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.

–Thomas McFarland

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6 Responses to DRM Disaster: EA’s Attempts to Stop Piracy Backfire

  1. Jacob Marshall says:

    It’ll be interesting to see if the SimCity fiasco has any effect on Microsoft’s plans for an always-on successor to the 360. A recent internal memo that was leaked to the press suggests that they aren’t going to use always-on technology, but it is fair to say that both Microsoft and Sony are hoping to cut back on secondary sales and piracy (Sony filed a patent in the spring for technology that works similar to always-on DRM without requiring an internet connection).

    Also, since we’re talking about EA and litigation, don’t forget to register for the EA Sports antitrust class if you qualify.

  2. thomas says:

    Brooke that’s exactly why this launch was such a train-wreck. There is not really any difference between your Kindle analogy and the software codes. EA could very easily deactivate any codes sold to people who wanted to return the game. It just didn’t want to. The only difference in the Kindle analogy is that it is run by Amazon, a company who consistently ranks high in customer service. While the game at issue is controlled by Electronic Arts, a company who consistently ranks as one of the worst.

  3. Brooke McLeod says:

    I guess I am having a hard time understanding how there is no way for the people that purchased their games online to get recourse. Is it because they bought the games as part of a pre-sale? I would assume that purchasing these access codes works something like books for Amazon Kindle. You have the ability to return the book for a full refund within a week of purchase if you don’t like it. Or are video games just inherently different here because people do often play them non-stop when they come out and beat them and because of the piracy element? I just don’t understand how the rights of a consumer buying the digital product as so vastly different than those of the customer buying the product in a store.

  4. Raymond Rufat says:

    This is really interesting. It just doesn’t seem to add up in terms of cost/benefit. Sure you prevent a decent amount of people from using your software illegally, but you also prevent people who don’t have an internet connection from playing your game. The net effect is that you probably lose more money or company value by losing goodwill and brand equity by having this kind of epic failure, than you would have by allowing users to pirate your software. In addition, there are better ways to avoid this problem. EA could offer online benefits to legal purchasers of software that are not available to offline users. This would provide an incentive to purchase while not causing a server overload.

  5. Thomas M. says:

    I’m not sure whether any litigation could result from this. This is probably due to the fact that anyone purchasing the game likely agrees to EA’s practices, including its inane DRM. Additionally, they bought a small amount of good will with those Amazon buyers by giving them one free download. I still want to give the game a shot because its supposed to be phenomenal (when it runs of course). Also I want to support Maxis, becuase they do great work when EA allows them to, but EA’s terrible efforts have turned a sure-fire sale to me into a “maybe.” The same goes for thousands of others. And to top it all off EA was voted, for the second straight year in a row, as the “Worst Company in America” in a Consumerist poll. It secured 78% of the vote to beat out such hate corporations as Bank of America and Comcast. Way to go Electronic Arts!

  6. Nick B. says:

    It is surprising EA has any goodwill with consumers anymore. But I wonder what consumer laws are violated when you pay $60 for a product that you can’t use and can’t return. Certainly seems like a class action waiting to happen when you have tens or hundreds of thousands of people who were in that particular situation.

    I was also looking forward to Sim City but I knew with EA…I’d play the wait and see game. Glad I waited.