Interview: Ubisoft On DRM, Piracy And PC Games

By John Walker on September 5th, 2012 at 10:00 am.

Faints.

For a couple of years we have been petitioning Ubisoft for an interview with those involved in their DRM decisions. We’re very pleased to report that this has finally happened, as we spoke to Stephanie Perotti, Ubi’s worldwide director for online games, accompanied by corporate communications manager, Michael Burk. Perotti is involved in all online technologies at Ubisoft, and works with many different studios and teams, with DRM part of her remit. We asked about the evidence for the various figures that have been quoted in the past, whether they have any proof for the efficacy of their extreme DRM, and whether Ubisoft has any regrets with how the matter has been handled in the last few years. And we also learn the rather enormous news that Ubi have abandoned always-on DRM, and will now only use one-time activation for all their PC games.

RPS: Last month, on the 21st, Yves Guillemot said Ubisoft’s piracy rates were 90 to 95%, hence the move toward online gaming. But in July last year your DRM was described as being “a success”, and as having shown a clear reduction in piracy. Can you talk about how those two statements square up?

Perotti: With regard to the numbers, the numbers are coming from both internal and external research. Research showed that it can reach that rate for some specific or popular PC games, and that number often varies depending on the territory. So we are not saying that it applies to all PC games for all territories, and we’re not saying that the same situation would apply for any game.

RPS: But last year it was said that the so-called “always-on” DRM had shown a clear reduction in piracy. The quote was, “A clear reduction in piracy from our titles, which required a persistent online connection, and from that point of view the requirement is a success.” Have you any data to evidence this, and if so, are you going to publish it?

Perotti: I’m not going to comment on data. That was an unfortunate comment. We have listened to feedback, and since June last year our policy for all of PC games is that we only require a one-time online activation when you first install the game, and from then you are free to play the game offline.

RPS: That’s excellent news. So do you have any regrets about the always-on DRM that you had been using?

Perotti: We’ve listened to feedback, we will continue to listen to feedback, we will continue to make sure that we deliver great games and great services, and are now operating under this policy.

RPS: Do you acknowledge that always-on DRM has been extremely damaging to Ubisoft’s reputation?

Burk: I think that, as Stephanie said, I think this is where that feedback comes in. We’ve obviously heard from PC customers that they were unhappy with some of the policies that we had in place, and that’s why we’re looking to make these changes – why we have been implementing these changes, as Stephanie says.

RPS: Would you be willing to say that it was a mistake?

Burk: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’ll let Stephanie say what she thinks, but I wouldn’t use those words. This is a process, and we listened to feedback.

Perotti: I would say the same.

RPS: So you say you’re not talking about data. I find that quite interesting bearing in mind data is the one thing that’s lacking in this entire discussion, across all publishers, the whole spectrum. The one thing no one’s ever shown is any data whatsoever to show DRM’s efficacy. Why do you think that is?

Perotti: I think they are complex topics, and as a company we do not disclose this kind of data for confidentiality reasons. As I said earlier, the situation can be very different, from different games, from different territories.

RPS: Whose confidentiality is being broken by publishing piracy rates?

Burk: It’s internally confidential meaning competitive, not necessarily that we’re breaking anyone’s confidentiality. It’s competitive information and therefore confidential.

RPS: Do you think that’s why no publishers publish such data?

Burk: It’s hard to say. I think as Stephanie said it varies, from game to game, region to region, and so the example that you gave – like Stephanie said, we’ve seen internal and external data to show that it can reach that high. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is that high for all PC games, or that it is that high for all companies, or across all regions. I think that’s one reason why companies are not necessarily broadly publishing this, because we’re trying to get a handle on what it means for different games, different titles.

RPS: But do you understand how damaging it’s been to your argument to never actually say these numbers?

Perotti: Yes.

RPS: Would Ubisoft now acknowledge that DRM only affects legitimate customers, and doesn’t affect people who pirate games?

