Lie Down With Dogs

On September 8, 2008, in Games, by peterb

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.


11 Responses to “Lie Down With Dogs”

  1. Tony says:

    Unfortunately, Spore will sell millions, the headaches will be tolerated and things won’t change. You mention taking software back to a store. How many times has that worked? Until they’re hit in the bottom line, things will be slow to change.

    Either way, it sucks that such a high profile game with such promise is sullied by this.

    (I love your Google ads, BTW: “Remove DRM protection instantly…”)

  2. Do stores even accept open box PC software back?

    Spore was pirated and working days before the release. I have not once seen copy protection that has slowed a pirate release. Ever.

    Frankly, I don’t see why they should bother. At all. I seriously think some salesman convinced them it would help, and they’ve stuck with it out of stubborness.

    Keys, fine. Keys still work. For games that need to be played online with a unique key they work perfectly. But all the knife and dagger software stuff is a dead end.

    Make a superior product and it will sell.

  3. Cronan says:

    Stores may nopt accept open box PC software back, but I’ve sent mine back to Amazon. In the UK software needs to be fit for purpose, and Spore isn’t.

  4. Andrew Plotkin says:

    “If you put your name on the box, your reputation is on the line.”

    Which is another user-friendliness rant, by the way. Most of the games I buy, if the developer isn’t the same as the publisher, the developer’s name *isn’t* on the box. Or you go looking for it, and find a logo the size of your pinky-nail in the bottom corner, or on the back cover. Which is why you complained about EA, the publisher, rather than Maxis, the developer.

    I expect this DRM issue is EA’s fault, but in general, it sucks that the publishers conspire to prevent reputation from accruing to their developers.

  5. Nelson says:

    There seem to be three different copy protection things in Spore. There’s SecuROM, the stuff that ensures you have an original physical disc in the drive. Then there’s the online activation of your installation code. And finally there’s the day to day login to EA’s servers. Do you know which is breaking for you?

    I bought a PC download direct from EA and have had no troubles other than the third step: regular interaction with EA’s servers. They seem to be down a lot, presumably the usual first-week load. Are their flaky servers breaking activation, too? Or are you having a problem with SecuROM I’m told Spore doesn’t require the disk in the drive to play, so I’m not quite sure what good SecuROM is.

    I hate to say it, but the DRM experience on the Xbox 360 is way better. Every game is copy protected but the only way a casual user knows it is they have to have the disc in the drive to play. Xbox Live login handles the online activation part, and the secure hardware / trusted computing crap in the 360 takes care of disc verification. It’s possible to pirate 360 games but it’s hard enough that few people do.

  6. peterb says:

    After a half-hour on hold with EA they say they’ll authorize it “manually” within the next 24 to 48 hours.

    Nelson: it seems to me this is an online activation issue. But to some extent, I don’t want to even think about it, from a customer perspective. Xbox live, as you point out, “has DRM”, but it just works.

  7. Alex says:

    Yup easier to play games on console than pc. Sorry I’m really not going there, I swear.

    Anyone have thoughts on the “arcade” xbox with no hard disk for 200 bucks? What about a refurb for 200?

  8. Mario says:

    Ha ha. Serves you right for buying it. We already know what online authentication means. You knew that, now suffer it’s pains.

  9. Paul says:

    Spore was pirated and working days before the release.

    Actually, Spore was pirated several days *before* the US release. Torrents were out on the 4th. Due to the frankly weird decision to release in small-market Australia first, the pirates got hold of it nice and early. Several aussie stores even broke their release date: people had the game in their hands on Sept 1st.

    I have not once seen copy protection that has slowed a pirate release. Ever.

    At this point publishers are just looking for 1 week of sales before the game is pirated; they seem to want the same profile as a blockbuster summer movie. Bioshock had a week before the pirates cracked it, which some people have said helped make strong sales. (I’ve heard this from the GWJ crew on their podcast. I think the quality of the game was more to the point.)

    There were some StarForce games that weren’t hacked for quite a while. I sat on a uninstalled copy of X3 that I bought without looking at the avoid list for quite a while until a no-cd finally came out (and later they removed starforce via patch). But the small market for that game was a big factor.

  10. Paul says:

    Oops, for some reason I put emphasis on “before” instead of “US”. Bah.

    The Australia-first thing also had the effect of allowing a bunch of normal people to play and report on the game before the US audience got it. I saw some forum threads (SA in particular) that really cratered as people started saying that the game wasn’t all that great. I think the game has some serious flaws besides the DRM. I’ve decided to skip Spore for a while despite being really hyped 6 months ago. I think I agree with the opinions that Spore will eventually be a really good game. (After a few $30 expansion packs. Go EA!)

  11. Eliot says:

    This situation is no surprise whatsoever. As soon as I heard that both Mass Effect and Spore would be using this DRM, they dropped from my purchase radar. It’s just not worth it.