Owners

The real idea is that if you offer a game that is better when you buy it, then people will actually buy it. We wouldn’t have built it if we thought that it was really going to piss off our customers. – Ubisoft spokesperson, interview with PC Gamer UK

Let’s discuss Ubisoft’s aggressive new DRM system. I apologize if I’m a bit rambling and unclear, but my thoughts on this matter are a bit disorganized right now. For instance, I cannot decide whether Ubisoft should be an “it” or a “they”, and so you may find subject-verb disagreement and pronoun inconsistency throughout this post. Forgive me.

We all know that this is the worst-case DRM scenario, the one that firmly puts paid to any notion that PC gamers own their games or even enjoy the right to play them. It is the ultimate in “by our sufferance” customer relations, and there is a small part of me that finds Ubi’s high-handedness breathtaking. It’s one thing to simply pull your games from the PC, but to throw PC gamers out of their legally purchased copy the moment the copy protection can’t talk to Ubi’s servers? The only way Ubi could possibly improve on this is if Yves Guillemot comes to your house and stubs out his Gitane in your morning cereal.

The Scope of the Problem

We know that requiring a permanent online connection is not a happy point for a lot of PC gamers, but it is necessary for the system to work. – interview with PC Gamer UK

We can dispense with any “most users are always connected” nonsense right now. While true, most users probably do not enjoy 100% perfect connections. A couple times a week, the connection to one of my computers will drop for a couple minutes. Not a significant amount of time, but enough to plunge me out of any new Ubisoft game I might be playing at the time. Furthermore, I have been known to travel places with worse networks than the one I am on now, and sometimes I go to a Land Without Internet. At best Ubisoft’s games won’t launch for me. At worst, they’ll punt me in the middle of a game, erasing progress, breaking my rhythm, and exhausting my patience. That’s what $50 buys you now.

Which isn’t that bad, when you think about it. This is the kind of thing that would drive me crazy at the holidays (I don’t take games with me on vacation) and those rare moments when my connection drops in the middle of a game. Since I already play a lot online anyway, I can deal take abrupt exits or freezes with some equanimity. In terms of actual inconvenience, Ubi’s system is rather minimal to those of us with reliable broadband connections.

If you are not so privileged that you have reliable access to a fast, stable connection, Ubi’s new system should probably be a deal-breaker. The system assumes and demands continuous access.

But what Ubisoft do not understand is that this really has very little to do with the pros and cons of this one particular DRM. It’s about relationships.

The Real Issue

The system is made by guys who love PC games. They play PC games, they are your friends. - interview with PC Gamer UK

DRM almost always communicates distrust and indifference. You could say that the sheer number of pirated game copies is cause for distrust, but paying customers are never going to be interested in that logic. The guy walking out of Best Buy or making a purchase via Steam doesn’t care about the millions of pirated copies that are swapped among thieves. He cares about his copy. The one he paid for, and expects to be able to play with a minimum of hassle. You can put whatever the hell you want in the EULA. The user doesn’t care when he clicks “I agree.” From his point of view, it’s his game. He has a receipt to prove it.

When I look at my bookshelf packed with titles going back to 1995 (!), I feel the joy of ownership. My game collection, whether the physical one or the digital one, is a source of pride and reassurance. I can see myself in it, the same way I can see the story of my life in the books lining my walls.

When you create and publish something, audience members form a relationship with it. Silent Hunter III is not an object I keep in my home, but an experience that is a small part of who I am. Ubisoft published a submarine simulation, but it was in the act of playing it that it began to take on meaning. It opened a window into a lost world. I have memories of the game that are unique: nobody else has the exact same memories. But we have had experiences that we can share with one another.

With its new approach to DRM, Ubisoft is attempting to wrest the game and all that goes with it out of my hands. It won’t affect Silent Hunter III, true, but it will affect Silent Hunter V. It will affect Beyond Good & Evil 2 should that ever come out. It will affect all the interesting, oddball titles that Ubisoft, practically alone among the major publishers, still produces.

Grounds for Divorce

PCG: What happens if Ubisoft take the DRM servers offline for maintenance, or suffer a technical breakdown?

Ubisoft: In the case of a server failure their games will be taken offline, and you’ll be unable to play them. “The idea is to avoid that point as much as possible, but we have been clear from the beginning that the game does need an internet connection for you to play. So if it goes down for real for a little while, then yeah, you can’t play.

