My controversial opinion on a controversial topic over at Hooked Gamers.
Permanent Internet Connection
"A permanent internet connection is required to play the game." The sentence is stamped in bold white letters on the front of Assassin's Creed 2. A variant of the phrase graces the back of the box, headlining a list of features including "No need for cd/dvd to play," "Unlimited installs," and "Saved games are synchronized online," as if Ubisoft is doing us a favor by requiring a permanent internet connection. But we all know that's 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 publisher's authentication servers went down due to attacks, leaving Silent Hunter 5 and Assassin's Creed 2 owners stranded, twice. Ubisoft even softened their stance with an update allowing Assassin's Creed 2 players to resume their games uninterrupted if they temporarily lose internet connectivity.
Throughout all of these developments, I've had time to digest this brave new authentication and the atrocities it seemingly commits: It's inordinately intrusive and impractical because not all gamers have a permanent internet connection. It's restrictive because you can't play games while traveling. It's unreliable because its authentication servers can go down. Finally, it's evil because it shackles legitimate gamers as if we're all criminals.
After scrutinizing all of these points and experiencing Assassin's Creed 2 on the PC firsthand, I've had to revise my stance. The arguments against Ubisoft's DRM don't hold up when examined closely; they seem exaggerated and born of undeserved malice. I've come to the conclusion that Ubisoft's DRM just isn't 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 wouldn't be able to experience the game.
Of course, such outcries didn't stunt Half-Life 2's success. It sold so well in fact, that Valve's servers couldn't 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 don't have a permanent internet connection? World of Warcraft has over 10 million subscribers. Steam now boasts over 25 million users; and while the service doesn't require a constant connection, it's severely hampered without one, thanks to large game downloads and Steam Friends. With the addition of instant messaging programs - AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Google Talk, ICQ, Skype - and the increasing prevalence of streaming television shows, movies, and sports events, it's hard to imagine any PC user without a perpetual internet connection, much less a gamer.
For those who really don't 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, we're moving closer to internet ubiquity. Considering that, Ubisoft's DRM is hardly intrusive or unfair - it's not wreaking havoc on our computers, nor is it changing the way we use them. It's 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 - such as American Airlines, US Airways, and Continental Airlines - 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 - including coffee shops and bookstores, not to mention internet cafes - 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, Ubisoft's DRM doesn't seem any more restrictive than other implementations of DRM. It may even prove liberating, as gamers don't need to pack game DVDs when traveling - no CD/DVD check is required.
Of course, even in a world of universal internet access, Ubisoft's authentication servers can go down, as they already have, twice. In such cases, the most advanced broadband connections are useless - you're simply not going to be able to play your game.
However, this situation isn't new to PC or console gamers. As mentioned before, Valve's 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 didn't result in a minor stoppage of gaming: it meant you'd 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 couldn't 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 Ubisoft's servers go down, at least you don't 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 Ubisoft's DRM is intrusive or restrictive or unreliable, you may still think it's evil because it assumes all gamers are pirates and treats them accordingly.
Granted, there are nicer solutions to piracy out there. Stardock's GOO ties games to a gamer's 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 Ubisoft's DRM to such examples, it may seem like a push in the wrong direction. But unlike previous solutions to piracy, it doesn't install malicious software (StarForce, SecuROM) on our computers, nor does it intentionally restrict our access to the content we've purchased.
Considering everything, Ubisoft's DRM treats PC gamers more like average PC users than criminals - it's hardly evil. Because it's an extension of conventional PC gamer behavior, and because it's leading the way in taking advantage of increasing connectivity, Ubisoft's DRM is ahead of its time.