Log et al – Peter Curd

An irreverent peek into the inner rumblings of Peter Curd



DRM and me – The problem with The Settlers 7

By pcurd

This morning I happened to notice on Steam that there is an update for the Settlers 7 out and I thought to myself, wow did I miss the release?

I’m a big fan of the Settlers series and I own all of them from Settlers 1 (which I have on floppy disk somewhere) through to Rise of an Empire, the sixth game in the series, which I own on Steam.

Although there have been shakey moments in the francise, the fifth game The Settlers: Heritage of Kings tried to be too much like Spellforce without capturing the essence of RTSRPG for example, Settlers games have always been fun to play.

So with much excitement I did a quick search.. nope, Settlers 7 (Paths to a Kingdom) is not available on Steam.. must be one of those regional locks which annoys me, considering The Settlers is made by Blue Byte Software, a German developer. Why does the US get it first? It’s published by Ubisoft – a French publisher!

So I decide to check out Ubisoft’s download page to see what the price is and there I find it. Well, I find the US page anyway. After some more searching I find the UK page – except it’s from GamesPlanet. But whatever, it’s got a Ubisoft logo on it.

£34.99 is a reasonable price for a new game, don’t even get me started on the “electronic copies should be cheaper” debate, so I start to check out what’s in this edition, after all the US copy is the Gold Edition and only £5 more. The feature difference isn’t important but I do notice one thing I’ve been secretly dreading all this time. Ubisoft’s DRM package (Digital Rights Management).

I’m sorry, I mean Ubisoft Online Services Platform. That sounds so much less Draconian doesn’t it? What it means is that I must be online 24/7, connected to Ubisoft servers to play The Settlers 7. Not just to play online, or just to syncronise my achievements as in Dragon Age:Origins or Mass Effect 2, but to play. Well what happens if I loose my connection whilst playing, oh well Ubisoft pauses my game and – and this is important – does not let me play again until my connection is restored.

I cannot play without an internet connection. Does that not sound entirely stupid? I want to play on a train – nope, not allowed. I want to play with my wifi turned off to save battery – nope, not allowed. I want to play on my sofa where I get slightly shoddy wifi – not a problem, oh but if your wifi dies then you can’t play, and maybe it’s just me but the Online Services Platform FAQ even suggests that I will loose progress if I loose internet connection: “If the Internet connection is unable to resume, the server will have stored your last saved game and you will be able to continue from where you left off once your internet connection is restored.” My LAST saved game? That could be hours ago! Even assuming they have autosaves, I am going to loose progress if I am unable to get my connection back. Am I the only one to read it this way?

What if I want to go to a friends house and show him my AWESOME new game that he has to buy, The Settlers 7. Oh, he doesn’t have broadband so I can’t play. Oh well, he’ll just have to download the demo at work, bring it home and .. no wait, what’s the point. Without internet access he cannot play! At all.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely behind the video games industry on it’s stance against piracy – it must be reduced. Piracy is killing the PC video game market. Every year we PC gamers get less and less titles to play and it’s almost always down to the reduction in income that video game companies get from PC sales. Namely, they have to sell the games cheaper because otherwise people won’t buy them and they sell hardly any copies. This is a story from 2007 on the BBC about the threat to the PC gaming market that we have now seen happen, here is a frightening statistic from Gamasutra that 92% of all copies of Ricochet Infinity were pirated (92%!) and that’s a casual game which traditionally provide exceptional time for money ratios, an article from GameCritics quoting Crytek’s president Cevat Yerli saying that Crytek will no longer make PC only games because of the rampant piracy and an article from Game Daily quoting Peter Moore of Microsoft explaining why Madden 09 is not on the PC – I’ll let you guess why. (Pssst: it’s because of piracy, although he softens the blow by saying that people want to sit 10 foot away from sports games, which is also a factor)

I understand that something must be done, I whole heartedly agree that 92% piracy is ridiculous and the 92% of players who pirate a £14 game should be ashamed of themselves. That gives Reflexive (the developer of Ricochet Infinity) £1.12 per copy they actually sell. Frighteningly low.

