Spore, DRM and a broken business model

Since 1981 the PC has been a fantastic platform for video games. We have seen the likes of Quake, Diablo, Half Life, Unreal Tournament and Civilisation. But the business model that brought you these classic, high street retail, boxed games is broken beyond fixing. All PC gamers are going to be far worse off, but they brought it on themselves, by stealing.

Just look at this. Spore is out today, one of the most eagerly awaited titles in ages. And one that could change gaming forever with its intelligent take on user generated content. Yet over 1,200 people have already given it a one star review on Amazon. And none of them have played it. The reason is quite simple, they don’t like DRM.

The fact is that DRM is essential to the industry. Without it you have no sales. Consoles are just DRM dongles that force you (when it works) to only play legitimate games. And often only games sold in your territory. Steam is a DRM service. It forces gamers to have legitimate copies of games. Yet nobody complains about these forms of DRM.

When the DRM is broken people just steal the games and with peer to peer networking and broadband this is actually easier than not being a thief and going to a shop and buying it. So game publishers put ever more powerful DRM software on their PC games. And it interferes too much with people’s PCs. To the point that some honest people buy the game from the shop (so they are not thieves) yet download it using torrents.

The simple fact now is that every single boxed PC game is thieved many more times than it is bought. To the point where it is not worth spending money developing PC games. So only a trickle now come to market compared with the massive previous popularity of the PC amongst developers. And even this trickle will dry up. If people won’t pay for the work to be done then it won’t be done.

So the future of PC gaming is not nice. There will be the MMOs and casual gaming. But beyond that new business models will be the only way forwards. New business models that are far more intrusive to the gaming experience. Like advertising and micro payments. But that is the way it is going to be. The boxed, high street retail PC game is dead. Killed by thieves.


  1. PC gaming just needs to evolve with the times.

    Look at services like steam. Cheaper games, with less pirating.
    It also includes value added services, like push game updates and the community site.

    Also, DRM isn’t needed, look at Stardock’s Sins of a Solar Empire.
    No DRM, but there’s added value in not pirating it, as patches and extra content are available through registering on their website.

  2. Yes, but it’s an unobtrusive DRM, that also has a lot of value added features.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought up Steam, but my point about Sins of a Solar Empire still stands. Even if it does have the advantage of being a very “hardcore” game, with a small, but loyal following.

  3. Yes, I’m sure Spore’s sales are going to do very badly …

  4. @BC 1,200 1-star ratings will hurt sales of the game. Read about the Groundswell if you don’t believe me.

    @Bruce. Good article, but I have to agree with Aaron. You are categorizing DRM and non-DRM as black and white and not as a gradient. I agree that piracy is killing PC gaming, but if people make smart moves on how to use DRM and provide value added towards the customer (Steam… again), then the PC platform can still be viable beyond MMO’s and Free2Play.

  5. Would like to be able to sell on a game once I’ve played it, via ebay or wherever though. Put in DRM, whatever, but don’t give me just 3 uses.. hell, that’s laptop, desktop, work computer – and the chance of me needing to reinstall on any of those. Make it sensible, let me sell on a used game and I might not care so much.

  6. I disagree with your article Bruce.
    I don’t think drm is essential to the industry, look at whats happening to the music and film industry, DRM got critizied so they are changing there business models to suit.

    While steam is a form of DRM, i agree with aaron and young, rather than discomforting the consumer it keeps giving them value. Thats what pc developers need to do not create DRM the only gives you 3 installations.

  7. Hmm… what you say appears to be mostly a load of nonsense based on rumours and popular falsehoods.

    In truth, the PC games industry is growing, and far larger than any individual console (actually almost as large as all consoles combined when you look at the complete, worldwide, picture) in terms of actual revenues – and that’s counting console hardware/accessory sales (but not PC’s). This is something anyone can deduct after the recent 10.8 billion announcement made by the PCGA.

    Over 70% of game developers still develop games for PC/MAC, a mere 40% for consoles. Hence even if the amount of PC games is shrinking, it’s still almost twice as large as that of all consoles combined. Hardly a trickle, more like a flood (and just as much a cause for loss of sales as game piracy – there’s just so much to choose from that not everyone is going to do well). This is based on a recent publication of a survey amongst game developers.

    And if DRM were truly necessary then Sins of a Solar Empire wouldn’t have sold 500.000+ copies in one of the most niche genres of gaming. And likewise the original Unreal Tournament game – which you mention yourself – would’ve been a horrible failure (financially). Neither game featured *any* form of DRM, both sold incredibly well – yet according to you that is *absolutely* impossible…

    You might want to rethink that statement. Particularly because it speaks against the very figures you quote: 1200 Amazon reviewers (meaning the actual figure probably lies in the tens-if not hundreds-of thousands) NOT buying Spore due to DRM. This means that at least a portion of those people would’ve bought Spore with lighter/no DRM. Which in turn implies that DRM is not necessary for good sales figures, but rather a deterrent.

