Introduction

As with all my write-ups, here's a short introductory section you can feel free to skip if you just want the bare bones. Ubisoft has with its two latest titles (Silent Hunter 5 and Assassins Creed II), as well as upcoming titles (such as Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands) introduced a new DRM scheme - for the PC version - which requires the owner of the game to be constantly connected to the internet during gameplay. <dramatic pause>. Just so there is no shred of doubt, let me rephrase that. To play any of the aforementioned games you must be permanently online. Let that sink in for just a bit...

Ready to proceed? Good, then let's move on, to the...

Gritty Details

It's hard for me to know exactly where to start discussing Ubisoft's new DRM-scheme. There are many angles to look at the situation, many of them interesting, but I guess the one that rings the most truth will be my own subjective opinion. I find it worthwhile to shortly comment on myself and how I figure into the gaming industry.

Me

I am by most standards a consumer. I have dabbled a bit in game creation and taken a few courses, but I play more games than I make. So let's leave it at that. I am by no means a saint and I feel it only fair to inform the reader that back in the day I used to indulge in less-than-legally acquired games. As a kid I didn't really think about it - as I doubt most kids do. I should note that not all games were ill-gotten game (pun intended). In other words, I did actually buy some games. As time has gone by, I have become more honest. I now buy every game that I play, and to try to make up a bit for bad behavior, I buy games which I played back in the day, but didn't compensate anyone for. Especially relevant in this case are the Prince of Persia games. I particularly enjoy the run/jump/fight/puzzle gameplay they provide, which is why I now own every one of them. I mention that I enjoy all facets of gameplay presented in Prince of Persia because my life is slowly slipping into the "I can play less and less" phase. Which means I am forced to be more choosy among the games that I play. If I only enjoy two thirds of the gameplay provided by a game, I am essentially wasting my time on the remaining third, and given that I do not have excessive amounts of time, I might as well stick to games which I enjoy thoroughly...

That more or less covers me, now let me just drop a few thoughts on...

Non-Copy protection Protection

Back in the day (think Amiga or Atari ST), games were copy protected in numerous ways. Most common were passphrase checks or software based copy protection. Passphrases checks forced the consumer to check the manual or a code sheet delivered with the game and enter the correct code. Slightly annoying for the customer, and essentially ineffective since cracked versions would automatically bypass the checks. The passphrase copy protection seems to have all but died out, probably because the internet would allow anyone to post these codes online, circumventing the need to even crack the game. Copy based protection still exists in many forms. SecuROM, TAGES, SafeDisc, the list goes on. But I will ignore these outright (hence the heading "Non-Copy protection Protection"), since they can be applied to any title, affect the actual game play little, and are just plain dull feature wise. Since the emergence of the internet, it (the internet) has become a very popular tool in non-copy protection protection. I would like to step back, and take a look at the popular ways it is being used by developers to make sure their product is exchanged for actual money, and not nothing - as is the case with piracy. I know that some of the methods I list below are not necessarily used for the purposes of preventing piracy, but only achieve it as a side effect. None the less, I still list them because they provide good contrast in regards to Ubisoft's new DRM. I will also cast a glance at a few other types of "protection" that only involve the internet in a very limited way. So let's consider the methods:

