Why EA’s DRM “backpedal” rings so hollow

EA labels president Frank Gibeau has grabbed some eye-catching headlines with his recent statement to GamesIndustry that Digital Rights Management (DRM) is “a failed dead-end strategy.”

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It’s a crowd-pleasing phrase, but words need to be backed up by actions for them to have any meaning. EA has made conciliatory noises about DRM before, yet continues to use multiple forms of it to control and manage players’ access to games.

In the very same article, Gibeau defends SimCity; a game which currently requires both an EA Origin account and an always online internet connection to function. By any meaningful standards, those requirements fall under the umbrella of DRM. In Gibeau’s eyes, however, they seem to instead qualify as an “online service.”

Effectively, EA’s man has handwaved away DRM by giving it a different name and a new definition.

Frank Gibeau

We’ve been here before. Back in 2008, EA’s Spore generated considerable customer backlash for employing the third-party SecuROM DRM system for activation and access to the game. At first, this restricted users to three installations of the title. That’s three in total – you didn’t get any back for uninstalling. As with SimCity, this customer-spiting measure resulted in a spate of one star reviews on Amazon.

EA eventually backed down, to an extent. The installation limit was eased, allowing players as many install and uninstalls as they wished, as long as Spore wasn’t installed on more than five machines at once. Gibeau’s line in this case was that EA needed to “adapt our policy to accommodate our legitimate consumers.”

At this stage he was still citing piracy as the reason for EA’s pro-DRM stance. “We assumed that consumers understand piracy is a huge problem,” he told the LA Times.

Spore’s DRM was cracked within a day of its debut release date, meaning that those who turned to piracy were rewarded with a superior, unlimited installation version of the game. It did nothing to prevent the spread of pirated copies.


In 2011, word began to spread that the EA-published Dragon Age 2 would make use of SecuROM. This was particularly galling to fans of the series, because the original Dragon Age: Origins had been quite customer-friendly in that regard.

After at first denying that Dragon Age 2 used SecuROM at all, EA and developers BioWare waited until days before the release date to admit that “We use a release control product which is made by the same team, but is a completely different product … We use this and only this, and not the SecuROM DRM.”

In fact, that ‘different product’ was still SecuROM in nature. Dragon Age 2 used a SecuROM ‘Release Date Checker’; different from the limited activations DRM in Spore, but created by the same company (Sony DADC) and sold under the SecuROM name. Dragon Age 2‘s End User Licensing Agreement made no mention of the terms SecuROM or Sony DADC.

To go further risks getting bogged down in endless technical detail. But the information above clearly shows that the EA of 2011 remained very attached to the idea of using SecuROM technology as an effort to prevent piracy. All the company had learned from the Spore release was that customers would not tolerate draconian installation limits, and that semantic wordplay was an effective method of getting around unhelpful truths.


So, to SimCity and Frank Gibeau’s latest comments.

In 2013 EA has finally figured out that it’s not just the term ‘SecuROM’ that’s toxic to a selection of informed players, but that anything labelled as DRM doesn’t go down too well either. As a result, we’re seeing another effort by the company to redefine, obfuscate and manipulate what Digital Rights Management actually means.

EA’s new strategy is not an end to DRM. It is simply to move from portraying DRM as a “necessary evil” to protect against piracy (long since discredited as ineffective nonsense,) to something that somehow benefits players.

According to Gibeau, “… you don’t always know what the customer is going to want. You have to innovate and try new things and surprise people and in this particular case that’s what we sought to achieve.” You see, EA had no idea that players of the SimCity series, a game that until this point had been almost entirely single player in nature, would want the opportunity to play it offline! They were just trying to innovate. You wouldn’t want to prevent innovation, would you?

SimCity’s always online demand, alongside the enforced use of Origin, looks and functions exactly like the DRM Gibeau appears so keen to deride as a failure. But this, apparently, is merely a coincidence. Just a happenstance of Maxis’ bold, creative vision.


This would appear to be the future for EA’s DRM strategy. Rather than use the term itself, the company will publish games that, by pure chance, have enforced multiplayer functionality that demands an “always online” connection (or worse.) Their PR department and marketing contractors will paint this as a benefit for all players, and hope enough people fall into line.

Meanwhile, EA’s Origin service (which, lest we forget, is just a rebranding of the old, unpopular EA Download Manager, co-developed by … oh, guess who, SecuROM creators Sony DADC) continues to stock scores of titles that make clear use of DRM.

Far from backtracking on Digital Rights Management, EA is making every effort to redefine it as part of a “service.” By Frank Gibeau’s own admission, it’s now only reasonable to assume that “failed, dead-end strategies” are something the company actively seeks to pursue.

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