Permanent Internet Connection
ďA permanent internet connection is required to play the game.Ē The sentence is stamped in bold white letters on the front of Assassinís Creed 2. A variant of the phrase graces the back of the box, headlining a list of features including ďNo need for cd/dvd to play,Ē ďUnlimited installs,Ē and ďSaved games are synchronized online,Ē as if Ubisoft is doing us a favor by requiring a permanent internet connection. But we all know thatís not true.
Like any good PC gamer, I was irate when Ubisoft initially announced its new DRM initiative. Since then, dutiful hackers apparently developed a workaround to the system, which Ubisoft repeatedly denied. The publisherís authentication servers went down due to attacks, leaving Silent Hunter 5 and Assassinís Creed 2 owners stranded, twice. Ubisoft even softened their stance with an update allowing Assassinís Creed 2 players to resume their games uninterrupted if they temporarily lose internet connectivity.
Throughout all of these developments, Iíve had time to digest this brave new authentication and the atrocities it seemingly commits: Itís inordinately intrusive and impractical because not all gamers have a permanent internet connection. Itís restrictive because you canít play games while traveling. Itís unreliable because its authentication servers can go down. Finally, itís evil because it shackles legitimate gamers as if weíre all criminals.
After scrutinizing all of these points and experiencing Assassinís Creed 2 on the PC firsthand, Iíve had to revise my stance. The arguments against Ubisoftís DRM donít hold up when examined closely; they seem exaggerated and born of undeserved malice. Iíve come to the conclusion that Ubisoftís DRM just isnít that bad.
Back in 2004, Valve met an outpouring of protests when it announced that Half-Life 2 would require online authentication through its digital distribution service, Steam. Opponents argued that gamers without internet wouldnít be able to experience the game.
Of course, such outcries didnít stunt Half-Life 2ís success. It sold so well in fact, that Valveís servers couldnít keep up with the large number of online validations at launch, which in turn, simply fueled the protesters.
Over five years later, how many PC gamers donít have a permanent internet connection? World of Warcraft has over 10 million subscribers. Steam now boasts over 25 million users; and while the service doesnít require a constant connection, itís severely hampered without one, thanks to large game downloads and Steam Friends. With the addition of instant messaging programs Ė AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Google Talk, ICQ, Skype Ė and the increasing prevalence of streaming television shows, movies, and sports events, itís hard to imagine any PC user without a perpetual internet connection, much less a gamer.
For those who really donít have constant access to the internet, consider the new service that is going to revolutionize gaming: OnLive. Gamers will be able to play any game, anytime, anywhere without any of the expensive console or PC hardware, thanks to modern super-fast connectivity and innovative cloud computing. Numerous publishers are already supporting the service, including EA, THQ, Eidos, Atari, and Take-Two. But, guess what? OnLive will also require a constant internet connection for all of its games, just like another one of its partners, Ubisoft.
With current online applications and future online services like OnLive, weíre moving closer to internet ubiquity. Considering that, Ubisoftís DRM is hardly intrusive or unfair Ė itís not wreaking havoc on our computers, nor is it changing the way we use them. Itís just a natural extension of current and future behavior.
On the Road
Unfortunately, while a permanent internet connection may be available at home, such connectivity may not be available when traveling with a laptop. Then again, electrical outlets can also be hard to find, so is gaming while traveling really an issue?
If so, the ubiquity of wireless networks has been greatly understated. All major U.S. airlines Ė such as American Airlines, US Airways, and Continental Airlines Ė and many international carriers currently provide in-flight WiFi or plan on doing so in the near future. The same is true for trains: Amtrak offers wireless internet on its cars in the northeastern corridor and plans to expand. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority intends to follow suit by the end of this year.
Private establishments Ė including coffee shops and bookstores, not to mention internet cafes Ė and even major metropolitan cities continue to provide wireless access.
Again, considering the increasing ubiquity of internet access in planes, trains, and maybe one day, automobiles, Ubisoftís DRM doesnít seem any more restrictive than other implementations of DRM. It may even prove liberating, as gamers donít need to pack game DVDs when traveling Ė no CD/DVD check is required.
Of course, even in a world of universal internet access, Ubisoftís authentication servers can go down, as they already have, twice. In such cases, the most advanced broadband connections are useless Ė youíre simply not going to be able to play your game.
However, this situation isnít new to PC or console gamers. As mentioned before, Valveís DRM implementation created headaches for owners of Half-Life 2. Since then, server hiccups have created minor problems and delays for users trying to download major updates and even play online games.
But such problems are rudimentary when compared to the Xbox 360 RROD. Depending on where you get your information, Xbox 360 failure rates ranged from 23.7% to 54.2%, as evidenced by surveys from 2009. And receiving a RROD didnít result in a minor stoppage of gaming: it meant youíd have to wait anywhere from days to months without gaming.
Even PlayStation 3 owners know what a stoppage in service is like. When the date changed from February 28th to March 1st this year, older PS3s locked up, and gamers everywhere lamented as they couldnít play Heavy Rain.
Unfortunately, gamers are familiar with unreliable hardware and service interruptions. Is it fair to hold Ubisoft to a higher standard than other companies? If Ubisoftís servers go down, at least you donít have to ship anything back to the company and wait for a replacement; you can engage in some other leisure activity while waiting for your game to become available.
See No Evil
Regardless of whether or not you believe Ubisoftís DRM is intrusive or restrictive or unreliable, you may still think itís evil because it assumes all gamers are pirates and treats them accordingly.
Granted, there are nicer solutions to piracy out there. Stardockís GOO ties games to a gamerís account, instead of hardware or a distribution platform, and allows for the resale of PC games. Even EA has adopted an enlightened approach to DRM: The Sims 3, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2 all only require a basic disc check. To reward legitimate gamers, EA has provided free day-one DLC to consumers for each of these titles.
Comparing Ubisoftís DRM to such examples, it may seem like a push in the wrong direction. But unlike previous solutions to piracy, it doesnít install malicious software (StarForce, SecuROM) on our computers, nor does it intentionally restrict our access to the content weíve purchased.
Considering everything, Ubisoftís DRM treats PC gamers more like average PC users than criminals Ė itís hardly evil. Because itís an extension of conventional PC gamer behavior, and because itís leading the way in taking advantage of increasing connectivity, Ubisoftís DRM is ahead of its time.