The word went out last week that analyst Michael Pachter thinks Ubisoft is doing a-okay with its always-on DRM for new PC releases, not in execution, perhaps, but certainly with the concept. That may have come as a surprise to the PC gamers around the world who’ve been seriously chapped by Ubi’s copy protection, which requires players to be connected to Ubisoft servers at all times during gameplay and punishes them with a forcible ejection from their game should that connection somehow be broken. But Pachter, so the reports go, is a fan.
Or is he? This is what he said in the latest edition of Pach Attack, his show on GameTrailers. “I’m an old guy. I’m ethical and I’m a lawyer by trade. I feel if you steal a copy of a game by copying a friend’s file then it’s like going into the shop and stealing a copy. That’s how I feel about it. Please feel free to disagree.”
After reminding everyone that making copies of games is illegal, plain and simple, he got to the salient point. “I think anything a publisher does to make sure you don’t rip off their games is their right, and I think that people who steal should be in jail,” he said. “I welcome the flamer comments on this one. If you think that’s right, good for you; we have no interest in your business since you don’t pay for stuff anyway.”
He stirred up a lot of very predictable nerd rage with that one. News headlines ranged from the relatively mild “Ubisoft is Right to Use Its Current DRM Software” all the way to the completely out-of-left-field “Michael Pachter Wishes All Games Used DRM Like Ubisoft.” And, of course, forum threads ran hot with outrage as everyone took their turn to let the world know just how absolutely wrong Pachter was, how irrelevant he is to the gaming scene and how he probably smells funny, too.
But all that hair-trigger anger seems to have blinded us to the rather important fact that Pachter is absolutely, 100 percent correct. He just didn’t actually say what we think he said. I don’t see anywhere in his comments a belief that Ubisoft is really on the right track, just that it has the right to be on whatever track it wants. I’m an old guy, too. I’m ethical, and while I’m not a lawyer I do believe that, at its core, piracy is not just theft but also very douchey. And like Pachter, I firmly believe that Ubisoft and every other game publisher out there has the right to do whatever it wants to combat piracy. But that doesn’t mean that I think it is right.
It’s amusing to note that a good number of people making noise about Pachter’s remarks will claim piracy as essentially a right too, because videogames are so expensive, or they’re not very good, or, best of all, the DRM is too restrictive. Yet instead of exercising their real-world right to simply not buy this game or that, they fall back on some imaginary sense of justice for the little guy and rip it off. And as Ubisoft and other publishers take ever more drastic steps to protect their games – as is their, you know, actual right – that sense of right and wrong (and let’s not forget runaway entitlement) grows increasingly agitated.
Is it any wonder that Pachter’s comments were so incendiary – or that they were so readily (and, I might add, gleefully) misconstrued?
Within the confines of the law, game companies can do whatever they want to combat piracy. Ubisoft is at the hard-ass end of the scale, with a system that’s laughably wrong-headed and punitive, while those like Stardock are at the other extreme, throwing their hands in the air and trusting to the whim of good fortune to carry them through – a surprisingly successful strategy so far. The middle ground is firmly in the grip of Valve, which has apparently stumbled upon the holy grail with Steam, the one DRM system that keeps (just about) everybody happy. Three different approaches with one commonality: Each reflects the right of the game companies to use whatever systems it feels are necessary to protect its games.
When perceived rights run up against real ones, vicious circles have a way of appearing as each side ramps up its response to the other. Pirates see tighter DRM as a challenge and work harder and more enthusiastically to break it, leading publishers to get tougher and tougher with their restrictions and requirements until things eventually reach their logical conclusion and the only people who end up not being able to play the games are the ones who are trying to play by the rules. And if that sounds hyperbolic or hysterical, bear in mind that we’ve already hit that mark. I’m just pointing at it.
Does that make pirates “right”? Absolutely not. Right and wrong is rarely a zero-sum game but when it comes to illegal game copying, pirates are wrong and videogame companies are right and, yes, it’s really that simple. The trouble is that in being right, and in exercising their rights, a lot of game companies also insist on being rather shockingly stupid. Aggressive copy protection accomplishes nothing beyond the occasional alienation of legitimate customers; even Blizzard co-founder Frank Pearce recently declared that relying on heavy-handed DRM is a “losing battle.” Like so many things in life, “because you can” doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
Welcome or not, the firestorm reaction to Pachter’s outspoken attitude is proof that the DRM debate is far more about bad behavior, stubbornness and itchy trigger fingers on both sides of the coin than it is about rights, right and wrong. If we’re ever going to be able to have a meaningful dialogue, we need to get past the point where hearing the words “DRM” and “right” in the same sentence automatically sets off our attack-dog instincts. Cooler heads, people. Michael Pachter was right. That doesn’t mean Ubisoft is.
Andy Chalk has the right to remain silent, but he never seems to.