Embattled over the SecuROM digital rights management controversy regarding Spore, Electronic Arts is now challenging assertions that the copy protection is resulting in sales losses.
EA recently revealed that it has sold 1 million units of Spore since launch. At the same time, TorrentFreak, a weblog dedicated to aggregating news for the BitTorrent P2P protocol, is claiming that Sporehas been downloaded 500,000 times on BitTorrent alone, saying it may become "the most pirated game ever."
The editors at TorrentFreak suggest, "The idea behind DRM is that it will stop people from pirating the game, but in reality, it often has the opposite effect."
In addition, researcher Big Champagne told Forbes that while high levels of torrent activity are common for major PC releases, the fast pace at which Spore's download numbers accelerated was unusual. Big Champagne's Eric Garland said the DRM constraints "may have inadvertently spurred the pirates on."
So could the DRM have created more lost sales for Electronic Arts than it prevented? Mariam Sughayer of EA's corporate communications department says this isn't the case.
Not So Fast
"Stepping aside from the whole issue of DRM, people need to recognize that every BitTorrent download doesnít represent a successful copy of a game, let alone a lost sale," she tells Gamasutra.
In estimating losses to the industry attributable to piracy, the Entertainment Software Association has come to a similar conclusion, says Dan Hewitt, the ESA's senior director of communications.
"Itís important to remember that itís not a one-for-one equation," Hewitt says. "Our calculation isnít such that we say that every game thatís been stolen is a sale loss."
Because of the innate complexities, Hewitt says the ESA aims to be "conservative" in its methods of quantifying losses -- another reason for this is that often piracy attempts are only partially successful and result in sales anyway, and it's hard to parse those situations out.
Downplaying the piracy issue in this particular case, EA's Sughayer says: "Weíve talked to people that made several unsuccessful attempts to download the game and ended up with incomplete, slow, buggy or unusable code. In one case, a file identified as Spore contained a virus."
"To say that every download represents a successful copy of the game Ė- or that thereís been more than 500K copies downloaded -- thatís just not true."
Perhaps oddly, these comments represent an almost total role reversal from the normal dialogue on the topic from publishers and industry associations -- which usually stresses sales lost to piracy.
IDC analyst Billy Pidgeon authored a market analysis report on the online PC industry titled 'U.S. Online PC Gaming Industry Forecast 2008-2012', and he also disapproves of the assumption of equity between downloads and lost sales.
"Iím glad that publishers are not adhering to that view," says Pidgeon. "This needs to be an above-board, truthful discussion... by coming from that assumption, I think that puts publishers on a higher ground."
But just because sales losses are hard to quantify doesn't mean that even casual piracy doesn't threaten the industry, he warns. "Itís arguable that casual piracy in PC games threatens the market in such a way that it doesnít threaten one particular publisher, but it could even threaten the experience for the end users."
Valve's Great Idea
But in the crossfire between the need to prevent piracy and the need to satisfy users, what's the best solution? Pidgeon says that Valve's got the right idea with its Steam service, which is visible, obvious to the user, and adds additional value.
"I do think that online authentication is inevitable," he says. "If you look at something like Steam, thatís basically what it is Ė you sign into Steam, itís proof that youíve paid for the software, and it gives you features, so you are allowed to [install it on any machine you're logged on to], and you also get additional downloads, patches, fixes, and there is a built-in community."
And companies who offer services like Valve's benefit from having more of an infrastructure in place to potentially sell that additional content. "I do think that's where things are headed," says Pidgeon, "games becoming more of a service, where monetization occurs because of that authentication."
What Should EA Do?
But that still doesn't answer lingering questions about whether EA made the right decision with Spore's DRM, or what options it has now to cope with the wave of backlash -- whether or not that backlash is deserved.
Pidgeon praised EA's responsiveness shortly after Spore's release, when the company reacted quickly to user concerns by loosening restrictions on the game. But at the same time, EA "can't just cave in," he says.
"You could remove the DRM... and I think that that would be even a possibility in the future, when youíre looking at an authentication service that people see some value in subscribing to," says Pidgeon.
"I think thatís the gap -Ė EA and other companies really have to look at adopting that sort of Steam model."
Storm In A Teacup?
Interestingly, Gamasutra's Chris Remo has been speaking on this subject in a Penny-Arcade.com editorial about Spore and DRM published late last week.
He commented: "I can't help but feel a lot of the vocal protesters are simply getting caught up in the righteous fury of the moment", adding: "Though it's not a popular view, in my mind a lot of gamers are overreacting -- look how many people buy music through iTunes, whose DRM mechanics are hardly lenient."
Remo's conclusion? That the public -- and indeed, press -- frenzy may be getting out of control and perpetuating a backlash beyond the scope of the original problem.