Ubisoft's always-online DRM: where it went wrong; and how you fix it

May 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m not a fan of DRM – fact. But the reality is that piracy is a threat to sales and very few publishers are going to send their game out to the marketplace without sufficient copywrite protection. Who can blame them? They want to protect their product, the jobs of their colleagues and, ultimately, the industry. However, DRM, if it is either too intrusive or hassle-some, will only alienate customers and, in actual fact, fuel piracy. After all, why pay for a product which offers less functionality than download one for free that offers more? If you feel like you’re being treated like a potential criminal, then why not act like one, too?

And this is where we come to Ubisoft’s recent DRM policy. It requires that the user always be online while playing their games, even if they’re single player only. If at any point their Internet connection cuts out, then gameplay is paused until it is re-established, and if it isn’t, then the user’s progress is reset to the last save – i.e., their progress is lost.

Okay, so one of the key problems here is the obvious: not everybody has a rock solid, 100% stable Internet connection, and some won’t even have access at all. So, right there, you’ve cut off a chunk of your potential customer base. This is an issue of simple technological fact – that we just aren’t there yet in terms of stable, fast, wide-spread Internet connectivity. And I’m not talking about some third-world country; I’m talking about the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States. It’s a case of being too far ahead of the trend, too far ahead of its time, and it’s a misjudgement on their part.

Okay, so let’s say, hypothetically, that we overcome that particular hurdle – that everyone in the world has a stable Internet connection and has a PC capable of playing Ubisoft’s games.

Now, it’s a question of principle: why pay the same amount for a product that offers more restrictions on the way you use it than it would have done, say, three to five years ago? Because piracy is rampant? “Hey”, says the consumer, “That’s not my problem”, and why, indeed, should it be? Now I’m being punished – a would-be, legitimate consumer who wants to buy your product – for the actions of a group of individuals, a substantial number of which who, let’s face it, will never want to pay for anything until they day they die.

So how do you persuade this customer that you’re offering a better deal? How do you convince them to give up, what they perceive to be, their right to play offline wherever, whenever they want?

For a start, you offer convenience. And that means that you should be able to download and play the game on any computer you own, without install limitations, and you start weaning the consumer off games as a product you own and onto the idea of games as a service you have access to. On this front, Ubisoft have acted correctly, and in few more years the technological hurdle that, right now, is an issue will cease to be one. That’s a problem that will eventually solve itself. As much as I dislike the idea, if you’re absolutely dedicated going to go down this route of always-online, then you’re going to have to leave those people behind. There’s really nothing that can be done about it.

On the argument over the principle of ownership, you persuade people by making your service personalise-able to the user, much like what Valve has done with Steam and what Blizzard is intending to do with StarCraft 2. Introduce enough cool stuff to a service – enable social networking functions, “achievements”, the sharing of content between users – and people quickly forget what rights they sacrificed. We’ve seen this happen with Facebook, where people are happy to throw their sense of privacy down the drain for the chance to express themselves on their profile pages; we’ve seen it happen with Apple’s iPhone or iPad, where people are happy to sacrifice the innovation that grows out of an open-source platform for easy of use and collective brand identity, which comes from – drum-roll, please! – being able to connect with their friends, create, share and personalise their service; and, finally, we’ve seen it happen on XBLA, where two-decade-old games, such as Final Fight, can gain a new lease of life and be priced and sold at £6.80 – but only because they are also packed with a wealth of other, frankly, cosmetic and shallow bonuses that can and do add substantial value to the product.

Have Ubisoft done any of this with the PC? Sort-of.

uPlay is Ubisoft’s relatively new community platform, and while it attempts to do what I’ve spelt out above, it has a long way to go. As it stands, it’s very rough around the edges – even on consoles, where you’d expect a more polished experience – and it needs work. It needs to be more than just a token USP scrawled on the back of the game box; it has to a fully fledged gaming service that gamers want to be a part of, that counts for something and that you want them to get attached to and care about.

So, really, it’s just a question of time. In a few years time, when the Internet is more widely available, when uPlay is up to the standards of fellow services such as Xbox LIVE and Steam, then you’re going to see this controversy melt away – just as it did long ago when Steam first launched, when people complained over its “draconian” practice of installing updates to games automatically, instead of allowing the users the “freedom” of having to find, download and install these patches manually.

I don’t hear those people complaining now. And likewise, I don’t hear much in the way of criticism for Steam in general, though it has its faults from time to time. Gamers have accepted Steam, and it is now seen by many people as being not only consumer friendly but also one of the pillars keeping the PC gaming industry relevant.

The evidence is clear; the message is simple: Ubisoft, make uPlay the new Steam for your line of products. Do this, and all will be forgiven. Do this, and not only will the community forget – they’ll praise you for it.

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