Perotti: I wouldn’t say that, actually. I think the fact that you activate your game when you install it is a pretty industry standard process that we’ve seen in our industry. That can allow you as well to link your game ownership to your account, which means you can re-download the game for whatever reason, it’s not just for one PC any more. You can accept it from other PCs, etc, so I wouldn’t say it’s something that affects PC gamers.

RPS: With these one-time activations, earlier this year there were the issues with the Anno game, where the DRM meant changing your graphics card would remove one of the activations, and you only had three. Will there be limits to activations, and will there be such strict rules like that again?

Perotti: Anno was a very isolated case, and we reacted and increased the limit in that case. Whereas now when you purchase a game, we’re uplifting those limits in terms of how activations you can have, and how many installs you can have on the game, and that’s something we’re planning to continue to support.

RPS: In fairness, it was Bluebyte who changed the rules on Anno, and when we asked Ubisoft for a statement in January this year, you told us that it was working “exactly as intended”.

Perotti: That was again an unfortunate comment, that was also made by someone who was more on the technical development side. The fact is the changes on your graphics card, on your PC configuration, was not intended to count as an activation. And that was the reason we reacted very quickly in fixing that, and making sure that a very limited number of players could reach that unfortunate limit.

RPS: So, with Assassin’s Creed III, and other forthcoming releases, we’re going to see a one-time activation, and there won’t be limits on that activation. Is that correct?

Perotti: It’s correct. And then you’ll be able to play offline on PC. Whenever you want to reach any online service, multiplayer, you will have to be connected, and obviously for online games you will also need to be online to play. But if you want to enjoy Assassin’s Creed III single player, you will be able to do that without being connected. And you will be able to activate the game on as many machines as you want.

RPS: It’s been pretty routine over the last few years for Ubisoft to announce the PC release to be the same as the console release dates, and then with as little as a week before release to announce a significant delay. Can you explain why that’s happened, and will that continue to happen?

Perotti: We need to improve our communication, and make sure we provide better visibility to the PC community on our release dates for PC. We are really working hard to make sure that each game is really tailored for each platform, and sometimes unfortunately we need more time for some platforms. And that has been the case on PC – we’re committed to continue to improve on that front and continue to release PC games as close as possible to console releases. We know we haven’t always been clear and consistent on that front. This year you will be able to enjoy Far Cry 3 at the same time as the console version. Assassin’s Creed III, which is a huge game, is coming just a few weeks after the console version, while in the past it was – what – months after. So we’re really focusing on making sure that at the same time we provide a really good PC experience, and really as close as possible to the other versions.

RPS: Do you know what percentage of your sales are on PC? I know Activision have said things like Call Of Duty sell 5% on PC, do you know if it’s similar numbers for you guys?

Burk: We don’t break it down specifically game by game. Before our last financial statement I want to say that PC sales – I think it was right around 10%. [Burk got back to us soon after the interview to say that in the last full fiscal year PCs made up 7% of revenue, and in the last quarter it's been 12%.]

RPS: That’s a significant proportion of your sales, but obviously 90% is on console. Would you say console is still a priority?

Perotti: I think all platforms are important. We’re also trying to adapt to each of these platforms. What we’ve been announcing at Gamescom for instance, is a large portfolio of varied online PC games, games that are exclusively designed for the PC. [This shows] that we are really committing to that platform. We’re working hard to find the right approach, the right games, the right genres, the right model, for each of the platforms.

RPS: Can you see that from our perspective, that we’ve been asking for some proof, some evidence, that DRM is effective at preventing piracy, or increases sales, or anything like that, and we’ve never seen any. And now as the publisher that’s always gone the furthest with this, you’re backing right off. Do you think it’s a fair conclusion to say that more extreme DRM has been a failure?

Perotti: We’ve heard you. We’ve heard customers. We want to find a balanced way to protect our IPs and our games, and at the same time trade off frustrations or issues for PC gamers, and improve the policies of our games and services. But I guess the answer is, we’re still discussing it.

RPS: These changes sound like exactly what we’ve been petitioning for for a long time. So does Ubisoft have any regrets about what it’s done in the past.

