Experienced Points

Ubisoft vs. Ubisoft’s Customers


You’ve probably read the story by now, but for those of you who missed it: A couple of weeks ago, the site Guru3D tried to do some graphics benchmarking using the Ubisoft game Anno 2070. Every time they changed graphics cards, the DRM required re-activation.

This story spread, and a lot of people made a fuss about it. Once Ubisoft smelled the smoke of bad PR, they engaged in the kind of contradictory activity that only large companies can pull off. They claimed that the DRM was working as intended, which might lead a careful reader to conclude that this unjust punishment of paying customers was deliberate. But then they changed the policy without admitting that their initial policy was wrong, or explaining why they had done things that way in the first case.

As an aside: One of the biggest defenses of online activation-based DRM that the publisher gives us is that legit users can request more activations if they happen to run out. In the case of Guru3D, they did not hear back from support within a day (or more) of asking for more re-activations. In fact, the company said it wasn’t going to give them the activations they needed to do their tests. Yes, eventually the policy was changed in response to public outcry, but that’s not the same as honoring their initial promise. If that’s how Ubisoft will treat a popular website, then what are the odds that you, a lone customer, will get more activations when you need them?

Anyway, back to this story with switching graphics cards…

Some people demanded to know why the DRM ate an install when the customer changed graphics cards. The thinking was, “The DRM shouldn’t care when you switch graphics cards, only when you install on a new computer.” That’s a perfectly reasonable position, although it’s not as simple as that in practice.

The problem is that the question of what makes one computer distinct from another computer is a bit metaphysical. When we talk about personal computers, most of us picture a big ol’ plastic box that sits under the desk with all of the other computer parts plugged into it. You can gradually upgrade this computer a part at a time over the course of a year. Hard drive, memory, CPU, motherboard, graphics card, operating system, and network card. At the end, you have a totally new computer, but at what point did it stop being the old computer?

Not all of these components have unique identifiers, and it’s not always possible / feasible for your DRM program to get at them. You might say that the DRM should trigger an activation if the CPU changes, but CPU’s are not unique. If the game locks itself to a particular CPU, then you could dump the game to the hard drive of a different computer with a similar model CPU and it would run without needing activation. It could link itself to a particular install of Windows, but that’s nothing more than a simple registry key than can be easily spoofed.


Now, of course this isn’t a big deal to those of us who understand this business, but to the numbskulls implementing DRM, their first reaction will be, “But if Bob and Carl both have the same kinda computer, they can share the game? That’s piracy! We’ll lose money!”

The people making the DRM want a way to uniquely identify your specific computer and make sure the game only runs there. They want to do this in some way that can’t (in their mind) be easily spoofed, or else you’ll be able to play the game when you shouldn’t. The easiest way to do this is to take a bunch of non-unique bits of information and combine them. Sure, millions of people have the same CPU as you, but very, very few have the exact same CPU, operating system, motherboard, etc.

It’s a bit like the kid’s game Guess Who. Lots of the characters have red hair. Some have glasses. A few are smiling. But only one particular piece is red-headed, smiling, wearing glasses, and wearing a tie. (Or whatever.) The more data the system collects, the more uniquely it can identify your computer.

Of course, all of this is ridiculous. All of this DRM is designed to prevent people from sharing the game, but that’s not how piracy works. Ubisoft is acting like people pirate the game by loaning the disc to friends. That’s how piracy worked in 1995, but that’s not how it works in a world with high-speed internet. Today, a cracker removes all of this machine-checking nonsense and puts an unencumbered version up on the torrents. Ubisoft is putting its customers through all of this hassle to stop a form of piracy that no longer exists. (Or is so small as to be irrelevant.)

Some people say that this DRM isn’t really there to stop piracy, but used game sales. That’s possible, but also pointless. The used-game PC market has been dead for years. I don’t know of any chain stores that still accept used PC games. So again, this DRM is useless. It’s costing them money and generating bad PR for no reason.

One final note is that Ubisoft moved their authentication servers this week, and ended up locking people out of their legitimately purchased games. Now, I’ve already berated Ubisoft for this online activation stuff, so I don’t think I need to cover that again. But I do need to point out that even if you have nothing against their DRM policy, having DAYS of downtime for a server migration is insane.

Keep in mind that these are authentication servers, not MMO servers. These things aren’t handling a lot of traffic. They’re handling very small transactions, and only when someone launches a game. In terms of throughput, I’m sure the Ubisoft website handles a much bigger load.

In my former life as a programmer, I participated in server migrations. I know how this is supposed to work. I can’t imagine anything that could justify even a single day of downtime. It’s simple: You set up the new machines while the old machines are still running. You test them until you’re sure they’re solid. Then you switch the DNS to point at the new machines. Done properly, there will be no downtime at all.

My point isn’t that DRM is bad. We knew this. My point is that from where I sit, we can’t even accuse Ubisoft of being malicious and cunning. It would be one thing if they were doing all of this for their own benefit, but I can’t escape the conclusion that the Ubisoft leadership is simply ignorant and incompetent. They’re making decisions that hurt themselves, their image, and their customers, all to make use of a system that doesn’t stop piracy.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels. He’ll stop picking on Ubisoft when Ubisoft stops picking on his gaming.

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