SimCity: A Case Study in Poor Digital Rights Management

If you follow technology or gaming news, chances are you’ve read something about EA’s newest reboot of the popular SimCity franchise recently. The game has come under heavy fire for a variety of reasons, mostly related to its always-on Digital Rights Management (DRM), a system that ostensibly protects against software piracy, but quite often has negative effects on the ability of some legitimate consumers to play while pirated copies of the game work flawlessly after being cracked (having the DRM removed or circumvented), as illustrated here in .gif form.

In case you haven’t read, the game requires a constant connection to the Internet in order to play. Moreover, players must also be able to connect to one of EA’s game servers, which suffered from severe congestion from the day of the launch, with players experiencing wait times upwards of a few hours to join.

Online as long as you are!

A parody of the SimCity cover art created by Redditor amperages

All in all, it was not a promising launch. Despite the huge fan-base of the classic city-management series, users were so frustrated with the issues that they began to demand refunds, going so far as to make the product one of the all-time worst-reviewed products on Amazon with the online retailer even going so far as to halt sales of the game. The fury continued amid reports that Origin (EA’s content distribution arm) was refusing to refund purchases and even threatening to ban anyone who issued a credit card charge-back. One user had to resort to using the so-called “executive e-mail carpet bomb” to receive a refund.

Regardless of how EA works to upgrade their server capabilities, the game is almost certain to be plagued by the specter of its release for a while yet. Besides the DRM, players have also complained about missing game features that have been a part of the SimCity series since its inception, such as subways and railroads. Scuttlebutt on the ‘net seems to indicate that these features will be packaged and sold as DLC further down the road. After all, The Sims 3 itself only costs about $25, but add the cost of all of the expansions and you’re looking at at least several hundred dollars. What happened to the good old days when you bought a game and then just owned it?

Part of the change almost certainly comes from the death of physical media as the primary tool for disseminating software. After all, when I bought Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons back in 1991 (after savings weeks of allowance) I was happy to receive a package containing a few 3.5″ floppies with the game on them. If I felt the need to go dig through some boxes to find them, I’d be able to install it and play no problem.

Anyone remember these babies?

Anyone remember these babies?

Of course, once high-speed Internet connections became a thing, companies were faced with the dilemma of having a fantastic way of distributing the game that doubled as a fantastic tool for piracy. This was the era of CD keys, such that each copy of the game came packaged with a special code that would unlock it upon installing. Even where these keys could be faked by programs designed to generate acceptable codes, they were often used as a unique identifier for online play such that if multiple people were using the same CD Key they couldn’t play online simultaneously.

Today’s DRM strategies such as those that have plagued SimCity’s launch, but also the sort of license checking that is used for mobile games on iOS and Android or the ever-popular Steam platform, have finally brought us to the point where we question what we’re buying. Did people who shelled out $60 for a copy of SimCity actually purchase the game?

The fact is that no, they did not. A purchase of SimCity (or just about any other game or piece of software) in today’s world is effectively a temporary agreement or license between you and the content creator that you can install and access the program or app. If you read the fine print (and let’s face it, most of us don’t), you’ll invariably find that the company in question retains most of the rights, including terminating your ability to use the software at any time, often without any notice of reason. This is especially worrying in a DRM situation like SimCity’s where EA could simply turn off their servers with 30 days notice and (legally) void the hundreds of dollars you might have spent on their content.

Companies need to begin asking themselves if DRM strategies like that used in SimCity are really doing anything to help their bottom line. When it comes to SimCity, it seems like the answer is a resounding “No,” evidenced by things like Amazon reviews and the more than 68,000 signatures on a petition to remove DRM from games permanently. It certainly doesn’t help that people, including a mysterious “Maxis insider,” have revealed that despite the creators’ claims to the contrary, the game can be played without a constant connection. This has prompted even louder calls for changes to the always-on DRM to be removed and certainly doesn’t bring any positive PR points to EA Games.

So, the next time you’re forking out your hard-earned dollars for something that you can’t actually hold in your hands, take a moment to consider: what are you really buying?

What's really for sale?

What’s really for sale?


One response to “SimCity: A Case Study in Poor Digital Rights Management

  1. Pingback: The Power of Players: Microsoft’s XBox (DRM) 360 | Play as Life·

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