Unbranding the Sheep: The Sheep Are Revolting! Viva la BAAAAAAvolution!

I wrote an article way back in May about the SecuROM DRM that’s included in Mass Effect and Spore, how damaging it was to paying consumers, their PCs, and how disingenuous it was to call it copy protection when 1) it’s profiting off of legitimate users, and 2) the DRM was cracked, re-cracked, then cracked again, just for shits and giggles, within moments of the game’s release. Since then, a lot has been made of it, and despite the negative feedback, the game is selling very well, largely on pre-orders and consumer sheep. A few apologists have stated that the installation limit is not a big deal, and you can call EA’s customer support to have them give you more installations, but… I mean, Jesus, have you heard their stories lately?

This isn’t much about the DRM, which I’ve gone over ad-nauseum. This is about something I’ve been calling for since I started writing this column in 2006: a dedicated, serious consumer backlash that could start to seriously, negatively affect sales.

A quick trip over to the area to buy the game over at Amazon.com is showing the effects of this:

My bit of rudimentary math tells me that, as of about 11AM this morning (Thursday the 11th), 1,961 out of 2,133 reviews being slammed like that equaled an astounding 92% of reviews for this product being one-star. Furthermore, as you can tell from the link, I decided to peruse the five star reviews; a few of them were legitimate reviews from people unconcerned about the DRM, but most of them were just people flaming the one-star reviews, leading me to conclude that this is mostly a case of Astroturfing on the part of EA. Though, one in particular was so funny that I just about gut-laughed at work reading it, and since writing for this site isn’t my day job (though I am willing to negotiate a favourable salary, Alex!), that could have been problematic. There have also been reports that the German and UK versions of Amazon have been purging negative reviews, though that comes from INQuirer commenters, who I take with enough salt to kill the world’s slug population.

EA’s response has more or less been to tell everyone to go forth and multiply; after all, though it’s surely being affected, sales numbers for this game are still strong, and I expect the game to lead US sales charts at the end of the week, if only because of the massive marketing push the game’s received for two years now, as well as various stores shoving the pre-order so far down our throats that we could have shat out number twos in the shape of Will Wright. And the game’s Metacritic score – though surprising some, including myself, as I thought it would be higher – is a solid 86 as of this writing. Not only does the software cause problems for your computer – which EA takes no responsibility for, as it’s not even their software – but there’s not even an EULA for it! Not that I can find, anyway; searching the Spore support site doesn’t bring up jack shit, though according to the INQuirer, you don’t get a SecuROM EULA in the box, and with the downloadable game, you’re given an explanation so laughable it’s pathetic:

“We don’t disclose specifically which copy protection or digital rights management system we use –in this case, SecuROM — because EA typically uses one license agreement for all of its downloadable games, and different EA downloadable games may use different copy protection and digital rights management.”

Last I checked, basely copying a generic EULA from other software just got Google into a load of hot water over their new Chrome browser. They fixed that. What’s your excuse, EA?

Of course, Amazon reviews are one thing, and they have a questionable effect on sales and the bottom line. Let’s look at something that does, and is ostensibly the whole reason SecuROM exists in the first place: the effect on piracy.

Back in May, I listed the statistics of other games that used SecuROM, and they were pretty high, considering most of the games in question had been out awhile. Now, at 1940 on a Thursday night, let’s see just what a search for “Spore” brings up at that very same torrent repository:


(Click for full resolution)

For those of you that are not torrent-savvy: the “S” column is the amount of seeders of the file; these are people that have the entire file, and are uploading it to others. The “L” is the amount of leechers, which are people that are downloading off of the seeders; combined, those numbers make up the amount of peers a torrent has. So in all, the very first torrent on a list sorted by the amount of seeders – just one torrent – has a grand total of 38,233 peers… or 12,798 fewer seeds than the three games I chronicled in May combined, and for those, I took multiple torrents into the stats. Furthermore, the next one down on the list is an 11MB crack for the game; this is most often used by gamers that buy legitimate versions of the game, but do not want to have to install a virtual rootkit on their computers that validates them to their corporate overlords. The fact that people feel the need to crack a legitimate game is disgusting. Furthermore, there are even more torrents on that list, including some of the NDS game Spore Creatures, which is also available as a straight download from sites that carry DS ROMs. I’d estimate that that very simple list of Spore torrents of all walks encompasses, roughly estimated, about 50,000 peers, and that’s on one page; there are thousands more where that came from, and there will be thousands upon thousands more in the days, weeks and months to come.

So much for the noble fight against piracy, eh?

The fact is, EA knows it can’t do anything much about pirates; this is aimed at the lowest common denominator, and that’s proven by their announcement that Red Alert 3 will also have SecuROM DRM, which helpfully comes with a somewhat pathetic plea not to pirate the game because of the DRM. Don’t worry, guys; I won’t let your crappy game anywhere near my PC, my 360, or my house, for that matter.

With all that said, the Amazon reviews are a great start, and we can continue to send a strong message to EA and other companies that use SecuROM and other techniques like it, software that does nothing but hurt legitimate consumers while pirates still get off scot-free. Here’s what we, as a whole, have to do:

1) Continue getting the word out! Don’t stop at Amazon; other shopping sites have comment and review sections as well, such as Gamestop. Let everyone know what the game has, and take screenshots, in case your word is censored.

2) Don’t buy, install, or run the game. Now, my own personal opinion is that once a game uses DRM such as this, the game is dead to me; for instance, I still have not bought the 360 version of Bioshock to this day. However, I don’t think it’s fair to tell others not to buy a 360 version of a game that doesn’t contain the DRM if that’s what they want to do. I personally feel that giving a company money for a game like that is not in my or our best interests, but that’s a matter of user discretion.

3) Stop pirating the game. Just fucking stop it. The only thing you’re doing is legitimizing efforts such as this, and hurting honest developers that don’t even make the decisions on what DRM is going to be included with the game to begin with. If you pirate Spore, or any other game to make a “statement”, the only statement you’re making is “I’m a petulant 12 year old, and please continue to make DRM more restrictive and more punishing, because I deserve to be punished!”

Capitalism works both ways. If a company is losing money on something, especially one that is publically owned, then they have to remedy what is causing them to lose money. Continued efforts like the Amazon reviews, as well as other legitimate forms of protest, go a long way toward making EA, Take Two, and other companies that employ restrictive DRM that it is doing more to hurt their bottom line than help, and furthermore, it will force them to innovate more consumer friendly ways to combat the very real threat of piracy.

As an honest consumer who supports good companies who make good games, I feel I can speak for others like me, in stating that this is all we really ask.

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