Monday, March 8, 2010

Ubisoft proves piracy pays

Computer software publishers have a problem. Ideally, they want to get as many people as possible to be able to purchase, use, and enjoy their software. But, because a computer program is a set of digital instructions that can theoretically be copied indefinitely, they want to ensure that the only people who are using said software are those who have paid for a legitimate copy and not just copied the bits.

As time and technology have moved on, companies have tried more and more aggressive methods of protecting their product to try and prevent people from using an unpaid copy of their programs; and those who circumvent those methods, the "pirates", have become more adept at defeating those methods and distributing the fruits of their labors, i.e., free, unprotected versions of the software.

Where I've noticed it a lot lately, since it's my hobby, is in the realm of videogames. EA had been taking a lot of bad press for implementing what were seen at the time as tight restrictions, limiting the number of installations and requiring their games to re-authenticate with an online server every few days before allowing any play. Other companies have had their own DRM schemes that people seem to alternately complain about and accept as the cost of doing business, whether it's the "stealth" install of device drivers like SecuROM that try to authenticate your disc or the requirement of logging in to an online-enabled account.

The current bad boy of DRM, though, is Ubisoft, who has one-upped the DRM policy on their newest game Assassin's Creed 2 by having the game require authentication with their servers not just on installation, nor periodically at launch, but continuously during game play. If the game at any time loses its connection to the server, it immediately kicks the player back to the main menu, causing the player to lose any in-game progress since their last save (a problem exacerbated by the fact that the game apparently doesn't allow you to save at any point, just at designated checkpoints).

Even the most cursory analysis reveals several fatal flaws in this approach. First, requiring an internet connection at all means taking this game traveling (or attempting to use in a home without an "always-on" broadband connection) is pretty much out. Second, home internet services are not 100% stable. I've had my Comcast cable internet connection drop during an online gaming session within the past month — briefly, but long enough to kick me out of the Xbox 360 gaming session I was playing at the time. Third, users on a wireless connection are even more prone to interference that can disrupt their connection. Again, I've had my wireless router hiccup more than once in recent memory. My PC doesn't usually take too long to reconnect before I'm surfing off to the next web page, but if I happen to be streaming a video at the time, then restarting is typical. That's an extremely minor annoyance in web surfing; but if it meant losing progress in a challenging videogame where I've struggled to reach the next checkpoint? That goes way beyond "annoying" and well into "return game for refund" territory.

That alone should cause people to hold a tea party in protest. (Keep in mind that this is a single player game, something one would rather expect to play offline.) But those issues only address the customer's side of the connection.

This weekend, Ubisoft's DRM servers went down, which meant, no matter how stable your own internet connection was, the game was completely unplayable. No one who owned the game was able to actually play it, because the game couldn't contact Ubisoft's incommunicado servers.

Except, of course, if you pirated it. See, the DRM, much like any other DRM in existence, was cracked within days of the game's release. (Most of the time, it's just a question of whether the crack is going to be released after or before the game itself.) And those who pirated the game were playing a version that did not require contact with Ubisoft, and therefore were completely unaffected by this fiasco. (More or less; the crack is still in progress in that a user can launch a game without the server, but there are still issues when the game attempts to check during play. It appears to be more of an issue with Assassin's Creed 2 than with Silent Hunter 5, which has a similar scheme but "phones home" less frequently.)

The problem, which has been noted time and time again and is summed up nicely in this recent Penny Arcade comic, is that companies like EA and Ubisoft attempt to combat piracy by implementing stronger measures to force the software to only work when they want it to. However, these stronger measures not only completely fail to deter pirates (who often have a cracked version of the same software within the same week of the product's retail release), but they also drive potential paying customers away — frustrated by these "piracy protection" measures that effectively prevent them from playing the game they legally purchased, they will either not buy the software, or they will seek out the pirated versions themselves, which offer a superior product by not failing to work when some irrelevant criteria check fails to pass. The companies take this increase in piracy as a call to action to combat it with even stronger DRM measures, pushing more people to piracy to avoid them.

And sadly, it's the law-abiding, paying customers that lose.

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