Ubisoft's anti-piracy measures are anti-consumer, too

Imagine that you've just come home with a brand new game and you can't wait to play it. So you install it on your PC, fire it up, and the next thing you know you're hit with a screen that tells you that you need to register for an online Ubisoft account first before you do anything else, and have a constant connection to the Internet for the duration of your time playing.

This is Ubisoft's new plan to fight the piracy of video games. Its "always-on" connection will make sure that you're playing a legit copy as the moment you can't connect to Ubisoft's servers, you're booted out of the game.

It's not just putting the hurt on piracy, though. Ubisoft is catching its customers in the crossfire. Continue reading to find out how.


Good Intentions, Poor Execution

So, let's give Ubisoft the benefit of the doubt here for a moment. Plenty of people who have a computer capable of playing the kinds of games the company publishes — Ubisoft's March releases all use the DRM, including Assassin's Creed 2, Silent Hunter 5 and The Settlers 7 — will most likely have a stable Internet connection, too, right? It's something of an elitist assumption, but let's roll with it. What, then, did the company think the security system would add to a player's experience?

In an interview with PC Gamer's Tim Edwards in February — weeks before Silent Hunter 5, the first game to feature the new DRM, was due out — an Ubisoft spokesperson laid it out. Asking the question, "What's in it for gamers?," Edwards gleaned the following: "There are three advantages to [Ubisoft's] online services. The first: you don't need a disc. The second: that you can install the game on as many PCs as you like, as many times as you like. And the third: the automatic uploading of savegames to Ubisoft's servers."

Those first two goals are admirable as they represent forms of DRM that have generated significant consumer backlash in the past. Checking for a CD is a quick way to hear players groan that they've lost their CDs and as such their games are unplayable. Limiting the number of installs a game allows is also a tricky situation, because if factors beyond a player's control — or even if they just want to play it years from now after having uninstalled it, which is perfectly reasonable — sees them exceed that allowance, all of a sudden they can't play the game they paid for.The takeaway here? People like actually owning what they buy, and having access to it in the way they expect.

Getting Between You and Your Game

We've already told you that if your Internet so much as hiccups, Ubisoft is going to kick you back to the game menu and tell you to get yourself back online if you want to play. However, it's a two way street: if Ubisoft's authentication servers fail, you're also going to be out of luck. And fail they already have, which the company revealed that it was the result of an denial-of-service attack. Not only is piracy hurting Ubisoft's profits, then, but the company has also let it hurt its customer.

Okay, but again, you have an Internet connection so you don't really care, right? Well, you should. Service interruption? Hope you've got something else to play. And think down the line five or tens years. Ubisoft's servers won't last forever — who knows what will happen. The moment they aren't there anymore, you're left with junk software that doesn't work as a game anymore. You're not paying for a game, you're paying for a rental. This DRM, according to Ubisoft, is something that can be patched out in the event of something catastrophic like that, but who knows what'll happen.

How to Fix It

In short: ditch it. Ubisoft has already been forced to make concessions for the system, including offering all the angry customers involved a free game.

Rather than an opressive "always-on" security solution that presumes you to be a pirate from the get-go, why not reward customers? For example, Bioware, developer of the recently released Mass Effect 2, encourages players to stay honest by feeding them a steady trickle of free in-game goodies and missions that can only be enjoyed if the game successfully authenticates each time, though you can still play even if your connection is down.

Some companies just forgo the DRM altogether, too. Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock, which published the DRM-free PC hit Sins of a Solar Empire, famously said of piracy: "The reason why we don't put copy protection on our games isn't because we're nice guys. We do it because the people who actually buy games don't like to mess with it. Our customers make the rules, not the pirates."

People who want to pirate a game will most likely do so. Ubisoft's problem, though, is that it's discouraging people from buying its games, while fighting the losing battle that is trying to make a game's DRM impenetrable. There's no such thing.