I had an interesting conversation today about the recent implosion of Ubisoft’s new “always on” DRM scheme. In case you missed it, Ubi’s servers took a powder over the past weekend, leaving “owners” of Assassin’s Creed 2 and Silent Hunter 5 unable to play their games for the better part of Sunday. Ubisoft initially said the problem was caused by overwhelming demand, but later changed its tune and claimed that an “attack” on its servers was to blame. A few hours after the all-clear sounded, the servers were apparently hit again and at last check were still under siege. Not that the specifics really mattered; regardless of the reason, thousands of people couldn’t play their games and Ubisoft ended up looking like a bunch of chumps who staked the future of their PC business on a system that couldn’t stand up to a few bored script kiddies with an afternoon to kill.
Rubbing salt in the wound was the fact that this sort of outcome was widely predicted. Servers go down for a multitude of reasons and when games are entirely dependent upon those servers for their functionality, it becomes almost certain that sooner or later – probably sooner – people are going to be left hanging. To paint with admittedly broad strokes: We knew this was going to happen.
But if that’s the case, I suggested on Twitter, then who do these put-upon gamers really have to blame for their problems: Ubisoft or themselves? After all, if you know your tongue is going to stick to a frozen pole but you lick it anyway, it’s hardly reasonable to get mad at the weather when the school nurse has to give your head a yank.
A friend of mine said I was unfairly blaming consumers, who were merely the victims of Ubisoft’s ham-fisted stupidity. That’s a valid point as far as it goes, but while I have no doubt that there are people who were innocently and honestly caught in the Ubi net, I’m also inclined to think that gamers savvy enough to go to the Ubisoft forums to wail about the injustices of the universe should also be savvy enough to consider DRM before buying games. If that’s true, then those same people made a conscious decision to purchase it despite knowing that it could, and probably would, bite them in the ass at some point – and for that, I have no sympathy.
Ubisoft certainly isn’t blameless in all this. It’s responsible for implementing this ridiculous DRM scheme in the first place and then proved laughably unable to maintain it for a week uninterrupted. Its arrogance in the weeks and months leading up to this breakdown was stunning. But at the same time, Ubi didn’t send an army of drones crawling across Europe, putting guns to the heads of gamers and forcing them to buy AC2. The gamers did that all on their own, either because they failed to do their homework or they just didn’t care. And while missing out on a day or two of gaming is unfortunate, the sheer volume of anger, indignation and surprise that accompanied the response is, to be frank, shocking.
By now, most PC gamers should be aware, in a general sense at the very least, of the vagaries of DRM. SecuROM, Starforce, Steam: All of these and more have been around for years and have garnered enough attention that even people who don’t follow the gaming media on a regular basis should have some awareness of it. We talk about DRM on The Escapist almost every day in forum conversations, news coverage and articles, and while our audience is a fairly narrow and focused segment of the overall gamer demographic, I think it’s valid to suggest that the market for games like Assassin’s Creed and Silent Hunter on the PC is similarly specialized. Ignorance is rapidly ceasing to be an excuse.
Some gamers have blamed the pirates for the mess, saying that if it wasn’t for all the illegal downloading, Ubisoft wouldn’t be forced to take such extreme measures to protect its games. That’s half-right at best: Ubisoft may have used piracy as an excuse to implement this DRM, but it’s the legitimate game-buying public that will keep it alive. None of this does anything to actually stop piracy, so that side of the equation is essentially irrelevant and all that’s left are the honest game buyers. That’s where the money is; fighting game copying is all well and good but it’s the people who actually put their bucks on the counter that make or break videogames. And as long as they keep buying them, Ubisoft has no reason to reconsider its position.
My aforementioned friend pointed out that PC gamers should have the right to expect their games to work like they’re supposed to after they’re purchased, and in principle I absolutely agree with him. But reality sometimes insists on playing by its own set of rules and expecting a system like this to function smoothly, especially when it’s virtually brand new, is almost willfully naive. Gamers who bought Assassin’s Creed 2 for the PC knew, or should have known, that they were rolling the dice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; people do it all the time and entire industries have sprung up around the human predilection for gambling. But getting angry when you roll the dice and crap out is unreasonable.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying this with any sense of smugness or perverse glee. I take no satisfaction from the misfortunes of others. (Not in this case, at least.) Ubisoft’s online DRM setup is an absolute travesty, the worst boning PC gamers have taken in years. It’s unfair and it’s a complete waste of time. As a die-hard PC gamer, I’m extremely unhappy about seeing my beloved platform treated so carelessly.
But I also think it’s time we stopped being so disingenuous about it. We know what DRM is, we know what it does and we know that most major publishers are experimenting with ever more complex and intrusive methods of “protecting” their games. Ubisoft’s gambit may be extreme but it’s not really anything new, and acting surprised about what a mess it’s become is borderline dishonest. The hard fact is this: If Ubisoft decides to stay with this DRM for the long run, it will be because of you; and if you get screwed because of it, you’ll have nobody but yourself to blame.
Andy Chalk doesn’t really care about Assassin’s Creed 2 but he was kind of looking forward to the new Splinter Cell.