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Ubisoft's trouble with Uplay, love for companion apps and microtransactions Exclusive
Ubisoft's trouble with Uplay, love for companion apps and microtransactions
June 12, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

June 12, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
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    42 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, E3



Ubisoft vice president of digital publishing Chris Early knows that its Uplay service has an image problem, one exacerbated thanks to the launch of Watch Dogs.

"I think the label of Uplay gets put on many things," Early says. "Our problem with Watch Dogs was with our authentication server, which is technically not part of Uplay."

PC players of the game didn't see it that way, though, as Uplay error messages greeted their attempts to get into the game. It also made some think Uplay is a DRM system, when Early says the company has abandoned always-on DRM, something it was notorious for in years past, Early says.

"We made a shift a number of years ago, where we had an always-on DRM system, and we jumped and stopped doing that, and nobody really noticed when we stopped doing that."

What failed was "the authentication service which allows people to have the always-on, seamless multiplayer" in Watch Dogs, much like a PlayStation Network or Xbox Live connection on consoles. This was a failure much like other big game launches of late: "we should have planned better for that search," says Early.

Uplay is, in fact, "a player loyalty and reward system" that operates much like a frequent flyer program by giving players "units" to spend on rewards, and which, says Early, many are already taking advantage of for both in-game and real-life perks.

"When we ask players to create a Uplay account, that's not DRM -- that's just so we can give you units. That's where the confusion comes in."

A brighter spot: Companion apps

That may have been a black mark on the Watch Dogs launch, but a much brighter spot, says Early, is the success of the companion app for tablets, which allows players to engage in multiplayer versus players of the main Watch Dogs game.

It's been downloaded a huge number of times, and Early says the internal stat tracking paints it a big success for the company. "Almost every single one of our triple-A games has a companion experience," says Early.

"Sometimes I want to continue to experience that franchise when I'm not in front of my console. That lets somebody do that from anywhere." With the Assassin's Creed 4 app, "As a player, I earned most of the money I used to upgrade my ship in the tablet version," Early says.

"We're experimenting with all kinds of command in games," says Early. "We're making sure that, one, you've got the ability to take your experience somewhere and continue it... but, two, it's a way to let somebody else who's maybe not that same player play in the world as well."

What he means by that is that the apps can offer a window into the company's triple-A lineup with different kinds of gameplay and control schemes that appeal to different kinds of players.

In the upcoming The Division, the tablet player can fly a drone, a synchronous gameplay experience with the main game but which doesn't require a player to be near a console or PC, and which allows him or her to interact with that game world via touch, not a controller: "It opens it up, it begins to broaden it," says Early.

Still, the company doesn't want to make tracking down a tablet player, or dumping time into the companion app a requirement. The games should be complete experiences by themselves, says Early: "I think we would make a mistake if we made it required.

Triple-A microtransactions: Here to stay

You might be surprised, but Early says the company is having a lot of success with microtransactions in triple-A games. He says that players like them, too.

That's because they're generally convenience purchases, and the games aren't balanced to force players to buy them.

"We have to make a good game, period," Early says. "When you buy, it's different. We're definitely delivering a 60-dollar experience. You should have an amazingly good entertaining time."

However, "For years, we've designed games where we expect time is the resource we expect everybody to have." Like other segements of the industry, Ubisoft has come to recognize that some players have more money than time.

"I'm a gamer at heart and I like playing games. I want to finish the games," says Early. The problem: He doesn't have the time. So he spends to uncover the map in Assassin's Creed, or he pays for an experience point boost.

The important thing: "don't make me run up against a wall" where "you have to spend more money" to get past an obstacle. That would wreck the triple-A experience, Early acknowledges. "Are you stopping me some way and forcing me to pay money? That's not a good thing."

Still, the way the company has done it so far, "we haven't had a lot of pushback on that," he says.


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Comments


Martin Echenique
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"When we ask players to create a Uplay account, that's not DRM -- that's just so we can give you units. That's where the confusion comes in."

Actually, a big part of the issue is that the players are never "asked", they're "forced" to create a Uplay account, for a bunch of rewards that many don't even care about, and that happens in PC only. There's no experience parity with consoles, where it's an optional (even if a bit in-your-face) feature.

It shows how profoundly disconnected he is from his users when he can't realise this.

