The Two Things It Would Take for Me to Support UbiSoft’s New (draconian) PC Game DRM

The Two Things It Would Take for Me to Support UbiSoft's New (draconian) PC Game DRMComic courtesy of Penny Arcade

I have already talked about the new DRM system Ubisoft has implemented in their games starting with Assassin’s Creed 2 – basically even for single player offline games you need to be constantly connected to the internet or the game boots you out and you lose all progress since the last checkpoint. While I bristle at the thought of such a system, I do accept that publishers need to find a way to protect their property from improper use and outright theft. I started writing this with a few quick ideas about how to make that system actually work a bit better, but so much has happened in the last few days that I need to talk about those first.

Predictably since the announcement there has been much outrage against Ubisoft, including those using this new DRM to justify stealing games … and also claims that the system would be broken quickly. As reported (via TeleRead) at The Inquirer and elsewhere, the new DRM system was cracked within 24 hours. Since then Ubisoft has updated the system (while continuing to deny the crack and also saying that if it WAS broken gamers would get an incomplete game).

Ironically, this weekend no one who bought the game legally (it is already out everywhere but North America) can play, because the authentication system went down. But naturally folks who pirated the game and used the cracks that broke the DRM have been playing without worry – because as usual DRM too often only serves to punish paying customers.

RockPaperShotgun commented on the outage, saying:

Ubisoft despite repeated warnings that it was untenable continued to boast the “feature” as a bonus for gamers. This weekend people have not been gamers, because their game wouldn’t run.

After Ubisoft’s emphatic denial that the pirated versions of both Ass Creed II and Silent Hunter V work properly, we’ve been receiving unofficial reports that, with a couple of slightly peculiar work-arounds, they work just fine. We have no first-hand evidence of this, so cannot state it as fact. But either way, those that paid for their product that have sat in fury as their game refused to run all day. Either way, legitimate customers cannot play the game.

Since then we have learned that the outage was related to an attack on the servers.

This gets to something I have always felt and recently spoke about in a web forum discussion: the piracy discussion is all wrong because it is not between the two parties of interest. Look at it this way – when you buy that cool new music release, are you buying it because it is published by Sony/BMG or because of the artist who actually made the music? Exactly!

The ‘war on piracy’ should be conducted between pirates and publishers, but is instead being played out between customers and developers. The problem – developers are the ones responsible for whether or not a game is good, and customers are the ones who pay for them. Pirates are not customers, and will never be customers. Publishers are not developers, and are not responsible for that thing that separates yet another average shooter like Alpha Prime from the next Half-Life 2.

Once again I want to note I am strongly anti-piracy – therefore when I heard about this system I said to myself “in protest I will not buy these games”, rather than the argument in the Penny Arcade comic above. Of course, since Ubisoft makes few games that pull at me the way something from Bioware does, for example, it isn’t such a hard resolution to make. But I also tend to take a long view – I mean, look at how many 10+ year old games I’ve talked about in the Netbook Gamer thus far, and how many of those developers are out of business now. I am constantly concerned that I will not be able to play games I love without resorting to means I find unacceptable.

So … for my original topic, how WOULD I support this type of DRM?

  • Issue #1: Implement a ‘time limit’ on the DRM system.
    How This Works: A built-in time limit that kills the DRM system 6 months after release. If a game is released on March 1st, then on September 1st a patch would be released that would remove the DRM. Period. All currently installed games would be patched automatically, digital releases would be updated, physical copies would be setup to pull the patch before completing installation so that even on a re-install the game is all set up from the beginning to work correctly.
    Why This Matters: Online check-in DRM becomes a problem when game companies go out of business, are bought out, or just decide to stop supporting a game. This is a general issue for all new DRM-loaded games as well as digital downloads. At the same time the first few months are when the vast majority of profits are made for the sorts of high-profile games that tend to get the worst DRM. So by implementing this sort of system companies get more profit, and customers are assured long term use of product.
  • Issue #2: Implement a ‘check out system’.
    How This Works: I am a big user of the statistical software Minitab, and my company has a site license. Sometimes I am in the midst of big analysis and need to take it home with me, so I just go and check-out a license to use it off-line, and then when I am back in-network again I check it back in. The license pulls from our site cap so my copy ‘counts’ as an active one for as long as I have it checked out. But I also get to use the software away from the corporate network.
    Why This Matters: For people who are in limited network zones (military bases have been mentioned frequently), the need for a constant internet connection to play is almost the same as saying ‘we don’t want your business’. But if you have an authenticated game, and have checked it out, then your copy is ‘in use’ and you can play offline but no one else can use your account.Take those things, along with the already-made change that Ubisoft maintains saved progress on the local machine to lessen the impact of a network outage, and it makes for a system that would allow me to play a game anywhere and anytime, and still provide some protection to publishers. Personally as a paying customer I don’t ever want anything to impede my usage of something I bought …

    Do I see flaws with these? Of course! In fact, it is reported that the fact that UbiSoft has stated the intent to eventually remove the DRM from games helped hackers crack the game. And in the second case, I have little doubt that there are ways hackers already use to get past such systems. There are plenty of other systems I have seen – the original floppy version of Performer had an ‘authorization’ system that would decrement as you installed the software, and allow an extra install for catastrophic failures, and also the ability to de-authorize a disk. Other software used physical ‘dongles’ in the printer or ADB or USB ports.

    There has yet to be a DRM system that hasn’t been broken – though some have required workarounds that pretty much kill the game, such as World of Wacraft. Which is why the MMORPG genre has been very successful at maintaining a revenue stream, and also why publishers want to try a similar system.

    But once again it is the battle of pirates and publisher where the losers are the customers and developers. World of Warcraft is successful because of the community and constant addition of content gamers actually want to play – if anyone thinks it is a success because of the inherent need for an online connection, they are deluding themselves. For every possible way to make a system better, there is always someone waiting to figure out a way to exploit it.

    I know that statement is somewhat fatalistic, and my friend (ok, I’ve done beta testing for him over the past few years) Jeff Vogel does even further in his Bottom Feeder blog saying that not only will the DRM likely be successful, but that it is just a step in the continuing direction of DRM clampdown because publishers will do whatever it takes to ensure they capture the 80% of profits they grab in the first couple of months after release.

    Yet at the same time there are sites and developers making games with light DRM or none at all, even the huge Fallout 3 had only a DVD-check for DRM … yet that sold about a bazillion copies. And Bioware has made the DRM on Mass Effect and Dragon Age fairly simple, but has added incentives to registering your legal copies by giving away extra content – to me that is a great idea! I hardly noticed the stick I was so busy munching on those carrots!

    Of course, DRM is something that impacts all of us – I mean, I was using The Missing Sync to put music on my Motorola Droid recently and ran across some stuff that wouldn’t play because it still had the iTunes DRM. And there seems to be something new every day with regards to eBook DRM. So what do you think – what does the future of DRM look like?

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!