Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

EA’s New Copy Protection

Posted by Ben Zeigler on May 7, 2008

Update: EA changed their mind.

Derek French from BioWare revealed the copy protection plans for Mass Effect and Spore on Saturday.  In response, the internet erupted in indignation. Because of what I’ve said before, I’m going to join in. This is a horrible idea. If you didn’t follow it, the summary is that Mass Effect and Spore PC will use a new copy protection system from SecuROM. A physical DVD is no longer needed (yey!), but you can still only install it on a max of 2-3 computers (boo). The new exciting feature is that the game needs to talk to the SecuROM servers every 10 days or else the game shuts down entirely. Let me say that again. If you successfully install and validate your game, and then lose internet access, you can no longer play your entirely single player game. I feel very bad for BioWare and Maxis, because this is a horrible idea that will lose them money.

This is the most blatantly anti-consumer DRM yet in the gaming space. I have a laptop that I use for half gaming and half travelling. I only boot it up every month or so, and often immediatly take it on a trip where I play games on it. Galactic Civilizations 2 is great for long airplane rides. With this new Copy Protection, I would not be able to play any games on this laptop. This is exactly the kind of invasive DRM that the music industry was pushing down our throats 5 years ago. Remember when it seemed a given that ultra-restrictive spyware-ridden copy protection was the only way we would be able to get music in the future? At the time, I didn’t believe some of my software activist friends who said that music DRM could be stopped, but they were right. These days, large parts of the music industry have smartened up, and it is actually easier and more convenient to buy music today than it is to steal it (via eMusic, Amazon Music Store, iTunes without DRM, Radiohead).

Here’s what the music industry realized, and what most game publishers haven’t: tech-savvy consumers are willing to pay for convenience, guaranteed service, and community involvement. What they’re NOT willing to pay for is crippled software, technically buggy activation schemes, and guaranteed obsolescence. What does DRM do? It encourages people to use pirated software, because the pirated software is free of all the broken crap that comes with all DRM schemes, ever. The only people that DRM helps are DRM providers (yet none of them have been able to ship a solution that even vaguely stops piracy), and software pirates. It certainly doesn’t help developers or users.

There are two correct ways to approach copy protection for PC games:

  1. Heavily integrate online functionality into your title, and tie copy protection to the online functionality. This is the approach taken by Valve, Blizzard, and all MMOs. Because online functionality is a key component of the game, the fact that validation is tied to it does not feel artificial and anti-consumer. You can also bundle it with pro-consumer functionality such as anti-cheating, software updates and community interaction. I have absolutely no idea why Spore isn’t taking this approach, because that game has significant online functionality.
  2. Take a simple, one-time stab at protection, and then get out of the way. A simple one-time validation check like Steam does, or some sort of unlimited install-time verification, is not invasive and will stop the casual pirates who aren’t technically apt. Stardock chooses to skip this step, which is their choice but I do feel they’re losing a bit of money. But, once you’ve verified that the copy is valid, you need to get out of the way. A one-time check is not seen as intrusive and will generate no user and press ill will.

If you try to tack online validation into a single player title, it will come off as invasive, insulting, and condescending. Yes, SecuROM does basically the same thing as WoW, but it feels a lot different, because it has no legitmate purpose outside of telling players what they can’t do. I don’t want to feel like a thief, and I prefer to actually be one (for games with invasive DRM, I often buy the game, never open it, and install a pirated copy). I’m definitely not going to be installing a commercial PC copy of Mass Effect or Spore, and if you want this kind of crap to end you shouldn’t either.


10 Responses to “EA’s New Copy Protection”

  1. Oh man. I still haven’t bought Bioshock thanks to its DRM, and this DRM makes that one look positively permissive.

    Yeah, I guess I won’t be playing Mass Effect or Spore for a while either.

  2. Joe Ludwig said

    While it will certainly be a pain in the ass on laptops, the idea that it will completely prevent you from playing these games is a bit of a stretch. As long as you connect your laptop to the net before you leave you’ll have 10 days of playtime.

    Of course I agree that this kind of DRM is stupid. At least it’s one step better than key discs. With key discs even perfectly legitimate users were incented to download and run shady programs from the internet to remove the need to keep track of the game disc. Now it’s just the net-disconnected who have to do that. 🙂

  3. JZig said

    “This crappy thing is better than this more crappy thing” is true, but it still bothers me and makes me angry. And, based on the reaction on those threads I linked, I’m far from the only one. The problems are definitely able to be worked around (although cracking it is easier than doing so), but the fact that I have to makes me pissed off at the developer (somewhat unfairly), publisher, and the game in general. That is not what you want your fans to feel like.

  4. Kldran said

    I actually preferred the key disc system. It made sense, and made borrowing or loaning games simple and easy to understand. If you had the disc, you had the game, just like with console games. The new system bugs me severely. Security systems need to be simple. With MMO’s, it’s “you need an account to play”, with consoles its “you need the disk to play”, but this seems a little more complicated and not so straight forward. Though I suppose many buyers that have one computer that is always online, won’t notice.

  5. […] Comments (RSS) « EA’s New Copy Protection […]

  6. […] 11, 2008 I posted earlier this year about EA’s DRM schemes for Mass Effect and Spore. Originally, it featured a limit of 3 activations and constant online checks. Later, the constant online checks […]

  7. talkjack said

    Be nice to Stardock. Their publicv profile is one of kind benevolence towards their customers. EA and Ubisoft’s public profile is increasingly one of mistrust towards their customers.

    Recent harsh DRM schemes have deviously infected paying customer’s computers with invasive DRM applications which interfere with the normal operation of Windows and can conflict with hardware and software, sometimes deliberately. Companies imposing harsh DRM schemes which mess with customer’s PCs and / or enfore horrible installation or online activation limits and controls are going too far.

    It’s about time we customers spread the word before the PC gaming industry deteriorates too far to recover. Check out the DRM Charter to see what all the fuss is about. We gamers need to stick together!

    … Talkjack

  8. […] […]

  9. […] to have the exact same anti-piracy effect as Ubisoft’s system, but in a much less insulting package. Players pick up on the increased respect shown by this attitude, and as a consequence I […]

  10. […] on multiple computers over the years legitimately), it is legally risky. When you add to it how pointless it is, it’s hard to see how a responsible game publisher would consider such DRM to be a good […]

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