What hath Spore spawned?

More DRM, rampant piracy and possibly fewer games to come?

Published October 1, 2008 4:55PM (EDT)

So Spore has hit the Internet. Creatures are popping up left and right. Possibly the most anticipated video game ever has done reasonably well, selling over a million copies as of last week. But here's the rub: While Electronic Arts, the game's distributor, touts the fact that this game puts players in control of their own destiny, evolving from a single cell to an entire civilization heading for the stars -- it seems that the players have evolved to the point where they're now revolting against their maker, and seemingly devolving the industry on their own.

The problem was that a lot of users complained heavily that they could install only three legal copies of the game on their computers, with no option for deauthorization à la iTunes. In other words, the game's DRM (digital rights management) infringed on the ability to install legal copies of the game. In fact, the frustration rose to the point that around five out of six reviews on Amazon gave it only one star, plummeting the game's rating. About two weeks ago, E.A. backtracked, allowing for five installations as of Sept. 19.

But the strangest thing happened on Sept. 22, when a little DRM-related dustup turned into a federal class-action lawsuit, alleging damages for the fact that Spore also surreptitiously installs a program called SecuROM, which affects a user's computer at a pretty core level, on both Windows machines and Macs. (This installer, direct from SecuROM, apparently allows for its removal.)

The suit states:

Nowhere in any of EA's discussions, responses or explanations of its DRM did EA disclose that the Spore disk contained a separately installed, stand alone, uninstallable DRM program which would install itself to the command and control center of the computer and oversee function and operation on the computer, preventing certain user actions, preventing certain user programs from operating or disrupting hardware operations. In fact, all of EA's representations about its Spore DRM talk in terms of 'online authentication' -- as if all DRM protection was entirely online-based and resident at EA's website, instead of being program-based at the operating system level of the user's own computer. These representations by EA are clearly significant misrepresentations of EA's DRM regime given the fact that the actual process involves a separate DRM program permanently installed onto the hard drive of the user's computer.

Here are the things about this case that I really don't get:

First, as the CBC's Jesse Brown points out, it's a bit ironic that a game designed for evolution of nothing less than an entire intergalactic species has gotten to the point where the company that created it can't control the consequences.

Second, and in my opinion, more important, the DRM -- ostensibly created to prevent piracy -- has already been broken. There are estimates floating around that Spore has been illegally downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, making it possibly one of the most pirated games ever.

All those fools who are (naturally and legitimately, even) upset at the presence of DRM have just proved E.A.'s point. It needs DRM to prevent the casual pirate, and not the person who's going to have the wherewithal to get it on BitTorrent.

So despite this ZDNet piece claiming that the end of DRM in gaming (like the end of DRM in music) is upon us, it would seem that, as the Guardian's Keith Stuart argues, E.A. will likely work with SecuROM to make DRM that much tougher. After all, this isn't exactly the first time that E.A. has released SecuROM on one of its video games and it probably won't be the last, either.

And worse yet, as Macworld game guru Peter Cohen told me, "is that developers and publishers have gotten so fed up with the problem that they're more content to switch efforts to platforms where piracy is less of an issue."

He thinks that as more and more people pirate higher-profile games, that can only mean fewer games available for Windows and Mac platforms in favor of console systems (Wii, PS3, etc.) that are much more difficult to pirate.

"IPhone development and mobile development are comparatively secure as well," he adds.

That's bad for everyone, designers and gamers alike.

By Cyrus Farivar

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