Restrictive DRM Makes Buying Games Unappealing

On Tuesday February 7th Ubisoft plans to start some work on their servers. As you could probably imagine, that’s going to leave the online multiplayer component of most of their games unusable until the work is done. Unfortunately, for PC gamers the single player component of some of these games will be down as well.

PC gamers will completely lose access to Tom Clancy’s HAWX 2, Might and Magic: Heroes 6, and The Settlers 7. Mac gamers will completely lose access to Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell Conviction, and The Settlers. When I say “completely lose access” I mean the games won’t even work in single player mode. That’s right, if you bought any of these games on the PC you won’t be able to use them until Ubisoft is done working on their servers, and they haven’t announced exactly how long that will be. All of these games include Ubisoft’s always-on DRM and once the servers go down, that DRM won’t be able to check in to verify your game, and if it can’t verify your game the DRM will lock you out of it.

Before I go any further into this story, let me stop for a second and say that I understand why publishers and developers feel the need to add DRM into a game. A lot, and I mean A LOT of time, money, and effort go into producing a video game, and from the perspective of the publisher and developers the concept of losing sales to piracy is frightening. There’s no way to stop piracy completely, but if DRM helps to curb it, then there’s an incentive for the devs and publishers to include it.

While I understand Ubisoft’s point of view here, they’re going about it the wrong way. DRM hasn’t stopped people from pirating their games, but it has made things difficult for their paying customers.

I bought a copy of Might and Magic: Heroes 6 a couple of months back, and I’ve had frequent problems with it. Sometimes I fire it up, and everything goes just fine, other times I fire it up and the Conflux servers are down so I can’t get into the game I had been playing the last time I logged on. Sure, there’s an “offline mode” but a lot of the game’s best features are stripped out, along with my game saves. Had I chosen to pirate the game (I wouldn’t do that, but let’s pretend) I wouldn’t be faced with these problems – I’d be able to launch the game, and play without worrying about Conflux issues, or server maintenance.

By using extremely restrictive DRM Ubisoft has made buying their games less attractive than pirating them. The game actually functions worse when bought than when pirated, and as a result, the pirated version of the game becomes the more appealing version.

Publishers and developers need to explore different avenues for protecting their games. By adding hurdles for the paying customer they’re just encouraging piracy instead of hampering it. They need to make the legitimate version of the game more attractive than the illicit version.

I’d love to see games that reward the paying customer for their loyalty and support. Ubisoft has already proven that server checks can be built into the core of a game, so why not use those checks to reward the player instead of punishing them? Instead of using that tech to lock down the game, developers could easily use it to deliver something extra to paying customers – perhaps some sort of online stat tracking functionality similar to that found in Battlefield 3’s Battlelog, or maybe a steady stream of small pieces of free DLC.

The proper reward for the paying customer is going to vary from game to game, but no matter what the method, developers and publishers need to reevaluate their DRM strategies. Going too far down the “punish the paying customer” path could ultimately wind up bolstering piracy, and that’s bad for everyone.  These companies need to see a return on their investment in order to justify producing the next game they have planned, and discouraging piracy will help to draw in that money, but they have to do so in a customer friendly way. Continuing down the path of restrictive DRM just makes piracy more appealing.