    I know dozens of gamers who refused to buy Mass Effect for the same reason people are now refusing to buy Spore. These are gamers that otherwise buy their games, particularly if they’re as good as Mass Effect, even if they contain ‘regular’ DRM. The way EA is taking this is no good.. and they’re going to feel that more and more in their sales figures as they keep releasing games in this shoddy manner. Activision learned that activation-limitations are NOT the way to go after the BioShock debacle, I’m amazed EA still hasn’t caught on. The amount of people refusing to buy their games is only going to increase as the number of their games implementing these draconian method increases.

  8. EA need to copy the Steam ideas! Simple this is the solution! ts ts ts stupid Eletronic Arts.

  9. EA is going bust! DRM is a joke to crack for pirates and legit customers don’t wanna buy it. Now, THAT’S broken business model, I say. haha

    Couple of more stunts like these and they’ll alienate their customers even more to the point of turning pirates for their games. Good luck with your business, EA.

  10. Excessive DRM is what has stopped me from buying Spore. I was quite looking forward to it when all the hype started. But I’m not going to buy it now. The activation limit, plus the copy protection method they employ both turn me off.

    As far as Steam goes, it works for me. It is not intrusive, or restrictive. It lets me install the games on my home PC, as well as my work PC. It even does it for me. Steam is a SERVICE. What EA has done with spore is not. Change your business model EA. Or die.

  11. I think EA should really think hard about their current business model. Even though Spore is a popular enough game that will generate enough sales to mask lost customers to DRM in the bottomline, the highly visible backlash will only make scrutiny over their practices more noticeable down the road. The real effect in the bottomline will be felt further down their pipeline.

    The sad thing is Spore already had a good business model that could entice people to buy the game: the online content. Think about it: You have a far richer experience if you are able to play the game online. You would feel more inclined to give the game a try knowing that firsthand and would possibly buy the game. You have a registration process that would keep the CD key from being abused. And for EA to still make a buck on the second-hand market (which is the REAL reason behind this DRM), what could be done is to make it cheaper to get a new CD key without downloading or buying a new copy altogether. That way, you buy your used Spore game for 9.99 and call EA to get a 5.99 cd KEy, and now you have a fully functional game. No need for rootkits masked as DRMs, or crippled games that will stop functioning down the road.

    The key is additional only content. That is the way to curve piracy and second-hand sales.

  12. “The key is additional only content. That is the way to curve piracy and second-hand sales.”

    I meant to say “The key is rich and value adding additional online content. That is the way to curve piracy and second-hand sales.”

  13. EA needs to change it’s business model. If they don’t adapt they will lose. As a consumer I don’t care about EA’s need to cling to an antiquated business model. I care about spending 60 dollars to essentially “rent” a game.
    It’s completely legitimate for people to say that they don’t want their PCs bogged down with heavy DRM software/spyware from EA. I was really excited about Spore until I heard about the DRM.

  14. Bruce is out of touch with reality just as Electronic Arts with the target audience.

    The issue with DRM on spore is Two Fold. On one hand you have a system that serves to disrupt a user’s experiance, a user who purchased the product mind you, and an attempt to stymie the second hand market of retailers such as Game Stop. Those second hand titles are also counted into the same category of theft by the major publishers since they are in fact lost sales when viewed on paper. The 3 usage limit is primarily to circumvent this by forcing repurchasing of the title by legitimate consumers while effectively destroying the ability for a user to trade-in a game they either did not enjoy or were finished with.

    Piracy is not the issue and never was. People who solely pirate games do not buy games. There’s many reasons wether they’re in regions where games aren’t distributed (Steam doesn’t have it all) or their income is to low to afford purchasing a title. Oddly enough, there is the type of user who occasionaly pirates a game just to go out and purchase it afterwards – this is the category I fall into even though I rarely pirate titles.

    If the absence of DRM truely meant the demise of a consumer product Sins of a Solar Empire would not have sold 800k units, as reported by Stardock, since its release. This is a title that is advertised as having NO DRM and the developers have gone as far as to provide links to torrents in jest. Keep in mind that the pricing model for Sins of a Solar Empire is also below the inflated industry standard and can be purchased for $35usd!