Perotti: Again I would just say that we listened to feedback, we adapt, we will continue to listen and adapt, and hopefully we will continue to prove to the PC gaming community that we listen.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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285 Comments »

  1. UsF says:

    So you listen to feedback, Ubisoft? What about the mouse acceleration, present in AC2 and all following titles? No patch for that, unplayable on PC, unlike the first game. Yea. Still waiting for that.

  2. Desmolas says:

    Lol, you guys went to town on asking the big “Do you think it was all a big mistake and that you were wrong all along?”. I almost felt sorry for the two Ubi reps:D

    Still, this is excellent news. The biggest proponent of Always on DRM renounces it entirely. Hopefully this sets a precedent for other publishers to follow.

  3. Mbaya says:

    Thanks for the interview, to both parties involved.

    It’ll take more for me to change my views and support Ubisoft again, but this seems like a step in the right direction. I understand they can’t really admit fault for business practice…too much is at stake, but a simple apology for the way Ubisoft has treated the PC Gaming community would go such a long way to repair the bridge, for me at least.

    I feel the transition towards providing games as a service rather than a product will marge the lines between aggressive and acceptable DRM moving forwards, so I’m unsure the effect this will have for the consumer, but we’ll see.

  4. pepper says:

    I know its been said a billion times already(well kindof), but a good interview!

    It was nice to see a interviewer asking tough questions, I havent read anything par to these standards in a long time(neither online nor in published media). So thanks for that!

    EDIT: Good to see they are stepping off from the always online stuff. Now I could buy/play their games again. It’s still a bit of a minefield though.

  5. Emeraude says:

    I think the fact that you activate your game when you install it is a pretty industry standard process that we’ve seen in our industry.

    The very fact that this has come to pass will alway boggle my mind I think. The idea that even after you bought your game, you’re still dependent on the publisher to access the content you already paid for is incomprehensible to me.

    • Barberetti says:

      Yeah that bit was pretty nauseating.

    • LionsPhil says:

      You can, to a reasonable degree, blame Steam for being the thin end of that wedge, and those who bought Half-Life 2 anyway for saying “yes, stick it in me”.

  6. BobbyDylan says:

    If this is true, I’ll buy AssCred 3 and Far Cry 3

  7. televizor says:

    Wow, great interview guys, really felt like you took our side here, not catering for the publisher, proper questions, no holding back. Keep it up.
    Felt like they still tried to dodge a lot of bullets, at least they’re learning.
    Now I want one with Kotick!

  8. derbefrier says:

    good move by ubisoft I can start buying their games again, not that there is really anything of theirs i wanna buy lately…..

  9. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Great interview!

  10. mmalove says:

    Thanks for asking the hard question, relentlessly. While any movement away from always online DRM for single player games is a good thing, Ubisoft’s refusal to acknowledge the failure of their DRM scheme gives me no reason to change my mind about boycotting them.

  11. Pobb says:

    Great interview John, wish more sites take this approach.
    RPS is the greatest.

  12. paddymaxson says:

    Wow….RPS really fucked them there, I was a bit disgusted that instead of saying “it was a mistake” they say “we listened to feedback”. No no, it wasn’t a mistake, it was right but for some reason you guys just disagreed! So we changed it to be more like you wanted, even though we were right all along.

  13. Atrak says:

    seems that almost everything they said in the past is just an ‘unfortunate comment’…

  14. Nitrium says:

    Great interview and props to you and Ubisoft for taking the time. They got some respect back from me – it’s nice when a publisher admits that not everything on their part was roses.

  15. Lakelly says:

    Great interview.
    While this is a great move by Ubisoft, they seem to still have their heads right up their arses…
    I guess I feel like by now we deserve an acknowledgement that they f’ed up, big time.

  16. Ganrao says:

    Wow, talk about a whole lot of nothing. I’m pretty disappointed by Ubisoft’s inability to admit they made a mistake. They did not win any points back with me during this interview. Also their evasion of “where is the evidence?” is total bullshit, because all of their numbers about piracy are bullshit. They’re making excuses for why bad games don’t sell on PC. We’ve got a wealth of options, competitively priced, and big box AAA games have to actually be really good to get $60 out of the PC crowd. I know I don’t feel like I ever need to pay that much when I can get 6 good games for that money on a semi-annual Steam sale, or play Dungeons and Dragons Online for free.

