Counterpoint: Ubisoft's Online Services Platform

Hey, neat. Ubisoft’s announced an Online Services Platform to be added to its future PC games. Let’s disingenuously pretend to read it for the first time to see what great services they’ll be adding… Online… As a platform…

What are the key elements of this platform for PC gamers?
Although a permanent online connection is required, this means that a CD/DVD is not required to play the game after installation. The protected game can be installed as many times and on as many computers as you like. Saved games are also synchronized online so the user can continue playing from any location with the game installed.

Waitta minute! A permanent online connection is required? This sounds suspiciously like [pause for effect] Digital Rights Management.

Yeah, ok, so Ubisoft announced this days ago and half the PC gaming portion of the Internet has already exploded about it. Everyone agrees it’s a bad idea. The only person who doesn’t agree, Gerald from this Gamespy article, makes a point so vacuous and out of touch with reality that everyone who reads it should disagree with him on principle. Still, given that I’m half-way through my unexpectedly lengthy Assassin’s Creed II posts and that, if my stats page is to be believed, the majority of people who read this blog are interested in PC gaming, it seemed somewhat remiss of me to ignore the issue.

To briefly get my bias on the whole issue of DRM out of the way, I totally understand that companies feel the need to protect their intellectual properties. As far as I see it, the whole ‘copyright is theft’ argument is both unrealistic and hugely insulting to the developers who’ve taken the time and effort to create their game. That said, Ubisoft’s proposal is completely batshit insane.

Why? The simple reason is that requiring a persistant online connection would make any Ubisoft PC titles I buy henceforth the only games that would be, on occasion, completely impossible to play… I think… wait, hold on.

– 1 Hour Later –

Ok, so when I wrote that last sentence I realised I had no idea if any games would stop me playing them without an Internet connection. Mine is online pretty much constantly, so it seems like the sort of thing I might have missed. So as not to come across as totally ignorant I’ve spent the last hour starting up games and periodically ripping out my wireless USB hoojamaflip to see what happened. First up was Steam, as I knew it had an offline mode and for some reason I was under the impression you needed an online connection to activate it. Ripping out the Internet during a game of Half Life 2: Episode 2 had absolutely no effect which was unsurprising when I realised my firewall had blocked the hl2.exe application while it waited for me to confirm it, meaning it had never been online in the first place. Still in online mode with no connection present I tried to start Portal. It started. It was all proving to be rather anti-climactic. After a stroke of pure genius I restarted Steam and got this error message:

“Fuck You Valve for leaving me unable to play my… Oh, an option to start Steam offline.” Choosing that option started Steam up as normal and gave me access to all the games I subsequently tried.

Ah, but what about Fallout 3? That is inexplicably tied to my Games for Windows Live account, meaning I can only access my savegames by signing into the service. I started it up and was informed that GfW had signed into offline mode still giving me access to all my save data. So yeah, fuck Ubisoft.

You may be wondering what the hell my problem is given that I had to go to all that effort to even see if a lack of connection affected any of my existing games. Well, our area’s Internet connection can be somewhat sporadic. Only the other day I lost connection for a half hour or so while I was playing Fallout 3. The game went into offline mode and continued on. I wonder how a future Ubisoft title would handle that…

What will happen if I lose my Internet connection when I play the game?
If you lose your Internet connection the game will pause while it tries to reconnect. If the Internet connection is unable to resume, the server will have stored your last saved game and you will be able to continue from where you left off once your Internet connection is restored.

Oh good, the game’s completely disabled until connection returns. The Q&A page doesn’t even make clear if you can save your game if the connection is interrupted. Even with a connection certain bandwidth heavy programs, µTorrent for example, knock out all other online processes. If I have to choose between playing the latest Ubisoft titles and completing my back catalog of That’s So Raven episodes*, I know who’s losing out.

