Yet Another DRM Rant

Ubisoft recently released an interesting little game called “From Dust” in which you play as some sort of nebulous, elemental entity who helps a lost tribe of worshipers to rebuild their civilization. It looked like a fun, modern riff on themes previously explored by games like Populus or Black and White. I was genuinely interested in buying it up until I saw the Ubisoft logo next to it.

If you recall, Ubisoft are the “pioneers” and “inventors” of the controversial Always-On DRM scheme. You probably heard people raging about this scheme back in March when they ruined Assasin’s Creed 2 with it. You probably also heard how it backfired when the activation servers crashed shortly after launch.

Needless to say, I was skeptical so I decided to do some research and check out what kind of malware they stapled to “From Dust”. Yes, mallware. Let’s face it – all DRM is mallware. Nobody wants it on their system, it usually gets deployed using bundled stealth installation and in some cases it can seriously impact the performance and stability of your system. Oh, and sometimes it stays on your system long after you remove the game it shipped with. To me it sounds like malware.

I didn’t even have to look far to see clear indications of a brewing shitstorm around the game. The range and anger of my fellow gamer geeks started streaming into my Twitter feed, and RSS Reader soon after “From Dust” went live. And it was not just some petty bullshit this time either – it was a genuine customer dissatisfaction.

You see, Ubisoft blatantly lied to it’s customers. During the pre-order phase, it went on record claiming the game will ship with one-time-only online activation. They were very clear about this – you activate once, and then you can play offline as much as you desire. Then, at the 11’th hour, just before release they completely reversed that position. Now all their documentation, and online documents state that you need to activate the game over the internet every time you start it up. Did they issue a formal apology to the customers that might have been mislead by the previous announcements? Did they offer to refund the game to those who foolishly preordered it assuming it will be playable online? No, of course not. Their official stance is a straight up denial that the one-time-only activation announcement has ever even happened. And they are doing it hard-core, 1984 style: “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, and From Dust hat always had Always-On DRM.” And if you would like to complain about this issue, you should do it somewhere outside the official Ubisoft support forums for the game, which are aggressively moderated to remove any and all signs of the DRM controversy.

So I guess I will not be playing From Dust. The game seemed fun, but I really, really don’t want to give Ubisoft any money. I could pirate the game and play it anyway, since it has already been cracked but then I would probably want to blog about it. This in turn would generate publicity for the game, and perhaps compel a few people to actually buy it. And I would loathe to help Ubisoft score even a single sale after reading about their DRM shenanigans. So I choose not to touch the game.

Not because it’s bad. Not even because the DRM sucks (don’t get me wrong, it does – it’s atrocious). I choose to completely ignore it because of the way Ubisoft is treating their customers.

It amazes me that companies such as Ubisoft and EA get away with blatant customer abuse. They moderate their forums and ban anyone who has a legitimate complaint, they completely ignore negative press without even as much acknowledging it and all their press releases are flat out disdainful and insulting. What other industry can actually do this and stay in business? Who can continuously lie to, screw over and insult their customers without loosing their business.

There is only one other line of work in which this sort of behavior works: drug dealing. Which makes me think that we, the gaming community are a little bit at fault here. We are like junkies, jonesing for the next fix – no matter how badly they abuse us, we always come back to them. We might be loud and obnoxious on the internet, but in the real world we have no sting. When a new game comes out, we roll over and throw money at them even though we have been boycotting that very product for the last 6 months. No wonder they don’t give a fuck.

I often wonder whether or not the irony of having your “Always-On” DRM game hit torrent sites before it is even available in the stores ever hit the executives of these companies. I mean, are they really that clueless? Do they not know that their precious anti-piracy software takes about 20 minutes to remove, after which it is free for all?

How can you run a milti-million game company and remain ignorant of the simple fact that DRM does not work as a counter-piracy measure. How can you claim that your Always-On DRM schemes are a success when a simple trip to pirate bay or any other torrent site is enough to verify that it did not protect a single game from being copied and distributed for free. Can you really be that short sighted?

