Let’s Not Celebrate DRM Just Yet

Don't be fooled, I say. Ubisoft, amongst others, have been getting a lot of good press lately, including from this very site, [Kotaku editor's note: he means Rock Paper Shotgun, where this originally ran.] 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."


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?

John Walker is a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, one of the world's best sites for PC gaming news. He knows more about Canadian police dramas that you've had hot dinners, or something. Follow him on Twitter.

Republished with permission.


    Hear Hear!

    But don't you know?? 500 billion dollars are lost to piracy every nanosecond! THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!! Some children somewhere, I don't think it matters which ones.

    Sadly I see this as the most dangerous part of the share based business model, it emphasises numbers over words. Who cares if the business reputation is in the gutter if you (who only own shares in the company) made 3% over estimates? After all if they go down the tubes there's always another company

    I buy heaps of games but I wont buy from companies like Ubisoft after being burnt by there DRM. Tell me what’s really a lost sale? The guy who wouldn’t buy the game if it was $1 and will pirate and play it or the guy who doesn’t buy or play the game at all, even though im happy to pay double the retail price of US stores here in Aus for another game without DRM.

    what I've been saying all along - heck, I posted previously in a similar article that Ubi lost at least 5 sales from me alone (Settlers 7, Assassins Creed 2 & Brotherhood, Splinter Cell Conviction and PoP: Forgotten Sands) - what they need to realise is that those five sales are staying lost unless they pull something as drastic as what they did following their Starforce fiasco!

    For those who don't know: PoP: Two Thrones and SC: Chaos Theory initially came with Starforce, but were eventually put into trilogy rerelease bundles that had it removed (at least SC did, I haven't been able to confirm on PoP yet).
    For Ubi to regain sales from people like me who love their games but will no longer buy them on principle, they need to do something like an AC DRM-free bundle release (preferably all-DLC-inclusive like the Bethesda GOTYEs) - at least that way they could regain a few AU$40-$50 increments in place of their currently losing a whole lot more AU$60-$90 increments!

    Of course what they seem to be doing is more like when they mixed things up a bit by using Tages for Beyond Good & Evil (which was nailed down as one of the root causes for those three game-stopping bugs that required a third party save hack utility to circumvent)

    "And therefore your customers, literally unable to use the product you’re selling, will turn to the better offer"
    For this I would like to point out the Borderlands GOTYE: if you have to download 4.5gb of what should have been in the box and the DRM on at least two of the DLCs forces General Protection Fault crashes EVERY time an attempt is made to access the content, then where is the incentive to buy the licenses to download from legit locations? (especially if in some cases you have to download the complete 4.5gb either way instead of just a crack - it doesn't set a good precedent)

    Now if only we could somehow get an article like this forced into whatever reports the shareholders get to read.. otherwise I suspect we'll see the same thing a few years down the track again anyway (those who fail to learn from history doomed to repeat it and all that - Ubi, Atari and Activision being some of the best examples in the industry of that statement)

    DRM may be inconvenient - but it is better than no game at all on PC.

    The publishers have plenty of real world evidence that given the choice between no intrusive DRM on cheap (sub $10) games and piracy, most people choose piracy.

    Gamasutra did a great article on iPhone piracy about a year ago. ngmoco measured 24 pirated copies for every $2 game they sold. This is on a platform where "lite" versions of games (permanent game trials) cost nothing.


      So because some people will always choose Piracy,It's ok to fuck legitimate customers in the arse?

      All that study proves is that there are pirates, it doesn't do anything to suggest that DRM would have stopped people from pirating those games.In fact the guy they interviewed even admits that when they did try to implement intrusive DRM, the only people they hurt where the legitimate customers, the pirates easily cracked the DRM, and the legitimate customers got screwed.

      In the long run, I wouldn't be to fussed if a lot of the big publishers suddenly decided not to release on PC. If they leave the market, it just leaves more room for independent devs, and while that would probably flood the market with trash, there will also be some damn good releases. Not that I remember being particularly impressed with most big PC titles anyway.

    Damn straight!
    Reminds me of DVDs: you are forced to sit through several different unskippable copyright messages and lame anti-piracy videos but if I grab the same movie off a torrent site I can just click play and watch.

    Seriously, I borrowed the Band of Brothers collection off my brother and it has like 10 mins of this crap between the episodes. I have to eject the disk and start again after every episode.
    It annoyed me so much I considered downloading it so I would not have to deal with it, and I was watching for free anyway!

      Don't get me wrong; I don't advocate piracy but you shouldn't punish the people who do pay to try (and fail) at stopping people who never will.

        Well Jo, you may not advocate piracy but you and your brother have committed an act of piracy, if you have ever read those anti piracy messages (I don't blame you if you haven't, they are super boring), it says that the DVD is for private use only, and that it is illegal for you to loan the discs to your friends\family\anyone.

        It's ok for you to watch the DVDs in your friend's lounge room, but according to the publishers, sharing your media is a big no no (which is pretty much what piracy is, sharing digital media).

    I couldn't agree more with John Walker unless I was his clone. The real kicker is that the pirated version is often superior in that the DRM crap making life hell for legitimate users has been removed and the game is hassle free to play. Hell, I sometimes "pirate" the games I bought to avoid PITA DRM intrusion on gameplay.

    This is almost the sole reason I am purely a console gamer. PC gaming just seems too troublesome. Especially when you factor in the cases of massive downloads as Mad Danny mentioned.

      ..except that in this particular case my example has the same effect on console versions as well!

        Sorry, I usually end up speaking with the mentality of a Nintendo gamer, so as far as I'm concerned there's 'no such thing' as DLC :P

          hehe.. as a current-gen Nintendo gamer myself I get that - sure there is DLC for some WiiWare titles, but with downloaded games being hardware-tied instead of profile-tied and having such limited HD space, I've only bought two titles and abandoned the other half dozen or so I would have liked (compared to Steam where my collection of indies is a bit crazy now due to the comparative support and stability of the system)

    Fantastic article. *throws orange at duck*

    In my opinion Ubisoft knew all along that their crazy DRM will be criticized.

    But its a minor setback to a bigger plan. As seen here, their DRM was so ridiculous that once another less crazy DRM comes along, we celebrate and praise the company... blinded by the fact that the DRM is still stupid.

    Lets continue to fight it with just as much gusto as the last time and let them know we have not brought down our standards!

    Spot on, this kind of thing also makes me regret the omission of LAN in most modern games, ostensibly an essential part of PC gaming.

    Even games that owed their success almost wholly to the experience of LAN-ing with couple of mates (Starcraft II and Battlefield: BC2, I'm looking at you) now deem it necessary to neglect the feature because of the attitude of developers towards piracy.

    Just give any game with crap drm 1 star reviews and pirate it. Problem solved lol, vote with ur wallet. Think piracy ruins games? Google minecraft lol. Ever heard of steam? Yeah, it's evil corporations thy ruin games. Sharing means caring, pirate em all back to hell :) arrrrrrr

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