Samuel Verner
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as a player, i dont want "units", or a "loyalty and reward system". i just want to play the damn game i payed for. thats all. everything whats called "service" in this matter is in reality a "constraint" which reduces and/or blocks a positive game experience for me.

thats my user story, go for it!

Robert Green
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Regarding this: "When we ask players to create a Uplay account, that's not DRM -- that's just so we can give you units. That's where the confusion comes in."

Perhaps, but it doesn't help that you don't ASK players to create a Uplay account, you force them to in order to play the games. Were I able to launch a Ubisoft game without going through Uplay, this confusion wouldn't exist, because I wouldn't have bothered. And that's Ubi's real problem with Uplay - in most gamers minds (those that I know at least), Uplay is something that simply doesn't need to exist.

Also, what always confuses me about the whole "players with more money than time" argument is that no one ever explains why people have to finish a game within a certain period of buying it. I don't have as much time for gaming as I'd like, but that just meant that it took me a fortnight longer to complete AC4 than it might otherwise have. If at any point I had seriously contemplated spending money to skip a few missions, then I would have just stopped playing instead, because I obviously wouldn't have been enjoying myself.

Adam Bishop
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Strongly agree. If Uplay was just something that popped up the first time you launched a game and said "Uplay offers a way to earn rewards and connect your Ubisoft games! Would you like to sign up/in?" that would be fine. But with Assassin's Creed 3, for example, I hated being bothered about Uplay every single time I turned on the game. Look, I already told you I don't want it, I'm not going to change my mind because you keep badgering me about it.

Christian Nutt
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It's worth mentioning 2 things...

- He said, but I didn't include, that the login is required not for the loyalty program, but the seamless online play in Watch Dogs
- The console games I've played don't require it. It's just the PC games, I guess?

Robert Green
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Christian - yes, I'm referring to their PC offerings, which (unless I'm mistaken) force you to use the Uplay client even if you bought them on Steam.

Another point I forgot to mention is that the idea of Uplay as a rewards client is kinda weird. The only advantage of having that stuff exist in a client outside of each game is that I can earn points in one game and use them in others. But why is that desirable? If that's their main point of differentiation, I don't think it's one that many people care for.

Shea Rutsatz
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"...why people have to finish a game within a certain period of buying it."

That's exactly what I think. Their point makes no sense. "I spent $60 on a game, and I'm in a rush, so I'll pay more to skip over parts and finish quicker." It's like you're paying to not play what you paid for.

I guess some people go for it, though.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Robert Green
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That depends largely on what you play. If you're looking at something like the single-player campaign of call of duty, you might conclude that. On the other hand, if you look at all the things you can do in a game like Assassins Creed or Watch Dogs, even before you get to the multiplayer there's almost too much to do.
I think what we've actually seen is a greater spread. There's now a market for everything from the 1-hour indie project to the years-long AAA MMO, and it's up to you to decide how much time you want to devote to a game.

Christiaan Moleman
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It would be nice if you weren't forced to register Ubisoft games on Uplay when you buy them on Steam.

Jennis Kartens
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"we should have planned better for that search," says Early. "


I really wonder why no one except Valve gets their auth servers straight. This happens on a frequent basis to everyone with highly anticipated games, that are highly anticipated because of the extreme marketing. It has been crystal clear for over 3 months prior to release that Watch_Dogs will get a heavy run at realease.

It's going beyond ridiculous certainly that these huge companies do not get their authentication servers prepared for the heavy load.

Besides that, I kind of even like the "reward" system. I still find Uplay unnecessary, but at least it is a) rather good implemented with Steam now and b) doesn't get on my nerves as Origin and GFWL do.
Uplay became more customer friendly over the years, especially when it comes to the double-DRM (yes Chris Early, Uplay is DRM, like it or not) with Steam. It launches automatically and offers a immediate "Quit Uplay" option when exiting the game.

Origin constantly forgets my login data. Asks for "acceptance of agreements" each and every time it gets an update, has absolutely no value, still needs an external browser for their multiplayer games, has constant connection and authentications issues and has to bun run additionally to other tools. EA is doing their best to follow Microsoft for the award of the most horrible DRM platform.

Dane MacMahon
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I'll never understand the "double DRM" thing because you're choosing to add Steam on top of Uplay. If you bought the game anywhere other than Steam it would only have one DRM, Uplay.

Jennis Kartens
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When they're releasing games over a DRM platform not removing their own, you end up with double DRM. Whats there not to understand? Otherwise, see Origin. Then you have to deal with different tools all the time.

