I know all you darn kids today are getting your gaming fix on consoles, smartphones and Facebook, but for those of us who prefer to play with a mouse and keyboard, usually on a hand-built rig, the PC will always be where we go to game. If you do play on the PC, there's one publisher name that is universally reviled: Ubisoft.
And why? It's not that the publisher's games suck. Far from it. Ubisoft is at the helm of a commanding library, from its own Assassin's Creed series to the titles offered by German studios Blue Byte Software and Related Designs, which include much-loved franchises such as The Settlers and Anno, respectively. Those last two are both revered, long-standing series.
They're great games, and there's one reason no one's playing them on the PC. That's Ubisoft.
You're Doing It Wrong (Horribly, Awfully Wrong)
You can't stop piracy. It's that simple. There will always be some number of people enjoying your game (or whatever) for free. That's the reality of our modern digital world, and has been since people started making a concerted effort to trade files over Usenet in the '90s. It's, y'know, a thing.
So, what can you do? You can remember that you're not making a product for pirates, you're making it for people interested in what you're doing who, in turn, you value. Guess what, Ubi, there are people on the PC interested in your games, and you've just done everything you can to bat them away.
Ubisoft's approach is this: barring special cases, if you want to play a game on the PC that has the company's name on it, you also have to install its Uplay launcher, the company's public face of its Online Services Platform. This launcher runs continuously in the background, and the moment it detects a disruption in your Internet connection, it pegs you for a damn dirty pirate and immediately yanks you from your game. Yep, even though it knew a second ago that you're a "valued" Ubisoft customer, the launcher's memory is short indeed. Were you in the middle of playing or something? Too bad: any progress you had after the last checkpoint you tripped is gone.
Some Ubisoft-published games even take it a step farther. Recently released Anno 2070, for instance, only allows you to install the game a handful of times before you're locked out. Some are more lenient: Ubi baked an offline mode into Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood to curtail the usual worries regarding its policies. This practice hasn't trickled down to smaller titles not developed by Ubisoft. Sounds like playing favorites, doesn't it? And if Ubi's DRM really works, why change it for a flagship release?
If Ubisoft truly believes that this approach combats piracy, then contradictory comments by CEO Yves Guillemot — that there exists in the PC market a state of near-total piracy — should lead to the waving of a white flag. Its DRM is proven to be pointless and it has lost the war.
What's more, nothing about this approach has the player in mind. It's an environment created purely out of fear of piracy. With that in mind, let's take a look at an ecosystem that's just as controlled, and yet considers the player.
Always-On DRM Done Right
Say what. That's right: Ubisoft isn't unique in its approach. In fact, there's a vastly successful game that also forces you to be online all the time: Diablo 3. Let's pretend for a minute that Blizzard isn't a PC development rockstar that can do whatever the 'eff it wants, and study Battle.net, Blizzard's always-on solution for Diablo 3, and Ubisoft's Uplay with the same weight.
Like any Ubisoft game still cuffed to the company's Online Services Platform, you can't play Diablo 3 offline. You have to connect to Battle.net to play the game. For Blizzard, this is less about piracy and more about limiting cheating, and creating a space for players to have the best experience possible. Both Diablo and Diablo 2 had multiplayer realms ruled by cheaters and dupes, and keeping everything server-side greatly enhances Blizzard's policing methods.
Even without that consideration in mind, it's clear that Blizzard's Battle.net is a value-adding ecosystem, whereas Uplay is a wall between the player and game with a really tiny gate on it. In fact, Uplay has some game-relevant rewards players can access as well as an added social layer we haven't mentioned. They'll continue to go unmentioned: they're an excuse to exert access control.
With Battle.net, Blizzard is designing a system around the player it's looking to attract. Even though you have to remain online, because everything is controlled server-side, Battle.net doesn't ask players to leap over the same hurdles Uplay does. Where you'll lose game progress after a hiccup with Uplay, Battle.net remembers where you were. In Diablo 3, all you'll lose after a disconnect is your place in a dungeon, which are randomly generated anyway. Blizzard has gone out of its way to make this always-on integration as painless as possible.
With its approach to always-on DRM in Diablo 3, Blizzard is saying, yes, you do always have to be online to play, but come on into this fleshed-out ecosystem and check out what it can do for you, the player, the valued customer.
Ditch The DRM
Piracy is a reality in the PC market (and every market) and will continue to be. You don't stem it by having the best protection, you overcome it by offering the best service. The first approach wallows in bad decisions made out of fear; the latter rewards the bold.
Ubisoft has an amazing library of games. The PC has a robust digital distribution network in the likes of Steam and Amazon that has players gobbling up games with iTunes-like ease. The market is there.
Straight up, Ubisoft has been bad about DRM for quite a while. I have no hope that this will change. This post was alternatively going to be headlined, "Ubisoft, it's time to tear down the DRM wall." What you see up there now is a vote of no confidence.
Make no mistake: for people who play games on the PC — even for people who love the Ubi-published franchises I've mentioned here — the company's approach to DRM is the reason not to buy.