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. Zarunil says:

    Great interview. I’m extremely surprised Ubisoft actually agreed to be interviewed.

    If they change their user-hostile ways, I’ll start buying their games again.

  2. namad says:

    this is the worst interview I have ever seen on RPS, I’m AMAZED you managed to get through the first half of it, and I’m surprised it got past the editor…. the answer to EVERY FREAKING QUESTION regardless of the question is basically “no, no comment, or we care about the feedback”

    you shouldn’t've let ubisoft get away with these nonsense, if they don’t want to do a real interview just go ahead and not post it. you’re not their whipping boy.

    • Acorino says:

      I thought it was rather telling.

      But certainly, this interview didn’t just happen out of coincidence. I’m sure UbiSoft wanted to spread the news that it dropped its draconian DRM scheme, and what better way to do this than to give an interview to one of its most vocal opponents?
      Certainly, this big news is probably the reason why they gave the interview in the first place. I’m sure they had little interest in talking about other things. But I think it was nice to hear them admit that claiming high piracy rates without offering any proof damaged their reputation. And if you translate the diplomatic euphemism “unfortunate comment” into straight talk, then you read them say that they talked a lot of bullshit in the past. Which is nice to hear, too.

      Although, they talked bullshit again. Always online DRM wasn’t dropped in June last year. Maybe they started dropping it back then, but From Dust still used it, many games continued to use it. Server downtimes happened after that and many games got unplayable because of it.

      I’m not sure what people expected. I think everyone can come to their own conclusions, and we don’t need UbiSoft to spell everything out for us. If you get through the corporate speak and evasiveness, then you hear them saying that they screwed up in the past, did damage, and want to do better.

      Still, actions speak louder than words. Let’s hope everything pans out like they say!

  3. biz says:

    shame that such a big player is giving up. PC gaming will not get enough attention until the piracy issue is solved. server-side DRM works.

    We’re stuck getting shitty console ports and delayed releases or no PC versions at all because people are still clinging to this misconception that piracy is fine. requiring activation does nothing for piracy. it’s too easy to crack.

    The people who should wait a few months for a game are the people without internet who need an offline mode patch, not the rest of PC gamers.

    • kud13 says:

      see, the problem is, no one is making those “offline patches”. Instead, we are getting the “games as a service” bullshit treatment.

      Not to mention that providing an offline patch, targeted to people without internet is kinda redundant, since the patch is presumably delivered via internet.

  4. subedii says:

    I have to admit, I was impressed. Not just with the directness and phrasing of the questions, but that you kept hammering on those points when they were being evasive.;

    It was never going to be possible to get a direct answer out on those questions, but it still pins them down with being unable to continually spout left-right-and-centre about piracy without backing up the statements.

  5. airmikee says:

    The company that believes 93% of the PC gamers that play their games have pirated their software is ending their program to fight pirates?

    Too little, too late, I’ve already uninstalled every Ubisoft game from my computers, and I will never purchase anything they make in the future.

  6. Shortwave says:

    That was amazing and I actually laughed my ASS OFF at how brutally GOOD your questions were.
    And the replies of course.. HAHAHA.

    I’m glad they are going to do this because honestly, I don’t like stealing.
    And well since they’re not going to jip’ us insanely anymore, in theory.
    I suppose I’ll show them the same respect and actually give them money again.
    PEACE!

  7. ButchCore says:

    I’m really dismayed by the way this kind of people will never consent to downright recognize anything that would “incriminate” them and just settle for preposterous arguments or the “we say it another way” comedy… That is pure contempt towards people, and certainly doesn’t help the image they likely try to perserve that way.
    Ubisoft proves again that it’s nothing more than a simple corporation, willing to make money without mind…

  8. captain nemo says:

    They should be called ‘Hubri-soft’

    Although they won’t admit their faults, it’s a move in the right direction. However I will still hold off buying anything by Ubisoft – I don’t want to get burnt by their ever changing policies/ not-working-activation servers

  9. zeekthegeek says:

    Is it just me or were these not Ubisoft staff at all but elaborate chatbots programmed with corporate talking points. There didn’t seem to be an independent thought amongst their answers.

  10. kud13 says:

    still gonna wait to hear how Watch Dogs is prior to buying.

    but if you continue putting your games on GOG, I may continue buying them, Ubi.

  11. Ryster says:

    Good interview! I’ve been vocal on many publisher forums for quite some time about how utterly pointless DRM is. I think it’s beyond dispute now that DRM only affects (negatively) the legal paying customers, as the pirated versions of games have the DRM stripped out of them.

    It’s laughable that those who obtain the game illegally have a superior gaming experience to those who support the developer/publisher by actually paying for the game. It is long overdue that publishers realised this.

    Treating their customers with disrespect and suspicion is what is driving many of them to piracy.

  12. Kamikaze_Tutor says:

    My ass is confidential.
    Because it’s where all that piracy data comes from.

  13. LostViking says:

    Man, you could hook that guys testicles to a car battery and water board him at the same time. He still wouldn’t admit Ubisoft did anything wrong with their DRM schemes!

  14. dmoe says:

    These guys are as bad as politicians. Can’t just answer the fucking question. They dance around it like children with fingers in their ears. One of the many reasons I cannot stand listening to higher-ups like this in the game industry. Fucking robots.

  15. GoliathBro says:

    Loved the questions; the answers sounded less like an interview and more like a press release.

    I wonder why they’re so unwilling to admit that they’ve made a mistake. At this point it’s ridiculous to deny it, and I reckon they’d get a lot of gamer goodwill back. (look at ArenaNet recently for example)

    Ahh well, at least they’re no longer claiming that it was the right thing to do so that’s something.

