Wednesday, September 10, 2008


So Spore is out. Everyone I know is either playing it or talking about it. This includes people who do not play videogames. So to that degree, Will Wright has pwned the planet.

As a gamer, the biggest discussion I see about Spore is that DRM argument. (Don't buy Spore (yet) says my friend peterb, and then goes on to talk about the completely terrible game experience that so many people are having. Boingboing inevitably picks up the topics, etc.) The notable statistic is the Amazon product page, which shows -- as I write this -- 1911 one-star reviews hating on the DRM, versus just 166 with higher ratings (two stars or more). For a game released four days ago.

Now, I'm pretty sure this Amazon review thing is a stunt. No videogame gets that many reviews that fast. Katamari Damacy, a hit for the past four years, has just 244 reviews; The Sims 2 (the previous Will Wright megablast, also four years old) has 889.

More importantly, Amazon reviews are notoriously a big pile of hooey. They're one step above Youtube comments, and you can find 1900 Youtube commenters willing to fart in five-part harmony just by turning over a rock and filming it.

However, it's a valid stunt. Fred Benenson, an early commenter on this mess, calls it "dis-organized collective action". Nobody thinks 90% of Spore players are dissatisfied customers -- but the dissatisfaction with crappy usage restrictions has made a big visible splash this week. That will resonate with the vast silent majority of game players, who grumble about stupid policies but eat the shit sandwich because it doesn't usually affect most of them.

And if this turns out to be organized collective action, hey, it's community organization. That's how stuff gets done.

I have nothing to add about the Spore experience, because I didn't buy Spore.

I bought the Spore Creature Creator -- the play-with-dolls part of the game, which was released a few months ago by itself -- because it seemed like a quirky idea and I wanted to support that. As it turned out, none of my computers can run the Creature Creator. (The Mac desktop isn't Intel, the Windows box has horrible sound-card pops, and the laptop is still on OSX 10.4.) One day I will upgrade the laptop, or the Windows sound drivers, and the thing will probably work then.

Then I looked at Spore, looked at all the hoo-ha, and bought Spore Origins -- aka iPhone Spore. Ten bucks in the iPhone App Store. No activation codes. No three-machine limit. No being arbitrarily yelled at for being a thief. You download it, tap the icon, and you're playing a bacterium.

Obviously the iPhone is not a DRM-free device. It is restricted up the wazoo. But Sporigins isn't any more restricted than any other iPhone app. I'm using it under the terms that I've already bought into. So, there's no resistance there.

Similarly, I'm looking forward to playing Bioshock this fall. Bioshock was released using the same oft-maligned SecuROM copy-protection that Spore uses. I will bypass this -- legally -- by buying Bioshock for Playstation. DRM? Sure, but it's not infecting my computer with anything, and it's not making the PS3 any more broken than it is out of the box. So the hell with it.

(This is not a blind "I don't care about DRM on iPhone/PS3" position. I will be able to play that copy of Bioshock for as long as I can find PS3s on eBay. That is an important criterion and I wouldn't buy a console without it. The iPhone is a less certain proposition, but the active jailbreaking community gives me some assurance that if and when Apple lets the iPhone drop by the wayside, I will be able to monkey my apps into it if I really want to. Or, more likely, into some kind of emulator.)

Electronic Arts wants you to believe that your computer is broken out of the box. If they're right, you don't care about SecuROM, you don't care that your software doesn't work reliably, and you don't care that your game purchase is a rental. This is a political position which they will win or lose, depending on how many people they convince -- and how many people are convinced they are wrong. That's why a wave of Amazon reviews, stunt or not, is at the heart of the matter.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Jens Alfke (Sep 10, 2008 at 6:49 PM):

Frustratingly to me, no one seems to be bothering to describe exactly what Bad Things the DRM actually does. I guess it broke some people's computers? To what degree? Any of them Macs, or just PCs (which are expected to break any time software is installed on them, anyway)?

I bought Spore on Sunday and installed it on my MacBook Pro, and it's working just fine, and I haven't noticed any problems in other apps. Sure, I had to type in the serial number off the box when I first launched it, but most shrink-wrap Mac software I buy works like that.

Andrew Plotkin (Sep 11, 2008 at 11:23 AM):

Well, there are three separate limitations that people are talking (complaining) about.

There's the on-line game activation, which was doggy on the first day or so that the game was released. Thus, people bought the game, brought it home, and couldn't play. Same issue that Apple had on iPhone Day a couple of months ago -- but at least Apple had the justification of offering a service which was primarily about ATT phone service. People could have been playing Spore on Monday, even if the online content servers were fried. You could play Spore on a non-networked machine, except that the publisher won't let you.

Second, the three-installation limit. If you upgrade to a new machine, and then your hard drive dies, and then you need to reinstall Windows, your Spore purchase is dead. Or, at best, you have to go begging to the publisher for a reprieve. Ten years from now, will they still be supporting Spore? Did you have any thought of selling old games on Ebay? EA is not hip with that.

Third, SecuROM. I have no personal experience of this, but it's one of a class of copy-protection systems that installs system extensions and who the hell knows whether they ever go away. Their sole purpose is to make your software sometimes break. This bugs people. I find as a user forum devoted to the subject; no shortage of details there.

Andrew Plotkin (Sep 11, 2008 at 11:25 AM):

(As for Macs, I have no idea what the situation is. But publisher-supplied malware like this is one of the reasons why PCs break constantly.)

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