Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ubisoft's DRM, Our Shame

So, there's a lot of uproar about Ubisoft's recently announced DRM. The game developer released the facts about its new copy protection methods last week and to say gamers were not taken with their scheme would be a modest understatement. Many developers have required customers to activate their products online before they could play the game; Ubisoft has taken it a step further; not only do they require that initial activation, you must be online to play the game. Worse, lose your network connection, even momentarily, and you are booted from the game and your progress since your last save-point is lost.

As stated earlier, gamers are outraged. The usual objections have been raised: not everybody has broadband, ISPs are notoriously unreliable, this violates first-sale doctrine, there are privacy and security issues, and DRM does nothing to stop pirates anyways. Similarly, the usual calls to action are also being offered: Internet petitions, people are swearing not to buy the game, and threats are being made to pirate the title to teach Ubisoft a lesson.

Meanwhile, I just can't get all that upset about it all.

Mind you, I hold Ubisoft's latest tactic against copyright violators in no more favor than any other gamer. Personally, after upsetting customer so much with first Starforce and later SecuROM, I would have thought that the publisher might have learned its lesson; certainly, it seemed to be moving in the right direction with the DRM-free release of Prince of Persia. Apparently not.

I'm unhappy about Ubisoft's decision and, like many, have decided that any games poisoned with this copy-protection mechanism is not worth buying. But I can't help but feel that the problem isn't with Ubisoft, but with us gamers.

Oh, not for the expected reason; not because so many people illegally copy software. Sure, that is a cause of this current crisis, but there was rampant software copying twenty years ago and software publishers managed to survive despite a lack of online activation. So it's hardly fair to lay the blame entirely on piracy for Ubisoft's decision to add these onerous requirements on its customers in 2010.

What then led the publisher to this point? We did, but showing our acceptance to this sort of thing by buying games that had similar restrictions to its use. It didn't matter if it was SecuROM online activation, or Steam, or Stardock's Impulse; it's all the same. Step by step the publishers have been moving in this direction, and we customers haven't done any more than whine as we willingly moved in the very direction we swore we never would.

Oh sure; we had our reasons. Steam demanded online activation, forced upgrades on you, tracked your online activity and prevented you from reselling the game, but dammit, surely we couldn't be expected to not play Half Life 2? Bioshock used online activation that was limited to five installations (and, initially, no way to de-authorize the product) in addition to a disc-check, but the hype for that game was enormous; how could we mere mortals resist buying the game? Modern Warfare 2 did the same, plus they took away hosted servers, but obviously the billion dollars we poured into EA's pockets indicated we must have had some reason to ignore the fact we were getting screwed. We have, collectively, shown the publishers that despite all our howls of protest, we really don't care about DRM. Why then are we surprised that they continue to tighten the screws on us with every new release?

I'm not innocent of any of this either; I bought Half Life 2, I bought Bioshock. In fairness to myself, I did resist for a long while; I was absolutely opposed to Steam when it was released. I was not only opposed to what it did then, but what it meant for the future of the industry. I argued and warned people that if they bought Half Life 2 today, knowing full well that it required online activation, they shouldn't be surprised when other publisher's followed suit. I posted on various forums and even went so far as to write to Valve regarding my dissatisfaction. But I admit, a year later when it became evident that the community had spoken overwhelmingly in favor of Steam I became a convert. Not happily, but willingly because the choice was clear. Gamers didn't care about DRM, so publishers were going to keep using it on new games; I could either abandon my hobby or accept the turn of events. Could I have held my ground? Of course... but it wouldn't have made any difference.  So I caved, well aware that I was now a part of the very problem I had once railed against.

And so here we are, in 2010; Ubisoft has upped the ante with its new onerous copy protection.  I am not surprised, and neither should be you. They aren't to blame; the fault lies entirely with us. And while the solution lies with us too - we could all agree not to buy of Ubisoft's games (and, as important, not pirate them either) -  history shows us how unlikely this is to happen.  We had a chance to avoid this future five years ago; we chose a different path. Together we've made the bed we're being forced to lie in; let us not cry about it and shake our fists at Ubisoft.

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