Dane MacMahon
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It's going to be a Uplay game no matter what. You're choosing to add Steam to that, then complaining about it. It makes no sense to me.

Marc Magi
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Sorry, but I call BS on this one. I concur with Jennis. Ubisoft doesn't have to release on Steam (for all practical purposes EA doesn't anymore). But, if they (and all other users of extra DRM) choose to do so they should remove Uplay or at least make it optional on that service.

I don't see CD Projekt (The Witcher Series & GoG owners) doing asinine DRM implementations and yet they're not losing money or goodwill over DRM. If you purchase a Witcher on Steam you get Valve's DRM, if you purchase it on Origin you get EA's DRM and if you purchase it on GoG you get none. If they can do that wtf can't Ubisoft.

Dane MacMahon
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Look, I hate all these clients. I want DRM free installers. The point is it's a fact of life Ubisoft use Uplay in their games. It's a reality that if you buy the games on Steam you get both, not just Steam, so if you don't want two clients on one game, don't buy them on Steam. It's that simple.

Complain about Uplay all day long, I'm with you, but don't complain about Steam and Uplay together when you choose to have that.

Samuel Verner
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the funny thing is, that the only people who can just install and play the games without the need to log into one or more drm plattform to play their games are pirates. so beeing an pirate is rewarded by having the better game experience.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Samuel

Best point of the whole day.

Jennis Kartens
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@Samuel

That isn't really true either, can be quite uncomfortable too with these systems in place. Especially, when you once went weak and decided to buy a game and want the "extended demo" of the next one using the same DRM system.

@Dane

I don't get your opinion here. Why are people not allowed to criticise a legal way to obtain and play games, that is as such flawed?
That question is rather rethorical, because it is exactly why today UPlay is not so much of an annoyance when used over steam (as explained above). That sure wouldn't have happened, if people didn't complain about it's implementation in the first place.

Also I personally do make a difference between Steam and the rest, because Steam actually is a service oriented DRM where in the end, it truly is only left with the worst case scenario of Valve shutting down. Otherwise, it became very solid and overall very un-annoying with a lot of features that are absolutely irrelevant for the most people, such as launch paramaters, but still are in place for every game and every player free to use.

That cannot be said about Origin, Battle.net or UPlay which are not only bad tools as such, but offer nothing. They're the mere tool of marketing and absurd overprotection, while Steam goes beyond that.

I am very well aware that Steam still is a DRM and like you, I too would go rather without any of them. But realistically Steam does pretty good, while the rest does not.

George Vazquel
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I agree.

In fact, I encourage all developers to test pirated versions of their games. If the pirated version is better from a user-experience standpoint, then you have a problem!

Dane MacMahon
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People have obviously accepted the use of a client to play PC games. The problem is the Uplay client isn't a good experience, it's a poor one. Most obviously the servers have consistent issues when new games come out. Less importantly the patch system is terrible, the interface could use some work, it lacks features compared to Steam and it has a small library, which makes launching it for one game feel like a pain.

I don't support the "everyone use Steam!" idea, because Steam needs competition, but if Ubisoft want to run their own PC client then they need to invest some time and money into it. Or if they already are, they need to hire a more competent team.

Jennis Kartens
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I have an issue with the "competition" thing here, since in this case "competition" means automatically more problems on the users side. Having extra clients for a handful of games makes the actual playing and enjoying problematic. I just spent 2 hours last weekend to get my Battle.net Account back.

The core is still the issue here: DRM.

Looking forward to how GoG Galaxy will turn out.

Dane MacMahon
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I don't like DRM either, but I also don't want one company to distribute 90% of PC games (a company that uses DRM). Steam needs competition. GOG Galaxy would be the best choice, sure, but I'll take it where I can get it.

David Keen
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I'm all for competition, but everyone does it in such a terrible manner. I can't choose to support my preferred platform unless the game happens to release on it. In the perfect world, there would be a standard API used for the game's client, and all games would be available through all clients, so I could actually vote with my dollars based on the client I prefer. Prefer Origin? Buy the new Half-Life there. Prefer Steam? Buy the new Battlefield there. Standardized chat and achievement APIs to allow synchronization between clients would make this great.

Without something like this in place, the platforms cannot openly compete, as people will just buy games on the one platform it is available on.

