As you may have heard, Ubisoft has just started testing a programme--called the Online Services Platform--it intends to roll out to all its PC titles in due course, as part of the latest Settlers beta. This is not normally the sort of thing that would drive me to pontificate, but it contains a few interesting features wrapped up within its stated goal of offering "exceptional gameplay and services" for which they should be ashamed.
Firstly, let me say that I accept that piracy in the PC games market is a problem, and many of the previous attempts to curb it have been fairly ugly. Take the much-maligned SecuROM, for instance. Let's ignore the Bioshock rootkit fiasco, and just look at EA's troubles with it. For Mass Effect, SecuROM initially required the game to be activated online once every ten days for it to keep working. This was decried from all corners as excessive, draconian, and generally simply served to annoy those people who had actually forked over a large slice of their hard-earned cash to get hold of the game. EA (to their credit) backed down fairly swiftly, and removed this restriction.
Somewhat strangely, Ubisoft has just taken a massive step backwards. It has elected to try and find out for itself if the best way to reduce piracy is to treat all your paying customers as potential criminals… but rather than doing so once every ten days, it is going to treat you as a criminal for every single second you are playing its games. The Online Services Platform requires that you be connected to the Internet and Ubisoft's servers all the time you're playing their games, whether the gameplay requires it or not. To add insult to injury, this isn't just a check when you log in or when you save (online save games are apparently the carrot in this arrangement), it's a constant check. This means that if you happen to go offline during your game, it will pause and wait for you to go back online for permission from Ubisoft to be restored.
No problem, you may think--your gaming rig may be firmly rooted in one spot and permanently plugged in, but what about other people? What about those people gaming on laptops, on the move? Wi-Fi while travelling can be extortionate… so why on earth should one be forced to pay for it for the privilege of being able to play single-player games you've paid for, on your own system? Thinking a little closer to home, you might like to consider what happens to your gaming when your broadband happens to go down, or if you happen to be in a large building (such as university halls of residence) with flakey wi-fi. Every time your connection drops, you'll be kicked out of your immersive game experience into the technical tundra as you attempt to satsify Ubisoft's anti-piracy whimsy.
In an ideal world, anti-piracy software wouldn't be necessary, but I accept that some form of protection is needed. However, I strongly believe that this should be as near to invisible to the legal user of the game as possible; if you're going to inconvenience and alienate your paying customers, it's going to be counterproductive and simply serve to further damage the market in question. It will drive users who would otherwise stay entirely legal when it comes to their gaming into breaking your DRM systems by attempting to block this intrusive and aggressive system, and will drive yet more users to either ignore PC gaming completely or seek out illegal copies--which, mark my words, will still exist.
It should be noted that this programme isn't just about reducing piracy; the OSP does offer other services such as online save games and unlimited installs on computers you personally authenticate, but it's the compulsory nature of the programme as part of antipiracy effort at the core that I think is the most significant element.
I contacted Ubisoft for comment on this backward step earlier, and this is what the firm said: "The platform requires a permanent Internet connection. We know this choice is controversial but we feel is justified by the gameplay advantages offered by the system and because most PCs are already connected to the Internet. This platform also offers protection against piracy, an important business element for Ubisoft and for the PC market in general as piracy has an important impact on this market. Any initiative that allows us to lower the impact of piracy on our PC games will also allow us to concentrate further effort on the creation and expansion of our intellectual properties for the PC - our goal is to deliver the best gaming experience to our customers."
I shall let you make your own minds up.