Monday, May 12, 2008

Copy Protection of Games 3

The good news is that BioWare has announced that Mass Effect for the PC will not, after all, require online verification every ten days.

The bad news is that all the other DRM elements are still being forced on PC gamers who would otherwise be willing to pay to play this game.

BioWare noted that the change to the every-ten-days requirement was being made (at least in part) to help out military personnel who, after activating the game online, would not have Internet access and would otherwise not be able to play the game after ten days. If we take that at face value, then BioWare deserves a word of thanks.

But that still leaves open the question of why BioWare (or perhaps EA) shows no sign of altering its decision to require online activation of a single-player game.

Their stated reason is that it will deter piracy. They also suggest that this change better serves players by no longer requiring them to keep the game DVD in the disk drive while playing.

I'll leave the question of piracy alone for now. I'm certainly not going to parrot the chorus of assertions that "people will just pirate the game anyway" or even that "putting copy protection on a game makes it more likely to be pirated" as some people claim, confusing "pirated" with "stolen."

What about that other claim -- that forcing players of a single-player game to verify online is somehow better for them than requiring the DVD to be in the drive?

Here, I think some speculation might be fun. What if this is part of a strategic decision by EA to move away from retail sales of PC games?

That's not necessarily a bad thing for PC gamers. Big games are expensive to make, and part of the cost is retailer mark-up. If you can move to digital distribution as your primary sales medium, your costs should drop. Theoretically, that could allow producers to lower the purchase price of their games. Practically, of course, that won't happen; the vastly more likely outcome is that unit prices would remain the same and publishers would pocket the difference. But even that's not all bad for gamers, since it increases the likelihood of publishers staying in business, which means more and better games available.

EA may also see moving into digital distribution as a long-term competitive necessity. If that's "the future," EA will not want to leave it solely in the hands of Valve and/or Sony.

But if this is the real reason for pushing online activation on all their games, including single-player games like Mass Effect and Spore, then why not say so? If I can see that this is a business decision on EA's part, surely the professional MBAs over at Valve and Sony can figure it out, too. No competitive advantage would be lost by acknowledging a business strategy that everyone can see being implemented.

Furthermore, gamers are becoming increasingly sophisticated consumers. They know when they're being spun. So why do it? Why throw out some tepid rationalization for requiring online activation of single-player games like "it's easier than requiring a DVD" (when that's simply not true for many gamers) instead of an honest statement that "we're moving to digital distribution for all our games to reduce costs"?

If I'm correct in any meaningful percentage of this speculation, then it's another example of the Reality Distortion Field at work in the upper echelons of EA (and perhaps BioWare as well).

Here's another way to say it: Never, ever allow Marketing to run your company. Like fire, Marketing is a useful servant but a dangerous master... and they are never more dangerous than when your customers are knowledgeable about your industry and passionate about your products.

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