They can’t be that dumb, right? I mean, DRM costs money, right? The guys who run companies like Ubisoft are bean counters – that’s pretty much the only thing they are good at. So I find it really hard to believe that no one actually realized that the whole enterprise might be just a huge money sing. Unless it actually isn’t.

Bear with me on this, but perhaps these guys sat down and figured out that while they can’t do anything to prevent tech-savvy guys like you or me from pirating their software, they still can thwart casual piracy. They can stop soccer moms from buying just a single copy of the game, and then burning copies for their five spoiled beastly brats. It can stop little Jimmy from sharing his copy with little Bobby. And it can stop that guy who can’t figure out “how to run iso file” he downloaded from the internet. Perhaps the reason why Ubisoft is stepping up their game with more and more annoying DRM schemes is that the soccer moms, Jimmy and the iso guy started to catch on. Believe it on not, but the “copy crack to game directory” method has been a staple of piracy for quite a few years now. The pool of people who know how to successfully download and install cracked games is constantly growing, and the number of numbskulls who can be easily fooled by simple DRM is getting smaller. So they are balancing the act, and making sure that only folks who can figure out how to run a spoofed activation server get to play for free.

In other words, they are praying on idiots to generate extra revenue. Their core revenue of course comes from us – the internet loudmouths, but we bend over and take it every single time. So they are concentrating on converting stupidity into cash. And guess what? Their new targets usually don’t frequent gaming forums, or read gaming blogs so all that stink we make about unfair DRM goes right over their heads. They get shafted too, but only after they forked over the cash so it doesn’t matter.

Is there anything we can do about this? I believe we can.

  1. Stop bending over and taking it. Let’s vote with our wallets and refuse to buy games with shitty DRM.
  2. Stop promoting their games for free. It really does not matter that you didn’t buy the game, if you blogged about it, posted about it on Facebook, and made Youtoube videos of your in game shenanigans. Perhaps you didn’t fork over money, but you helped to spread the hype and indirectly you may have got them a few extra sales. So if you want to send them a message, don’t pirate the game either. Just ignore it.
  3. Finally, be nice to n00bs and teach them how to fucking pirate. No, seriously. Somehow, somewhere this DRM bullcrap is generating sales. It shows up on sales reports, and validates their approach. So let’s make sure these sales increases stay low. Let’s make sure everyone knows how to circumvent their DRM. (actually, this may not be the best idea – let’s not do this)

The only way to combat it is to hit them where it hurts: their profit margins. Internet slacktivism is a great past time, and while it may feel like you are making a difference by generating negative PR, companies like Ubisoft clearly do not give a flying fuck about what gaming press and blogosphere says about them. So put your money where your mouth is. Don’t buy their games, don’t talk about them. And make sure your noobish friends don’t give them any money either. That’s the only way to send them a clear message.

Did you buy From Dust, or any other Ubisoft game lately? Did you get screwed over by the DRM, or was it mostly irrelevant?

Damn it, this is what happens when you queue up posts a week in advance. Apparently From Dust generated so much bad PR that in a unprecedented, and uncharacteristic move Ubisoft seems to have agreed to remove the annoying always on DRM.

Could it mean they have learned a lesson here? I doubt it. I’m fairly sure they are nowhere near giving up on their DRM schemes, though they may be more careful as to how they phrase their press releases and interview responses from now on.

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15 Responses to Yet Another DRM Rant

  1. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I have different opinions on points 2 and 3.

    If you get lots of negative hype, it can really hurt the game sales. This also makes the company see the reason why the sales are not what they expected. (if there even is a change in the numbers?) If you just silently protest with your wallet, the company may think that the game was just bad and didn’t sell because of that, its good to point out why you skipped the game.

    Best option is to vote with the wallet and then example send emails to PR people/official forums pointing why you didn’t buy the game.

    I don’t think the pirating is the way to fix anything. What I do want is that DRM is cracked as soon as possible after the release to show that its not stopping the pirates.

