those five to fifteen minutes determine whether your customer is going to keep using the product, or take it back to the store and say “You know what? This isn’t really what I wanted after all. Please give me my money back.” So if you are a game developer, and you are not actively discussing how copy-protection is going to impact the OOBE with your publisher, you are not doing your job.

Let’s be clear: copy protection has existed for years, and most customers are willing to accept it, up to a point. The issue with the schemes in Spore, BioShock, and others, is not that they aren’t simply copy protection, but they are copy protection that degrades the user experience. For comparison, look at Steam. There was a great hue and cry when Steam was released, mostly from people that were upset that they bought a Half-Life 2 box but still had to download gigabytes of data. Yet in the long run, Steam – which is unarguably a form of digital rights management – is appreciated by its customers. Not only does it not degrade the user experience, it enhances it. I install Steam on a new computer, and it reminds me that I have purchased some games, and would I like to install them?

Now that’s putting the customer first.

As a platform, the PC has a number of challenges to overcome. The damnable thing about Spore’s DRM is that it gives up some of the platform’s few advantages for…what, exactly? Is protecting yourself against pirates who are not and will never be customers really worth infuriating your paying customers and squandering your company’s goodwill? What’s the value proposition here? What can they possibly be thinking?

I think the most interesting question here is: how much crack and whores did SecuROM’s salesmen provide to EA to convince them to use their system? Because being high and syphilitic is the only explanation I can come up with why a company would, after drawing a deep breath, take slow, careful aim and then proceed to blow off its own foot.