Brian M
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Yes, but the game industry unfortunately broke normal competition a long time ago with brick and mortar. While sure you can get a game in any store, store X makes a deal for special preorder bonuses (skins, perks etc), in exchange promote the game more and give it premium shelf space.

The other issue is by buying a game direct from the publisher they get 30% more profit, which is a lot. Someone at EA crunches the numbers and decides they will not lose 30% of sales by selling exclusively on Origin, plus they get to profit off any other purchases the user makes while in there.

UPlay can't make that excuse, they are still giving the cut to Steam and stacking their store on top of it.

In a perfect world really we would all buy as directly from the developers as possible, and cut out all the middle men.

David Keen
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Presumably, EA would make a lot more money if all games were available on Origin, and they got a 30% bite from all sales there. As is, they may get 100% of the money from sales of exclusive EA games, but their collection of other publisher's games is extremely weak.

Dane MacMahon
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@ Brian

Can you imagine the complaints if Ubisoft did just that and made all their games Uplay exclusive, though? We'd never hear the end of it. They give you the option of basically running Uplay through Steam because so many people only use Steam. Then people complain about Uplay being involved in their Steam purchase.

Basically it comes down to people wanting to use Steam all the time for everything, which I think is dangerous.

David Keen
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What? There's nothing dangerous about wanting a single place where all of your games are with a single friends list for multiplayer. What's dangerous is the proliferation of crap clients that nobody wants but everyone uses because they hold exclusive games hostage. I'm all for competition so long as it's the platforms themselves that are competing.

Dane MacMahon
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@ David

So if all console gaming went through Xbox Live you would be okay with it? I would hope not.

David Keen
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That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm just saying exclusives do not help consumers in any way, and people should be able to play the games they want through the client they want. In my ideal world, console wise, all games would be available on all consoles so people could choose a console based on which console they prefer, rather than on which games the companies are holding hostage as exclusives.

In the current world, Origin and Steam are not directly competing, because people cannot choose to use one or the other. They are forced to use Origin if they want to play EA games, and they are forced to use Steam if they want to play Valve or Steamwork games. Since people cannot choose which platform they use for which game, there is no real competition for the platforms and no real benefit to the consumers. We just have a fragmented marketplace, which is bad for everyone.

Dane MacMahon
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@ David

Yes, but whether we like it or not exclusive bring the customers. Especially now, with Steam controlling 80% or more of games, to break consumers off of it and get them to expand and look at other clients and services you're going to need exclusive games.

If things were more balanced already I would agree with you 100%, but they're not. If no client was needed I would agree with you, but that's not the case. As it stands now the vast majority of PC gaming goes through one company's online service, and that's the dangerous part. Just as dangerous as if the vast majority of console gaming went through Xbox Live.

David Keen
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Right now, there is no competition at all. People use Steam, unless there is no option to use Steam. There can be no real competition if exclusivity exists. I think the market would be healthier (though I still agree that it wouldn't be healthy at all) if we JUST had Steam than if we have a bunch of clients that everyone hates but doesn't have a choice except to use if they want to play their favorite games. The current system benefits nobody, and is worse for the consumer than a fully Valve controlled market, in my opinion.

Not that I'm promoting a fully Valve controlled market. I just want some standardization, so I can support the platform of my choice rather than having to use something I don't want in order to play exclusives.

Andre Barjesteh
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People wouldn't be complaining about uPlay being involved in the Steam purchase if uPlay wasn't so terrible on the PC. On the consoles, it is a simple sign in, but on the PC it's a whole other client. A client that sucks up a whole crap ton of bandwidth might I add if you try to download something on it. Or frequently crashes for no reason. It's just an unnecessary platform that exists because Ubisoft wants it to and doesn't do anything to make it better.

Brian M
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I can honestly say UPlay has stopped me from buying several Ubisoft games, it is just really unpleasant to have it pop up after launching a game from steam. I dearly hope they remove it because it is a barrier from the game that is only keeping my dollars out.

They should look to Warner Brother games for a good example, they give you an optional sign in at the launch of the game, then you can get all sorts of bonuses and stuff which makes me want to join in (and I'm sure gives them all sorts of data)

Shea Rutsatz
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I also avoid any uPlay and Origin games. Just... a hassle.