  17. Kein says:

    The whole interview could be just titled “Like Stephanie says”. Just count how many times this guy evaded direct question and back-referenced to non-existent Stephanie.

  18. Milky1985 says:

    So when the PC version of Far Cry 3 is delayed by a month at least we have a interview where a high up (not a marketing drone) said its gonna be released at the same time to hit them over the head with.

    Althought they will probably say it was another unfortunate comment, that was also made by someone who was more on the technical development side.

    I’m also guessing that the fact that PC revenues have dropped from 12% to 7% since all of this crap that this is the real reason for the interview and annoucement of no more always online DRM. They realised that even if they had stopped always online before, the perception of them is broken because of the past actions, and a DRM crusade was hurting them.

  19. Nameless1 says:

    Awesome interview, I liked the “no mercy” attitude :D

  20. Donjo says:

    I’ll never trust a corporate stooge called Burk.

  21. DizzyrupTor says:

    Great interview and some hard hitting questions for Ubisoft but the main thing that stood out in almost every answer they gave is evasion and passing the buck. Their reputation is now so low it’s doubtfull they will ever pull it back again.

  22. Fuz says:

    And this is why RPS is the best videogames news site on the net.

    Hats off to you, sir. Amazing interview.

  23. Kadayi says:

    “And we also learn the rather enormous news that Ubi have abandoned always-on DRM, and will now only use one-time activation for all their PC games.”

    It’s not enormous news, or is it from now on in since this interview. She stated that they’ve been doing this since June last year. It’s old news, in fact it’s ancient history.

    • Unaco says:

      It’s enormous (maybe an exaggeration… it’s bigger than big though… maybe large? Extra large? Extra large works for me)…

      It’s Extra large news, considering they’ve made it official now. They kept quiet about it since whenever, and have now officially confirmed that they dropped it, and won’t be picking it back up.

      They dropped it in June last year (quietly – so no news). They’ve abandoned it now. The abandoning is the news.

      • Kadayi says:

        No, it’s really not. It’s people not questioning their assumptions.

        • Unaco says:

          Yes it is. They’ve announced they’ve abandoned their always on-line DRM, a much maligned, much discussed topic, round here and across the PC/Gaming spectrum. That’s news. That’s big news. That’s Extra Large news.

          They may have dropped it quietly last June… but they didn’t tell anyone, until now. The official announcement of that is news.

          • Kadayi says:

            An official announcement would be a press release. this is just them pointing out the obvious.

          • Unaco says:

            Obvious to whom? I didn’t know. And UBI didn’t tell me. Until now.

            And a Press Release is not the only way to make an official announcement. They can also be made in interviews. Like this.

            The gaming press is most definitely taking this as an official announcement… Google ‘UBI DRM’ and look at the News category. I’m seeing about 40 articles on this, along the lines of “UBI Announces Dropping of DRM”.

          • Kadayi says:

            @Unaco

            They’ve told you in the specifications of every game they’ve released in the last year. Just like any other publisher/developer does.

            Also the answer to your question is simply games journalism is largely lazy journalism. Just because someone can write a review doesn’t automatically make them an investigative journalist. Frankly bar a couple of exceptions we’re largely ill served when it comes to genuinely decent games journalism Vs write ups on games or articles on a subject. One need look no further at the unrepentant and universal vocal savaging of gamers by the gaming press over the ME3 ending to realise that.

    • John Walker says:

      Oh Kadayi – is there nothing you can’t find a way to aimlessly hate? It absolutely is “news”, because it’s the first time they’ve said it, and certainly the first anyone’s known about it. This is the first time Ubisoft have said their new policy on DRM, and the first time they’ve said they will not use always-on any more.

      • Kadayi says:

        OH John there’s nothing aimless about spelling out the truth. The DRM was scaled back quite some time ago.This is not a great revelation. All that was required was paying attention to their releases over the last year and realizing the shift. That you badgered them about a redundancy is kind of hilarious tbh.

