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Opinion: What Is A Step Too Far? On Ubisoft's DRM Policies

Opinion: What Is A Step Too Far? On Ubisoft's DRM Policies

March 1, 2010 | By Phill Cameron

March 1, 2010 | By Phill Cameron
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[In a new opinion piece, critic and writer Phill Cameron examines the new form of digital rights management Ubisoft is implementing -- and why he thinks it's mostly stick and very little carrot.]

Digital rights management is either completely avoided or at least treated with a healthy distance by the media in general. It's a difficult subject to approach, because we're here to look at the games, not the packages they come in.

It's analogous to complaining about an overly-strict usher in a cinema and saying that the film is bad because of it. The only problem with that is that here it's a case of the usher coming with every copy of the game. It has become part of the product, and because of that, we arrive at the tricky situation of being forced to talk about it.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem. So far we've seen DRM come in various shapes and sizes, from the oft criticized Starforce and SecuROM services to the mostly accepted Steam platform from Valve. They're there, but for the most part they're mild annoyances that you can ignore, or in Steam's case, you accept and work with.

Essentially, they're there to make it that bit more difficult for the pirates to crack the games, and in doing so they reduce the quality of the product the paying customer can enjoy, without being so ubiquitous as to be a constant source of frustration.

However, in the past few weeks Ubisoft has announced and implemented what I think is the most intrusive and thoroughly unacceptable form of DRM yet to be seen. Starting with The Settlers 7 and Assassin's Creed 2, all Ubisoft games will come with a 'service' that does a list of things.

The Not-So-Silver Lining To Cloud Saving

Firstly, it provides, or rather defaults to, cloud saving for all your games. As an option, cloud saving is a wonderful thing, allowing you to play the same single-player game over multiple PCs, but the fact of it is that most people only play their games on the one platform, and so having cloud saving forced upon them is, at the very best, redundant.

Cloud saving is only a default option though, and can be turned off in the settings. The main problem with it is when you've got no Internet, you've got no save games to load.

GSW%20Ubi%204.jpgDon't worry though, Ubisoft has thought ahead. Another 'feature' of this service is that your games have to be online. As in, you cannot lose connection with the Ubisoft servers at all during your play time. In the case of the Settlers 7, it'll automatically save your progress when you disconnect, meaning you've just got to wait till your connection re-establishes before continuing.

In the case of Assassin's Creed 2, as PC Gamer confirmed, if you drop connection you lose all progress since the last save point. With the prevalence of dodgy wi-fi connections, less-than-reliable ISPs and even the unconfirmed stability of the Ubisoft master servers, this could mean a huge number of frustrated PC gamers.

There's a cynical side of me that just sees all this as a 'lesser of two evils' situation. Ubisoft forces an incredibly unwanted system upon us, there's a huge backlash against it, and they propose something slightly less horrendous and everyone accepts it, because, by god, it's not quite as bad as they were saying.

We're pretty much beyond that opportunity though, because this system is already in their two closest releases. So either they're going to be back-tracking soon, or this service really is here to stay.

Keeping Our Heads On Straight

It's important to understand that this isn't the developers' fault. This is purely Ubisoft as publishers placing this down. We're not seeing this purely coming out of one of their studios; it's a universal thing, placed on every single one of their PC games. It's all about the publisher's bottom-line, and completely not about what it thinks of the PC gaming audience. It thinks piracy is hurting it, and this is its move to counter that.

And it might work. Part of the DRM is that the online connection is required because the publisher isn't shipping the entire game with the disc; part of the code is supplied by its servers, which is the reason for the constant online connection. The game disconnects when you do because it simply can't run without being online. It's not like it makes everything all right, but at least there's a reason for it.


GSW%20Ubi%202.jpgThe problem is, it's not a reason that we, as consumers, can appreciate or even notice. It's not there for our protection, it's there to stop people who aren't us (the paying customers), from getting their hands on the game. All we know is that we've shelled out money for something that's, at best, a dodgy piece of software. It's completely unrealistic to believe that it's going to be anything other than that.

Recently, PC Gamer managed to have a talk with Ubisoft about the technology. They claim that '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.'

While it might be tempting to call them naive or blindly optimistic, the base theory there is sound; if you offer a better service than the pirates, you'll have more people buying the game. The problem is that here, with Assassin's Creed 2, we're not getting a better game when we buy.

The Reverse

There's an interesting flip-side to this. With Command & Conquer 4, EA is implementing a system that's similar in effect to what Ubisoft is trying to implement. In a recent interview with GameSpot, one of the lead developers of the game, Samuel Bass, stated 'As a nice side effect, since C&C4 requires players to be online all the time in order to prevent cheating, we'll be shipping without any form of DRM.'

It's easy to take that completely out of context and laugh at the doublethink of the statement, but EA are actually doing something somewhat clever with this.

With C&C4, they'll be introducing a persistent ranking system that unlocks units and other goodies that will allow you to play the game with ever widening strategies and tactics. Essentially, the game has to be online all the time so that it can give you new stuff to play with.

It's essentially turning C&C4 into a sort of pseudo-MMO that allows it to sneak under the radar of all those Angry Internet Men who get so worked up about DRM. It's not like you'd complain that World of Warcraft requires a constant internet connection, is it?

What I'm trying to get at is that this is a carrot/stick scenario. Ubisoft is whacking us with a pretty huge stick, while offering us no carrot to munch on to forget about the pain. Cloud saving is not even close to approaching a reward for the punishment of being constantly online. It's a cheap trick to try and make us accept that we have to be connected at all time.

Sure, there might be the very, very occasional time when you want to play your game on another PC, or perhaps your hard drive is wiped and your saves are rescued by the ever-vigilant DRM, but people aren't going to care. All they'll know is that the game they paid money for is stopping them from enjoying themselves because someone's using the microwave again. Or maybe your cat got frisky with your network cable.

GSW%20Ubi%203.jpgTo compete with the pirates, publishers need to embrace the customers rather than punishing them. The main problem that they face at the moment is that the service offered by the pirates supersedes the service they themselves provide. When the pirates can provide a game completely DRM free near instantaneously, the developers and publishers need to make it so that the customer gets a better service because of that.

Things like regularly updating your game are a start, even something like BioWare did with the recent Mass Effect 2, where paying customers got access to two pieces of content just for buying the game is a step in the right direction. Burdening your players with cumbersome pieces of software isn't going to endear you to them. It's just going to make them more likely to go for the inevitable pirated version, free of mandated internet connection and all the malware that DRM is so often seen as.

[Phill Cameron has begged work off multiple different sources, including the mighty Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the wonderful Resolution Magazine, and the ever stalwart Reticule. You can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.]


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