Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Yet Even More About Evil DRM From Hell.

The story so far: Piracy drives PC games makers mad with rage. Ubisoft responds by releasing its games (most notably Assassin's Creed 2) with DRM that requires a constant internet connection. Your connection goes? So does your game. Everyone not a PC games maker gets justifiably enraged. Games ship with this DRM, and entirely predictable disasters occur.

So I stepped into this crapstorm and
wrote an article which got quite a bit of attention. In it, I said that, entirely apart from the practical considerations of this DRM (which I think is a terrible idea), it would work. Which is to say that it could stay unbroken for the first 1-2 months of the game's release, when the title will get most of its sales. The Internet responded by calling me a moron, as it is an issue of religious faith that DRM can be broken instantly.

So let's look back in and see what's been going on. I think it is interesting in several ways.

The DRM has, apparently, 6 weeks after release, been released in a cracked form that is easy for the average laymen to install. Six weeks. In other words, long enough. I've read
two articles to this effect.

(Some people on forums have claimed that a tricky-to-install crack was kicked out 4 weeks after release, but who trusts random people on forums? I have seen nothing in the Gaming Press on the topic. Which says a lot about the Gaming Press. But more on that in a second.)

So, and this point is very significant, I was right and everyone who criticized me was wrong! It's official! I win teh Internet!

(Happy dance.)

Ahem. Anyway.

Also, while crackers will get better at beating this DRM in its current form, it will only get better. I and others have
suggested ways to make it stronger. It's only a matter of time. And that means that this DRM, loathsome as it is, is here to stay. If the game company executives were crazed enough by piracy to implement it, they're crazy enough to keep using it. Insert dire predictions about the future of PC gaming here.

But I want to chip in one more comment here, about the lamentable state of the gaming press. I honestly think that this new DRM is one of the biggest stories on PC Gaming in years. How Ubisoft's system works will determine if PC Gaming has a future, and how much that future will suck. It's an interesting story. So why hasn't anyone at the gaming sites actually investigated, like actual reporters, whether the DRM was cracked or not?

Look at the articles I linked to. One by
the Escapist, long one of the best and most thoughtful sites writing on gaming, and one by cnet, a company with actual reporters and resources. They say that crackers have claimed they've broken this DRM (something others have claimed, only to be proven wrong). Why don't they check? If it's worth reporting on the claim, isn't it worth reporting on what reality actually is? I think this quote from the Escapist article (whose sole source is the cnet article) is very interesting.

I don't know if the claim is legit and I have neither Assassin's Creed 2 nor the patience necessary to dick around with warez sites and cracks in order to find out.

Now, I'm an Indie gaming developer, so calling out members of the gaming press is a very stupid thing to do. So I'm simply going to say to
Andy Chalk, the author of the Escapist piece, that this is a great opportunity to do some investigative reporting and scoop everyone else in the world on a story of some interest. Go get 'em! I'd link to you!

But anyway. Since this sort of DRM seems to work well enough, the people who can make the decisions about whether to use it will feel that their decision was justified. Remember, they see piracy as an existential threat. This is important. They believe that unless they reduce piracy, the PC gaming biz is not worth it. When someone sees something as a life or death decision, they won't care how angry people get on the forums.

So I suspect you'll be seeing a lot more of it in the future. And, when enough of the titles people really want come out with it, most PC gamers will either grit their teeth and put up with it or abandon the platform.

And, as for me? I blame the pirates. Ubisoft's system is obnoxious, but it is legal, and they are in their right to do it. In a democracy, we all get what the worst of us deserve.

God, if I try to write about this again, please strike me down with holy, peace-bringing fire.

43 comments:

  1. Oh, it's definitely legal - a PR nightmare waiting to be happen, but legal nonetheless. But so far we haven't really had a AAA game yet with it, so it's hard to judge how people are going to react. When Starcraft 2 comes out with a similar system soon, that's when we'll know. And I fully expect SC2 to ship with this - they haven't been pushing everyone to battle.net accounts for no reason.

