AC2 DRM Fiasco

I wrote about the AC2 DRM last week. In the meantime the game got released, and the DRM servers went down shortly afterward. This is a much better outcome that I expected. In my previous post I counted out all the ways legitimate users can become unable to play the game – except one. I really didn’t expect the Ubisoft servers to go down for more than 10 hours. You would think that they prepare themselves for something like this.

I’m pretty sure this fiasco will somehow get blamed on pirates eventually. But right now there are two kinds of AC2 players out there: those who pirated it and didn’t even notice the outage, and legitimate customers who got locked out of their game for no fault of their own. I suspect that many of these people, who did not really care about DRM before buying AC2 will start caring about it now.

Personally I believe that Ubisoft low-balled their figures when they were setting up the DRM framework. That’s the risk you run into when you create a software that needs to call home. It is not enough to just set up a single server in some closet and forget about it – not unless you are a small company with only a handful of customers. When you are the size of Ubisoft, and you release a game as anticipated as Assasin’s Creed 2 you don’t need “a server” – you need “a server farm” complete with load balancing and a dedicated high bandwidth internet hookup. The problem is that this costs money. All the money you spend on that infrastructure cuts directly into your profits. Furthermore, it is an ongoing expense. You have to throw down a huge chunk of cash up front to set it up, and then steadily pour money into bandwidth and maintenance. So if you are Ubisoft, it is in your best interest to spend as little money on it as possible on the whole exercise. So you should get the least amount of servers that can support the estimated sales volume and not one more.

Furthermore, your customers don’t pay you a monthly fee. MMO’s can afford to run their servers indefinitely, because they have a constant source of income. As long as the flow of cash from membership fees covers their maintenance costs it remains feasible for them to keep their infrastructure online. The lifetime maintenance of DRM servers on the other hand must be funded directly from the sales of the game they protect. This means that despite what Ubisoft may tell it’s customers, it is in their best interest to shut down the AC2 servers as soon as it is possible. If you ever looked at sales figures of single player video games, you’ll probably know that they tend to follow a certain pattern – there is a huge sales spike on the release date which gradually tapers off during the next week or so, remains high for some time, and then takes a sharp dip dropping down to almost nothing a month or two after the release. Most of pro-DRM advocates like to bring this up this fact when they try to justify the need for copyright protection. Video game publishers make most of their money in the first few weeks after the release. So what they make in those few weeks must cover all the bandwidth and maintenance expenses for their DRM servers.

Think about this – the cost of keeping a DRM server online forever is technically an infinity dollars. Eventually this cost will eat all your profits from sales, and then cut into profits from your next game and so on. So if you are smart, you will start phasing out the DRM servers as soon as you see the sales take a bigger dip. Eventually you’d probably want to reduce your server farm to a single re purposed desktop PC sitting underneath someone’s desk in the office. Or at least this is the best case scenario you could hope for.

Video game companies have nothing to gain from running DRM servers, and a lot to lose. In fact, having the servers go down few times on the release day is probably preferable to spending huge amount of money on a robust, redundant infrastructure that will need to be scrapped in a few months anyway. If you build a huge DRM server farm and the game does not sell well, you are essentially going to have to pay for the privilege of allowing users to play your game out of your own pocket. It’s actually saver to let your servers melt down under heavy load few times, catch some negative PR and then turn around and say “See, this is all because of pirates. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have to do this”.

In other words, DRM activation networks are crappy by design. They are made on the cheap, because they are just superfluous expense. They will go down all the time – it’s a fact of life. That’s how this whole racket is set up. Think about this next time you buy a game with online activation.

For the record, Steam might be an exception here because it is a distribution platform. As such, Valve has vested interest to invest into it. What I’m talking about above are dedicated DRM solutions like that of AC2.

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10 Responses to AC2 DRM Fiasco

  1. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    You forget a DRM platform or server farm can be used for more than one game. What you invest now in a robust system will not go to waste as soon as your game doesn’t sell anymore, because you’ll have a stream of new games that uses it. That Ubisoft underestimated the network needs was predictable, even experienced MMO publishers fall prey to this.

