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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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