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  2. @skip: Assassin's Creed 2 isn't an AAA game? wha...?

    @jeff: great post, as always

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  3. The thing is, did the use of this DRM actually help sales? Well... at least according to wikipedia, it has sold the exact same amount of copies (8 million, across all platforms).
    So, basically what they did was infuriate their target audience, inconvenience their customers, waste tons of money (maintaining the authentication servers for years ain't cheap and that's without considering how much money they might have spent developing the monstrosity in the first place) aaaaand then sold the same amount of copies as the first game.
    Yeah, that was a brilliant decision there Ubisoft.

    But that's besides the point, I suppose. If all they want is to be free from that invisible monster called piracy that's supposedly devouring their sales, then their wish might as well be granted. In doing so they're shooting themselves on the foot, but hey, their fall is surely going to be pretty amusing *grabs popcorn*

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  4. Command and Conquer 4 had this sort of DRM. First C&C game I haven't bought - EVER.

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  5. Dicking around on warez sites? LOL! How hard is it to type "assassins creed" into a torrent site, download, and follow the included instructions? Less than 1% of effort. I'm glad 6 weeks of revenue is enough for game companies to make money, because that's really not a long time to wait at all, considering we'll happily wait a year for the next spidweb game to come out :)

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  6. Are a few pirates impatient enough to buy rather than wait a few extra weeks? Sure. Is that number greater than the number of legitimate customers they've pissed off? Very doubtful.

    If Ubisoft had hard data proving their DRM increased sales, they'd be shouting it from the rooftops. No, I'd say the vast, vast majority of pirates are cheap bastards who aren't going to pay $50 for a game, period. They'll wait.

    A few will have deluded themselves into thinking THEY ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE IT NOW (even though it's already been out on console for a long time, and it's not even a multiplayer game). The rest will play their vast library of other stolen games in the meantime, content in the knowledge that a crack will eventually, inevitably come, and they'll be able to play that game while waiting for the next.

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  7. @John, and indirectly at @Jeff,

    Probably isn't hard, but maybe he didn't want to engage in illegal activity, then tell everyone about it, using his (presumably) real name.

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  8. Okay, Jeff was right, Now, will that game makers put in a time-based shut off on the internet connection requirement, or release a patch? The internet connection requirement is still annoying and, per Jeff, has already served its purpose. Yes, a legitimate purchaser of a game can download a crack, but they shouldn't have to.

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  9. @Miyamoto-SAN, when looking at PC sales only, no, I wouldn't consider the level of sales Assassin's Creed 2 to have the potential to get as a AAA game - cross-platform sales total? Yeah. What would the PC version have ended up with in total sales without its 'You suck and we hate you' DRM? A couple of hundred thousand units tops?


    SC2's probably going to sell 10 million copies or more if they don't scare off the purchasers with a draconian system. That's a AAA game.

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  10. Its just not worth playing if i'm sitting there fuming and cursing at the computer.

    The moment of irritation every time my DSL-lights flash to let me know the game is asking the server if i am a thief and the knowledge that my gaming may be interrupted at any moment because ubisofts cheap approach to serverfarms means the game might decide i'm stealing while i know that the real thieves/pirates are playing the game smoothly without any of the limitations that ubi placed on where and how i am allowed to play the game i bought...

    (Deep breath, count to ten)

    Well, it kills my fun and now the game sits unfinished on my harddrive. Buying AC2 was a mistake on my part and i should have known better. Its not like the DRM was a secret. I feel like a jackass for giving my money to these people.

    At least it didn't poison my computer, like they wanted to do with Starforce. That really was a purchase-killer.

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  11. @ Robert

    Mine as well. I have stacks of C&C games from their original releases on multiple platforms (Hello PS1), the rereleased compilations up to TFD, C&C3 on Mac and Windows. I'm their flippin core market, I buy every bloody C&C release like clockwork. Haven't bought C&C4. It's too bad they hate money.

