Friday, March 12, 2010

Games as a service, and why I want companies to stop giving me inferior products

Ubisoft DRM.  Much has been said about this topic recently, and I can't help but express my own frustration with the bumbling attempts by publishers to dissuade honest paying customers from picking up their products.  For the two people that aren't familiar with the DRM scheme that Ubisoft implemented in recent games, it works like this: To play one of their PC games, you must be connected to the internet at all times.  If you are ever disconnected, you cannot play and when the connection goes back up, play resumes from a predefined check point.  Let's say it's a stormy day in your neighborhood and the internet is a little flaky.  You might pop into the game for 30 minutes, lose your connection, be dropped from the game, then be reset who knows how far by the time your connection resumes.  This scenario sounds somewhat familiar, as it is how many MMOs operate.  The problem is that Assassin's Creed 2 is a single player game, the kind meant to be enjoyed by a person on their own time, without requiring a connection to the internet.  Got a laptop but no wi-fi hotspot to play?  Better find a different game.

The problem with the DRM schemes being implemented by these publishers is that they are eroding the value of not only their own games, but of all PC games.  At which point do I, as a customer, give up on PC games entirely because I can't trust that the game will work.  If you want me to rent your game, stop trying to charge 50-60 dollars for it.  I honestly think that someone with a stonger will and a copy of these games should consider a lawsuit, as I think this type of scheme violates fundamental use rights that consumers should have.   Microsoft, which charges more for their products and stands to lose a lot more from rampant piracy has figured out a way to authenticate software in a non-obtrusive manner.  As many people have pointed out, pirates inevitably figure out a way around whatever scheme is put into place and they enjoy the game no matter what.  I feel confident that their ranks swell every time they run into one of these DRM schemes.  It's hard enough trying to figure out whether or not your computer can run a PC game, let alone having to jump through the additional hoop of having limited access to the game.  What makes the entire situation even worse is the complete inability to return PC games.  In essence, publishers are saying "Here is a game you might want.  Buy it and play it when we tell you to, and if you have any problems, we are keeping your money anyway."  That's terrible customer service, and a surefire way to turn away people that may otherwise be interested in a well made game.  The development team suffers as well, because they are either unwittingly convinced that the DRM will somehow sell more copies or they are forced to implement the system because a producer or executive was afraid of the entire world stealing their game.

I feel strongly that DRM is a generational issue.  Once the teenagers of today become executives, I think a lot of the misunderstandings about why people pirate things will be made clear as the digital age grows up.  The editor of Wired magazine wrote an entire book on the concept of digital goods wanting to be free, and while I found myself to have a more conservative view of this topic than I expected, I am gradually coming to terms with what a free future will mean.  One important point he makes is that kids growing up today believe digital goods should be free, and we reinforce this idea with websites like YouTube, free to play games, and "pay what you want" music albums.  While this whole topic makes me grit my teeth now, I take solace in the fact that, at least for this part of the world, it will be a better place in the future.  Either that, or I'll stop playing PC games.

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