Opinion: Let's Not Celebrate DRM Just Yet
Correction: It seems that Ubisoft's new DRM will be requiring one activation at install, and then not again. While this is problematic regarding DLC, and I continue to argue (as the post below explains) still not okay, it's not quite as it was understood from the ambiguous statements given before the article was written. However, the "always on" DRM continues to torment users of Ubisoft games like Settlers 7. Apologies for the confusion caused, and to Ubisoft for the incorrect statements.
Don't be fooled, I say. Ubisoft, amongst others, have been getting a lot of good press lately, including from this very site, for the apparent backtracking on the DRM that had crippled a number of games. By insisting that players be always online as they played, Ubisoft's games became a subject of headlines - gamers' progress would be lost, players dumped out of their games, because BT pressed a wrong button somewhere, or the Sun's flares caused a blip in a wifi signal. It took Digital Rights Management to a whole new level of pointlessly ruining valid customers' experiences; while the pirates they were pretending to fight continued to enjoy a far better game. And so we celebrate as they remove this, and we compliment them for backing down from the nonsense. But I (John Walker, whose views don't necessarily reflect those of his (inevitably wrong) colleagues) say: let's just think about that a little more carefully.
No longer does Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood require players to be "always on" - that's the claimed victory here. But the DRM still requires that players be online to launch the game. So what have we gained?
It's still impossible to play the game without an internet connection. Which was the entirety of the issue in the first place. That the game would then crash because your connection dropped was farcical, but it wasn't the reason people couldn't start playing in the first place. And when Ubisoft's servers are down - as they have been so often in the past - we'll still not be able to load our games.
To be clear, we're talking about the single-player versions of the games. To load them, you must first make a connection to their servers. Then after that your connection can drop. Which is great - the games no longer come with a ridiculous flaw as a boasted feature. But the people for whom we campaigned - those who do not have permanent access to an internet connection, those who want to play their legally purchased games on their gaming laptops away from a wifi signal, those who want to play a game on the night their internet goes down - are still locked out of a product they had naively believed they owned.
Of course Ubisoft are not the only publisher demanding this mindless DRM be a part of their games. But in celebrating the more berserk extreme of their system being revoked (let's not forget that we were told it was a beneficial feature for players at the time - did that change?), we're really celebrating the same malware that only affects legitimate customers.
It's become the norm that games want a one-time online activation when you first install them. Simply by the mad perspective of the extremes that have come after this, such DRM has come to seem positively friendly to us. Of course it's no such thing. Anyone who's ever pirated a game knows that the version they download comes with the online authentication either hacked out, or with a way of getting around it. This DRM, much as with almost all other forms, serves only to put a restriction on those who legally buy their games. They cannot install their game on as many machines as they wish. They cannot play their new game if the gas people just dug through the wrong wire outside their house. They cannot continue to enjoy their games in years to come when the now-bankrupted publisher didn't bother to switch off the requirement such that the game refuses to load altogether. Meanwhile, those who pirated the game are enjoying it without restriction.
This new development that games require a connection every time they load up seems so similar to the above at first glance that people are accepting it. Especially when it's the option offered in place of something even more ludicrous. It's like being grateful that you're only having your foot stamped on, because the punches to your face have finally stopped.
Even Steam's messy, fussy DRM has an "offline" mode, if you can only fathom it. Still the majority of games have the decency to run without a connection if you've proved you have one once before. So let us not sound the fanfares because Ubisoft is still forcing players away from their games. Nor indeed when EA, Activision, and so on do the same. We need to stand up to this, to say it's not okay, to loudly point out that it uniquely punishes their customers while not affecting those who do not pay.
Large publishers have to prove to their shareholders that they're attempting to "fight piracy" (a phrase as daft as professing that you're about to "fight the sea"). So delighted businesses spring up, offering "solutions", selling their own inexplicably expensive brand of redundant restrictions. The argument is so idiotic that it's difficult to even have.
"We are putting in DRM to fight piracy."
"But your DRM is demonstrably only affecting legitimate customers, while doing nothing to prevent piracy."
"WE NEED TOUGHER DRM!"
It's a brilliant technique. When one side's position is so astoundingly illogical and batshit insane, you might as well throw oranges at a duck as try to reason with them. But we're locked into it. A multi-million dollar business relies on publishers being willing to continue the farce, and the ill-informed shareholders keep being told unevidenced nonsense of "billions of dollars in lost revenue" against all reason. Of course they want this fixed - this imaginary loss sounds terrifying to them. Which leaves those attempting to argue with both logic and a desire for fair treatment shouting at a particularly obstinate and ignorant wall.
And let's stress it again, to be abundantly clear here. We're not talking about a game not allowing access to online high score tables, or not patching to the latest version, nor preventing access to DLC. And we're obviously not talking about multiplayer gaming. We're talking about single-player games played in single-player mode, requiring that we be online every time we launch them. Where once we were needlessly forced to have the CD-ROM in the drive (something that pirates have never been troubled by), now we're forced to check in with the real owners of the game we're renting at such an astonishing cost each and every time we want permission to load it.
So when Ubisoft announces that they won't be going out of their way to make the experience of playing Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood as punishing as they possibly can, let's not respond as if that's a victory for the fair treatment of gamers. By genuine coincidence, as I wrote that previous sentence my internet connection dropped. It went up and down every few seconds, and then finally clapped out altogether. Thanks Be. Before I'd have been ditched from one of their games, now I'd be prevented from loading one of their games. For what reason? None that we have been offered.
To throw an orange at a another duck, I have to finish by observing what we all already know, and yet that which the publishers refuse to acknowledge: When your game comes with crippling DRM that prevents someone from legitimately playing it, but a pirated version has all this patched out such that it works as you would wish a product would work, piracy is offering vastly better customer service than you. And therefore your customers, literally unable to use the product you're selling, will turn to the better offer. At the moment you are charging £35/$60 for a product that is much, much worse than one that can be obtained for free. Please, can you present this information to your shareholders?