  24. 2late2die says:

    Great interview guys. Glad to see some hard questions being asked, and even more glad to see persistent online DRM and activation limits being abolished. I just wish they would answer the questions straight instead of repeating the “we are listening to feedback” line. Mind you, I don’t blame them personally – it’s just the horrible PR culture we’ve developed where nobody ever admits anything and always dances around issues.

  25. Saul Bottcher says:

    Excellent interview.

  26. Engloutie says:

    Might as well have interviewed a pair of robots… wow. Terrible answers, over and over repeating the same buzz phrases… As Stephanie said.

  27. Premium User Badge

    JiminyJickers says:

    The end is nigh!

    Wow, I will now buy Ubisoft games again.

  28. TechnicalBen says:

    “Perotti: We’ve listened to feedback, we will continue to listen to feedback, we will continue to make sure that we deliver great games and great services, and are now operating under this policy.”

    Got a LOL from me. Big thumbs up for making the changes. Cringe worthy question dodge though. I’ll consider getting Rayman Origins ASAP now though! :D

  29. MadTinkerer says:

    To me this reads as:

    RPS: So do you think you made a mistake? Do you want to apologize?

    PR Guy: I have been forbidden from admitting a mistake, and therefore I can’t apologize, but I will say “unfortunate” over and over again because I am allowed to use that word. And yes, it was all quite unfortunate.

    RPS: Any regrets then?

    PR Guy: Dude, we are a publicly traded company. The shareholders are listening. I am categorically forbidden to have “regrets” in public interviews. But I will say that we are definitely listening to feedback.

    So you know what? I forgive you, Ubisoft. I understand you’re not allowed to apologize and you didn’t invent the rules of corporate PR, so I forgive you. I’m a bit strapped for cash so I’m not getting Anno 2070 right away, but I will soon. And I’ll be getting the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series, that I don’t already have, as well.

  30. Talnoy says:

    I think this revolution came a little too late….plus Ubisoft isn’t admitting any fault on their part.

    It’s simple arrogance that they display, and I still haven’t changed my opinion on them at all. I get that they’re clearly a business, and need to sell games to make money, but pandering isn’t going to do that. Admitting they were wrong, apologizing immensely for all the screwups, and fixing it from here on out will get some good will back from the community, and potentially increase sales down the road. All this interview does is show how goddamn arrogant they are and how little they actually care about their customer-base.

  31. mrmalodor says:

    Whatever their “confidential” research says, abandoning always-online speaks volumes. They’re basically admitting that it has negatively affected total sales.

    They may still be arrogant assholes who won’t admit anything or release their data, but if they give me what I want, I may give them what they want.

    I hereby promise to buy Watch Dogs as long as it has no online DRM.

  32. Slinkyboy says:

    Ubiscum. Always

  33. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    For one, I actually think it took some guts for Ubi to let these people even speak to RPS on this, considering the possible PR pitfalls.

    Another is that I like how John pressed them a bit on an issue which must be touchy for them. Although some bits could perhaps have been rephrased a bit.

    Take it for what it is.. the willingness to give an interview, inability to give a lot of answers because of constraints but potentially a positive turn for Ubisoft.. but we can always wait and see what they’re actually going to do.

  34. The Magic says:

    From any other company, i might have started buying their games again (I recently bought Mass Effect 3 because it was £7. It was my first Origin game and i still feel a little unsure i made the right decision) However Uplay is not Origin. Uplay is something much much worse and i am genuinely frightened on my computer’s behalf. She’s barely holding together as it is, i do not need potentially catastrophic software ready to infect at a moment’s notice. I know they fixed things but it shows a lack of care, so I doubt i will buy any ubisoft product for at least 5 years.

  35. Suits says:

    Good on Ubi and nice interview, whatever motivation they have, it’s still a good development of events.

  36. mehteh says:

    What is the point of the activations then? As far as im concerned its still DRM.

  37. MuffinHunter says:

    Great interview.

    While she was being a bit cagey about the 95% piracy claim, she pretty much confirmed my article about the number originating in certain territories (well, mostly Armenia).