    Maybe, MAYBE, if Steam has one of those 75% off sales and I'm drunk at the time it might slip through. I'm only human after all.

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  12. I still do not believe in this idea that protecting the opening window from piracy results in higher sales. For every impatient freeloader who chooses to buy instead of wait for the cracked version, there are two or three people like me who refuse to buy the game with this kind of absurd DRM on it. Piracy has existed for ages, and good games have always sold well. Publishers like to delude themselves into thinking that DRM is saving the day, but they are doing more damage that good.

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  13. Two quick things.

    One, I have no idea what Assassin's Creed 2's sales for the PC have been like. Another huge point of interest the gaming press is doing nothing to find out about.

    Two, figuring out if this crack actually works is an actual job. You don't just have to install it. You have to play it for a while. I can understand why nobody wants to do it, but I still wish some gaming journalist would.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  14. It's easy to understand why the press doesn't really pickup on this sort of thing. Most general gaming websites, like the excellent Escapist, tend to have a console slant. It's not a knock against those websites, they're appealing to their audience; that's just the way it goes. The press is also probably afraid to report on such an issue. They depend on the game companies for exclusive access to content, preview copies of games, and advertising. It's probably not a good idea to piss off a huge company like Ubisoft by telling them how stupid their DRM is in a front page story.

    That said I have seen some coverage. You'll find a lot of the discussion subtle ways, things like a mention in a story or a podcast rather than a full article. Also some websites, like RockPaperShotgun have covered the issue: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/?s=ubisoft+drm&x=0&y=0 .

    As to why journalists don't report on PC game sales... they're really hard to track. Most Digital services (Steam) don't seem to release their sales data. You can track retail copies sold, but that's hardly a relevant stat anymore. I really don't know if sales data is something that journalists could really get their hands on. They could spend more time trying though.

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  15. Gotta agree with you on the gaming press. We just released a $1 parody RPG on XBLIGs that has been going back and forth between the #1 & #2 top rated spot for XBox Live Indie Games. You would think a new game upsetting the top rated game (James Silva's I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1) which had been on the top for nearly a year or the fact that our game is $1 in a genre that has historically been plagued with high prices would make for good news stories, but aside a nice article on The Escapist and a shout out from Destructoid, the major gaming press has ignored us. Oh well, at least we're getting good press from the smaller sites and developing good word of mouth.

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  16. DRM is mentioned again.

    And, again, Bryan will scream at the internet that he hates you for drinking the Kool-Aid.

    It still has nothing to do with piracy, just like it didn't have anything to do with piracy fifty trillion years ago. This is simply gutting a person's right of ownership - withering away a person's right to sell or give away their property.

    The lie is like the sock puppets we see on TV arguing about politics - no politician has any power. They are sock puppets - the guy with his hands up their doodahs is the one in control. To watch a sock puppet show and not be able to identify socks is, well...

    Anyway.

    It's ignorant to pretend that Gamestop and the like don't piss off publishers. A lot. More than anything else. That's real money, not going into their pockets. Not phantom pretend money.

    I don't even know what these people are selling to be honest. Some kind of crummy movie? CAVE is about the only people out there making actual AAA games....

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  17. "I don't know if the claim is legit and I have neither Assassin's Creed 2 nor the patience necessary to dick around with warez sites and cracks in order to find out.

    Now, I'm an Indie gaming developer, so calling out members of the gaming press is a very stupid thing to do."

