Ubisoft DRM: An Overreaction and an Inevitable Future

I don't often talk about DRM these days, other than in derisory tones. After all, the truth of DRM is that it is practically useless for stopping a determined "pirate" from getting their grubby hands on whatever data it is the DRM is meant to protect. While the theory of DRM, ensuring that a product is not copied and used without being legitimately purchased, is a good one, in practice it has been less than a speed bump for crackers and an inconvenient pain in the ass for the legit purchasers of the product. Wildly inflated claims of sales lost due to piracy have been trumpeted by almost every industry involved, from the RIA (music) to Hollywood (movies) and from book publishers to video game developers. Their numbers always make me think of Rumsfeld's famous quote - "The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence." Or in other words, how do you prove you lost a sale from piracy when the pirate went out of his way not to purchase the product in the first place? Would perfect, unbreakable DRM have actually encouraged him to buy the product, or would he simply have moved on?

With that in mind, I take the news of video game publisher UbiSoft' s new PC game DRM scheme as proof that some people just don't get it. Furthermore, their responses to PC Gamer's questions about the subject paints a clearer picture of an outfit that doesn't give a rat's ass how their idiotic scheme affects real consumers. Here's how it works.

You buy a PC game from UbiSoft, say Assassin's Creed 2. You must be connected to the Internet at all times to play this game, even though there are NO Internet components to the gameplay. It is not multiplayer, you do not interact with other players at all, and there is no benefit to being online when playing this other than the game saves being available online from any computer. That in itself isn't the idiotic part - after all, Steam requires the same thing for authentication on the products purchased through their service, at least when the product is first activated. But the UbiSoft scheme goes further. Not only is an Internet connection required to start the game, if your connection drops at any time during gameplay, whether through your own actions or the vagaries of the Internet, you are kicked out of the game and all progress since your last save are lost.

Does anyone anywhere have an Internet connection they expect to be working 24/7 without one drop ever? If so, I'd like to know who your provider is because it isn't Comcast or any other provider I've ever used. At some point, those servers controlling that DRM connection will go down, whether through maintenance, hacking, hardware failure or they become too expensive for UbiSoft to run. In the second link, the UbiSoft rep will not guarantee those servers will always be available - after all, they can't guarantee that. As a consumer, someone who pays money for this product, why would I bother? There are a ton of other games to play. No matter what sort of Robot Jesus a game using this DRM might turn out to be, it's still not worth the hassle of having progress in the game lost because my Internet connection crapped out. I have better things to spend my money on, things that don't piss in my face and tell me it's rain.

Since the rep explains that the DRM check can be patched out in future if need be, that means it's absolutely breakable, and probably much quicker than they anticipate. When that happens, the only one who loses is the customer, who paid money to be saddled with a pain in the ass while other people gleefully pirate the cracked game. I'm quite sure that in typical myopic fashion, UbiSoft will take the lowered sales on Assassin's Creed 2 that this sort of shit will cause as proof that pirating is killing their business, and come up with something worse. Maybe their next DRM will require a blood sample, retinal scan and voice print ID before allowing the customer to play.

Measures of this extremity are doomed to failure. It will be cracked. It will cause some customers to get the crack simply so they don't lose progress in the game to an Internet outage. You don't beat pirates by being more extreme, you beat piracy by respecting your customers. Stardock has offered their games DRM-free for years and it hasn't hurt their sales. Far from it, they seem to be selling well.

It's a simple equation. People who take the necessary effort to pirate your game were very unlikely customers in the first place. Pirating a game, even in today's BitTorrent-fueled anything at your fingertips Internet world, takes more effort than it's worth for 90% of potential customers. There's probably another 2 or 3% that won't buy the game under any circumstances. The rest might buy your game, unless you continue to treat them like criminals, at which point they raise their middle fingers and continue downloading your shit for free and laughing at your pathetic, futile attempts to keep them from doing it. For every 1 of these fuckers you sue into oblivion, 99 get away with it in obscurity.

The PC game market is shrinking, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the ease of use a console system offers. Times are too tough to be pissing off any percentage of your customers in some misguided attempt to stop the 2-3% of idiots who will pirate your games no matter what.

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