    The other problem with DRM schemes such as SecureROM is that these installations amount to spyware and occasional malware. When a program that was not announced nor advertised as being contained upon a disc of a game which purchased by a consumer actually functions to disable hardware and other usage functions of an operating system it not only becomes questionable but is downright criminal. I’ve had several brand new games I’ve purchased from retail outlets not function due to the DRM thinking that a program I use to burn a cd-rom was “innapropriate” and either not function or outright deactivate my CD-ROM drive.

    DRM is a farce. It never takes more then a few days for “crackers” to circumvent the protection schemes. While this can be considered a problem it’s not the real issue that’s concerning.

    Cracked software that removes copyprotection and eliminates DRM is a better product for a consumer then what’s being sold by the distributors. This is the real problem and it’s time to rethink the strategy.

    What happens here is that the consumer is punished for purchasing a product when a pirate is rewarded by not having DRM issues nor the expense of purchasing titles that a company thinks you should not play ‘cs of XYZ program being present on your harddrive.

    In closing, online registration along with FREE modular upgrades to legitimate users is essential to encourage the purchasing of a license. Based on Spore having 3 uses it becomes quite obvious that EA was never intending to circumvent pirating of the game and were in fact ONLY targeting the second hand market of used titles.

    p.s. I gave it 1 star on Amazon and I have played it.

  15. I have bought it, played it and am utterly dissappointed in the game. This is however not why I will be ringing EA to demand a refund (I love a good phone battle), it isn’t even to do with securerom (never caused me a problem, yet).

    It is because an install limit on a game, being allowed to be successful sets a very dangerous precident in light of my hobby (I’m a PC enthusiast and so should not need to explain why an install limit is an issue to me).

    This maybe acceptable conduct at the microshaft ranch (however, in fairness, an OS is a different kettle of pish) but i’m damned if I’ll let it slip by in a game. I implore like minds to take some kind of consumer action. Perhaps enough angry letters will get the message across.

    finally, it is important that word is spread of this limit, as I for one would not have bought it if I had known in advance.

  16. This is a terrible story for 2 parties – legitimate users who simply wanted to play Spore and couldn’t because the activation servers went down and EA because Spore was cracked even before it was released.

    Often developers walk a tightrope with the tradeoff between protection strength and the degree of impact on legitimate users but this was a failure on both dimensions! Is this really what the publisher wants to ‘accomplish’? Why not use a solution which is friendly to honest users, has no impact on development time and the strongest available protection against crackers – see the whitepaper “Is Anti-Piracy/DRM the Cure or the Disease for PC Games?” which can be downloaded here http://www.byteshield.net/byteshield_whitepaper_0005.pdf.

  17. How is DRM essential to sales? Spore was leaked on Bittorrent almost a week before it hit stores, allowing pirates to play a DRM free version without penalty. Almost every DRM gets cracked within days leaving paying customers to be treated like criminals. And because of this, EA has a PR catastrophe brewing in the name of preventing the piracy that is already running rampant.

    Not sure where the plus is.

    Stardock finds great success publishing games without DRM with regular updates to create customer loyalty, rewarding people to buy the game, not guilting them into it.

    Saying DRM is essential to the industry ignores the changing economy. The market is demanding a change in how games are sold and distributed. Game publishers need to feed that market, not try to control the market.

  18. wow, feel like an idiot for being late to the party but I just read about bioshock having also had an install limit, this is absolutely shocking.

    Just so happens I rented bioshock (brilliant for those who weren’t aware that it was really a nerfed steampunk clone of the previous PC shock/s – i digress) for my 360 and so was unawares.

    on topic – perhaps another scapegoat for the SUPPOSED decline of pc gaming, is that the first DX10 (not that we needed it) generation of gpu’s had (until the 8800gt) appalling mid-range offerings, and the 360 until recently was producing better performance for roughly the cost of an adequate high-end card alone. This had the effect of turning many upgrade hungry, die-hard pc gamers like myself into potential 360 owners.

    Hmmmmm… now there’s a thought… most dx10 cards were adequate dx9 performers… but dx10 was vista only… the only dx10 card’s worth having roughly same price as 360… common link is microsoft… coincidence? (probably, lol)

    In all seriousness, I think the perception that seems to exist that PC gaming is in decline is more likely due to a combination of the absurd success of WOW (a nerfed mmo for anyone that played UO) and the fact that we’ve just had the beginning of a new console generation. It’s tradition for PC hardware to take a year or two to close the gap and then exceed the ability of the consoles – we’re just coming over that hill now.

    I think it’s all to easy to blame things on johnny Depp and Co.

    “Welcome to the end of the computer age” – DJ DP 1992

  19. pc gaming is always better and can bring a consumer more.. a good product will be bought, put bad things in it that people don’t want such as malware then it should be left alone and not bought. Not all customers are thieves, it’s a crime shipping malware with your product that can seriously mess up your good running pc.

    overall winner are publishers who adhere to gamers bill of rights, bring out a good product and listen to their customers.

