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Can Ubisoft shed its DRM bad guy image?
Can Ubisoft shed its DRM bad guy image? Exclusive
September 5, 2012 | By Kris Graft

Ubisoft has a terrible reputation when it comes to anti-piracy and digital rights management policies. And let's face it: that terrible reputation was absolutely well-earned.

When PC players think of Ubisoft and DRM, such despised phrases might come to mind as "always-on internet requirement," "security gap" and "PC gamers are bitching." These phrases refer to policies and comments that can be traced directly back to the publisher.

So when Ubisoft approached Gamasutra to talk about DRM, I half-expected the company to defend, or at least try to explain away its anti-piracy transgressions.

But in a phone interview, Ubisoft's VP of digital publishing Chris Early was fairly candid about Ubisoft's missteps in the realm of anti-piracy.

"If you look back to early 2011 and before, we did at one point in time go with an always-on activation, for any game," Early said, referring to one of Ubisoft's most reviled DRM methods. "We realized that while it was probably one of the strictest forms of DRM, it wasn't the most convenient for our customers. We listened to the feedback, and have removed that requirement from those games, and stopped doing that going forward."

That "feedback" Ubisoft heard was the entire video game blogosphere and its readers taking the company to task for draconian DRM policies. Here's the thing: the worst kinds of DRM practices are the ones that so obviously chase this elusive specter called the "software pirate," leaving legitimate paying customers in their wake as collateral damage. Obstructive DRM like the always-connected method is a rotten way to fight piracy, and Early knows this.

"I think a lot of echoes of that policy from that time are still continuing today. And when you talk about Ubisoft and DRM, that's what people remember," he said. But that tarnished image is not just rooted in the incidents of always-connected DRM -- Ubisoft's DRM image problems come from the underlying sense that the company seems to have believed it could snuff out piracy completely. And claiming to be able to stop the unstoppable is hubris. People do not like hubris.

It's an image that Ubisoft is well aware of (hence the company's press reach-out), and is still having a tough time shaking. It doesn't help that the publisher has run into other DRM-related woes just this year. Even though Early said Ubisoft listened to customers and dropped always-on activation back in 2011, this year there was the controversy around strict hardware activation limitations in Ubisoft's strategy game Anno 2070, and just this summer, there was a security hole in Ubisoft's Uplay platform (Uplay's an attempt at friendlier, more transparent DRM). Early said the Anno 2070 issue was a "very specific case" that was remedied by having activation limits removed, and that the Uplay problem was a "coding error" that was addressed and fixed promptly.

DRM policy vs. DRM philosophy

So, what exactly is Ubisoft's DRM policy? According to Early: "It depends on the type of game, but in a single player game, we require a one-time authentication, then we allow offline play. Then for online multiplayer, obviously when you're playing online, you're authenticated and then you remain online while you're playing online. It's basically as simple as that. If you buy a game from Ubisoft, it is authenticated automatically. If you happen to buy it from somebody else, you have to have that one-time validation."

What Ubisoft is coming to grips with -- and what more progressive companies have been preaching for years -- is that players are capable of being "ok" with DRM. Steam is a platform for DRM. Consoles facilitate DRM. For DRM methods to be accepted, they must be transparent and unobtrusive, and they also must add value for players.

The more interesting commentary from Early isn't really Ubisoft's DRM policy. What's more telling is the underlying philosophy. "What we're trying to do is make [playing a game] easy for players who have legitimately bought our software, and at the same time put a registration requirement, or one-time activation requirement in, that includes some element of [software] protection," Early explained.

"The reality is, given enough time and effort, any game can be pirated, and many are. But what we're looking to do is validate the customer, then provide value to that customer for registering their software."

So what are some of these elements of "value"? For Ubisoft, it's granting access to online features like matchmaking, multiplayer, downloads of additional content and ongoing updates for a game -- fairly standard offerings in the online realm, these days. The publisher's Uplay platform fits into this strategy, serving as a client that brings all Ubisoft PC games and services to one place. Uplay includes a game library, social features, cloud saves, a digital shop, and a hub for free-to-play games. It also helps prevent piracy.

