The flaws of digital distribution come to the fore again after users in Myanmar remained banned from EA's Origin service after sanctions lift.
A Burmese Reddit user named trivia_sublime commanded the attention of the site's home page this morning after he reported that Electronic Arts had blocked users in Myanmar from using its digital distribution platform Origin following a recent update, reportedly in compliance with U.S. sanction laws. The internet rallied to his cause, to put it lightly. At the time of writing, the post had 6,770 upvotes as well as crossover posts in other subreddits such as PC Master Race's call to "assist our brethren," nabbing 6,145 more upvotes. And already, it seems, the worst of it will soon to be over.
We at Motherboard passed along this information to a contact at EA and received this response:
"We are working to restore access to Origin for our players in Myanmar. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused, and we'll share updates on timing as soon as possible."
It's not entirely clear, though, if the sanctions against Myanmar were to blame for denial of service as the response said nothing about them. (EA hasn't replied to our followup questions.) When we spoke to two separate EA customer support representatives via chat earlier, they were unaware there were any such problems reportedly affecting Burmese players:
And then later:
The incident caused such a huge outcry in part because the sanctions were, in fact, dropped weeks ago. President Obama issued an executive order on October 7 that lifted the economic sanctions against Myanmar following the March election of Htin Kyaw, the country's first proper civilian leader in over 50 years. The sanctions themselves had been in place since 1997, although trivial_sublime and other users on EA's forums claim they've been buying games from Origin for months now with no problems and were able to access those games as recently as "early September."
It gets stranger. The first reports that Myanmar Origin users were getting "Access Denied" messages started surfacing in mid-September, and soon after an EA community manager named Tom told Iranians who were having the same issue that "In compliance with US embargoes and sanctions laws, Origin is not available in Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine (Crimea region)."
This was only a day after President Obama met with Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi on September 14, after which most commentators assumed a full lift on the sanctions would come soon after.
Thus Trivial and other players want their money back, and he's using the incident to warn of some of the pitfalls of digital distribution. It wasn't just that he couldn't buy new games, it's that he couldn't even play the games he already owned before EA enacted the ban. And while EA's response helps this immediate situation, players in the other countries Tom listed above are apparently still unable to play games they already own.
"This highlights a crucial element of the [Terms of Service] of big game companies - the money that you pay them gives you essentially nothing in return, except for an empty promise that the game company may let you play their game until they decide you can't," Trivial said.
Specifically, EA's Terms of Service document says:
"You agree to abide by U.S. and other applicable export control laws and agree not to transfer the Application to a foreign national, or national destination, which is prohibited by such laws, without first obtaining, and then complying with, any requisite government authorization."
Trivial said he's spent "hundreds of dollars" on around 20 games for the platform, and his post implies that he was planning on spending more on the recent release of Battlefield 1. He's not originally from Myanmar and said his account wasn't even created there, but he's got other local friends who have the same problem (and the forums seem to back this up).
"We need to send a message to EA and every content distributor that this kind of behavior is NOT okay, and that if your access is revoked because of their decision, that they need to refund everything that you've paid into it," he said in a reply to a commenter in the Reddit thread.
Some commenters have suggested using a VPN to circumvent the restrictions, but Trivial said that wasn't really a practical solution:
"Seems like a VPN works, but ping here is bad enough already," he said. "If you go through a VPN, no Battlefield for you."
Normally it's governments that block games in entire countries, not the publishers, such as when Morocco started banning access to Steam and other digital distribution platforms in May. But digital distributors themselves often anger and annoy their users through other restriction policies, such as when Steam restricted users from playing games outside the countries their codes were redeemed last year.
That move followed a similar, earlier restriction in late 2014 that prevented players from gifting games from one country to another, as the weak ruble was apparently allowing players to pick up big-name games for cheap on the Russian version of Steam for what amounted to a savings of around 50% when entered into their American (or other) accounts.
In the end, though, we still don't really know why EA was denying service to some customers in Myanmar, although its speedy response to fix the problem is surely welcome. But it's yet another case of how little "ownership" counts for alongside the convenience of digital distribution.
Books, CDs, 1980s Nintendo cartridges—these were all things we could count on being able to use in most places and at any time long after we bought them. I'm not a heavy Origin user myself, but I do own hundreds of games on Steam, and investments of time and money aside, the thought of losing them in an instant is not a pleasant one.