    One good example of why DRM is useful is The Witcher 2. It didn’t have any DRM (it was removed from the retail version in a patch in two weeks and GoG version didn’t have anything) Witcher 2 even had lots of cool stuff bundled with the retail version and the digital version. You could not buy “basic” version of the game.

    Nothing of this stopped pirates from pirating the game. It may have been pirated even more just because it didn’t have any DRM, can’t be sure.

    If you pirate game instead of skipping it, you are the reason why developers are moving to console platform. Consoles doesn’t have nearly as much pirating as PC. If you pirate, you get even more shitty PC ports. Just don’t do it.

    In my opinion DRM is bad thing if it hurts the customer in any way.

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  2. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I opted not to buy From Dust for exactly the same reason. I ended up buying Bastion instead, and I’m really enjoying it.

    I would note that #2 is somewhat hypocritical, given the subtopic of this post is “From Dust.” Regarding #3, pirating is the excuse game companies use to screw gamers with DRM. I don’t pirate, instead I do #1 and buy something else.

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  3. icebrain PORTUGAL Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Well, there’s always the elephant in the room: Steam. It’s DRM, but it isn’t obnoxious like Ubisoft’s. Personally, I try to stay away from it too (it’s not that hard, since I was never one to spend much on games), but games like Portal completely annihilate my willpower.

    Unfortunately, I fear that in the future informed gamers will see Ubisoft’s DRM with fondness; because the ultimate DRM system is only now being introduced: cloud based gaming, with OnLive. Games are starting to come with OnLive coupons and if the public’s reaction is positive, I don’t think there’s any chance that the major publishers won’t move to this greener, piracy free pasture.

    Frankly, I’m not too confident we’ll be able to escape it, and if I nowadays don’t play many AAA games, in the future I think I’ll have to keep emulators if I want to play anything at all.

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  4. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Actually, now that I think about it, I haven’t bought a bunch of games because of DRM. I won’t buy anything with SecuROM, it has prevented me from buying Batman: Arkham Asylum, Spore, Dragon Age 2, Bioshock, and Mass Effect. SecuROM has problems – rootkit-like behavior, harsh activation limits, requiring repeated reactivation, problems with activation servers going down now and concerns about their maintenance in the future, and SecureROM always bitches about stuff like daemon tools and pretty normal compiling and debugging software.

    I also won’t buy anything with “always on” DRM, which prevented me from buying assassin’s creed 2, starcraft 2 (no LAN play), from dust, and it will prevent me from buying diablo 3 (no local play). I’m also very unlikely to buy anything with online activation that doesn’t let me download anytime and offer other online advantages, like steam or desura games.

    I prefer no DRM, stuff like the Humble Indie Bundles, but I’m OK with the reasonable DRM used on steam and a few other games.

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  5. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ jambarama:
    As far as I know, Steam version of Mass Effect (1/2) doesn’t have SecuROM.

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ k00pa and @ jambarama:

    For #2 I meant we shouldn’t review the game, post game play videos or rave about it on social networks. Spreading negative buzz about crappy DRM is ok though. That will send a clear message. :)

    #3 was supposed to be sort of tongue in cheek, but now that I re-read my post, it deos seem like I’m dead serious. You are right though, it is not the best solution.

    @ icebrain:

    Very true. But, I can live with Steam, because it actually provides a service of sorts. For one it binds games to an account rather than to a machine, so I can move my games around. It offers cloud services for some games, automatically syncing saves between machines. It allows me to keep copies of my games on their servers, and re-download them on demand at any time. They have killer seasonal discounts. They provide an in-game overlay clock, and a screenshot taking app that allows you to post snapshots directly to your online profile as you play. Not to mention their support team is responsive, and actually is allowed to help out the customers, rather than just being used to deflect them away from the company.

    You get tons of benefits for the inconvenience of not actually fully owning the games. And I can live with that.

    For comparison, Ubisoft’s DRM is all stick and no carrot. You get absolutely nothing in exchange for the inconvenience of not being able to play your game without internet connection.

