Spore, DRM, and DLC

Before we get going, here’s an intro for anyone new to all this:

Spore is a computer game recently released by EA and made by the same people who did The Sims.

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management. Essentially this means systems that limit the ways in which a customer can use things that they have purchased. The main idea is to prevent piracy.

DLC stands for DownLoadable Content. This usually refers to extra things that can be downloaded for games, often for a small price (e.g., a more powerful gun, or a different track to race on).

That’s the basics out of the way…

Spore has been getting a lot of attention recently from the gaming press and public. The game consists of five sections that fit roughly onto a wide view of evolution, starting with your creature as a microscopic lifeform and following it all the way up to becoming a race of space-faring beings, at which point you can go off and conquer the galaxy (which has been populated by the creatures belonging to other players).

You can create your creature to look and move in many varied ways, with some incredibly clever animation technology making almost anything capable of walking around. Needless to say, the first things that many people attempted to create were walking penises. That’s gamers for you. Will Wright, the main and most public creator behind the game, said to the AP that some of them are “amazingly explicit, especially when those creations are animated”, but does go on to talk about making sure these don’t spoil anyone else’s fun… No screenshots are attached, before you go looking!

Reviews of the Spore have been generally approving, but player reactions have been more mixed when they are discussing it. Many players have had issues with the DRM on the game. This software, provided by SecuROM, installs itself on your machine without asking for your permission and attempts to ensure that the software is not installed more than three times before a new copy is required to be purchased. Many players have said that they frequently clear their harddrives and would be annoyed that after a year they would be expected to buy a new copy of the game.

Some people have been driven to piracy by DRM: I’ve not had this confirmed about Spore, but I do know of other DRM-heavy titles where people have purchased legitimate copies of a game then downloaded illegally shared and hacked copies from the internet to install on their PCs. Why? The hacked versions don’t have the DRM on it. Clearly, this is an issue that some people feel very passionately about.

I can’t help but wonder if the games industry is setting itself up for trouble here. For how long will people be prepared to do the honest thing and purchase a copy of a game when they intend to download a hacked version to install? Will it take much longer before they get frustrated with persistent DRM issues and decide to not spend the money at all? With the international market and instant online price comparisons, some people in Europe are getting understandably angry about paying twice the price that American gamers pay for the same product.

From the perspective of the games industry, especially companies specialising in PC games, DRM seems essential. When Crysis was released earlier in the year it was reputed to be one of the most pirated games released for a PC, forcing the company into deciding to not make PC exclusive games in the future. Estimates range between 4 and 7 times as many copies of the game were downloaded illegal when compared to legitimate purchases. Yikes!

What can the games industry do about this? Consoles such as the Xbox 360 and Playstation3 provide some part of the answer. Their operating systems are less customisable (exceedingly so for the 360) than a PCs, so pirated games are harder to get working, but there still remains the second-hand market on eBay and through high-street retailers, where a single copy of a game can make the retailer £100+ during its shelf life through sale, exchange, and resale, but the manufacturers only get a percentage of the initial sale.

The best current answer is DLC. By selling small downloadable items for games that can’t be transferred between systems or user accounts, the manufacturers can continue to get revenue from games, even if they have been pirated or sold second-hand. Advertising in games is downloaded to online consoles and computers. When you drive past a billboard in a game you might notice that it’s changed since the last time you played: that’s a new image downloaded onto your machine, and a tiny bit of money added to the bank balance of the game maker. DLC has many advantages for the manufacturers, but the balance isn’t so equal for consumers, who end up with limited use of the things that they have paid for.

While DRM on games like Spore is reacted to strongly (even provoking one unwise moderator on the game’s forums to threaten to disable people’s game accounts if they don’t stop discussing it), it doesn’t seem to be denting the popularity of the title among people reviewing it online. Both expert and user reviews still rate Spore highly despite the problems, and EA claims that a lot less than 1% of the game’s owners will be likely to encounter a problem with the DRM. It could be the usual case of a few people on the internet shouting loudly about views that don’t reflect the majority of the population, but I do wonder where it’s going to end…

Recently I was trying to put CDs onto my mp3 player, something which I am legally entitled to do, but I could get the disk to rip to my harddrive. I tried all kinds of things, and eventually discovered that the software refused to rip because of DRM restricting the use of the CD. I know my rights, but I couldn’t use the disk the way I wanted. I still wanted the music, so I downloaded an ‘illegal’ copy of the music I already owned because it was the only way to use it the way that I wanted.

I think that some form of DRM is going to have to come into place eventually because people will always try and take things for free if they can, but we’re a long way off from it being a solution that is beneficial for the manufacture and sufficiently flexible for consumers.

3 thoughts on “Spore, DRM, and DLC”

  1. Err… Yes. How do you go about saving data on a machine that’s been wiped? Maybe there’s some kind of hardware configuration thingy that recognises when your machine has the same bits as a previous installation…? I have no idea.

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