Will Wright's Spore is the new hotness on the gaming scene. Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS ) launched a massive marketing blitz for its alien life form sandbox, including a Spore-themed evolution show on Discovery Channel (Nasdaq: DISCA ) and preview monsters designed by the likes of Carlos Santana and Mark Cuban. It is the top-selling game title in Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) and GameStop (NYSE: GME ) as I write this.
So how come 1,849 out of 2,006 Amazon reviewers award Spore the lowest possible rating of a single star? This is supposed to be a brilliant game!
First of all, the reviews that actually talk about the gameplay tend toward the "glowing praise" end of the spectrum. Spore is refreshingly unique in Wright's grand old tradition -- this guy came up with megahits and creative jackpots like SimCity and The Sims, for goodness' sakes -- and should provide many hours of mutation fun. Even the stingy one-star reviewers often give the game five stars in the "fun" subcategory. It's the publishing decisions that draw all the derision.
You can only install Spore three times before you need to call EA and prove that you really need a fourth installation code. This sinister scheme is enforced by a piece of software you probably don't want to install, but can't remove once it's on your box -- and it talks to EA servers behind your back on a regular basis. You might remember the big stink about Sony (NYSE: SNE ) installing something similar a few years ago, when all you wanted to do was play a legally purchased CD on your computer. No? Well, Sony would like to forget about it, too; the company eventually had to back down from an onslaught of lawsuits on the merits of privacy and fair use.
The pirates cracked Spore before the official release, and a version without the draconian Digital Rights Management measures is currently the most downloaded package at infamous piracy haven The Pirate Bay. All of the DRM hassle seems likely to hurt only the legit customers who actually paid for their copy of the game. The morally challenged fans get a cleaner copy for free. What did you win, EA? Bad publicity, mostly.
Why should I care?
Those Amazon reviews probably won't put too big of a dent in Spore sales, because most consumers still seem rather oblivious about the issues involved. If you don't mind paying good money for what might become an expensive coaster when you reinstall it too much, and you have no problem sharing hard disk space, processing power, and heaven only knows what data the game might send back to its creator, then by all means, join the Spore craze.
The more cautious among us might prefer to wait for an updated version, assuming that EA understands how ugly the DRM looks in the light of day and finds a way to remove it. You'd think that the likes of Sony, Electronic Arts, Liberty Media (Nasdaq: LINTA ) , and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) would wise up eventually and stop making its fans jump through hoops. They must have some engineers, lawyers -- heck, maybe even managers -- who get what's wrong with this picture.
Whether we're looking at video games, movies, music, or enterprise software, any copy protection scheme the makers come up with will eventually be broken. These companies pay dearly to concoct their new anti-piracy measures, causing only minor inconvenience to the bad guys but potentially huge problems for the real customers. The publishers end up losing money on the whole deal before the first would-be buyer jumps the moral fence.
You're throwing good money after bad, amigos. Spore is but another piece of evidence of that.