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.