The services provided by this move in no way justify the cost. Cloud saving is great, sure, but I doubt Ubisoft has many games that would run smoothly enough on notebooks to warrant it. It works for, say, Torchlight (to the point that I re-bought the game on Steam to have the feature) but that’s because Torchlight runs fine on most hardware. The same can’t be said for AC2, which I doubt many people will be installing on multiple PCs. Even for Ubi’s casual games that notebook would need an online wi-fi connection when on the move, something not widely available for free in the UK. Also, the old ‘CD/DVD not required’ argument – am I the only person who has no fucking problem with putting a DVD in the disk tray? The top picture is a Fallout 3 disk check error, because it was the only piece of DRM I could find to give an error on my computer, and I had to take the bloody thing out of the tray to make it happen.

Ah, here’s a telling question:

Can I resell my game?
Not at this time.

Strikes me as a two-birds-one-stone situation, given how much publishers hate resales. The stupid thing is that, to my mind, EA have already solved this issue with Bioware’s last two releases. Both Dragon Age and Mass Effect give free DLC to people who buy new copies, and offer the same DLC in paid form to those who purchase second hand. That’s a perfectly fine solution as it at least offers the consumer a choice. It’s an encouragement to buy new not a barrier from buying used. In that small distinction is a world of difference.

Bottom line, for me at least, is that, when I said publishers had a right to protect their IPs, well that goes both ways. Consumers have rights too and surely one of those should be that the people who actually purchase the game aren’t punished with a restrictive system that won’t affect those that pirate the game. Because this system will be cracked, as they all are, and future Ubisoft titles will be pirated. I’d argue that people who would have otherwise purchased a title will seriously consider pirating it.

And so, I leave with this question: If the piracy does increase on future titles, is a major publisher going to look at the figures and realise it needs to dial back its DRM or is it going to withdraw from the PC market altogether?

*Because tone and humour don’t always translate well in text I want to make it categorically clear that I have never downloaded an episode of That’s So Raven. Have you ever actually watched that show? Beyond shit.


6 Responses to “Counterpoint: Ubisoft's Online Services Platform”

  1. 1 octaeder
    01/02/2010 at 21:19

    I’d like to point out: 1282 words on a DRM system and not once did I use the word ‘Draconian’. Suck it, Internet.

  2. 2 Izzi
    01/02/2010 at 22:46

    ubisoft have struck me as a little sinister when i looked up about them before. Have you actually been to their company website and read any of their “company info”? if you can read between the lines it literally says ‘we’re not a games company, we just want to make money.. could be anything really’. All its directors are guys out of business school with no artistic or computer background. The founder apparently started it because he fancied making a company after leaving business school and figured games are hot right now. Notice how much they bang on about world presence and leading the market, compared to how much they talk about the actually industry itself. They’re the extreme opposite of most game developers, it genuinely astounds me that any of their games are as good as they are.
    So i guess in response to the question, i don’t expect them to do anything clever or try any innovative solutions in a hurry, and i don’t expect them to pull out either. I expect them to do whatever they were taught at business school, because that’s their background. They are not a games company, these products could have been literally anything.

    • 3 Izzi
      01/02/2010 at 22:47

      in other words, i don’t know, but i fancied having a right old pop at major developers/ publishers anyway..

    • 4 octaeder
      01/02/2010 at 23:35

      True, although I’d say those quotes are probably only reflective of Ubisoft as a publishing entity and not any of its in-house developers. Although, admittedly, for every Beyond Good and Evil there are a host of shitty DS shovelware titles.

  3. 5 Izzi
    02/02/2010 at 00:01

    yeah, but its ubisoft as the publishing entity that puts out this DRM stuff. I’m sure the developers will have their own opinions and all that but they probably won’t have much of a say on it. But yeh i admit i was mostly just like ‘oh man.. ubisoft!’ *grabs opportunity to spew opinion*

    • 6 octaeder
      02/02/2010 at 00:08

      I’m not disputing that – I’m sure the developers are pretty bemused about the whole thing. I’m just wary of casting in-house teams under the same umbrella as the corporate side.

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