What I object to is the idiotic, totalitarian overresponse we are beginning to see in Video Game DRM. Ubisoft is the first to face my wrath but I doubt it will be the last. What does DRM do? Well it causes honest customers pain as they find their new shiny DVD doesn’t work because the rootkit it uses to assure itself it’s not a copy is not compatible with some combination of hardware in the machine (note to game publishers, PC’s come in unlimited combinations of hardware you know!), it causes software bloat as more and more tools have to run on the PC just to assure the publisher that a legitimate copy is being used and it causes malcontent as drivers must be updated, anti virus software must be made aware of the tools and negative publicity is generated. What does it do to the pirates? Nothing, their copy doesn’t have any DRM in it because it was stripped out by the ripper. Sometimes a tool has to be run to fool the other tools but ultimately it’s almost always a smooth experience because the rippers are in competition with each other and loose “cred” if their rips are not easy to use.

So it’s better, from a playability front, to run a pirated copy. How did the publishers let this happen! How did they let their own systems make it more appealing to use a pirated copy of their games?

We have always seen a similar problem with pirated DVDs, the FBI warnings and the unavoidable trailers and the other faff that gets in the way of the movie are removed by the pirates so their products just work – you pop in the DVD and you’re watching a film. Of course, most pirate copies are lower quality than the originals, even if just a little. Sometimes they have features removed. Not so the modern Video Game pirate copy. No longer are long cut scenes stripped out because most people don’t even burn the images of pirated games they aquire to physical disk any more. There is no loss of quality. Sometimes the addon packs are integrated in ways that the publishers should take note of to actually improve the quality. I’ve heard of pirated games coming prepatched as well, usually to take advantage of a flaw in the patch but still, it’s an addition that the retail copy does not have.

Digital Distribution (like Steam, Impulse and Direct2Drive to name a few) has mitigated this to a large degree as now my games come prepatched and are easy to install and run. As I mentioned above, I have issues with the pricing structure but I can’t argue with the service. The last few games I have bought on physical media I now regret not getting through Steam. Having to have the disk to hand to play is a major pain in the backside. Of course, if I had pirated I wouldn’t have had that problem either.

That leads me to the big – in fact only real – advantage of Ubisoft Online Services Platform, you do not need a disk to play. Fantastic, now on my netbook with an external DVD drive I don’t have to have twice the desk space to play, finally I’ll be able to play properly on a train! Oh, now wait, of course I can’t because I don’t have an internet connection! It’s hardly a bonus removing one slight pain to introduce another HUGE pain. I don’t have to pay to use my DVD drive in a coffee shop! I don’t have to consider where I go to play with a DVD drive like I do when I’m tethered to an internet connection. It’s no bonus at all! Anywhere I could have an internet connection, I could have a DVD drive. The other features like online storage of saved games are offered already by many games on many services – Steam has a fantastic cloud storage system which I wish more games used as part of it’s Steamworks platform. The rest I use DropBox or Windows Live Mesh to syncronise saves together anyway (although I am a more technical user than most, this is a very simple process). And if I’m worried about syncing saves together, as is a selling point of Ubisoft’s Online Services Platform, doesn’t this mean I have multiple PC’s? One of which is likely to be a laptop? Which means I can’t use the game anyway, because I’m bound to the Internet connection requirement again!

There are some good examples of publishers who can get this right, Bioware and EA did a great job with Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. There are niggles with their system, Project 10 Dollar is beautifully evil but does not reduce my ability to play, only to resell the game. And this is not a problem for a large share of PC gamers who are used to not being able to easily sell their games again due to the DRM systems already in place across multiple publishers and of course the reduced cost of PC games in the first place. With Dragon Age: Origins, there is a good link to your “EA Account” which makes available a lot of content from machine to machine, however not saves, including download content and achievements. This is backed up with the Bioware Social Network which gives me an incentive to purchase as well. Although the Project 10 Dollar content has been cracked and you can pirate Dragon Age: Origins and get all the content I had to pay for, including I understand some of the prepay content I was unable to get as a paying customer (as I could only prepay in one place and am therefore limited to their own prepay content), there is still a difference between the pirated copy and the non pirated.

