It's fair to say that RPS has taken Ubisoft to task over its DRM decisions. The company has made some extremely poor choices, that have overtly harmed people's experiences legitimately playing their games, and no evidence of any reduction in piracy as a result has been shown. However, rather than backing down in the face of the enormous outcry, Ubisoft continued to push it, even telling PC Gamer that they viewed it as a "success". The hubris, combined with the continuing downtime for single-player games, reached a point where things went from bad to ludicrous. But could things be about to change? Ubisoft's digital boss, Chris Early, told Eurogamer that he'd like to see the need for DRM to go away. Blimey.
We have tried repeatedly to arrange an interview with anyone at Ubi who is responsible for making DRM decisions, expressing that we wanted not only to give them their say, but also to offer us the chance to argue the case why their choices have been so bad for gamers. But despite our frequent attempts, responses have come there none.
But what would our arguments have been? Well, first of all we'd obviously point out that there is zero published evidence we've seen that demonstrates any efficacy for DRM, and make the obvious remark that it's a system that only punishes legitimate customers, and barely impedes pirates. But then we'd move on to argue how they could create customer loyalty that would engender a relationship that makes people more likely to continue spending money on a particular game, and be more enthused to spend money on further games. Someone who found their copy of Anno was basically unplayable for them is unlikely to forge on with any further sequels. Someone who found their copy of Anno constantly rewarded them as a player, offering excellent new content, community events, and an evolving experience, well, they just may. But flipping crikey, take a look at what Early told EG.
"I don't know that there is a perfect answer today. There are some technological answers. There are some design answers. There have been different approaches from different publishers at times, some doing no DRM and just assuming it's the cost of doing business. Some are doing a very strict DRM. Some doing an on-going content revision. I don't think we have a single, good answer yet. The interesting thing will be, how do we create enough value that that need for DRM goes away?"
It's a big statement, and a very pleasing one to see coming from Ubisoft. I hope it isn't just a hypothetical question, but rather something the company is enthusiastically working on. Early does hint that they're currently working on it:
"As we continue to keep our player at the centre, we want to find ways that don't inconvenience that player who is paying for it," he said. "We've had a variety of degrees of success as we wind our way down that path. Our plan, our hope is we stay on the less intrusive, less cumbersome side of that path as we go on."
Peculiar use of "stay", certainly, but definitely promising news. However, there are a few more points we'd like to put across to Ubi bosses, and while they currently won't speak to us, we've a sneaking suspicion they're reading. While asking the right questions, there's a core philosophy that's still skewed. Early told EG:
"Is it fair for someone to enjoy our content without us receiving some value for that? I think at the core of that is, no. Otherwise, other than works of charity, there would be few games made. The balance, however, is, how do we do anything about that and not harm the person who is giving us value for that?"
Firstly, issues of what's "fair" are not relevant. Ubisoft isn't a child having its toys taken away, but "fair" is a word we keep hearing from those arguing for DRM - Early may have just been using it off-the-cuff, but it's a sentiment which is prevalent and so merits dissection. The piracy situation will never be sensibly addressed so long as corporations continue to argue for what's "fair". Is piracy "unfair"? Possibly, but that doesn't change anything. Such a position would only make sense if you were having an ethical debate with the opposing side, and no one is. Some who unlawfully download games may use bullshit "ethical" arguments to justify their actions, with rubbish about how they're doing it to take a stand, or get revenge, or punish, or defy the corrupt, but what they're doing is downloading a game without paying. I'm not taking a side on whether that's wrong or right, I should stress - that would be falling into the "fair" mistake - but simply saying that while a very few who pirate may pretend theirs is an ethical position, they're still getting a game for free.
(And to stress this point, compare it to any other crime, and indeed a crime where something is actually physically stolen, like burglary. Burglary isn't "fair", obviously. But you'll note there's a distinct lack of "Don't Burgle: It's Not Very Nice" campaigns being run.)
Secondly, so long as companies continue to say phrases like, "Otherwise... there would be few games made," we are going to get nowhere. Here is some reality:
Piracy probably began around 1977 with the Apple II, and got into full swing by about 1982. Which is why videogames died out in around July 1984, and we haven't had any since... Oh wait, hang on - according to my files there have been games since 1982! Good heavens, hundreds of thousands of them! Piracy was so rife during the days of the Spectrum that blank cassette manufacturers became oligarchs of space, then again for the early days of the PC (we stood out from the crowds in my house by having an actual boxed copy of Doom - people would say, "Wow, I've never actually seen the box!), the PS1, and most recently, the Nintendo DS. Each most pirated platform has not become a "charity", nor seen "few games made", but instead been the most prolific and successful of their time. I am not saying that piracy causes success. You could. You could say it out loud, and see what madness ensued. But I am saying that piracy does not, and has never, caused fewer games to be made. The suggestion is egregious and utterly without truth. With more games being made today than at any point in all of time, just being conscious is enough to see through that nonsense. So why are big corporations still bringing it out? That should stop.
Piracy is going to continue. Not liking it, thinking it objectionable, or being utterly offended by it, doesn't change that. DRM isn't going to stop it. Hand-wringing and ethical pleas aren't going to stop it. However, look at PC gaming right now and what do you see? Hundreds of thousands of people handing over millions and millions of dollars for games that could be free, or don't even exist. From the Bundles to Kickstarter to donate buttons on websites to pre-orders for indie projects, gamers are delighted to hand over their cash. Gamers want to invest in companies whose games they love, to ensure games they want become available for them to play, and to celebrate creativity. And if you look at all these things, these Kickstarters and bundles, they're all promising no DRM. Because DRM is the very opposite of all those aspects Early cites: not harming gamers, creating value, less intrusive, less cumbersome...
Ubisoft are now thinking in the right direction, and I think they'll be astonished by how quickly gamers will turn their affections around. The announcement that the utterly wonderful Rayman: Origins would be coming to PC after all, and DRM-free, was instantly met with delight. People love very many of the Ubi franchises, and have been seriously hurt by how the latest instalments have been encumbered. A new Anno, a new Settlers, that instead of being broken for legitimate customers instead celebrates them, gives them new updates and content, engenders an enthusiastic online community, and goes out of its way to feed the profits back into making the games even more enjoyable, will quickly gain Ubi a reputation for being a publisher to invest in. The answer is not, as Early hints, making games so embroiled in the cloud that pirated version doesn't work properly - it's to make the cloud games are in so brilliant that people wouldn't want to be missing out on them. That, I think, is the crucial shift in attitude needed by the company to finally break free of the trap they've built for themselves. It's not about finding a way to beat pirates. It's about finding a way to reward customers. And you don't do the latter as a means to the former, or you've completely missed the point. You do the latter because you're a business who should want fiercely loyal customers, and the rest will follow.