  • True online component: A game within which a vital part of the game play is dependent upon online play. Good examples of this type of protection is World of Warcraft (within which the entire world exists online), or to some extent Team Fortress 2 (which has no single player component). These games come with an authentication key to ensure authorized use. Although the key mainly serves the providers of the product, it also serves the consumers. Keeping unauthorized consumers out means that everyone on the system paid for their own share. Theoretically, this should prevent the system from being overloaded, as everyone has contributed financially to keep the system running. Cheaters or other unwanted customers are easily punished as well. Their key is simply rendered invalid. This is the best type of protection for developers. Not owning an authentic key more or less effectively excludes pirates from the entire game.
  • Semi-Online component: A game within which a non-vital part of the game play is dependent upon online play. A good example of this is Spore (where players can see other players but not really interact with them). Since the game is not really dependent on the online component, it does not provide as effective protection from pirates. However, it will still be a compelling argument to any pirate. Social features usually work out well in games, so although the game functions without it, it degrades the game play experience.
  • Pre-Order bonus: A game which provides bonuses or features only available for customers who pre-order. This kind of "protection" is somewhat of an oddity. A number of games are good examples, such as Mass Effect 2, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 or Left 4 Dead 2. It only uses the internet for a short authentication, but is not necessarily an online feature. I do not particularly condone this type of "protection" as it puts the player in an awkward position. The game producers try to ensure loyalty by dangling a tasty carrot in front of any consumer who is willing to part with their cash before the game is out, and in many cases before the first review has been released. It is generally an evil circle in my opinion since it works towards relieving the pressure of producing a quality game. I know that the quality of the game is unlikely to change within the last few months before release, but I firmly believe that the consumer should be given the opportunity to evaluate something before parting with their cash. I also know that no one is forced to pre-order a game, but the bonuses are intended to be the cherries on top enticing you to commit to something you have no possibility of evaluating.
  • Online bonus: A game which provides bonuses or features only available for customers who register the game online. Good examples are Mass Effect 2 or Gears of War 2. I see this as the less-evil version of pre-order bonuses. Every customer is provided with additional features upon purchase with a unique key.

Now that we have briefly touched upon these non-software based copy protections, we're finally ready for the big finale. Namely,

Ubisoft's Handcuffs

This is the second time that I am re-writing this particular paragraph, because it is the most vital essence of what I am trying to communicated. Honestly I am having trouble properly expressing how I feel, and why what I feel is important. Perhaps because I believe that the problems/issues/dangers with Ubisoft's new DRM are so clear that explaining them is redundant. But I am sure that it is not. I believe it is vital for every consumer to at least consider what I am writing about, and then decide what he wants. In the hopes that my arguments and thoughts will carry most weight by individually tailoring them to the reader, I will present a few categories below. Which ever you feel applies to you (possibly more than one), I beg you to read:

  • Desktop Gamer: You are probably in this category (just like me), since it is the most densely populated one. I will not lie, it is likely that you will be the least affected by Ubisoft's new DRM technology. But just because you are affected the least, does not mean you should care the least. Even your internet connection will fail on occasion. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when. And when it does, you should consider if it is alright that a product stops serving its purpose. Let us assume that this does not worry you. Then at least consider the following: Even Ubisoft is susceptible to unfortunate circumstances. The events following the release of Assassins Creed II show that every system is vulnerable. Although Ubisoft will probably get better at protecting their services, you should question why the functionality of your product should rely on Ubisoft keeping a server running, whose only purpose is to constantly authenticate the ownership of your product. Finally, contemplate whether or not you think Ubisoft should have a say in how long into the future you should be able to play the game. If Ubisoft goes belly up and nobody is there to pick up the pieces (unlikely, but possible), then what happens?
  • Laptop Gamer: What I say will probably carry the most weight for you. In addition to owning a desktop PC, I also own a laptop. Sufficed to say, Ubisoft new DRM scheme will effectively kill the usefulness of installing their games on my laptop. It's not that I don't have an internet connection for my laptop, but why in the world should I install software that only works 60% of the time? In my opinion, Ubisoft is essentially giving portable players the finger. They do not care about your problems, so I urge you not to care about theirs. All of the issues that affect desktop gamers also affect laptop gamers. Even if you are connected to the internet, Ubisoft service might go down (due to DOS attacks or other unfortunate circumstances), and if Ubisoft encounters even bigger difficulties, threatening their bottom line, the product you have bought might become completely useless.
  • Concerned Gamer: This is it... My final plea. If you are concerned about the future of your rights as a gamer, I urge you to strongly consider whether or not to support Ubisoft in this new venture. The strongest weapon you have as a consumer is your money. I like Prince of Persia, and I do want to buy the game, but I will refuse in order to make a point. It is not worth giving into temptation, when the cost is your freedom as a consumer. Even pirating and playing their games is condoning their activities in a way.

I am not sure if I have stated my case in the most eloquent way, but I have said what I must, and even if you do not agree - I hope that you have at least considered what I have said. Mark my words, if Ubisoft has their way and consumers are willing to bow down, more publishers will follow...

 

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