It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, for the latest installment in the popular SimCity video game franchise, which was released this week to massive sales, and then just as quickly, an epic fail as the paying customers were unable to play the game they just bought. The culprit isn't the game itself, which by most accounts is pretty good; no, the problem is the game's DRM scheme.
That software requires each user to maintain an "always online" connection to the publisher's authentication server—even for single player mode—but the publisher, Electronic Arts, is having trouble keeping that server available. Even if you connected, the double helping of fail continued: all cities are saved to the cloud, and if the servers bug out, hours of work can go up in smoke faster than Godzilla can decimate a metropolis. No more local saves, lest you manage to defeat the DRM.
EA has had so many problems, in fact, that it's temporarily disabled the kinds of features that might actually benefit from an online connection. You know, the very reason that the online connection was supposed to be a "feature" for users. As a result users are currently suffering through all of the headaches of buggy DRM without any of the upsides of being online.
This story may sound familiar. That's because SimCity is just the latest big flop for DRM, which hurts consumers, undermines innovation and competition, and unnecessarily preempts users' fair use rights — all without having a real effect on "piracy." Last year's blockbuster game Diablo III suffered from many of the same problems. And another publisher, Ubisoft, insisted on using "always online" DRM for all of their top titles for years, before finally accepting that it was harming legitimate purchasers without slowing down the "pirates" at all. In fact, unauthorized copies of the games had removed the need to maintain a constant connection with the authentication servers, making the playing experience better in some cases. Publishers may disagree about the solution to problems posed by unauthorized copying and the challenges of "competing with free," but surely the first step in that competition is not making the legitimate product worse than the free one.
In the few days since the new Sim City's launch, the game has racked up over 1,000 1-star reviews on Amazon, followed by its temporary suspension from the store. An online petition aimed at Electronic Arts dropping its "always online" DRM from Sim City and future games has racked up 35,000 signatures and counting. A Reddit AMA with the developers was dominated by disgust for the DRM. Clearly, the decision to include DRM on this title has been a major problem for Electronic Arts, but the underlying problem is much larger.
DRM's Ugly History
Even outside of the world of video games, DRM's got an ugly history of upsetting consumers and even leading to legal action. The most notorious may be Sony's inclusion of a rootkit on music CDs — essentially a malware tool — that raised major security and privacy concerns among CD buyers.
Since then, music companies have mostly seen the light and dropped DRM, but other media lag behind. Ebooks, for example, are largely sold wrapped in the digital locks, though a few forward-thinking publishers have seen good results dropping it. The movie studios are working hard to push the latest DRM-laden movie format, a physical/digital combination called UltraViolet, but early reviews are in and not very positive.
And the troubles with DRM are not limited to reducing access in bits and pieces — it can extend to disabling content altogether. When the company running the authentication server decides the maintenance costs are too high, it can flick a switch and render the content useless. This isn't hypothetical, either: Google, for example, killed its video offerings after buying YouTube, making previously purchased videos unplayable. Electronic Arts itself regularly announces which games it will be turning off for legitimate users.
DRM's Evil Henchman: DMCA 1201
While DRM software is busy keeping you from freely using all the content you legitimately bought, the worst kept secret in the industry is that it always gets broken. And of course, once it is broken even once, DRM-free copies become available for unauthorized download. So in order to give this ineffective software some legal teeth, the content industry pushed for a law that became section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
Section 1201 regulates the circumvention of "access control measures" like DRM. Never mind that there is already law that covers actual infringement; because of section 1201, bypassing DRM systems even for noninfringing fair uses might get you targeted for a lawsuit. This is the same law that might affect cell phone unlocking, a rule that the Obama administration has said is out of line with common sense.
Congress knew an outright ban on circumvention tools wasn't workable, so it included a process for the Librarian of Congress to establish some temporary exemptions. EFF has worked to put some important exemptions in place, but those must be renewed every three years. The process is time-consuming and difficult, and as we explained before the 2006 rulemaking, "fundamentally broken."
No wonder, then, that there's a growing movement to fix this part of the DMCA. You can join EFF and a number of other groups on a campaign to called Fix the DMCA that targets section 1201 for reform or repeal.
What Can Users Do?
Video game players frustrated with the DRM situation can vote with their thumbs, sending a message by rejecting games that come tangled up with anti-consumer software. The success of sales platforms like Humble Bundle — which sells collections of DRM-free games and supports EFF with a user-determined portion of the proceeds, and is offering a new bundle now — demonstrates that companies can have success and respect their users at the same time.
image: A screenshot from SimCity 2013