” – interview with PC Gamer UK

Ubisoft’s DRM methods say, emphatically and stridently, that these games are not mine. They are Ubisoft’s. I can’t play them when I want, I can play them when Ubisoft allows it. I can form whatever relationship I want with the game provided I accept that it is not, and never will be, mine. And that message will be part of the experience of every Ubisoft game going forward.

Even more destructive, perhaps, is the way Ubisoft’s relationship with PC gamers has become one of antagonism. If you were operating under any illusion that Ubisoft liked you or even cared about your preferences, Ubisoft have done their damndest to straighten you out. This is a heavy-handed solution imposed on a vocally unwilling audience, and they are gambling that you want their games enough to accept the poison pill.

That’s a shame, because I always considered Ubi one of the good guys. What other major publisher would throw its weight behind a game like Settlers VII, Dawn of Discovery, or Silent Hunter V? Ubi seemed like one of the few major publishers who still got what makes PC gamers tick. Now this.

    • Ryan
    • February 19th, 2010 4:13pm

    Excellently said, and 100% true. This should be printed and snail-mailed to Ubisoft, just so it makes the biggest impact on them it can.

  1. The DRM that ubisoft has been using is already pretty bad. The TAGES system in DAwn of Discovery managed to screw up my Kindle. Not quite sure how or what it’s doing, but when I’ve got Dawn of Discovery loaded, I can’t connect my Kindle to my PC. On top of that, you can only install the game 3 times. I’ve done it twice now, so I had better really, _really_ like the last time I try it.

    That’s what my $50 got me. That expansion pack they’ve got coming out soon? To hell with it.

    I had been thinkng about picking up Assassin’s Creed 2. But to hell with that, too. Their DRM policy turned a paying customer into a non-paying, non-customer. I’m not certain it’s converted a single pirate into a customer.

    It’s _conversion_ from piracy , rather than piracy _prevention_ that should be the goal of DRM. If you’ve got 100 people playing your game, of whom 90 are pirates… well, that’s aggravating. but there’s no business case for doing anything that removes the 90 pirates if it leaves you with only the 10 paying customers you started with. And there’s certainly no business case for removing the 90 pirates while leaving you with 8 paying customers.

    Ubi is going to drive away a whole lot of paying customers. How dare they complain about how hard it is to turn a profit from the PC market.

  2. That’s $60 now actually.

    I was thinking about getting this sometime down the line on a Steam deal, but now I don’t know if I ever will. The same goes for Splinter Cell Conviction – a game I was already unsure about.

    What PC publishers don’t seem to realize is that this kind of DRM makes a lot of people become pirates. Not to steal a game, but just to get a smooth gameplay experience.

    Why can’t they just fall back on Steam’s DRM? It’s the only one that hasn’t pissed off gamers. Are they too intimidated by Valve’s status as a digital platform holder? It’s not that different from releasing a console game in agreement with Microsoft – except you don’t have to pay Valve license fees.

    • Long Tail Gamer just tweeted this, which seems germane. There is also, of course, the old XKCD standby.

      I have always been resistant to the “DRM creates piracy argument”. In my experience it has usually been offered by pirates who are justifying their criminality as some kind of moral stance: “If these guys would stop putting SecuROM on their games, maybe I’d buy them.” A lot of the rabid anti-DRM types hate any effort to make piracy more difficult, and are unwilling to meet publishers halfway.

      The problem, however, is that publishers are working to make that argument a valid one. Ubisoft have finally done it (and don’t for a second trust their promise that they’ll patch out the DRM if they ever take a game’s servers down). We won’t even go into Starforce. Long Tail Gamer’s tweet reminded me that I used to have much, much more satisfying experiences with movies that I’d downloaded. The DVD experience sucks now thanks to those shitty promos and ineffectual legal notices. The PC game experience is heading the same direction.

      Punning Pundit’s math is inarguable, and I’ve never really understood why publishers keep trying to fight it. The PC is an open platform and any open platform is going to be subject to abuse. If you can’t take that, and Ubisoft seems to be saying that they no longer can, then I have to wonder why you are still bothering making PC games. I don’t say that in anger. It’s just that you are fighting something inherent to the platform, and earning a lot of bad PR doing it.

      My suspicion is that things like this are gestures for investors. If you are still making PC games, I can only assume that means the platform is still profitable. Just not as profitable as you would like. So you create a DRM system that you can take to the money men and say, “We think this will cut the piracy rate to 75 percent and increase PC sales by 30 percent.” Whether you believe that is unimportant. It just shows that you’re serious about tackling a problem.

  1. February 19th, 2010
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