Of course, it’s a small difference and I doubt it convinced many hard core pirates to buy the game – but will that market ever buy games? Another Gamesutra article includes a discussion with Stardock and 2D Boy about their experiences of DRM. Ironically, it talks about Ubisoft’s softening of DRM practises which it seemed to be doing in 2009. I’m a big fan of Stardock, I think Galactic Civilizations 2 is among the finest 4X games out there and their approach to games is very refreshing. Their Gamer’s Bill of Rights is very interesting every year. A quote from the article of Ron Carmel of 2D Boy speaking about 2D Boy’s lack of DRM: “I’m convinced that we lost very few customers because of piracy,” he says. “People who pirate the game are people who wouldn’t have bought it anyway. I don’t know anyone who would try to find a cracked version and, if they can’t locate one, they say, ‘OK, since I can’t find it for free, I’m going to go out and buy it.’ I just don’t think that happens.” Stardock have an aversion to DRM too, and through use of Impulse, their own Digital Distribution platform they have influence over other developers and publishers too.

My point of view is simple:

If I want to buy a game it should be easy for me to do this.
The price should be reasonable.
There should be little or no reason for me to want to pirate the game.

If a publisher follows this guideline why would I want to pirate? Alright, I’ll always save money if I pirate and you’ll never stop the pirates totally but producing a compelling reason to purchase is a good idea, making it so that if I do purchase I have one hand tied behind my back and a rubbish experience, like The Settlers 7 promises, I just won’t play. Then who wins? I can assure you, I won’t go out of business first.

Some related stories from around the web:

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2 Responses so far

Great post.

This is somewhat reminiscent of a problem I faced last year on the 360 where I couldn’t use any downloaded content during a time I didn’t have an internet connection due to having bought a new console and the content being associated with the original console.

Sure, the fix was eventually simple, as I just needed to connect my console to the internet, follow some simple steps to to rights migration and then download the entire content I’ve ever downloaded again, but that still took a couple of hours and it’s hardly possible taking a 360 to a coffeeshop to use the internet!

I am fully supportive of Project 10 Dollar. Mass Effect 2 has done it brilliantly.

DRM is making life difficult for those that buy games; anyone who wants to download the game illegally will normally find a way around it anyway.

I agree on the DRM issues.

Being a Gamer effectively all my life, it’s pretty easy to see that company’s are shying away from the PC platform, but that isn’t solely due to Piracy.

Piracy is definitely a part of the problem, but another problem is that as consoles are getting more and more powerful in both graphics and processing ability, developers seem to be less likely to want to bring out things on the generally more finicky PC’s (so many hardware configurations).
Add to that the fact that Consoles are both mainstream and affordable, PC’s are looking to get left in the dust as a gaming platform, except for those games that use a Mouse and Keyboard, which are mainly RTS’s and FPS’s, and that could change soon given the uprise of pointing device on consoles. (at least Nintendo and Sony)
That certainly doesn’t mean Multi-Platform releases aren’t feasible, but that’s generally going to be Microsoft titles.

On the DRM front, I believe SKIDROW has cracked the UOSP for Assassin’s Creed II. Apparently for great justice.

And Project $10/Sometimes-$15 is reasonable, but that doesn’t give company’s the right to charge you for a game disc and then also charge you for some maps that are on that disc you already bought. That is bull.

It’s also wrong of developers to make a game, cut out a few of the level, and then sell them snipped levels back to you at extra cost as DLC. WRONG.

Anyway, better shut up now, before this turns into a blog post in itself.
– XW

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