Interview: Ubisoft On DRM, Piracy And PC Games

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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