By John Walker on September 6th, 2012 at 1:00 pm.
So, Ubisoft, eh? It’s been quite the 24 hours for the publisher. Having spent a few years seeming to actively seek the loathing of PC gamers – despite releasing a stream of good games – there appears to be a concerted effort to turn their reputation around. And this is something we certainly welcome. With an official pledge to abandon their deeply silly DRM, and a promise to try to release PC versions as close as possible to the console versions, they’re meeting gamers’ demands like we’ve got their families held hostage. (We don’t, do we?)
Yesterday’s interview was spread far and wide across the gaming internet, and met with an a roaring cry of “Oh, I’ll buy their games again now,” tinged with a hint of skepticism from the harder cynics. From what I saw of comments on RPS, many other gaming sites, Reddit, and elsewhere, if just those who said online they’d start buying their games again prove true, Ubisoft should be seeing a sales spike. If they’re indicative of a wider response (and let’s be careful – people who leave comments (like me) are always biased by being a sample of the sorts of people who leave comments), then this could be one of the wisest financial moves Ubisoft has made in a long while.
And let’s be very clear – this is, of course, motivated by money. To an extent, the correct response to that is: who cares? So long as the net result is that we receive Ubisoft’s catalogue of games without DRM that breaks it, and we receive those games alongside our console chums, then it’s all we’ve ever wanted. Why they’re now choosing to do it remains interesting to consider, but doesn’t taint the benefits for us. But why are they choosing to do it?
Ubisoft is a massive company, worth an enormous amount of money – money that’s owned in a large part by its shareholders. And when you’re a corporation with shareholders, you have certain obligations. One of those is to always seek to make more money than you ever have before. Another is to appear to be actively attempting to protect your shareholders’ money, and for a long time it’s been thought that appearing not to be doing anything about piracy is a failure in this regard. Publishers don’t smear their games in DRM because they’re just so protectively jealous of their creations. That’s the bullshit you’ll hear spun when they’re challenged, obviously, but it’s code for, “We have to keep making money, and people are getting our stuff without paying for it.” While some individual developers, and maybe even employees of publishers, may feel personally affronted when they see something they worked so hard on being downloaded without first being paid for, publishing companies absolutely do not see it this way. It’s not about the art, it’s about the cash.
And that’s why the argument against DRM has always necessarily focused on enquiring into the reality of how piracy affects cash. And it’s also why the debate has always been so stultifyingly pointless and ineffective, because the publishing side pretends it’s not focused on that at all, and talks about how it’s a matter of morality, arguing that piracy is wrong, and therefore, er, DRM. One side says, “Can you show how DRM is effective at preventing piracy and increasing sales?” The other side screams, “PIRACY! PIRACY! Won’t someone think of our daughters?!”
Yesterday Ubisoft took a huge step in not shouting that. While many interpreted the responses from Stephanie Perotti and Michael Burk to be unsatisfactory, a lot of sites calling it “corporate speak”, that misses the nuance of what happened.
Asking someone a question they aren’t prepared to answer is often far more revealing than pressing “next” on a company’s prepared responses. It’s the same reason a Newsnight or Radio 4 presenter will ask a politician the question they know they’re not prepared to answer – their not answering it is the response the public needs to hear. So while I hoped very much that Ubisoft representatives would acknowledge that ‘always-on’ DRM had been a mistake – because of course it had – from their perspective this isn’t something they can sensibly do.
It comes back to the shareholders. If Ubisoft were to publically say, “The technology we’ve invested huge amounts of money in, and insisted on putting on many of our games, has been a failure, inhibited sales, and not prevented piracy in any way,” it would make for a bloody great interview response, but it would also very likely see shareholders rearing up and demanding to know why their money was wasted, and asking for the heads of those responsible.
Instead Ubisoft had a pre-programmed answer: “We’ve listened to feedback, and our plan now is to…” It’s frustrating, certainly, but it’s pretty crucial for them that they not mea culpa, and that no swords are fallen on. Sure, it would be brilliant if things didn’t work this way, but hey, capitalism, eh?
So why now? Well, they’re not going to say. So we can take guesses, and we’d be pretty silly if those guesses didn’t focus on money. Always-on DRM had, from any perspective we can see, been a failure. With Ubisoft calling the claim that it had reduced piracy “unfortunate”, and pirated versions of the game running just fine without an internet connection, its immediate purpose doesn’t seem to have worked out at all. Then rather more massively significantly, it’s proven to be disastrous for legitimate customers. With server downtime through accidents, malicious attacks, and even days of scheduled downtime due to a server house migration, it clearly demonstrated that it was a deeply flawed system for managing game access. People who paid for the single-player offline games could not play them. People who had downloaded them without paying could. That’s exactly the opposite of the intended goal.
At a certain point, this failure had to be having a financial effect. The volumes of gamers who were now not going to buy Ubisoft products because of the DRM had to be making a difference. And perhaps most of all, the company’s reputation amongst PC gamers was absolute mud. While we would have liked to see other gaming sites doing an awful lot more in the fight against this treatment, there was no doubt that the DRM was widely derided by the press (beyond a few apologists), and the sentiment was shared by readers. With PC releases receiving frequent and unexplained 11th hour delays, and in some cases porting issues when they were finally released, the PC gaming community received a message from Ubisoft, no matter how much it was or wasn’t intended: We think you’re pirating scum, and you are our last priority.
When a platform makes up around 10% of your revenue (in a field also containing Xbox, PS3, Wii, 3DS, DSi, and mobile), that’s not a great position to be in. And Ubi had two choices – abandon PC as a lost cause and lose 10% of their revenue, or try to fix it.
Fixing it makes more sense, right? Especially when the publisher has created a series of initiatives to pursue the free-to-play market, only viable on PCs. With Anno, Silent Hunter and Might & Magic browser games in development, and new IPs like The Mighty Quest For Epic Loot ready for beta, releasing these into a widely hostile environment was possibly not a great plan. And with the current generation of consoles ending their lifespan, and the next gen still not announced, there are uncertain waters. Now is a bad time to be neglecting the steady ship of the PC – the place where there’s currently good potential for growth. It was perhaps time to not-quite-say sorry.
We don’t know if that’s all the case. I suspect it, but I was wrong about something once before, and it could happen again. But who cares how cynical that decision might have been? The end result is that there has been a decision made to stop breaking their games, they’re treating legitimate customers with more dignity, and focusing on PC as an important part of their market. It’s a win.