  16. WhiteKnight77 says:

    Ubi is great at double speak and have been doing it handily and readily for at least 8 years now and from the looks of it, still willing to use it as seen in this interview.

    Ubi just does not get PC gamers and can be seen with those who once had Ubi publish games, leave them for other pastures or just publish themselves. Ubi has taken games and made them playable by the least common denominator and that in and of itself does not guarantee sales. MS tried that with Flight and has since closed the studio responsible for it. Ubi is now trying the F2P business model adn will find it isn’t as profitable as they thought.

    Ubi will not get my money until they can at least get back to making PCcentric games instead of giving PC gamers crappy ports and no support for said games. They need to offer the features like LAN play, direct IP servers, dedicated servers, modding ability as well as ensuring that they get patches out to fix all game stopping bugs and other small bugs, even if they do not fix them all before I consider buying games from them again. I won’t hold out for an apology, but maybe admitting that they are working to keep making the same mistakes twice would go a long way to repairing the damage done, especially by Yves Guillmot himself.

  17. Daryl says:

    Well, I may consider having a look at some Ubisoft games down the road. I just don’t trust them though to take their word though. Someone else can be the guinea pig in this experiment.

  18. E_FD says:

    I’m impressed. Ubisoft has gone from blanket “You PC gamers are a bunch of dirty pirates and you should be grateful we deign to port our games to your piracy box at all” declarations to evasive non-answers.

    That’s a step forward… I think.

  19. Bweahns says:

    Good work chaps. You are the gaming news equivalent of Four Corners whilst every other gaming site is A Current Affair.
    Here’s an example of ‘A Current Affair’ for anyone wanting a reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blZ6mzk6QPE

  20. tkioz says:

    Everyone makes mistakes, everyone is fallible, from popes to presidents, washerwomen to astronauts, no-one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, that is a simple fact of human nature, there will never be a perfect person, or a perfect system or device designed by a person.

    There is no weakness is changing your viewpoint, or correcting your course in the face of reasoned and rational argument and evidence, it is not flip flopping, it is indeed a virtue to accept your fallibility.

    That must be accepted, that there will be mistakes, there will be failures, we must understand that; but what really matters, what is really vital, is what you do after your mistake, do you own it? Or do you make excuses? Do you strive to correct it? Or do you strive to hide it? Do you ignore the evidence of your mistakes? Or do you listen to reasoned arguments and rectify it?

    It is my considered opinion that Ubisoft made a mistake, that is understandable, because as I said everyone makes mistakes, but what is most damning is that they refuse to own their mistake, they seek to claim that no mistake happened, they seek to brush it under the rug, without an admittance of error there can be no forgiveness.

  21. bill says:

    Good on them for actually agreeing to an interview. Even if they couldn’t actually say very much.

    It’d be so nice to finally have some data on the issue. And it’s a shame you didn’t ask them about their view on the “pirated copies isn’t lost sales” argument and whether they think the PC sales are low because the games are released later.

    It’d also be nice to ask their view on DRM preventing games from being played in the future, after the activation servers are shut down. (though i know cracks will in reality avoid that).

  22. Srethron says:

    Thanks RPS! Thanks John! Ubisoft hasn’t given up was much as we want, but they’ve given up more than I thought they ever would. So it’s a start.

  23. Premium User Badge

    Continuity says:

    Interesting… I might have to take Ubi games off of my “no fucking way” list. We’ll see.

  24. Kignama says:

    I would be so happy to get this as an audio interview :(
    Really dont have the time to read these really long articles…

  25. Irishgamer01 says:

    Ubisoft DRM is still on. I have been locked out of Ghost recon for 3 Weeks due to Uplay DRM
    Its taken 2 weeks of emails, photo’s, yes photos to get them to fix it. (I spent a week changing my password, as i didn’t think I did anything to trigger DRM.

    So don’t believe all that Ubisoft crap . DRM is alive and working.

    So don’t be tricked into buying anymore of thier DRM riddled games,
    I have nearly all their games, but even I have had enough. Just cannot take it anymore

  26. Nexozable says:

    Needs moar feedback.

  27. alilsneaky says:

    Haha awesome questions.
    It’s a shame they bounce right off the PR monkey that was tasked to answer them :(

    He’s trying so hard to dodge responsibility and stick to his little PR statement, guy probably has a flow chart in front of him similar to IT helpdesk drones.

    Next time you get a chance to prod this clown with some questions, ask him why (despite the one month delays for each game) every one of their games with the sole exception of assassin’s creed has been a really poor ports?

    ALL of them lack support for custom framerates (custom = any native framerate that isn’t 60hz), and why their games are the only games in the world and in history that don’t properly support 70, 72, 75 and 85 hz monitors?
    Ask them why driver SF has black bars with 4:3 resolutions, why it didn’t support the driving force GT wheel.
    Ask them why playing rayman at a 4:3 16:10 or 5:4 monitor causes the game to just cut off the bottom part of what’s on screen (makes certain levels unplayable)

    Ask them why they put the minimum possible amount of effort to get the games to work on the most common setups and then ignore everything else ( if you want examples: no 4:3 , 5:4 , 16:10 resolutions, no gamepad support for AC, no wheel support for their racing games, no 70/72/75/85/100/120 hz support for monitors that require it at native res, locked framerates,

    It’s uncanny, they supposedly have multiple ubisoft brand studios, yet ALL of the games from ALL of those studios suffer from the exact same faults and oversights.