    Also, way to dodge the important questions about the effectiveness of DRM. /rolleyes Wake up, Ubi.

  38. Shooop says:

    They seem like exceedingly difficult people to talk to from this. How are the statistics of games being pirated competitive information?

    It’s nice to hear for once they did listen to customers, but they really need to do a lot more in the ways of communicating with them if they want them to stick around and have some confidence in their brand.

  39. sinister agent says:

    Lots of not really answering the question going on there, but between the lines it’s fairly clear what’s going on, and I don’t suppose you can really expect much else from a behemoth like Ubi in the position it’s in. And let’s give them some credit for (finally) reconsidering their daft approaches. Maybe there is hope, eh?

  40. zaphod42 says:

    Good on you RPS for taking it to them. Somebody needs to call them out.

    Unfortunately, they just had some PR people spew BS over and over and over to cover their asses.

    “Do you think it’s a fair conclusion to say that more extreme DRM has been a failure?

    Perotti: We’ve heard you. We’ve heard customers.”

    They just keep saying “we hear you” which sounds good, rather than “yes we admit we were total assholes for a long time and abused our customers” which sounds bad.

    PR PR PR PR PR PR PR

    “That was again an unfortunate comment, that was also made by someone who was more on the technical development side.”

    Yeah, because technical people understand what’s going on and don’t try to put a PR spin on it to make the company look good. Unfortunate for them.

  41. Ultra-Humanite says:

    Unfortunately this interview doesn’t make me think they are any less the obtuse dickheads they appear to be. They can’t even be man enough to admit when they were clearly wrong.

  42. Nethlem says:

    Wow great interview! Great questions and giving them a hard time when they try to dodge giving a real answer, that’s finest journalism at work!

    Sure couldn’t force them to say things they don’t want to say, but you certainly didn’t make it easy for them.
    I wish journalism in other fields would have a similar quality (politics *cough cough*)

  43. brulleks says:

    It’s been a long road, but it does finally seem as if our voices have been heard.

    Thanks for being our ever-sharp, ever-flapping tongue, John.

  44. Jenks says:

    Good interview sans the same question being asked five times. Then again I’ve still never run into a problem with DRM so I’m probably not as eager to hear a (pointless) confession.

  45. Ateius says:

    Good work, RPS. Ubi’s answers were painfully polished and evasive, but well done on not letting go of the important issues no matter how many times they dodged.

    Nice to hear that they’re dropping always-online and giving “unlimited” activations. I might actually buy .. er … whatever that open-world hacking game was called. That was Ubisoft, right? That one.

  46. ShadowLeague says:

    Basically what I took away from this conversation from Ubisoft’s side was: The numbers we made up about piracy were complete crap, but of course we aren’t going to say that. Our DRM is still brilliant but we’re pulling it back because we fear the negative publicity more, not because we agree that it was a horrible mistake. All the filthy PC gamer pirates are hurting our sales but sadly there is a lot of them so again we are pulling our awesome foolproof DRM because we are afraid for our image. We didn’t learn shit and are not going to own up to our mistakes and admit to being completely wrong. We’re just doing this to save our asses.

  47. Paul says:

    Obviously they cannot admit to making a mistake, because most likely it was their bosses who decided about making those mistakes, and they cannot badmouth their bosses, so it is all “listening to feedback” and all that.

    Still, nice. Looking forward to PC versions of Ass Creed 3 and FC3, hopefully they will not fuck them up.

  48. lexoneir says:

    Are you sure you were interviewing people? I think pre-programed robots could have made the same statements.

  49. Jahandar says:

    All other things aside, I want to say this is still great news from Ubisoft, I’m glad they’ve responded in this way.

  50. rocketman71 says:

    That’s good news, but are they going to remove their BS DRM from their old games now?.

    Also, they speak about online-only multiplayer, so still no LAN support. Not good enough for me.

    Hey, look, I just bought a Torchlight 2 4-pack and gifted three of my friends with it. No activation bullshit, no online-multiplayer only bullshit, and mod support. Watch and learn how to sell games, Ubi!