Unbranding the Sheep: The Neverending DRM Dance

Ubisoft is the latest company to cause a stink among gamers with their announcement that starting with The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom beta, they are instituting a new DRM policy that requires a perpetual connection to internet for any of their games. Ironically, as the music industry decides to gradually back away from intrusive DRM, the videogame industry is trying to find new and inventive ways to tie down their games while simultaneously trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes so as not to draw negative PR. “Oh, we’re using SecuROM, but you can install it however many times you want! Oh, we have SecuROM, but it’s only as a disc check! Hey, we’re not even going to bother with DRM… what do you mean we’re getting our asses kicked?” Considering the obscene rate of piracy in the PC gaming world, it makes sense that companies such as Ubisoft and Take Two are doing what they can to bring the tide down and keep the PC market viable to their needs. Ubisoft’s even gone as far as using it’s ubi.com service to backup game saves so that people can get their saves from anywhere over the internet. In short, they’re trying everything they can to take the sting out of the fact that people have to be perpetually connected to the internet in order to use their service.

Try as they might, for a discerning gamer with a bit of foresight, there’s nothing that Ubisoft can say that makes this seem good in execution.

Ubisoft’s proclamation assumes not only that its people have consistent connections to the internet when playing single-player games, it also assumes that there is always going to be a place to connect to on the other side. What Ubisoft is saying is easy to understand, but somewhat hard to look ahead to: “If you buy our games, we will allow you to use them forever, so long as you connect to us.” This is unprecedented in the video game industry when it comes to games that aren’t based online (like MMOs), but the music industry parallels are there, and they’re all bad. Walmart, MSN, Yahoo’s Music Store and even Major League Baseball have all abandoned paying customers due to either changing DRM schemes or simply at the whims of company beancounters looking to save some money. Though it’s easy to predict that it will be fine to purchase media that will work in 2010 or even 2011, who’s to say what’s going to happen down the road? Will Ubisoft honour this in five years?1

This also leads to the thorny issue of game “ownership” in today’s increasingly digital market. I’ll be thirty years old in May, and I’ve been gaming for as long as I can remember. Therefore, I’ve built up an impressive collection of games. At my last audit, I have 192 NES games. Going by Wikipedia’s listing of 793 NES games, that’s just shy of one-quarter of the NES’s collection. If I want to break out any of those games right now and play them, I can, be it Super Mario Bros. or an obscure title like King’s Knight or Raid on Bungeling Bay. I’ll be able to play them as long as my Nintendo holds out, and I don’t have to “authenticate” my copy of Ducktales to Capcom whenever I pop it in. That’s not going to be the case with these Ubisoft games, or any game that requires a consistent online authentication. If Ubisoft decides to scuttle the servers that handle the server-side authentication, will gamers have any recourse? Will there be a patch that removes the connection issue? Is there anything about this in the EULA? Will gamers even read the damn thing? Would a gamer that reads an EULA even be able to get past the legalese? Is it even a legitimate EULA, or a shrinkwrap agreement that you accept solely by opening the product? Again drawing from the music industry, considering the fact that last year, lobbyists were arguing that companies had no responsibility or expectation to provide perpetual access to protected files, I would say it’s a safe bet that the videogame industry would take a similar tact, especially when looking at the possibility of ports and remakes on newer systems. This is something to strongly consider before dropping $60 on a new PC game.1

Going deeper, there’s some legitimate security concerns about this method. What type of connection is required for this? What TCP/UDP port does it use? Is the traffic encrypted, or can it be eavesdropped by a packet sniffer? How often does a game “phone home”? Will it be enough to bog down lower-speed connections? And what, if any, information is Ubisoft gathering from your computer? Is it a simple hardware blueprint, your MAC address, any contents of your hard drive? Will Ubisoft know of the mere presence of drive-emulation tools such as Daemon Tools or Power DVD? These seem like rhetorical questions until a user is made to realize, point-by-point, how much information a company is gathering from unwitting consumers, much like what had to happen before people finally started coming around to SecuROM and StarForce. Though most of these questions wouldn’t be answered without going to the extreme of gathering a Snort log, that step would be necessary, as I don’t see Ubisoft or any other company being 100% forthright about the contents of these packets.

Ultimately, what is most depressing is that despite all of these steps, every game designer that speaks on this subject realizes that piracy is not going away, and nothing will ever eradicate it 100%. Every SecuROM game has been pirated, crackable by using an ISO writer to replace the SecuROM encapsulated setup.exe file with a new one that removes the check. In fact, some arguments have been made that the mere presence of SecuROM makes the game it’s involved in a bigger target for pirates. Every game with a CD check has been cracked in the exact same way, by reverse engineering the executable and replacing it with an executable that uses something similar. Even MMOs and other games who’s very nature requires online play have been mitigated due to private servers. The point of DRM at this point seems to be to maximize profits in a game’s first week of release, to maximize purchases before the hackers inevitably breach the game’s gates. Is it really worth it to inconvenience paying customers in order to bleed a few more purchases out of the more impatient ones? Or is it the only reasonable way for companies to make a return on their investment? This seems to be the never-ending question.

Credit must be given where it’s due: Ubisoft’s new DRM scheme is infinitely more desirable than their previous choice, the detestable StarForce. If made to choose between requiring an internet connection or being forced to install a driver that installs at Windows’ highest permission level and has been notorious for years for forcing reboots and being hard to remove, most gamers would choose the former. With that said, this doesn’t go far enough: Ubisoft’s new DRM leaves open too many loopholes that force the consumer to make too many unfair choices with not enough of an eye toward the future or the integrity of their system.

Christopher Bowen is the Associate Editor at Diehard GameFAN, and was previously a columnist at Not A True Ending. Having worked in the IT industry as a network security engineer for over five years before coming to DHGF, Christopher brings a unique, pro-consumer perspective to his work. His thoughts on how the gaming industry works behind the scenes, and how it affects the everyday consumer, can be read every Saturday at Diehard GameFAN. In addition, he writes DHGF’s weekly Nintendo and Playstation Network download wrap-ups every Tuesday and Friday, respectively. Mail Chris with any questions or feedback.


1 UPDATE: Ubisoft has put forth an FAQ, which specifically states that if the authorization servers go down that they will issue patches. That significantly helps ease my concerns about my first point. However, I still maintain that it’s not a good policy to interrupt a game in progress if the internet goes down, something that was also mentioned in the FAQ. “If you lose your Internet connection the game will pause while it tries to reconnect. If the Internet Connection is unable to resume you can continue the game from where you left off or from the last saved game.” – This seems like a crapshoot. I’ve had games that were supposed to autosave that didn’t, and I lost hours of work. I don’t see this starting well. I guess we better save often.



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