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“Ok, we agree, that was dumb[.]” This was the statement coming from the General Manager of Maxis Entertainment following the massive bungling of its most recent software launch. Anyone remotely familiar with the music or film industry undoubtedly knows about both industries’ attempts to use digital rights management software (DRM) to keep their creations from being pirated. Usually, everything works well, and few people have been erroneously prevented from listening to an album they purchased or watching a movie they bought because of the companies’ attempts to prevent others from illegally downloading their content. Earlier this month, however, that is precisely what happened to customers who bought Electronic Arts’ (EA) launch of its huge title SimCity.
I have to admit that my inner nerd was absolutely giddy when I heard EA was rebooting its classic software title, having spent countless hours of my childhood playing its predecesors. The new title promised to be more in-depth than any game ever created, and millions of would-be customers (myself included) were lining up to buy the game and start playing. Thousands of those customers were even too excited to purchase the game in stores, instead relying on pre-ordered download codes allowing immediate download of the game at midnight on March 5th. But upon the game’s actual launch, everything came tumbling down.
“Digital rights management” is any method software companies use to try to prevent pirates from writing software “cracks” that allow them to play the game for free, illegally. These cracks frequently leak onto the internet where other would-be pirates download and use them to play for free. The DRM software at issue here first surfaced in the 2012 blockbuster release of Diablo III, which required anyone playing the game, even those playing single player by themselves, to maintain a connection to the internet. When Diablo III launched, the company’s servers were overloaded and users were prevented from playing the game for hours at a time. EA apparently thought this time would be different and forced its Maxis subsidiary to install a an “always-on” element in SimCity. EA’s president has claimed that the always-on requirement has nothing to do with DRM, saying that “DRM is a failed dead-end strategy; it’s not a viable strategy for the gaming business.” Instead, EA claimed that always-on was meant to enhance the game-playing experience both socially and technologically, saying that the graphics and calculations could not be carried out on consumers’ computers, and that EA’s servers were therefore required to run the game. This, of course, has since been proven wrong by clever modders who have tweaked the game to run offline, forcing EA to admit that it was technologically possible.
Nevertheless, when the game finally launched, as those millions of consumers tried to play the game for which they had just shelled out $59.99, EA’s servers could not even begin to handle the volume, and most would-be players could not even log in. Those who were able to log in were hardly able to do anything before being kicked offline. Chris Kluwe, Minnesota Vikings punter and avid gamer, estimated in a scathing review (which has since gone viral) that during the first three days he had he game, he was able to play for only about 4 hours. He went on to urge his 150,000 Twitter followers to not waste their time or money on it. Those who bought the game in stores were able to return it, but those who purchased online were left without recourse, leading to the suspension of sales on Amazon. Indeed, of the 2,400+ reviews of the game on Amazon, over 2,000 are rated “1 Star,” and the most popular one says that it would be better to “remove $60 from your bank and promptly pay someone to kick you repeatedly in the friggin’ mouth” than to buy the game. The backlash EA has faced has been widespread and severe. There have been petitions to EA and to the White House, and even an anonymous letter from an EA employee blasting the company for its focus on preventing piracy at the expense of customer service. The black eye EA received has undoubtedly outweighed any profits it would have recouped from would-be pirates, especially considering that the game was “cracked” shortly after release, even with the always-on DRM system.
All of this begs several questions. At what point does a company’s DRM infringe on the rights of those who have purchased the software to use it? And in instances like this SimCity debacle, what recourse do consumers have? EA’s huge DRM failure has single-handedly convinced me (and thousands of others) to avoid buying its products. While piracy is still a huge problem for the software industry, there has to be a better answer than this. If these designers can create such visually stunning and technically complex software, surely they can figure out a way to keep it from being pirated while still allowing customers to use it legally.
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