Ubisoft goes online-only for PC players

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Last week, Ubisoft made waves when they announced how they were going to use a new DRM (digital rights management) scheme for most of their upcoming PC games. PC players will now need to sign onto Ubisoft’s online service in order to be able to play the game they purchased over the counter in order to activate it…and need to stay online to keep it activated. As Arstechnica’s Ben Kuchera had put it, “This is like having to show your receipt every time you want to turn on your television.”.

According to Ubisoft’s FAQ on the service, the “added services” that this approach has over conventional DRM is that it will allow you to install the game on as many PCs as you want, save your games online, and not use a disc to play it. There are a few problems with this approach that are worse than the disc-based Securom or key-based authentication that some methods use. At least when Steam cuts out, you can still play the game. Not so with Ubisoft.

The benefits of being forced to remain online while playing an Ubisoft title are hardly convincing.

1) No limit to installations: This has been mitigated, in part, by efforts such as patching Bioshock’s draconian PC DRM to allow more than one installation instance, but other publishers and developers could care less by only requiring the player to punch in a serial number or not include any DRM at all.

But how important is this to most mainstream users with only one PC in the house and who don’t intend to carry their Sims with them to vacation on a laptop? I can’t help but be reminded of some of the controversy surrounding what had happened with the PC version of Prey in 2006.

At the time, Prey could also be downloaded from an online service called Triton which also handled the authentication for its copies for customers. Signing onto the service was required for the game to work…until Triton went under leaving everyone that had purchased Prey through it with a useless game that was ultimately patched thanks to 3D Realms help.

Ubisoft does make the same promise, however, that should the service fail, a patch will be issued to keep your games working. But hey, at least you can install this on as many PCs as you want!

2) Online storage of saved games: Imagine borrowing a book from the library, reading up to a certain chapter, and then returning to said library so that they can stick the bookmark in for you since you aren’t allowed to do it yourself. That’s pretty much what will happen here. Can’t connect to the server to play? Too bad…not that it won’t matter since you won’t be able to even start it to pick up where you left off, anyway. It’s like going back to the library to continue reading that book only to find out that the building had teleported to Mars and will be back later.

3) Don’t need the game disc: A small price to pay in keeping the disc in the drive as opposed to not being able to connect online to play a game that you had paid for because your dog had used your network cable as a chew toy. Accidents happen.

Unlike Steam, there’s no “off-line” option. You have to maintain an online connection in order to play your Ubisoft purchased game. This also assumes everyone has broadband or has signed on for it to some degree, or can get to it wherever they are at. Suppose you install your Ubisoft game on a laptop and then travel somewhere that has either no broadband or extremely poor connections?

And what happens if the service goes down? This is the kicker for me: your game will pause itself as it attempts to reconnect to Ubisoft and if it can’t do that, you can’t play and will have to pick up where the server had last stored your last saved game. Network enforced checkpoints, Mozy style, as this parody of Das Boot illustrates.

As publishers and developers continue to wage a never ending war against piracy by developing a range of DRM approaches in controlling the use and distribution of their product, players are often stuck with the unpleasant end results. It’s only natural that serial numbers, manual checks, and even a little online authentication are some of the things that they’ve come up with to protect their investments.

Sacred 2 for the PC has a pretty nifty, and seamless way, of authentication that I didn’t find intrusive at all with a one-time online check that removed the need to have the disc in the tray. Steam is the same. And as I said before, many others just don’t see the need to make their customers feel like they’re a part of Ali Baba’s crew. Some even go that extra mile such as a patch for the RPG title, The Witcher, which not only removed the DRM but added in extra gaming content. Ubisoft’s service isn’t going to do PC players any favors with the police-state mentality that it is approaching the problem with.

There are other publishers that are likely eyeing this to see just how well it pans out for Ubisoft, but that also means that there are other options to choose from for your gaming needs. The real kicker is that this might actually irritate some PC users enough to migrate over to consoles instead if they want to play Ubisoft’s games without feeling like thieves.