Piracy and lost sales

Just last month, reports quoted Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, who claimed "around a 93-95 percent piracy rate" for Ubisoft's PC games. If that's the case, it means that Ubisoft's DRM efforts have been nearly 100 percent ineffective. "Whether or not they're not effective, [those methods] are not in place today," said Early. "The truth of it, they're more inconvenient to our paying customers, so in listening to our players, we removed them.

"We've gone more the route of reward, as opposed to the stick, when it comes to DRM. That's the biggest shift," he said.

Speaking with Early, the tension surrounding DRM practices seems to have lifted, as if he felt he could now talk about piracy like a normal human being (instead of, for example, ignoring feedback from a customer base and acting like anti-piracy efforts have been successful). This demeanor might indicate that Ubisoft is ready to be reasonable about the realities of piracy. "I don't believe that every single pirated copy is a lost sale," said Early. "In some cases I'm sure it's just someone trying out a game. At some level, you can almost look at it as a demo program. So as far as many of those could've been sales? I'm not sure."

A question at the core of the piracy issue is why people resort to pirating content in the first place. For Early, the answer is easy. "I really believe the reason people pirate games are because people want to play them. So if we made lousy games, I don't think we'd have a piracy problem."

There are more specific motivations to illegally copy games that Early also recognizes. "In general, when people talk about piracy, there are all kinds of reasons cited," he added, "whether it's because of an economic imbalance, where people can't afford to buy a game in that particular [geographical territory], or it's a challenge, or it's someone who doesn't believe in supporting publishers by giving them money. There's a whole variety of reasons. That's why we want to focus on the rewards and benefits of owning the software."

For publishers like Ubisoft to move forward in a world where anyone with an internet connection can get virtually any piece of digital content for free, they need a fundamental shift in piracy philosophy -- one that is in support of its customers, not against them. Maybe Ubisoft should be lauded for what appears to be a fundamental mindset shift. Or maybe Ubisoft should be chastised for taking so long to realize that punishing paying customers is bad. In any case, at least the publisher's head of digital can acknowledge past mistakes, and realize his company needs to mend relations with PC customers, especially as that platform becomes increasingly viable.

"At the end of the day, the goodwill is going to come from our good performance," Early said. "If we deliver and continue to deliver what we're talking about -- a system that doesn't inconvenience paying players -- we'll slowly rebuild that goodwill."

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Simon Ludgate
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I think Ubisoft is going to have to go that extra mile, really bare its neck, to regain that goodwill. They have to be willing to trust their consumers, and tolerate having that trust abused. Re-releasing older games with all the DRM and online requirements completely stripped out (not just patched out) is a necessary first step, I think.

Kyle Redd
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Exactly! Why wouldn't *all* publishers make it a standard practice to remove DRM from their games after a few years, long after it has stopped serving any purpose except to continue to hassle legitimate customers?

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Yup. Not too long ago, I bought my first-ever Ubisoft games (Assassin's Creed and HOMM V) from I'll be happy to buy more as soon as Ubisoft makes more releases sans DRM, or comes out with official patches removing online requirements from disc releases.

It's not a matter of trust to do this. There is no reason to wait years. Whoever wants an illegal copy already has one within a week of release because everything gets cracked. Why not take out the DRM in the next patch after they learn pirates have a working crack?

Maria Jayne
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It isn't anti-piracy its anti-consumer. If you stop a pirate playing one of your games, you don't actually make money, you just lose the money it took to stop them. If you stop a customer playing one of your games, there is a pretty good chance you are going to lose money on future products due to that, since the customer will associate your label with that of being prevented from playing their game.

Now I'm no marketing genius, so if I could have figured that out before they even tried this, what are they paying those guys for? I'm convinced they lost money over this, there is no way this article would exist if they actually benefited from it.

The really sad thing, is that I actually think in the past, ubisoft have put out some decent products, I can't comment on recent games since I stopped buying them the momment they took that stance. However I certainly would have bought some of their titles over the last few years had this drm not existed.

Still, the announcement of the scrapping always on DRM does at least bring Watch Dogs back onto my radar. Now all that remains to be seen is if I can buy it outside of thier digital store.

Ron Dippold
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Well, I've been slandering you all over, Ubisoft, and you certainly deserved it. You were just daring us to pirate your PC games, and people certainly obliged. They just worked better that way.

