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Big Companies Are Still Missing the Boat When It Comes to Piracy

14/03/2013 17:30 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 10:12 BST

This year's release of the fifth installment of SimCity, the most popular strategy series of all time, represents the first new full edition for ten years, and one which has inspired an understandable groundswell of anticipation. And yet, a little over a week after its launch, Amazon.com has briefly suspended the sale of the digital version of the game, which has received a paltry average rating of just 1 ½ stars from nearly 2,000 reviews (any encouragement you may want to glean from the extra ½ star is quickly dispelled when considering that this is the most "helpful" 5 star review).

Naturally, you'd assume the gameplay mechanics must be at fault for tarnishing the reputation of this once stellar series, but the actual game has received near-universal praise. The true reason is the inclusion of highly controversial Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, which means that despite SimCity being predominantly a single-player game, the user must be connected to the internet at all times, a glaring issue for many of those who play PC games often when they're travelling or to while away time without internet, or who simply (and understandably) don't want to use the internet when they have absolutely no reason to.

When announced, the software's use was met with derision from all corners of the gamersphere, and wasn't helped by EA's already less than favourable relationship with the gaming community thanks to countless tales of woefully inept customer service. When several of the game's developers took to Reddit for an AMA (an informal Q&A session), presumably in an attempt to score some easy PR points, it backfired horrendously, with the top comments section quickly becoming swamped with people attacking SimCity's use of DRM.

Any chance of the game being given some respite upon release quickly evaporated, as those gamers who were willing to grin and bear the DRM (or who simply didn't know about the always-online requirement) were immediately met with innumerable issues, as EA's servers predictably buckled under the weight of the traffic, meaning many of those who hadn't been put off weren't able to play anyway. Even when the servers are back up and running, there's the looming threat, predicted by many commentators, that once another SimCity comes around, EA will simply turn off the servers for the current edition, rendering it unplayable.

What possible reason could EA have for making such a catastrophic, misguided decision? The answer lies in the hysterical fear of a now-familiar foe; piracy. Illegal downloading has, according to various media voices, been promising the apocalypse of modern culture ever since the days of Napster. The music industry has made commendable steps in combating the problem, with several extremely comprehensive and affordable online services offering instant music, but elsewhere, other media sectors have lagged behind.

Admittedly, it is mostly the large, profit-driven game producers such as EA who seem incapable of understanding that gamers realise that their monetary backing of a game directly influences decisions to make sequels, and will thus be willing to pay for games they want to play more of. However, film studios still appear to be universally neanderthal when it comes to even understanding the problem, let alone how to deal with it effectively.

Although the likes of Netflix and LoveFilm have provided something of a framework to fighting piracy, they still enforce many of the rules that drive film lovers to piracy in the first place, such as regional favouritism (the selection choice on the UK version of Netflix pales in comparison to its US counterpart). We're still treated to the same condescending pre-film adverts at the cinema, telling us how piracy will mean the certain death of the movie business whilst casually ignoring the fact that four of the top five highest grossing films ever have been released since 2009. As with gamers, film goers appreciate that it's a film's box office returns that will dictate similar films being produced, and they vote with their wallets.

Instead, it is the studios and the business that must change - they regularly churn out cookie-cutter flicks with the same rotation of humdrum "stars" rather than innovating. Cinema prices have never been higher. They still inexplicably penalise filmophiles waiting to see a much anticipated movie with varying severity depending on where they're geographically based - Cloud Atlas is the latest in a long list of examples, having opened at the end of October in many territories, but only in February in the UK, a full four months after first seeing the light of day. No wonder it has all but disappeared from our cinemas within two weeks of release - everyone who wanted to see it has had plenty of time to do so.

Piracy represents a truly unenviable quandary for the film and games industries, but their continual failure to grasp even the basic essence of the issue, or their customers, represents a far greater and more worrying trend. Whilst it's impossible to say what would be a surefire successful resolution in fighting illegal downloads whilst keeping customers' interests first and foremost, it is absolutely clear that what the film and games business are currently trying isn't working in any shape or form.