In opportune moments, the Internet is hailed as a technology changing all paradigms. Such is the case here, in today's example, wherein one of the very foundations of capitalism is shaken: the idea of exchanging goods and services for money. Allegedly, a very common practice in many trades, going as far back as the oldest of them all. I am sure, each reader has a plethora of examples where commodities and services are provided for something other than money, but this is about buying a game. It is not about bailing out a bank, daterape, or trying to find the recipe for Soylent Green. So it came to be that I found myself in times where slamming a couple of Jacksons on the table, virtual or real, just did not cut it anymore.
As any comedy aspiring to end very tragically, this one starts with the protagonist smirkingly making the mother of all bad calls. A decision the reader will instantly identify as an error, but our foolish hero will never overcome or revise, all in the name of comedic relief. In this case, it is my reading of the title “ManiaPlanet” without giving it any thought; which struck me as the male thing to do. On TV, this is the moment when Mr.Bean buys the Nuclear Dawn granola bar without wondering too much about the clerk's lead apron and the robotic arm pulling the granola bar from a nuclear waste disposal container. We laugh about Mr. Bean, because we instantly reckongnize the madness in his actions, while he remains naively oblivious.
Which is exactly the position I found myself in, totally ignoring the name of my recent purchase: ManiaPlanet. I shrugged it off as some quirk of those funny Frenchmen. The chances of being sold a planet of maniacs seemed as unlikely as the 29th installment of Final Fantasy really being the final fantasy Square-Enix had to tell. While at it, I also dismissed the game not being sold at any retail stores, in contrast to any of the previous Trackmania games. Selling games online is common enough, so only people narrating their own life in a portent voice of an omniscient third person narrator would find something odd about it. Coincidentally, those are the very persons who need to buy this game more than ever.
In hindsight, the process of purchasing Mania Planet was the first warning sign. I punched in an email address, sent $20 using PayPal and verified my order within ten seconds. TV shows get nitpicked to hell for portraying online purchases as this easy. I could also swear that for a short flash I must have pushed accept on of these popup Terms&Conditions things. Proof that one does not learn anything from the South Park CentiPad episode and my final entry ticket to the planet of the maniacs. But why do I complain? After all, these days it its all about the experience not the game, as any self-respecting promoter of masturbatory gesture games will tell you at conventions and press events. Sure, I wanted to play the game Trackmania² Canyon, but I had to buy the experience of Mania Planet. This is what I paid for, this is what I got, not just a game, an experience.
During the first six hours, everything seemed perfectly normal. This is the part of the skit where the protagonist turns his head away from playing the game, addressing a random support character: “See, you can totally buy an online game from Ubisoft on the PC”. Cue the laughtrack reminding the audience that things are about to go south very soon. Which is a pity, because playing Trackmania², earning medals, planets, skill, and ladder points was a lot of fun; the game is still itself. But here it is, end of the line, a crescendo of ominous orchestral music, the sound of a new email arriving, a blank stare, cut to commercial.
The message came courtesy of the Mania-Planet e-Shop team. Self confident and fully automated, I was informed that for further processing, my personal data had to be collected. 'The fight against piracy requires additional security measures'. A quick check of my PayPal account assured me the Mania-Planet e-Shop team was in possession of my money and the game was just working fine. The deed of the transaction was done. So why not, I thought clicking the funny link cannot be that bad. I then discovered a website detailing Ubisoft's plans of fighting piracy by collecting all the personal data of non-pirates. Once they know everybody who pays for their products, I guess piracy just becomes a problem of rounding up everybody else, have them dig a ditch and shoot them in the face; problem solved. The battle for a piracy free PC required quite a few things, my name, my address, even my phone number and a credit card Ubisoft simply assumed I possessed. Especially the phone number turned out to be an absolute requirement to proceed. With the game running smoothly at 60 frames and the money paid a long time ago, i.e. six hours, I decided to ignore this ultimatum. Was Ubisoft really going to accuse a paying customer reluctant to share his phone number of piracy? This enthralling question suddenly took center stage away from the game itself, as the clock on the 48h ultimatum was ticking away. In true 24 style, of course, there is an app for that.