    I can imagine several reasons he might not want to do this: it's illegal and it's dangerous (because of malware). If someone claims to have cracked a copy of the game, there's several things they'd have to watch out for: first, that the copy of the game that's he's downloading is the actual copy of the game and not someone putting up some malware on the internet and calling it "Assassins Creed 2". And, second, even it was a real cracked copy, there's a possibility that a third party built a malware installer around the cracked copy. Third, there's the possibility that the cracker installed malware themselves. I can't think of a single reason why the Russian mafia wouldn't get involved in the business of hiring crackers to break games, then install malware, and then release it out onto the internet to infect people's machines. I mean *pirates are blithely installing someone's EXE on their machines and they have no idea who created it*! At best, the gaming press could keep their computer isolated from any local networks, download the game, install it (on a fresh Windows install), and then, once they've verified it, wipe their entire hard-drive and reinstall Windows. That's a lot of time and effort.

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  18. "In a democracy, we all get what the worst of us deserve."

    Soo true, and soo fucking annoying, pardon my french.

    ReplyDelete
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  20. Great post as always Jeff. I have to say I was eying up the latest Settlers game but the constant internet connection was enough to deter me from buying it. There are times that I don't have Internet access where I want to be able to play games and I am not interested in paying the amount of money you have to pay for a brand new game and then be limited to playing only with Internet access. As far as I'm concerned game companies should put more money into developing more secure methods for authenticating games. You can't tell me with all the money they make they can't have a dedicated team writing software specifically for encrypting registered game content.
    I realise Indy game developers like yourself might not have the resource to do this but then there are always going to be stealers, liars and cheaters in the world and at the end of the day only the individual person can set their moral standards.

    I'm assuming the crap above me is spam - I really don't see the point except to be annoying....in which case people need to find some games to play.

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  21. I've always thought the anti piracy efforts for all forms of media was a lost cause. People who buy/download pirated material generally can't afford the product more often than not.

    I wonder if any of them have ever taken to think about how much money is spent on anti-piracy efforts vs. the assumed loss from those who acquire pirated material? If you remove the group of people who would never buy it in the first place, or even buy it second hand, which I'm sure in their eyes is another form of piracy since the company can no longer profit from it.

    I know this is about software, but this applies to other media as well.

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  24. I think I probably agree with Till. Ubisoft are only effectively targeting casual pirates who really want to play the game. Every other type of pirate will wait or give up.

    However, I also agree with Jeff to some extent. Now the technology has been developed and invested in, there's probably little incremental cost in using it again. The connection loss and drop to desktop problems will be minimised with later releases, so users who didn't like that requirement will eventually come round.

    The sales figures are neutral, so they'll definitely try it again.

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  25. I think everyone is missing a big point. What about people that don't have the Internet? Not everyone has it at home.

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  26. We're not missing the point, and the companies don't care. This is about revenue protection, not customer convenience.

    If you knew mandating online connectivity would protect 20,000 sales, but 500 people would be unable to play it - boo fucking hoo to them, the company would take the cash..

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  27. Looks like the Splinter Cell: Conviction game recently released by Ubisoft got cracked in about 3 days. Same DRM as Assassin's Creed 2. It seems they really reused too much of this protection scheme. Yes, Jeff is right, it is possible for them to make an unbeatable protection scheme by simply moving the AI to the server or something. Is that realistic? I hope not.

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  28. I'm a little on the fence on buying any game. I just hate paying $20-$80 for a game that lasts only 2 hours. It may last a week for a game reviewer, but for all I know, I'll get bored of it after a short time. The first AC certainly isn't a good sign.

    Any serious DRM like this pushes me on the side of the fence where I don't give them money. And publishers seem to constantly forget that pirates manage to hack past the DRM anyway. Spore actually encouraged many people to pirate the game to get past the DRM.

    If you don't care about your customer's happiness, then they're not going to care about your happiness. Selling any kind of software requires a lot of sympathy from your customers, because of how easy it is to steal it. Your price tag is simply a "recommended donation" tag.

    Besides, when you have something like this, it challenges cracker groups to crack the DRM. The more impossible it is, the more people would want to break it down. When you have shitstorms like this, I just stop playing all those fancy AAA games and go back to things that are really fun, like Dwarf Fortress and Avernum.

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