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.