Apologies to Shamus Young for taking a page out of his book this week, but this has been bugging me for a while. By this point, we all know what a massive failure the Ubisoft DRM has been for the PC version of Assassin’s Creed II – doesn’t work for gamers, eventually cracked by pirates after quite a bit of trying. Essentially, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.
But the worst part is just how close it came to being a good idea.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the part where you need to be connected to the internet at all times to play a single-player game is good – far from it. That’s the bad part. But everything else, you know, everything Ubisoft threw in to try to soften the “always connected” blow? That was actually pretty decent.
Imagine if, back when this whole thing first came to light, Ubisoft had simply announced that it had a new service wherein all of their customers who registered their game – and connected to the optional Ubi.net while playing – would get some extra goodies. They would get the option of saving their game in a cloud, and the option to download and install the game on whatever computer they wanted (just need to log in!). They would get their game automatically updated with the latest DLC, and some extra cosmetic goodies as a way to reward them for buying the game legitimately.
That sounds pretty good, right? It’s not necessary by any means, but it’s a nice set of extras that you only get while logged in . Naturally, you can still traipse around Venice and stab people in the throats while offline, but you get more for being an actual customer instead of a pirate.
Many of these features are actually included in the Ubisoft DRM. You get to save your game in a cloud, and you get to download and install the game on any machine you want without bothering with DVDs (in case you’re craving some Florentine action on your lunch break). And yet, that always-on connection overshadows the whole thing. It’s very hard to enjoy a token bone when you have the sword of Damocles hanging by a thread over your neck as you eat.
What Ubisoft – and other publishers – need to learn is that they should be rewarding people for going straight, rather than punishing them for thinking about piracy. Use a carrot, not a stick.
There is one metric that any developer or publisher should be paying attention to: Is a paying customer getting the best version of the game? As long as a pirate is putting up with an inferior product instead of what he’d get if he bought the game normally, then you’re doing a good job. Otherwise, it’s time to head back to the drawing board.
Is your DRM based around install limits? The pirated copy doesn’t have any, ergo the pirated version is better. You fail. Is your DRM based around an always-on internet connection? Pirated version doesn’t need to bother with that – double fail. Does your DRM make it so that pirates have to put up with a hamstrung hero, at least until the inevitable secondary crack? There we go! Now we’re on the right track here.
Some companies are already taking strides to this effect. Once you’ve tied your CD key to your Battle.net account, Blizzard lets you download any of its classic titles like Diablo II and Warcraft III as many times as you want. Even EA is rewarding people who buy the game legitimately (or in the case of consoles, who buy the game new) with bonus content via its Project Ten-Dollar plan.
But for every step forward, we seem to be taking a step backward: StarCraft II does thankfully have an offline single-player mode, but infamously lacks LAN. To be fair, though, anyone who pirates it for LAN is missing out on the huge Battle.net community, so the legit copy does end up better than the cracked one. Meanwhile, EA still loves to use standard DRM like install limits – or in the case of Command & Conquer 4, an always-connected stipulation just like Ubisoft’s scheme.
I think we can all agree that piracy is a problem, and that game-makers and publishers are entitled to try and protect their product – at the end of the day, they need to take home a paycheck and feed their families too. But we also need to confront one sad truth: As much as pirates are (for the most part) self-entitled assholes, they’re not going away. Even the most draconian of DRM (that is, Ubisoft’s) will eventually be cracked, and casting a heavy net only gets innocent users caught up in the mix.
You will never stamp out piracy by brute force. Hell, you will never stamp out piracy period. Rather, the model should be about giving them incentives to buy the game legally. These incentives could be convenience: Play your saved game anywhere in the world thanks to our cloud! The incentives could be bonus content – even if it will eventually be pirated too, the legit customers get it more easily. The incentives could be things that we haven’t even thought of yet.
That way, you might get one of the pirates to look up from their self-absorbed world and think, “Hey, I’d actually be better off if I just put down money for this.” You’ve turned an illegal download into a sale – just what you always wanted to accomplish.
Because, right now, you’re doing just the opposite.
John Funk thinks Assassin’s Creed II was better on the consoles anyway.