You’ve doubtless heard of Ubisoft’s appalling new DRM solution: that PC games from Ubi require a constant internet connection, and will in fact kick you out of the game if your connection drops during play. People who’ve gone hands-on with it describe it as worse than originally expected.
Will be be cracked? Sooner or later, though the cleverness inherent in this solution is considerable. This is one of the very few DRM solutions that might actually work – and by “work,” I don’t mean it might prevent pirates. I mean “work” the way Ubi means it.
You see, in this business, new releases usually have no more than six weeks to make their money at retail. Exceptions are extraordinarily rare; in fact, most games have closer to three weeks before they go from the top shelf to the bottom one. Of course Steam and other channels may change this, but for now that’s the way it is.
Analysts like me refer to this period as a game’s tail. The longer the tail, the longer the game is top-shelf. Myst, for example, and Civilization, both fell into that exception-to-the-six-week-tail bucket. Both games had tails that lasted a couple years, meaning they were still $50 and they got a reasonable amount of shelf space for that time. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, meanwhile, was released at the beginning of February and has already been marked down 50% at most retailers, online and otherwise. It will disappear from shelves in another couple of weeks. And this is a game that’s already moved two million units, so it’s not a failure by any means. Once you’re past the tail, you see successive markdowns and less prominence until the title is in the bargain bin, or the dumpster. And that’s the point of Ubi’s DRM scheme.
The technology stores your saved games and configuration files (key bindings and stuff) on Ubisoft servers. If your game and the server don’t do the handshake, not only will you not have access to your saves, but the game won’t even start. And since it is constantly verifying your online status, it can quit within seconds if your connection is terminated. The combination of functions there will be very difficult for crackers to defeat. I’m no coder but I’d say it’s well beyond the skills of the script kiddies who crack most games.
Will it be defeated? Absolutely. I assume the crack will have to be re-engineered for every game, so each new release can’t take advantage of a previous exploit. But it could take weeks for a crack to be manufactured and viralized around the web. See where I’m going with this?
Ubisoft knows the tech will be broken. It doesn’t care. All Ubi cares about is keeping the game protected through the tail. After that, as far as Ubi’s concerned the game can be pirated till the cows come home, because after the tail, sales drop so precipitously that losses to piracy will be a drop in the bucket. So legitimate consumers are left with two choices:
- Buy the game and endure the DRM
- Don’t buy the game
Some people are touting “buy the game for a console” as a third choice, but such a view is hopelessly optimistic and, frankly, a little shortsighted. This generation of consoles are… wait for it… connected to the internet 100% of the time. Individual users can prevent this, of course, so it’s not a universal state, but if you think that publishers won’t or can’t introduce similar DRM to consoles, you’re being silly. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, publishers themselves that claim losses to piracy, are unlikely to prevent such tactics.
In fact, your privacy is already being violated if you’re playing on a connected console. It tracks the games you’ve played, the time you’ve played them, your network downloads, friends lists, people you’ve casually encountered in Gears deathmatches, and on and on and on. You can manually protect some of this information, but not all. Even Steam does it. I sit down at my computer and I know what all my friends are playing. With the click of a button in the new beta interface, I can see their total invested time, and you can pester them to talk while they’re trying to play Dragon Age.
Ten years ago Sun Microsystems co founder Scott McNealy famously said “you have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” When attacked for the remark, he followed up with a litany of examples proving that it’s true: traffic cameras monitor our driving. GPS systems are embedded in our phones. Medical records flit freely from doctor to doctor. Amazon and other online retailers know our names, our addresses, our credit card numbers. Hell, the guy who takes my Chinese food order knows all that about me. There is no privacy.
So people don’t like Ubi’s DRM because it’s another step toward shattering the illusion of privacy that we all cherish. And, I think, people don’t like Ubi’s DRM because it’s… obnoxious. To use the common refrain, it treats all consumers like thieves. The interesting thing about this is the life cycle of videogames – that ever important tail that dictates success or failure of gaming software. I know that the publishers’ claims of losses to piracy are vastly overstated, and I tend to agree with the philosophy that most of the pirates – not all, but most – weren’t going to buy the game under any circumstances. If that’s the case, then most of the losses – not all, but most – are just phantom money.
I don’t mind DRM in general, and I certainly oppose piracy. But I do value my illusion of privacy, and I don’t like intrusive solutions. I don’t want my PC to have 53 different applets, one from every publisher, lurking in my system tray in order to play this game or that one. I don’t like the idea of one of Ubi’s tentacles forever suction-cupped to my cable modem.
But the truth is, maybe what really needs to change is the sales model. This tail-based system is not really tenable in today’s modern world of e-Delivery and Steam Holiday Sales. Other products have short tails too – novels, for example. Movies used to but then came VHS, DVD, and Netflix. Now that’s where most of their money is made, even though there’s piracy in film too. I wonder if we’ll ever get to a point where a person would be just as likely to invest in a beloved classic as a hot new release.