Broken By Design: Ubisoft's New DRM Scheme, Their Worst Misstep Yet

Ubisoft is one of the largest video game publishing companies in the world, but when it comes to DRM (Digital Rights Management), the corporate executives at the helm have the collective intelligence of a ham sandwich. In years' past, the publisher was criticized for its use of StarForce copy protection, the PC port of Assassin's Creed tried to phone home every 75 seconds (causing the game to lag and stutter), and an official patch for Rainbow Six Vegas 2 broke the game for anyone who had purchased it online. Ubisoft's solution was to grab a previously issued CD-crack from a warez group and distribute it as a fix.

Nothing, however, beats this latest. Beginning with Settlers 7 and Assassin's Creed 2, gamers in single-player mode will be required to maintain a constant Internet connection. If you lose that connection for any length of time or any reason, your game session is terminated. Ubisoft is spinning this as a feature, claiming that by adopting this system, they can offer gamers unlimited installs, cloud-accessible saved games, and the ability to play from any computer. The one point the company didn't mention when it first announced the structure of this system, is that the game doesn't save before it throws you out.

Ubisoft diving for safety from the skeery pirates. Too bad that water's only two feet deep.

Seriously, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?
Ubisoft apparently believes that its customer base is located entirely within The Butterfly and Bunny Kingdom where Internet connections are impervious, woven as they are from pure sunshine, cuddles, and cloud fluff. In the real world, on the other hand, Internet connections temporarily fail for a dizzying number of reasons. Routers crash, power cords get unplugged, and cables fall (or are yanked) out. Every so often, for no apparent reason, your connection will drop or slow to a crawl and refuse to function properly until you reboot. If you're using wireless, you dodge some of the potential cord issues, but are subsequently subject to the whims of your wireless router, which might decide at any point that it hates you. God help you if there's a microwave between you and the base unit and someone wants popcorn.

We've not even touched on the myriad factors completely outside any consumer's control. Depending on geographical location, the age and quality of the local loop, and how many other customers are in the immediate vicinity (and using the 'Net simultaneously), uptime and quality of service can vary significantly. Ubisoft's FAQ indicates that the company may have made some small allowance for this—the game will "pause"—but there's no word on how long you've got before the game dumps you back to desktop. If your connection is interrupted because of a problem with the company's servers, well, that's just too bad. Out you go.

The other major technical concern is latency. Ubisoft goes to great pains to point out that the verification service uses very little bandwidth, but latency may prove the greater problem. If Ubisoft designed the system sensibly (a dubious possibility, given the aforementioned save "feature,") than the stream of client/server communication won't be ruffled by a huge latency spike or a series of spikes over a short time period. Considering the particulars of the situation and the parties involved, we aren't holding our breath.

Contempt So Thick You Can Churn It Like Butter -
As heavy-handed, ridiculously strict, and unacceptably penalizing as it is, Ubisoft's new DRM scheme is only a symptom of a greater disease. Beyond the question of whether or not the company's system is acceptable (and what might make it more so), looms the real issue—how did this idea get out of brainstorming at all? Ubisoft's executives haven't just forgotten anything they ever knew about gaming, they've violated one of the primary rules of customer service: Do not treat your legitimate customer base like the enemy. Our "reward" for purchasing an upcoming game isn't the ability to install from different locations, it's the privilege of having to maintain a connection in precisely the way Ubisoft requires, or lose your unsaved progress.

There's no trust in Ubisoft's system, a fact the company acknowledges in its FAQ. When asked why there's no Offline Mode option, the company response states: "We know that services such as Steam offer an offline mode but this option is not as efficient in its protection against piracy."

Translation: "We're unwilling to trust you, our legitimate customer, even though the pirates who have actually stolen the game aren't the ones who are hopping through these ridiculous hoops." Ubisoft obviously wasn't interested in developing any sort of compromise that would allow for offline play in certain circumstances; the company couldn't even be bothered to quicksave game content before dumping users back to desktop.

This goes beyond bad form or simple stupidity—it's the sign of a publisher that's become deeply disdainful of the gamers that keep it in business. Rest assured, the feeling is quite likely mutual.