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"Spore" Backlash: Is DRM Officially Bad for Business?

Update 9/24/08 – Responding to consumer complaints, Electronic Arts has relaxed the digital rights management restrictions on “Spore.”

If the backlash to Electronic Arts’ new game “Spore” serves as a sign of things to come, strict digital rights management (DRM) restrictions are transforming from consumer annoyances into full-fledged business mistakes. From Forbes:

In just the 24-hour period between Wednesday [9/10] and Thursday [9/11], illegal downloaders snagged more than 35,000 copies, and, as of Thursday evening, that rate of downloads was still accelerating. “The numbers are extraordinary,” [Eric] Garland [CEO of Big Champagne] says. “This is a very high level of torrent activity even for an immensely popular game title.”

Electronic Arts had hoped to limit users to installing the game only three times through its use of digital rights management software, or DRM. But not only have those constraints failed, says Garland, they may have inadvertently spurred the pirates on.

On Amazon, “Spore’s” one-star customer rating is driven by anti-DRM sentiment rather than analysis of the game itself. It’s likely only a small percentage of “Spore’s” potential customer base knows or cares about DRM, but Amazon’s star-system shorthand makes no distinction between reviewers passing judgement on the game and those engaging in DRM activism. Deserved or not, a one-star rating averaged from thousands of reviews is the very definition of caveat emptor, particularly for casual shoppers who encounter “Spore’s” listing down the road.

The combination of “Spore’s” long history on the gaming world’s radar and the publicity push surrounding its release will undoubtedly lead to good sales in the early going (anecdotal evidence suggests this is already the case). But “Spore” is one of those hyper-immersive games that’s shaped by its users, and this DRM flap may ultimately limit adoption and future product opportunities.

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  • http://www.carolynjewel.com Carolyn Jewel

    It’s likely only a small percentage of “Spore’s” potential customer base knows or cares about DRM

    Doesn’t this entire article suggest that the above is an incorrect statement? People who play such games are intimately aware of DRM and that’s your potential customer base, right? And EA admits that at present, their DRM restricts this game to one account only, so that family members, for example, cannot play this game.

    Customers, current and potential, ARE aware of DRM and they pretty much roundly hate it, as this article demonstrates. Besides, passionate users are critical to a game’s success (or a book) because they’re the ones telling everyone how awesome a product is. Or isn’t.

  • http://toc.oreilly.com/mac_slocum Mac Slocum

    @Carolyn: I think it’s hard to accurately gauge true consumer response to DRM. The anti-DRM contingent’s *reaction* to EA’s restrictions has been swift and loud and appropriate, but is that reaction representative of “Spore’s” full customer base?

    The game itself factors in here: some games are adopted by a very tech-savvy crowd, but “Spore” seems to be targeted at a broader base (the game’s creator is also behind “The Sims”). Anecdotally (FWIW), the people I know who play “The Sims” might have a moderate response to DRM, but it’s certainly not a topic they get fired up about. Now, my own anti-DRM leanings lead me to hope consumer outrage is eroding DRM, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to assign my — or the broader anti-DRM perspective — to all sorts of other people.

    The anti-DRM folks are vocal and persistent, and the DRM-free material that’s emerged in recent years certainly suggests a consumer desire for openness. However, one of the defining characteristics of virtually every tech-oriented industry I’ve encountered is that the folks within it tend to overestimate the impact of issues they hold near and dear. I’m certainly not saying people don’t care about DRM — it may even be that a very large group of people finds it to be an egregious limitation that automatically diverts them from DRM-based products. However, I still think it’s important to keep in mind that when we’re looking at mass-market products and topics, like “Spore” or books-music-TV-film-media-Web-etc., we need to account for the *possibility* that the tech perspective is not representative of the mass-market perspective.

    Of course, I could (I hope!) be underestimating the reach of the anti-DRM movement!