No, Ubisoft does not accuse a paying customer of being a software pirate. Instead they went for payment fraud. As such a fraud, you of course get back your $20, else you would not be able to defraud Ubisoft, right? The Mania-Planet e-Shop team informed me of them having “a security system installed […], to prevent fraudulent payments, credit card fraud and protect all owners of credit accounts.”. Which is especially strange, since the shop supports payment schemes which are 100% anonymous, such as the European Paysafe system. The only one protected from spending any money on Ubisoft's PC games, is the customer willing to pay money in the first place. It is a clumsy second attempt to get personal data from people. Or maybe Ubisoft's sinister plan for dealing with con-artists is the same as their plan concerning pirates. Meanwhile in the real world, any self-respecting crook can certainly supply some data, or is the Planet Mani e-shop team really going to call every single customer? What if the person is not listed in the phone book? Or the phone is registered to a room mate? Or the person has a job? Or simply does not answer the phone on religious grounds? Even the single player mode of Trackmania² requires an online connection, so in the unlikely event of the payment turning out to be fraudulent, Ubisoft can pull the plug on the account anytime. Unless they pay me back my $20 on Paypal, Ubisoft do have my money and do not need to check for any fraudulent payments. But I guess, as a Frenchmen, you have your self-evident truths, that among these are piracy, credit card fraud, phone numbers, and do not take money from strangers. If I had a problem with that, I was reminded to take it up with support, as long as I included my phone number.
After a careful, 3.14 millisecond deliberation I chose to take it up with support, not including my phone number. I wrote an email trying to seek answers on how my phone number was an integral part of both fighting piracy and preventing credit card fraud of people using PayPal. I confirmed having gotten my $20 back and asked the Planet Mania e-shop team to disable my Trackmania² account, since it was still working, meaning Ubisoft had successfully defrauded itself. I do accept gifts, but not after being accused of being a pirate and con-man. It did not take long for a copy&paste style answer to arrive.
This marks the time, when the Terms & Conditions were quoted on me. That special moment of deep inner satisfaction when the dopamine of having known it all along floods the brain of the audience. The digital dogma rears its ugly face: do not accept anything. Now a third reason was given as to why my personal data was so important. In big bold letters Ubisoft commanded: “In order to fight mounting internet fraud, the Distributor collects and records certain device identifying information such as IP addresses, as well as other non?personally [sic!] identifiable information. In addition, the Distributor has contracts in place with certain third party service providers and shares such nonpersonally [sic!!] identifiable information with them to provide the safest user experience.“ Wait, so now they brag about collecting anonymous data and giving it to 'contacts'? Nowhere does this state I entered an agreement to share all my personal data. The other passage quoted on me was even more nonsensical:“the Distributor may refuse or delay the delivery of some or all of this associated content should the payment not be validated.“ Since the game was delivered and the online account unlocked at that point, I suppose the payment was validated at some point. Or does Ubisoft break its own Terms & Conditions here? Going back and forth on its validation process?
Not marked in bold letters was the sentence, “No bank or card details are visible by, nor stored by the Distributor on the site”. Then again, they just refunded my $20, so they must store my information somewhere. The combination of Ubisoft breaking its own rules and me not supplying Ubisoft with a telephone number could only mean one thing. After playing the game for a weekend, I got my money back and our business relation hit a dead end. Pressing the support team for hard answers, what them collecting non-personal information had to do with me requiring to share personal information, prompted the cold response of: “After further investigation we have ascertained that your account does not comply with our security standards. We are sorry but for security reasons we cannot allow any further purchase.“ Obviously, some Frenchman got thoroughly probed at LAX during his last E3 visit. Or maybe it is conceptual art, trying to prove free will by pointing out the futility of all efforts, life and the universe itself. Let's put that down as a lesson courtesy of the experience. I, the freshly appointed Osama bin Consumer-Terrorist, could even validate this 'universal futility theory' when logging on to the previous Trackmania games, with the very account which was just brandished as a pirate, con-man and contract infringing scoundrel; security risks be damned. In a last ditch effort email, sent a few hours later, Ubisoft communicated its willingness to revoke my status as security risk, as soon as I was willing to share my phone number. Too late though, at that point I was hellbent on riding this bus all the way to Cleveland Avenue.
The curtain falls on the stage of this experience. The moral of the story is, do not buy products whose name hints at serious mental conditions and leave the house to purchase stuff from time to time. The world is full of people selling you things without giving a damn about who you are. If you absolutely must, you can still give them your business card. For all I care, you can even collect frequent fracker miles at your local adult book store until you got enough for a ticket to Thailand; only to resolve the hard disk drive crisis, obviously. Trading your personal info is as much of a choice as leaving the house. Which I did, buying Dark Souls at a nice shop with lots of games and nobody interested in who I was. Dark Souls turned out to be a far more relaxing experience than Trackmania² and not as difficult as everybody claims. Or maybe this is yet another one of those moments, where I turn to the camera and say “see”, before disaster strikes. Did I just click on a PSN update?
If you get a call from a person with a thick French accent, who knows a lot about your underage daughter and your credit card information, then please remain calm and carry on. It is not what it appears to be, when he wires $20 your way.