But you make really good games, and they're better on PC if only you didn't purposely cripple them to boost your piracy stats. So if you give us Assassin's Creed 3 with one time activation on Steam, I'll buy your game at full price instead of substantially discounted on console in a few months as I usually do. I might even buy some DLC for once.

If you pull another 'On Dust', promising minimal DRM then slathering it all over like Ron Jeremy on a Kardashian, I will happily seed the torrent even if I don't play the game. But if you follow through, a little goodwill goes a hell of a long way.

Status: Guardedly optimistic.

kevin williams
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Would seem Jim Sterling called it again - well done.

As he stated, without out any respect, these large publishers are playing a deadly game of trying to squeeze cash out of a audience they have treated rough. With the mess in the industry, stupid management decisions hidden in PR spin are just not needed. Wonder when EA will make their announcement?

Michael G
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They need to stop looking for ways to stall pirates, it won't ever work. Some people just don't want to play for games and they're dicks for it. But a lot of people don't want to pay £35 for a game that turns out to be a big pile of shit and with the decline of demos in the last 5 years they need another way to find out if a game is right for them so they don't pirate. Maybe a 2 or 3 day access pass to the whole game for free or a small fee.

Joachim Tresoor
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Slightly sidetracking here, but what about consoles? Do they still block the backing up of save game files, preventing you from continuing your game after replacing a broken PS3 (like AC2). Not sure if this is just PS3, or also X-box/PC?

Roderick Hossack
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During this year's Steam Summer Sale, I bought a copy of Assassin's Creed: Revelations. I dug up my old Xbox wireless receiver, hooked up my laptop to my TV, and hit play.

Instead of starting the game, something called Uplay ran, asking for login details. I didn't have any, so I clicked Create Account. Nothing happened, so I clicked the "help" button. My browser opened to a blank page. I tried the URL in other browsers and got the same result.

After that, I promptly deleted the game and vowed never to spend money on another Ubisoft product again.

A few weeks later, I found out that the Uplay application contained a backdoor that allowed anyone to remotely install software on any PC that had a legally-purchased copy of a Ubisoft game on their computers.

I find it somewhat backwards that pirates don't have these problems.

Michael G
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It only does that if the browser plugin is enabled, though I think it's fixed now.

Adam Bishop
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Interesting that Ubisoft approached Gamasutra and Rock Paper Shotgun about doing interviews for this decision but not other large sites like IGN, Gamespot, or Kotaku. I'm curious what Ubisoft's strategy was in that regard.

Stuart Brown
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Targetting PC gamers without calling undue attention to their move among primarily console gamers?

Bart Stewart
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Regarding RPS, it's a widely-read PC-focused gaming site that's been very harsh on Ubisoft's DRM policies.

I'd guess that their PC emphasis may have been what got RPS in on what's probably just the first wave of outreach. Article lead times may be at work here as well.

Bart Stewart
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Very nice to see an article that speaks directly to the interests of PC gamers and the publishers of PC games. It was tough without being unfair, too.

Ubisoft's comments sound like a step in the right direction. The one thing that gives me pause is the notion of "adding value" for single-player games.

Needing to connect and authenticate for DLC isn't unreasonable. For patches it's a bit less reasonable but not excessively so IMO; you could at least make a product support argument for that.

It's the addition of superfluous multiplayer "features" to what's really a single-player game, as a justification for constant or frequent online authentication, that bears watching and criticizing. Diablo III and the upcoming Sim City seem to be taking this approach to applying old-Ubisoft strong (always-connected) DRM to single-player games. If so, I hope that doesn't become a trend, both because stealth control should not be rewarded and because it distorts the design away from the single-player experience.

Michael G
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I had the exact same feeling when Gabe Newell went to the Sony E3 conference to announce Portal 2 on PS3 and started talking about gamers wanting a 'complete social experience'. That's fine if it's an optional thing like Portal 2 is but then you get games like Cities XL or Dead Island that berate you if you don't have 20 friends to play with because the developers got themselves a little feature-happy.

Maurício Gomes
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Ubisoft, you used to place Starforce in demo products... And I still see people that remember that... Do you think that after not only your own bad in-house DRM but also being user of some third party very bad DRM (Starforce is a GREAT example of that) people will easily forget that?