Ubisoft Wouldn’t Hit You If You Didn’t Make Him Angry

Written 06/12/2011. First posted here.

Ubisoft’s latest fallout with PC gamers deserves a lot more attention than this fair website has given it. Sure, there was last weeks Is Ubisoft inherently anti-PC gaming?, but that was less an article than a stream of vitriol and cheap dick jokes. I should know – I wrote it. Spleen-venting soothes the savage hate-on, but it leaves a girl with a lot of unanswered questions.

For starters: why has Ubisoft clung to demonstrably-ineffective DRM for so long?

That’s the money-shot. Ubisoft’s DRM gets cracked, and it usually gets cracked fast. From Dust was cracked in under a day. To their credit, Assassin’s Creed II and Silent Hunter 5 held out a little longer but the wait wasn’t exactly nail-biting. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory takes Best in Show with over 400 days, but StarForce DRM pissed players off so badly Ubisoft dropped it.

Ubisoft has stated before that their always-online DRM makes a hefty dent in piracy numbers, but they have never provided any data on this (possibly because piracy statistics are notoriously difficult to measure). Combined with the way they regularly remove DRM when customers complain too much, is it any wonder many PC gamers doubt their claim? If it was as influential as they say, you’d think wild horses couldn’t get it off their games.

(There’s also a profound difference between ‘lowered piracy’ and ‘increased sales’. I’m just going to leave that there.)

With it being an essential money-making tool, it comes as a surprise that Assassin’s Creed: Revelations comes without this intrusive bullshittery element. Assassin’s Creed is one of Ubisoft’s most important IPs, but they’re willing to jeopardise it like this?  Why? Unless it isn’t everything they’ve claimed it to be…

By comparison, CD Projekt believe inconveniencing paying players is not worth lowering piracy figures. In the much-linked (and very interesting) interview with PCGamer, co-founder Marcin Iwinski said:

In any case, I am not saying that we have eliminated piracy or there is not piracy in the case of TW2. There is, and TW2 was [illegally] downloaded by tens of thousands of people during the first two weeks after release. Still, DRM does not work and however you would protect it, it will be cracked in no time. Plus, the DRM itself is a pain for your legal gamers – this group of honest people, who decided that your game was worth the 50 USD or Euro and went and bought it. Why would you want to make their lives more difficult?

His theory on why companies continue to use DRM is equally interesting:

As funny as this might sound, DRM is the best explanation, the best “I will cover my ass” thing. I strongly believe that this is the main reason the industry has not abandoned it until today, and to be frank this annoys me a hell of a lot. You are asking, “So why is it taking so long for them to listen?” The answer is very simple: They do not listen, as most of them do not care. As long as the numbers in Excel will add up they will not change anything.

I’ll encourage you to read the interview yourself, assuming you’re one of the three people left on the internet who hasn’t, as I need to meander back towards my point. My point being that Ubisoft has issues.

Knowing as we do that heavy DRM does little to deter pirates, but pisses off an awful lot of legit players, what are Ubisoft gaining? Is it internal corporate politics – allowing individuals to protect themselves from blame by saying ‘we did all we could’? Do they genuinely believe every pirate would buy the game if they couldn’t steal it? Or is it just less work than the effort of making it worth our while to buy their games, the way CD Projekt do?

(I’d be tempted to say it’s because this way, when they make a low-selling game, they can blame it on anything other than the game being shite, but that’d represent the triumph of petty spite over serious analysis and thus be very, very wrong.)

The final question is how much does DRM cost Ubisoft? Losing millions of hypothetical sales to piracy is rough, but would they have made up the cost of licensing and implementing Starforce, SecuROM and Tages? Personally, I don’t believe many of the pirates would buy a game if it wasn’t available by other means – hence ‘hypothetical sales’ – so my guess is a resounding NO. Combined with the fact that these programs can, have, and will be cracked, and you might want to turn your efforts to something effective, like pissing in the ocean.

Errol Flynn: nicking it old-school.

Piracy has been a source of concern since the industry began, but Ubisoft’s aggressive reaction to it is unjustified, unfair to paying customers, and outright disproportionate. It’s like if Argos was set up because the owners were shit-scared of shoplifting, so they locked everything up where thieving little consumer hands couldn’t get to it. Problem is, people are okay with the hassle for the odd toaster, but no-one does their daily grocery shopping through it.

(Only that’s the generous tortured analogy, as it’s more akin to buying a carton of milk, taking it home and then being forced to provide the receipt every time I want a cup of tea.)

As developers go, Ubisoft is the creepy boyfriend who has to know where you are every second of the day. The one who calls you every five minutes, convinced you lied about going out with your friends. He gets touchy when you won’t let him read your texts. Once you caught him trying to guess your email password.

I’m trying, Ubisoft, I really am, but you seem convinced I’m sleeping with your best friend. Unless you work on your trust issues, I can’t see a future in this relationship.

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