Following up on yesterday’s tirade against the decision to require repeated activation in Mass Effect and Spore, I’m looking at the fan reactions on various forums and websites. There is the list of cancellations at Amazon, the usual blather at Slashdot, the thread at The Inquirer (who?), and the discussion over at Shacknews. Okay, I didn’t read all of that, but I’ve taken as big a bite out of the list as I have time for and I feel like I have a good sense of what people are saying.
What I’m seeing this time is a little different than the BioShock controversy. The news broke before release this time around, with enough time for people to cancel their pre-orders or change their mind about the game. I’ve seen many, many messages from people claiming to have done so. (Yes, many people are doubtless claiming to have canceled when they never pre-ordered in the first place, but I’m sure lots of people have also just canceled without saying anything. The numbers behind this are difficult to guess at.) Enough people were burned – or at the very least annoyed – by the BioShock launch that they are going to be shy about buying a game similarly encumbered.
I’m also seeing a much lower percentage of the users supporting the DRM. Allow me to pull out some very vague
numbers wild guesses as a starting point: Having read a lot of comments during both events I’d say that with BioShock, it seemed like perhaps 25% or 33% of the users stood by 2kGames. This time around it looks to be well under 10%. Judging by the official thread on BioWare’s site – where you’re likely to have the highest concentration of pro-BioWare fans – I might put support for the DRM scheme at something like 5%. This scheme is obviously worse than the one used in BioShock, but also these users aren’t trying to rationalize a purchase they’ve already made.
With numbers like that, and given the number of pre-order cancellations, it might actually be possible for the EA bean counters to perceive the dollar value backlash amidst the noise. Pre-orders do not get canceled en masse very often, and someone should be able to put this thing on a spreadsheet and see a visible dent in projected sales, beginning at the point when the announcement was made.
Assuming this is true, what will they do next? The most likely outcome is that nothing will happen. Monoliths like EA do not change direction quickly. Money has been spent. Activation servers have been set up, SecuROM has been licensed, support personnel have been (nominally) trained, and this is obviously the beginning of a company-wide initiative to combat piracy, like the building of high fortified walls to protect against aerial bombing. For them to change direction now would require that lots of highly paid and magnificently ignorant people admit that they have just made a huge mistake and wasted a great deal of money. This is generally a very dangerous thing for a publicly owned company to do.
Even if the pre-order cancellations are manifestly hurting the bottom line and even if it’s clear that this system was a bad move, in all likelihood EA won’t be nimble enough to change their behavior in time for it to matter for this game, and in the grand scheme of things Mass Effect is nothing to them.
Systems like this don’t seem to effect the sales of the game it’s in. This system won’t hurt the sales of Mass Effect so much as the sales of the next game the customer thinks of buying. But even if by some miracle the SecuROM system causes Mass Effect sales to tank, and even if they accept that those lost sales are the result of the system instead of blaming piracy, they will likely assume that this is just a public relations problem and that they need to do a better job of “educating the consumer” by painting a smiley face on the thing.
But having EA go forward with this plan is not the worst outcome in my book. For me, the worst possible move would be for them to relent on the ten-day checkup system and just keep the initial activation. Right now the public is firmly aligned against them, and a small concession* like this would likely divide the fans again. Some (like me) wouldn’t budge, but some would be glad that “EA listened to us!”, and run out to buy the thing. EA would learn the wrong lesson. Doing this would mean EA would change their mind on the implementation details but utterly fail to grasp the principles of the thing. I’m very much hoping they stick to their guns, and that fan reaction is large enough to be visible, in some meaningful way, to the people at EA.
I don’t have much hope that they are even capable of being educated. The truth of DRM in games has been appallingly obvious for the past several years to anyone familiar with the word “torrent”, and if they haven’t figured it out by now – despite that being their job – then there is no forum thread long enough or passionate enough to drive home the facts of the thing. But if they can at least see a negative impact on the bottom line, they might slowly grasp how the thing works, even if the why eludes them. If they can err on a large enough scale and lose enough money doing so, then maybe we can be rid of this absurd rot five years from now.
It’s a long shot, but it’s what I hope for.
* A small concession for us, but a major concession for them, which just shows how far apart the two sides are.
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