Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Never-on DRM

The release of EA's SimCity, with its controversial always-online single-player requirement, has caused its share of grumbling. Because the game won't work without a connection to EA's servers, and the servers are overloaded, lots of people who have bought the game aren't able to use it. I've been following the kerfuffle more closely than I ordinarily would -- not because of a particular interest in the game itself, but because my Verizon FIOS internet has been down since last Saturday. Even if I wanted to play SimCity, I wouldn't be able to. When "always-on" faces off with "never-on," the latter prevails.

You won't be surprised to learn the myriad ways that being without internet access has caused me grief these past few days. Sure, I can't play internet-connected games. I can't pass the time by watching Star Trek on Netflix (and I'm so close to finishing season one!). Even cooking dinner has been difficult. We don't file recipes on paper like some kind of cavemen -- my wife keeps them on a Pinterest board.

First world problems, I know, but I'm also supposed to be working from home while waiting for our baby to arrive, and without an internet connection, I can't do that. Not only am I paying for a service I'm not getting, but the outage is now making it harder for me to make money in the first place. I've been working around it, but after three days of improvising, the cost in time and money is beyond a portion of our monthly FIOS bill.

We've been in contact with Verizon customer service every day since the outage began. Every day they have told us that service was estimated to be restored that day. I stopped believing them after the third day, and at this point I don't think I'll bother to keep asking. To be fair, everyone I've spoken to, either on the phone or through their Twitter account, has been very nice and has tried to help. The problem is that they're part of a corporate structure that is ensuring they can't help. They can give me their best estimates about when things will be restored, but can't do anything to make that happen. If it's out, it's out.

And so, even though I'm not attempting to play SimCity right now, I feel a kinship with those players who paid for a product and got a service, once that couldn't even be assured to work. We have reached a point in our commerce where transactions are one-sided, in which handing over your money does little more than improve your odds of getting the thing you want. Buying a game no longer means buying a game, it means renting access to the game.

One could argue that pirates have driven publishers to this point, but excusing always-on DRM as the price customers have to pay to avoid piracy is ridiculous, because paying costumers don't need to avoid piracy. Who is suffering when draconian anti-theft measures prevent honest consumers from getting a fair deal? It ain't the pirates. I'm not trying to make the counter-intuitive argument that piracy is a net gain because it expands the pool of players. I'm simply saying that preventing paying customers from getting what they bought doesn't help anybody. But, apparently, EA has found it necessary to destroy SimCity in order to save it.

Welcome to the future.


Jackson said...

"One could argue that pirates have driven publishers to this point, but excusing always-on DRM as the price customers have to pay to avoid piracy is ridiculous, because paying costumers don't need to avoid piracy."

I agree, there are lots of pirate costumes every Halloween; no need to avoid them!

Overall I agree with your point about screwing over the customer and the bigger meaning it has for gaming/online services, although I doubt they killed Simcity. I've seen a lot of backlash, sure, but if this game isn't a bestseller despite that I'll be very surprised.

Chris said...


Yeah, it's true that Sim City will probably sell well, which will just cause more of this sort of behavior from publishers in the future. They're starting to figure out that consumers of video games will take no end of abuse, and the publishers are trying to see how far they can take it before there are repercussions.

I don't even know why pirates are being talked about anymore. They get the best experience with any DRM game out there: the rip it out in a week or so. I believe a version of Sim City that allows offline is already available to those who pirated the game.

Why do the thieves get a better product?