  20. Bruce Everiss, I am sorry, but you clearly live in fantasy corporate world that has lost touch with reality.

    “The fact is that DRM is essential to the industry. Without it you have no sales.”

    That quote right there made me lost all respect for you. Allow me to shed some light on that assessment. As has been pointed out dozens of times already in comments prior, DRM is cracked within days of its arrival to the market. So, in a sense, DRM really does not exist. Any product you have put out made money because customers with money wanted it. The DRM did nothing to secure that revenue. All DRM does is make life miserable for the customers WHO HANDED OVER MONEY FOR THE GAME; meanwhile, the pirates enjoy a superior experience at no cost.

    Now, here is what sickens me the pro-DRM mentality. Game companies have this mystical assumption that one person will visit the store, purchase the game, go home, copy/rip the discs, share it with all his/her friends, post it online, and do everything to ensure that everyone can obtain it for free. Well, Mr. Everiss, did you know that I prefer the store-bought product over a pirated one? My mentality changes when DRM enters the equation; I prefer pirating any day over putting up with DRM-infested products.

  21. “The simple fact now is that every single boxed PC game is thieved many more times than it is bought. ”

    Can you provide evidence? This is an extremely broad statement; we have data from a couple of *downloaded* (not boxed) titles with online components that suggests they were heavily thieved, but I’m not aware of any public-domain data that would support your statement any better.

  22. Where did the DRM protect SPORE from being pirated? It was available in the filesharing scene before the public release.

  23. I was going to buy spore.

    I have pirated sins of a solar empire.

    I then went and bought the delux edition of Sins all the way from the US (before it was release in the UK) because i wanted to give them my money.

    My flat mate has shared the orange box with me (when hes not using it i can play it) as soon as my next cheque comes in guess what i’m buying? the orange box.

    There is a simple reason for this – i like the game i know that i can go back and reinstall it later if i want. I expect I’ll play it several times through the odds are on several later computers.

    why won’t I be buying spore? because I don’t want to be limited – i wont be pirating it because then I’ll probably feel compelled to buy it and I’m not going to give EA my money for a product that is worse than the pirated version.

    similarly with DVDs i much prefer to rip them and reburn them so that i don’t have to watch the stupid copyright notice.

    DRM itself is not a problem. using it to make a bought product worse is.

    the games industry could learn a reasonable amount from the expensive utilities industry (see anything by adobe, programs like the music software reacktor or the maths suite mathematica) these, while specialist, are industry standards in their field. i wouldn’t be surprised if 50% of the copies that are used of these are pirated – but people then learn to use them and take them to work and buy them there etc.

    try before you buy generates sales

    a Demo is *not* try before you buy – it may encourage you but most people are used to the ‘best bits’ demo.

    if the games industry lets people share and enjoy games then a) if its a good game a good number of people will buy it – not all but those that are genuinely supportive of their hobby will. and b) developers will be forced to generate better games to allow a) to happen.

    one final point

    a downloaded copy of anything is *not* a lost sale.

    a lost sale is when you convince your consumer that your product isn’t worth buying – and that normally means they are a lost sale for a long time.

  24. Here in Australia we have to dial a 1900 number to get more activations. This is charged at AUS$2.48 per minuted. I have read of people that were on the phone for 20 minutes getting a new activation for Mass Effect. Such a call would cost me AUS$49.60. That is 35 cents less than the cost of Crysis Warhead! Just to get a single extra activation?

    [b]Unethically expensive[/b] to reactivate a game. Even if it only takes 10minutes that is still way over the top. Imho it should be a free call.

    Link to evidence
    For Technical Support in Australia: please call 1902 261 600. Calls are charged at $2.48 (inc GST) per minute. For email support, please email easupport@sirius.com.au. For international web supports please visit http://support.ea.com.

    Also I have a legal right to sell my property. EA need to respect our rights or we won’t respect theirs.

    Building customer loyalty is the best way to protect sales.

    Another way is via inducements that come in the game packaging. Eg a code to enter a competition in your region would be successful. Buy game get chance to win a gaming PC.

    Rather than focus on the negatives publishers should see an opportunity to grow their market share through customer loyalty programs.

    The RA3 beta was a successful example of this approach. I won’t be buying the full game due to activation limit. Or any EA game for that matter.

  25. Speaking from personal experience, all the pirates I know (myself included) buy the same amount of PC games as before broadband and internet-based PC piracy became widespread. Things that get pirated are generally things you wouldn’t have gone out and bought anyway, though I cannot speak for everyone. I think I speak for the majority, though.

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