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  2. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    It’s even worse – from the hints they have been dropping, pirated versions of AC2 are missing content – because some of the game’s content is actually residing on these DRM Servers. Which means, when you bought or downloaded the game, you only got partial content. Ubisoft said they could patch the DRM out, but that would mean providing what could be a huge file or number of files (i.e. the rest of the missing content). So, Zel’s comment that these server farms can be used by more than one game is true, but by adding in more complexity (actual game content) you increase the space consumed and, as well, the actual bandwidth to play the game (since I would figure this had to be downloaded to the player’s PC in order to be played – I doubt the content is being played remotely)

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  3. zel is right.. of course ubisoft will use the same servers for different games.
    but still… If these servers go down (heck, even GMail goes down sometimes) then i won’t be able to play ANY of my Games, bought by Ubisoft.
    Customers will start Game A, it won’t work, start Game B, it wont work and then.. they wont start Game D or E, because now they will bring theyer PC back to some Shop (or befriended Nerd) for fixing the PC.

    Do you really think anyone out there really cares what DRM is included in his game while he buys it (at least besides some Nerds)? Do you think the Custumers will even know what a DRM is? What planet are you from again?

    I don’t see any way around it.. this kind of DRM will come and we will see some years of pretty good Software that noone could possibly use if the original Publisher goes away.
    Sadly enough.. i allready had this Problem with some Games that have allways been un-fucking-playable without some Patches. Once the Publisher was gone, only some fan-pages had those Patches.
    Its sad.. but we will see this more and more in the future.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Zel:

    Good point. Still, to do what Ubisoft was trying to do you need almost an MMO grade setup without the steady monthly fee. It is still a financial burden – to support it they need to release things regularly. If they have a period in which they produce several duds that don’t sell well, the maintenance costs may start cutting into their budget for new games.

    Also, straight up online activation servers are much more manageable. You can easily predict the traffic pattern. You will get a lot of hits in the first month or so and then it will drop off. You can easily use the same server cluster for many games because the pattern is so clear.

    With an always on connection things are not so clear cut. You can’t re-purpose these as easily. If you have one mega-hit and few average games on this system, then you might be ok. If you have 10 mega hits that people want to play over and over again, you may run into scalability issues.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Yep. Good point – every time a new game comes out, the Ubisoft customers will run a risk of loosing access to their games for unknown amount of time.

    Oh, and yeah – I know what you mean about the patches. It’s a damn shame. Fortunately some services like gog.com try to rescue these old titles complete with patches and what not.

    And if GoG does not have it, there are always abandonware sites.

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  6. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    So they left files out of the DVD that pirated copies can’t access ? I must say that’s pretty clever, especially if the first few minutes/hours of the game play fine. It’s an interesting approach.

    I sincerely doubt the volume of these files is substantial, as bandwidth costs money, but if they’re numerous and scattered enough it might discourage or slow down crackers for a while. Of course, Ubisoft will maintain they won’t patch the DRM out because of it, but hey, some games have patches of over a gigabyte…

    It does make things more complicated for the servers. I assumed the client was only maintaining an active session with regular pings. When you see than even plain and simple authentication servers usually go down in the first couple of days after the release of a big game, their failure was even more inevitable.

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  7. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Zel:

    Exactly – there is no indication of how much content appears to be hosted on their servers. I had heard of stories where people get to a certain section and then it drops them out. You are probably correct. Just enough “content” to foil pirates. It is an interesting approach to DRM. Though, they could have done without the CONSTANT internet connection.

    Hmmm…maybe you could have a DRM in which some locales in the game are accessible only after a ping to the server is successful (and it downloads some small amount of content which is only stored temporarily on the PC). If you aren’t able to get online, it simply comes back with “Sorry, you cannot continue in this direction” but allows you to continue elsewhere. Interesting

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    Agreed, it is clever but also stupid at the same time.

    Clever, because it will take pirates quite a bit of time to map out all these missing bits, intercept them and roll them into a release. So that’s few extra days of tedious work – but a dedicated scene group could probably pull it off by just playing the game and monitoring the game download directory for the file dumps it downloads.

    It is stupid because of what happened to the servers and because it is such an anti-customer practice. Some people still have metered connections. Other have crappy slow DLS lines. Is it fair to sell them an intentionally broken game and require them to patch it in real time each time they play?

    Sigh… They should have simply released Assasin’s creed as a Massive Single Player Online game or something – just stream all the content from their servers and charge players a flat monthly fee. This way people know what they are buying.

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  9. Hdrev MEXICO Safari Mac OS says:

    Exactly, an average costumer with slow Internet would be very pissed off.
    They would think “hey i didnt bought a mmorpg wtf i need Internet for”
    its just easier to dowload a pirate copy

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  10. vignesh INDIA Opera Windows says:

    hahahaha
    who said that ac2 will not be cracked.
    silent hunter has been thoroughly been cracked.
    in a months time ac2 will be cracked too!
    dead sure mate!

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