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Home >> Dec 2008 >> Columns >> Sceptical technologist >>

Biting the hand that feeds

Electronic Arts is trying hard to alienate its customers. They`re listening.

BY  Paul Furber , 30 November 20080 comments

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Electronic Arts is trying hard to alienate its customers. They`re listening.

I refuse to buy popular PC games any more. I simply cannot afford to take the chance that the install procedure will add malware to my already flaky instance of Windows XP. If you pay money for a typical blockbuster game from Electronic Arts (EA) today, the only permanent code installed on your hard drive is a piece of malware you don't ask for, isn't mentioned in the EULA for the game and displays incredible similarities to a program that got Sony slapped down by the US Supreme Court a couple of years ago.

The game? That's not permanent. It's briefly rented to you. Change your hardware often enough and you're going to have to ring EA and beg for another chance to install - at $2.50 per minute if you're in the US. Some titles even dial up every ten days to check that you're not a thieving pirate. The malware that gets installed only happens if you paid money for the game in the first place. Pirated copies don't have it.

Take a wild guess what people are doing? Three things. One: they're not buying the games. Two: they're leaving thousands of vitriolic comments on Amazon's rating system. Top titles like Crysis Warhead and Spore, which should be hovering around 4.5 stars, are instead scraping the bottom at one or maybe one-and-a-half stars; not because the games suck, but because users are tired of having draconian DRM systems installed on their PCs. And three: they're downloading games from sites like Pirate Bay for free.

What should have been a cash cow for EA this year - the eagerly-awaited title Spore - has turned into a complete disaster, with hundreds of thousands of copies ripped from the file sharing networks as thousands of angry gamers give it a single star rating on the review sites.

How is EA reacting to the backlash? As stupidly as a very stupid person with a long history of stupidity. The CEO has brushed off the people complaining about the DRM. "I'm guessing half of them were pirates and the other half were people caught up in something they didn't understand," he told gamer news site Gamasutra. "If I'd had a chance to have a conversation with them, they'd have gotten it."

I'd love to have that conversation. Firstly, pirates aren't bothered by the DRM because they're playing with a cracked version of the game - one that took a matter of hours to craft and upload to Pirate Bay. Duh! Secondly, gamers are notoriously technical people with a penchant for deep understanding about all aspects of their systems. These are the kinds of people who buy faster video cards regularly so they can play EA games like Crysis with better performance. Of course, upgrades like that tend to use up the number of activations available. Gamers also understand invasive copy protection schemes and hate them with a passion, especially if they've paid good money for the game. Being told they're ignorant is not how to win friends and influence people.

Not only does EA's CEO not understand the market, but he doesn't understand his customers. And they're going to vote with their wallets. I've already voted with mine.

Good Old Games (www.gog.com) offers classic games that work on XP for a few dollars with no DRM. You buy the game and it's yours forever. No need to worry whether or not EA's activation servers are offline or your machine randomly not working because you did the right thing and bought the game.