Gamers widely regard Ubisoft as one of today's worst PC publishers. The company's games have implemented horrible digital-rights management (DRM) in the forms of install limits and forcing users to maintain a constant connection to a central online server in order to play. When complaints come in from paying customers, Ubisoft's response is always that DRM is meant to combat the piracy that plagues the PC platform.
GamesIndustry International recently quoted Ubisoft chief executive Yves Guillemot claiming that all games on PC, not just their games, suffer a 93 to 95 percent piracy rate. Holy cow! If this is true, PC gaming as we know it must be coming to an end, right?
Not quite. Many high-profile games, such as Diablo III, are exclusive to the PC and can still sell extremely well. PC ports of console games don’t usually sell as well as their console counterparts but do well enough that companies keep putting them out on that platform. If piracy was really this bad, we would have known about it by now.
So what’s the real reason for Ubisoft to think that piracy is so bad on the PC? If I had to venture a guess, I would say that the insidious DRM practices by Ubisoft have actually inspired more people to pirate its games than would have originally. I’m not saying that all piracy of its games is its own fault, but the DRM scheme is a large part of its failure on that platform.
Similar to Diablo III (although, having started much earlier in 2010), many Ubisoft PC games require an always-on connection to a central server in order to play. This includes single-player, traditionally “offline” play as well. Unlike Diablo developer Blizzard’s extremely stable and established servers, the Ubisoft's UPlay servers are up and down at the drop of a hat. Something like the Steam Summer Sale can knock it down for days.
If Ubisoft wants to do this kind of DRM, I’m fine with that. It just needs to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt real consumers. Pirates have no problem playing the game offline when the servers are down, but people who purchased the game legally can’t do a thing with it. That's not the right way to handle it.
Ubisoft also uses install limits on some of its PC games, a much longer running form of DRM and a greatly hated one. I have no issues with install limits when they work, and most of my experiences with them (not with Ubisoft games) have been just fine. The problem arises when these install limits aren’t implemented in an intelligent way.
Earlier in the year, Ubisoft published a strategy game called Anno 2070. Like many games before it, Anno 2070 has an install limit of three machines. This wouldn’t have been a big deal normally; however, something didn’t quite turn out right with the DRM scheme. Users were finding that just installing a new graphics card into their PCs was actually using up an install even when everything else was entirely the same.
Was this intentional or was the DRM scheme just coded too sensitively, picking up any hardware change as a new computer? Whatever the case, it was a massive screw-up by Ubisoft and probably cost them sales yet again.
It’s pretty easy to see how badly Ubisoft has screwed up DRM on their PC games. At this point, it seems like the company doesn’t even care anymore. It slaps whatever it wants on a game and gets whatever sales it can. It’s almost as if Ubisoft is daring gamers to force the company to stop releasing PC versions of its games in the future.
It’s not a huge leap in logic to assume that these practices probably led to a lot more piracy of Ubisoft titles. Pirates obviously have a better and easier time with these games, so why not join the club?
I can’t say I blame Ubisoft for hating piracy so much. Piracy is an unfortunate consequence of publishing on the PC, but it also really sucks that so many people illegally copy so many games each year. Instead of learning from its mistakes, though, Ubisoft has made things progressively worse with each release.
If the company sat down to think of less-intrusive ways to implement DRM and didn’t skimp on the PC versions of its games, Ubisoft might be able to win gamers back. At this point, I highly doubt it. First impressions are key, and Ubisoft’s reputation on the PC platform is permanently soiled.