Hardware Market in Peril: The Horrors of Ubisoft DRM

Apparently, the term “reasonable” has a different meaning for everyone

By on January 14th, 2012 10:29 GMT
Like much of the rest of the world, we tried to resign ourselves to waiting, seeing and reporting what has been going on with the DRM policies of game makers, but things seem to be going more than a bit overboard.

One would think that widespread discontent and even bouts of sheer outrage would be enough to make game developers understand when an idea is out of control.

Certainly, there are those who support the entire Digital Rights Management movement, but the measures Ubisoft has most recently taken are too bizarre even by our standards.

To offer some context, just days ago it was discovered that the DRM of Ubisoft's Anno 2070 was among the harshest, if not downright absurd, of them all.

Long story short, owners basically need to activate the game again each time their computer's hardware configuration changes.

That wouldn't be such a huge deal on its own, but it looks like the limit of re-activations is three.

In other words, if someone buys the game, but then upgrades the PC's hardware more than three times, they can't play it anymore, despite having paid for it.

Presumably, Ubisoft allows for the resetting of the activation state, or for the limit to be removed if one contacts customer service, but we haven't heard about any successful attempts thus far.

In fact, the ones who discovered this 'security feature' contacted their local Ubisoft branch and all they got was a brief reply saying “the game is indeed restricted to 3 hardware changes and there simply is no way to bypass that.”

We are going to fix that statement for them and say that there is simply no company-endorsed way to bypass that.

So-called video game pirates have long since cracked the game and can play it without any activation headaches just fine.

We haven't heard of any other titles that impose similar restrictions, but there are three major consequences that this DRM can have if other games and game companies imitate it.

The reviewing community will be more than frustrated

Anno 2070 has already shown it happening: the Guru3D team that tried to review it was forced to cut their test short. Once they ran into the limited activation wall, they were unable to test the game on all the video cards they wanted.

If any more games get the same 'protection', there will be a notable absence of reviews for them.

Even if someone does go to the trouble of dragging themselves through the resetting procedure, or buy multiple copies of the game, the reviewers will no doubt convey their disgruntlement at the situation.

There won't be as much encouragement for people to actually buy the title at that point, company marketing or no.

The new DRM can damage the consumer hardware market if other developers imitate it

This is one possibility some may view as a bit of a stretch and, frankly, we hope that is the case. Nevertheless, the scenario is there: if Ubisoft's DRM spreads and gets aped by EA, id Software, etc., the hardware market could suffer.

Right now, just one game, that we know of, practically imposes a restriction on how many times an owner is allowed to upgrade their PC.

If more games were to do this - if all of them were to get similarly absurd DRMs - the gaming community would practically be discouraged to buy new video cards or CPUs, or whatever else the code checks for.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, NVIDIA and all their partners will not be enthused by this. We don't need to point out that gamers and enthusiasts are practically defined by their urge to have the best and newest hardware available, always.

Maybe if the press and the masses become vocal enough, potentially-threatened hardware giants will be forced to knock a few heads together (figuratively speaking only, of course) and drive home the idea that this whole DRM issue is being taken too far.

Then again, this potential threat to hardware makers may not even be real, since the likelier outcome is that game piracy will skyrocket like it has never skyrocketed before.

Game piracy will actually gain a measure of justification

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed in the United States back in 1998 in order to impose criminal penalties on those who spread means meant to circumvent content protection technologies.

That was (arguably) all well and good, but game developers quickly found that piracy wasn't going anywhere, so they started inventing more and more ways to fight it.

Always-on DRM (which demands constant Internet connection for permission to play single-player games) was among the most controversial, though, fortunately, it is losing steam.

This new measure that Ubisoft cooked up may actually top it. In fact, this new DRM outright justifies piracy to a greater extent than some may realize.

As we have already mentioned, few people, if any, will actually feel that a game (and, by extension, a game developer) has the right to dictate how many times they are allowed to upgrade their PC.

As such, when they run out of activations, there will be no sort of moral qualms about going online and getting a cracked version, regardless of the supposed possibility to reset the activation limit.

Why bother calling support each time you buy a new hardware component, when you can just overwrite a couple of files and be spared the headache forever?

Yes, as absurd as it sounds, this DRM can actually make people who bought the game decide to get a cracked version even if the original already rests in their desk drawer.

We don't endorse piracy – if you like a game enough to play it, you should like it enough to buy it – but red lights start to blare when game developers practically encourage it themselves, unwittingly or otherwise.

The jump from there to getting the pirated game from the start is very small. Whether Ubisoft likes it or not, it is encouraging people to resort to piracy instead of discouraging this tendency.

Game developers would be better off just making their titles worth buying

Regardless of what Ubisoft (and all other DRM-using game makers) try to persuade themselves of, game piracy will never really go away.

Game Content, the digital distribution service now famous for its anti-DRM stance, did say that companies would be better off adding value to their products instead of fighting this war.

Even if they don't abandon DRM, they could just do what Croteam and Devolver Digital did with Serious Sam 3: add an invincible enemy to thrash pirates around.

Actually, that's the sort of hilarity we wouldn't mind encountering from time to time. It would be a refreshing challenge for hackers too.

We really hope that Ubisoft's hardware-limiting DRM will not gain traction. It would be counterintuitive, to say the least.

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