    @ jambarama:

    I actually slipped up on Arkham Asylum. Did not do research and bought it on Steam sale. Good game though – I enjoyed it.

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  7. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Talking about diablo 3, there’s currently closed beta for I got in, haven’t played that much, but it’s everything that diablo 3 should be. It’s still online only, but at least it’s free. :)

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  8. MrJones GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The only games on my computer are skifree32 and simtower, i just assume they are without DRM.

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  9. MrPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I (foolishly) bought From Dust after seeing the short ad on steam.
    Steam in itself is great for me, loads of nice little indie games and the occasional games bundle (heck, all Star Wars titles for not even 50$?) make it worthwile.
    From Dust though was the first game where I wished not to have bought it. Or read some forums/google-fu before clicking “add to cart”.
    Privately I’m connected through a “flaky WiFi connection that fades in and out” at times. That really screwed the first some hours of playing From Dust due to it stopping and skipping to a nice gray screen telling me it’s waiting for an active connection. That might not be that bad if it wasn’t for said connection. What really angered me that even with a connection coming back online and me checking mails and some Rock Paper Shotgun rants about From Dust it still kept telling me “no active connection”. And that damn screen popped up every ten or so seconds.
    And before you ask: as long as you’re in that screen no ESC-key will work. You’re simply stuck in there waiting for ubisoft to recognize you’re doing something else in the internet. Only the good old monkey grip and forcing the task manager to minimize the game work…

    Meanwhile I added a repeater to my wifi connection, so I guess it had some good sides. More stable bandwith is always nice.
    And with the improved connection even From Dust is playable. And not even that bad as a game…
    And if ubisoft now really removed the DRM I’m interested if they’ll distribute that via forced steam update or if you have to go and grab it from their website while presenting your ID so they know your piratey address and can send some goons to tell you never to doubt their DRM again…

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  10. MrPete GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Harhar, I just read the post in the ubi-forums you linked to.

    […]This development time is required as we are working to ensure that those who have already started the game, and who’s progress is currently saved on our servers, will receive and save their game information locally.[…]

    That was a real laugh for me. Several people knowing From Dust said that for them the “synchronising save game” screen was just a waste of time because it decided that it was unable to contact ubi-servers after 3-5min.
    And to be honest: It’s not that much that could be lost if you can’t get at your savegames which accidentally are not on the ubisoft servers…

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    Well, at least Diablo 3 has an excuse for the online-only thing: the in-game trading thing. Sigh…

    @ MrJones:

    Heh. those are the games from gentler and saner times when publishers tried to convince kids not to copy that floppy by rapping about it.

    @ MrPete:

    Yep, the always-on thing is rather harsh if you happen to have an unreliable connection, bad wifi or you like to play video games while traveling (hotel wifi is not always game friendly).

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  12. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Not a good excuse, you could make offline characters that can’t never go online/use the item auction store. Then have separate BNet characters for the multiplayer and auction.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ k00pa:

    Agreed. In fact, isn’t that how the old Diablo online play worked? I’m pretty sure you were not allowed to import your single player character into online games.

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  14. k00pa FINLAND Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    There were two online game modes. Battlenet and Openbattlenet. On normal ladder all saves are stored on bnet servers, also server logic is running on bnet.

    In the openbattlenet character files are stored locally, making it easy to modify/cheat. But with openbattlenet character you could play single player and multiplayer.

    And with the normal battlenet character you could play singleplayer by just creating game with password and not giving it to anybody.

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  15. Well said. I hope you and others reading this who are fed up with DRM will join the Defective by Design campaign against it. We encourage people to vote with their wallets, and to voice their objections to executives at the companies pushing DRM. If we want it to go away, we have to keep making it an issue, so it gets covered in the media and so companies know they will get negative press for going that route. Companies certainly don’t advertise that their products have DRM, and regulators have not been good about requiring that information to be provided, so the only way people can have informed decisions is for 3rd-party groups, individuals and campaigns to publish the info.

    Thanks for the post!

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