computer games games industry security

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!”


5 replies on “Cracking EAs Spore DRM: Joining the dots”

Interesting. I didn’t think about it like that. I was definitely boggled when I noticed that a Spore torrent had 30k+ leechers a few days before it released in the U.S.

I really haven’t seen any numbers against second hand sales. How bad are they?

In the US, second hand sales amounted for roughly 1/3 of GameStop’s revenues in 2007, and 50% of their profits (!). When you walk into a GameStop (or anything other specialist retailer) you’ll find shelves filled with pre-owned pretending to be new titles (new shrink wraps, price just slightly below the full price, only a small notice (if any) of being pre-owned). The employees will actively try to talk you out from buying a new game.

Proponents of second hand sales point out that trade-ins drive the purchase of new titles, but if you are student and you get 5-10 € for trading in your game, do you spend that 5-10 € extra on a new game or get the cheaper pre-owned one?

The root cause? Games costing €60-75 euros a piece makes them a great target for this. If you’d be selling them for the same price as DVDs, there would be whole lot less margin to be made with pre-owned and games would be closer to impulse buys. However, with the current AAA title production budgets, you’d need 4-5 times the unit sales to make this happen.

About Spore’s DRM. If I’m not mistaken, PC software (including games) can legally be prevented from resales and rental using the EULA. Even if the end user doesn’t care, the publisher could take action with the retailer. You don’t really see a lot of MS Office being sold second hand by professional retailers.

Console games are completely different matter, and don’t have any such protection against resales or rental.

If second hand sales are the issue, then why not create a simple way for a second hand copy to be re-licensed to a new buyer. I’m talking 10% of the purchase price or something going to the original company for them to hand out a new working serial number. Require credit card, paypal – something that leaves tracks so if on person is attempting to get a zillion workable serial numbers from one package or the same original package is being passed around – you simply don’t pass out numbers. It has to be cheap, easy to do, and well known so someone buying a used package isn’t surprised that it won’t install.

To be clear – I think paying a license the for used software SUCKS! On the other hand, if kept to very reasonable levels, it could do something toward dealing with the issues above. If someone buys a product used, they still think they get to – as a new customer – complain, ask for help, use the web site, get updates – everything that goes with a new customer – yet not a dime went to the company to cover the extra load of a new/used software customer.


Yep, you’re absolutely right.

Why not? Two common reasons:
1. Weird anticompetitive contracsts between retailers and publishers that eg make this illegal, because retailers would lose much money if it did
2. Lots of less than fully competent people working for lots of publishers, so the publisher lacks the understa ding or the skills *in the required teams, depts, and executives* to make something like this happen

Both are of course poor longterm excuses and the industry has had nearly ten years to weaken 1 through subtle integration of online (most publishers too plain dumb / full of people who barelly understand computers, definitely not Internet, and few of whom EVER play games – even their OWN!) or 2 reorganize their teams and depts to make it require fewer people to effect such decisions as this.

In most cases I’m pretty sure it’s a mix of ignorance and incompetence. In a big enough company it only requires a litltle of both in the right places to snarl up awesome levels of competence elsewhere and prevent any good ever happening.

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