Opinion: Ubisoft, piracy, and the death of reason

Maginot Line

Last week, Eurogamer examined PC piracy in an attempt to discover how much it actually harms companies, and the effects of different approaches to DRM. Unfortunately, as the PC Gaming Alliance's Christian Svennson admitted up-front, you can't really quantify the problem or the efficacy of its remedies "because you end up having to do a set of cascading assumptions that you have no real ability to validate in any meaningful away."

However, Ubisoft provides a test-case. We are almost two years into its aggressive attack on PC piracy. Recently, Ubisoft called its "always-on" DRM a success , claiming "a clear reduction in piracy.”

In terms of actual sales, however, the results seem decidedly mixed. Michael Pachter told Eurogamer that Ubisoft's "PC game sales are down 90% without a corresponding lift in console sales."

Pachter framed the problem in terms of piracy, as I'm sure Ubisoft frames the problem, but a 90% decline in PC sales is a catastrophic number. If piracy were the problem, then their "successful" DRM policy should have prevented such a free-fall.

Instead, PC gamers have stopped buying Ubisoft games. In fact, the decline of sales even calls into question the decline in piracy rates. All we know for sure is that Ubisoft have stopped people from playing their games. Full stop.

Ubisoft is committed to blaming piracy. It's become an emotional issue. Here's what the developer of Ubisoft's Driver: San Francisco said before the game came out: "It's difficult to get away from the fact that as a developer, as somebody who puts their blood, sweat and tears into this thing... And from the publisher's point of view, which invests tens and tens and tens of millions into a product - by the time you've got marketing, a hundred million - that piracy on the PC is utterly unbelievable."

I understand the outrage. It's frustrating to see people enjoying your work without compensating you for it. But outrage can't drive policy. The important question is, "Why aren't more people buying my product?"

For answers, let's look at Rock, Paper, Shotgun's enthusiastic review of Driver: San Francisco. Alec Meer liked the game quite a bit: "It's Quantum Leap meets Deadman, with more than a touch of Life On Mars, but... what's important is that the game declares it is essentially one man's fantasy up front, which means whatever it decides to do is absolutely inarguable. Moreover, that one man believes he is the greatest wheelman in history, so the fantasy panders to that and builds its rules around it."

Sounds great! Except before I get to that amazing pitch, I encounter the following observations:

  • Lousy graphics options, requiring adjusting videocard settings
  • No support for 16:10 monitors
  • "The net result on a high-res PC screen is a bland and outdated-looking game..."
  • "There's no sense that love has gone into Driver 5 on PC, just a game that's been uncaringly dragged over..."

The review goes on to give me a dozen reasons why I should buy it, but it's also given me a half-dozen reasons not to . It ends with a reminder that the DRM has an unreliable offline mode, and I need a connection to launch it. Not a major problem for me, but it raises the likelihood of annoyance down the road.

I'll buy Driver: San Francisco. But not now. I'll wait until it's heavily discounted next year. My gaming budget isn't so generous that I can afford to pay full-fare for bad ports, and bad ports, delayed releases, and harassing DRM are what define Ubisoft's approach to the PC.

Pachter told Eurogamer, ""[There's] no public data to suggest that DRM works, but the fact that more companies are imposing it strongly suggests that they believe it works." Nobody can estimate how many sales are lost due to piracy. The studies that do exist show that pirates tend to be steady customers . But despite the lack of solid evidence, the problem has to be piracy. Because the alternative is to acknowledge that Ubisoft has badly damaged its PC business and completely failed to convert pirates into paying customers.

Perhaps DRM does have a place, but Ubisoft has tried harder than any other publisher to solve this problem, and business has suffered. It may well be that piracy is not what ails them, and the secret to selling PC games is to make quality PC versions of multi-platform titles. But you don't hear that from Ubisoft. What you hear is that they have the right to protect the products that they worked so hard to produce.

And they do have that right. But PC gamers work hard for their money, too, and they deserve full-featured games that let them have the best experiences possible on their chosen platform. They deserve a publisher that cares more about its customers than its resentments.