How Not to Inhibit Mitosis: A Spore Case Study

I started to blog about things I’ve learned from the recent fiasco with Electronic Arts’ release of Spore, only to find the post started to look less like a timeline of events and learnings and more like a case study. So I figured I might as well try my hand at writing one…

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From Cheers to Jeers

As Tim reached over to pick up his ringing mobile phone, a quick glance at the caller ID info was all he needed to see. He had seen the reviews of Mark’s new production, and he knew exactly where to begin the conversation. “So, just how bad is it Mark?”, he spoke as he picked up the call. “I feel like I’m on one of those free-fall amusement park rides” replied Mark, not missing a beat.  “I mean, what the heck is wrong with these fickle gamers – they better damn well understand we’re a business!”

Mark and Tim had been close friends since they bunked together in college, and often bounced ideas off one another. Now Mark needed someone to talk to as customers reacted overwhelmingly negative to his newest game release. As senior producer of the much anticipated game Spore, he was responsible for distribution of the most talked-about project in the gaming market all year. Mark worked for game publisher Electronic Arts (“EA”), who placed high hopes to extend a rebound from lackluster Q4 2008 results, after reporting a 400 million increase in sales in Q1 2009. There was still the nagging issue of a net loss for Q1 2009, but EA expected as high as an 80% margin on Spore, in an industry where 30% margins are more the norm.

Spore was also poised to capitalize off the two hottest trends in the market. Gameplay involved the creation of an alien species, which a player must guide through stages of evolution and social development – from single cell organism to complex society. Some called Spore a “god simulation”. The game concept lends itself to user generated content, which was accepted as a “must have” feature for any successful release. Spore also capitalized off the concept of Internet play, which had been the driver behind more than 50% of EA’s Q1 revenue increase. Players would be free to create a species and upload their creations to share with friends. Will Wright, the creator of Spore felt that the nexus of rich user-generated worlds which were sharable on the internet would lead to the next big hit. Most industry observers lauded the direction he’d taken.

High Expectations

Mark and his team carefully tied a limited release to the July 14th E3 show in Los Angeles; one of the big showcase events the industry. While Mark figured he would have to compete for attention share with other game titles debuting at the show, he knew no one has the kind of buzz Spore had going in. The Spore trailer debut at the show was welcomed with thunderous applause and only heightened the feeling that he was on to something big.

Mark and lead designer Will also carefully devised a timed release of the game to better forecast how well received the game would be. The game came in two parts: the first was a creature creator, where players could construct the look of their aliens, and the second is the game itself, where players could interact with the creatures of their own design. The first part of the game was thus a barometer for the second (and main) release of the game. The results were over 1 million new player creations by mid June, and the top selling game for the month, more than doubling the number of games shipped by anyone else.

The Piracy Tradeoff

“I still don’t understand why the game release has gone sour, Mark..”. Mark let out an audible sigh and then began to speak in hushed tones. “We knew buyers would distribute copies to their friends, Tim”, said Mark, “so we had to put something in place which would prevent gamers from sharing their game copies with their friends. We originally had the game connect to our systems every ten days to perform a validity check. A game copy deemed illegal would alert us as well as shut down the game.”

“Hold on Mark”, Tim interrupted. “What about people who don’t have internet access?”

“Well, we had to nix the plan after we realized it would report back too many false positives. We figured it would also spike our customer service calls with angry customers if game players weren’t connected to the Internet. Instead we opted to have the game install a maximum of three times, after which the game would not install anymore.”

The Release Date Crash

Mark knew something was wrong as he began to read the numerous reviews on the morning of Spore’s launch. To his surprise, the reviews mostly talked about the anti-copy measures taken as opposed to the actual game content. It appeared as though many game players were in full revolt, and were either refusing to buy the game, or were actively trying to return the game title for a refund. One game critic website in particular caught Mark’s attention:

“No matter what people think about the actual game play, the story now centers around the DRM scheme EA built into the title, and a grassroots movement has begun to tell gamers just how bad the DRM sucks.

The method? Bombing the comments on Amazon.com. Right now the game has 222 customer reviews, with 194 of them giving the game one star (out of a possible 5).”

Mark quickly navigated over to internet retailer Amazon’s Spore webpage, where he found an overwhelmingly negative rating on the game, followed by scores of buyers and would-be buyers complaining about the anti-piracy measures. Mark knew carpet-bombing Amazon would be particularly nasty way of protesting the anti-piracy measures, since casual gamers who aren’t aware of the “protest” may not bother to read the content of the reviews and only assume the game isn’t very good. A quick call to his team confirmed his worst fears: early revenues were not shaping up as expected.

Mark turned back to the Amazon website Spore page and began to read through the reviews to try to understand the uprising. Two feedback posts in particular seemed to sum up the mood:

“I upgrade my computer often, and still play some old favorite games. I wouldn’t be able to do this with Spore unless I stop upgrading to newer computers. This is more of a resell to paying customers package.”

“This basically means that you are actually RENTING the game, instead of owning it. The game WILL stop to function in the future. That’s inevitable, because even if EA keeps the activation servers going, there IS going to be a time when EA will simply cease to exist because of financial issues or federal laws (like most businesses eventually do). “

Turning it Around

Mark was becoming increasingly irritated the more he thought about it. “We never intended for this to get in the way of legitimate buyers, Tim. All we want is to make sure is that everyone pays for what they use. What’s worse still is that copies of the game are out on the Internet anyway. What a catastrophe.”

Mark picks up a drink and takes a sip, beginning to speak again after an uncomfortable pause: “I expected complaining to come from would-be pirates, but this is just irritating.. it’s affecting our bottom line. It’s not unreasonable to want to install the game after buying a new computer, I guess, but gamers will just have to compromise.”

Tim cleared his throat and replied “Well, maybe that’s the point Mark. Customers hate to be told what they can and can’t do with things they buy. You’ll need to find a better way, because it looks like they’re not just voting with their wallets anymore.”

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This entry was published on September 13, 2008 at 8:36 PM. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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