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September 14, 2008

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Working Spore

At this time, there have been something like 2,000 reviews of Spore on Amazon. A massive number of them are 1-star reviews complaining about the DRM--partially because it's the standard SecuROM crap, but also because a glitch in the activation servers apparently locked out a number of the early purchasers. The negative comments don't seem to have hurt sales anyway, since it's still one of the top-rated sellers in Amazon's video game category.

Set aside the debate of whether or not this is an appropriate way to use the site's review system--after all, Amazon is notoriously lax about policing the ratings (see also: Jonah Goldberg's ill-advised Liberal Fascism, which is tagged by users with the phrases "ein volk ein reich ein bag von cheetos" and "code pink invaded poland" among others). There are at least a couple of more interesting questions to be raised about the Spore rating debacle: the effectiveness of excess, and the need for more information about DRM.

First, do two thousand reviews actually mean anything? At what point, really, do we trip a kind of mental incredulity barrier, and the entire process starts to work against itself? Clearly, a page with 81 five-star and 2,088 one-star ratings has something going on, and customers who aren't as informed about DRM might find it more than a little odd. It may be that such a strong reaction doesn't so much dissuade buyers so much as it simply causes them to tune out the review system entirely. Hence the strong sales for the title.

I suspect that this has happened, actually. But the DRM-focused reviews are serving another purpose: they provide information about the SecuROM that's otherwise usually hidden from consumers. Normally, if I buy a game, I have to do at least a quick Google search before I know what kind of DRM it might be carrying. I can look at a typical Amazon page and see system requirements and cost, but I won't see what kind of copy protection it has built in. In a roundabout way, that's what these reviews are providing: information that the market failed to produce on its own. Which is fantastic.

For example, when I first got my new laptop, I picked up FEAR so I'd have something to play through on a more powerful video card than my previous system. Obviously the box doesn't say, but FEAR also includes an earlier version of SecuROM. People bag on Vista's UAC feature all the time, usually without understanding it, but it flagged the installation process during the DRM installation stage. Thanks to the warning, I found a crack to disable the DRM, just in case.

Now, that's just me being paranoid. After all, SecuROM's pretty non-invasive as DRM goes. But that's like saying it's only a minor infection--it's still not something I want on my system, particularly given Sony's past behavior with rootkits and shady code (Sony develops SecuROM). And what about games that use StarForce or other, more destructive copy protection? Shouldn't consumers know what they're installing when they install that game, and then be allowed to choose to go ahead?

The optimal path, of course, would be along the lines of the recent Gamers Bill of Rights by Stardock, which specifies no copy protection at all. Failing that, I think retailers should notify customers about the DRM included in the products they sell. And as a final precaution, I've started thinking about creating an open game DRM wiki, so that buyers can easily check in a centralized location before making a purchase.

Because I'm all for markets and market solutions. But I also believe that DRM is a market failure, and another is the lack of information about DRM that's available to the consumer. Until that failure is remedied, the PC gaming situation isn't going to get any better.

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