Saurian Dash
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""I'm a gamer at heart and I like playing games. I want to finish the games," says Early. The problem: He doesn't have the time. So he spends to uncover the map in Assassin's Creed, or he pays for an experience point boost. ""

Oh, please! This is the biggest load of garbage I have read in a long time, it's painfully obvious this type of thinking comes from the minds of people who haven't the slightest clue about gaming. No, you are not "a gamer at heart", don't take us for mugs.

Who says that you have to finish a game within a certain time period? Who says a game is "finished" once the end credits roll? The vacuous garbage the likes of Ubisoft peddle isn't designed to stand up to repeated play; so instead, their strategy is to milk the audience for all the extra money they can before the game is inevitably traded in after the player blunders through it once. This model is a cancer the gaming medium badly needs to excise, and quickly. It breeds a type of player who treats games as fast food, players who don't even expect games to stand up to repeated play over a long period. The only way to feed this type of audience is to churn out more and more mechanically shallow, vacuous games faster and faster to keep up with demand. Quality mechanics and lasting appeal go out the window and are replaced with templates which are easily applied/swapped-out and shoved out the door.

I work a full time job in the film industry, work as a freelance writer and run a moderately sized YouTube channel. With my lifestyle, time is short, but as a gamer this doesn't hinder my enjoyment of games, it just means I have less time to play them. This doesn't mean that I have any desire whatsoever to pay money to have experience boosts or map unlocks within a game I am playing. Less time to play simply means that it takes me longer to finish a game, which to my mind is actually a really good thing! I play games across a longer time-period, I spend more time contemplating and learning the mechanics of the games I enjoy.

I have never met a single person who exhibits the mindset this guy is suggesting gamers have, we desperately need to wrestle the gaming medium away from the likes of Chris Early. Attitudes like the one he displays and the disgusting way these people constantly patronise the gaming audience have created a truly toxic atmosphere. UPlay is absolute garbage and a completely misguided waste of time and space, after reading this interview it is obvious why this "service" is what it is.

Stephen Horn
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If there are people out there willing to trade money to Ubi in order to get to the next level - or stage, or cutscene, or whatever - more quickly, then more power to them. It's not my thing, but if people are using the service then I say it's good that Ubi provides it.

I do dislike uPlay, but its for reasons that other commentators have already expressed above:

* The mandatory sign-in feels like a needless hassle when it works. At its best, the experience feels like they cheaped out of proper authentication integration with the store they're selling through, preferring to clone GfWL but as a separate application instead of embedding the service into the game. This really is important - on my first Ubi purchase they're telling me that a single-player experience requires me to log in to an account that is effectively dedicated to this one game, so they can push advertisements at me. That's how the experience feels, and it seems thoroughly, thoroughly wrongheaded.

* Ubi does not have a good track record for authentication server stability and availability, which exacerbates the problems from above. What's worse than being forced to sign in to an advertisement platform in order to play the game I purchased? Not being able to sign in and play the game I purchased.

* uPlay's community features are completely redundant with those of services I already use.

* I am not loyal to their brands, so I have no preconceived interest in their special offers. Ubi would have to earn my loyalty, which only becomes harder as they erect obstacles to enjoying their game.

* Due to the above, the extra layer of software to launch and close is a needless hassle. It delivers no value to me. It is an inconvenience.

Ron Dippold
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Your biggest problem is that nobody wants UPlay. It's a value minus for everyone except Ubisoft.

Bruno Xavier
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HA! I don't believe you Ubi.

David Konkol
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"You might be surprised, but Early says the company is having a lot of success with microtransactions in triple-A games. He says that players like them, too."

Uh, like who?

Dave Hoskins
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I played a demo, yes a DEMO of a game from them. It was the first time I'd encountered Uplay, it didn't tell me what it was, there was no information there at all and it wanted me to sign up - NO THANK-YOU! I deleted the demo immediately.

Andre Barjesteh
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My problem isn't with making a uPlay account. My problem is the fact that uPlay is a Digital Distribution Platform on the PC and not a service. So not only am I forced to make an account to play uPlay games, but I am also forced to download a crappy platform onto my computer, even if my game is bought through a different platform.

The other issue I have seen is (at least with Ghost Recon Future Soldier) was that it doesn't read from your uPlay friends list (if you have friends that make themselves available to this torture). Meaning that my friends on Future Soldier aren't necessarily my friends on uPlay, which I have to essentially add twice.

I'll be honest, I have used uPlay points for rewards, but I don't need a platform to do that. Let me redeem them on some website you have set up or something and get rid of this crappy platform on the PC that you think you need.


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