In the past days there has been a lot of buzz around the new SimCity game. Sadly, the buzz is less about the game itself (although there seem to be some other issues as well) but more about the awful always online DRM the game introduces. After a rough start in the US due to problems with the server availability, similar problems occurred during the European launch, although Electronic Arts promised they would be better prepared in this case.
And Electronic Arts is not the first publisher who incorporated always online DRM in their games. Three years ago, I wrote a blog article on basically the same topic, but with another protagonist: Ubisoft. They introduced their always online DRM with the Settlers VII and Assassin’s Creed 2 – and guess what happened? They fell flat on their face and stopped the DRM, which – until then – was one huge user experience failure for the honest customers.
Back then, I wrote down some thoughts why always-online DRM / copy protection will fail. Turns out they still apply today:
1.) Not everyone is always online. Most hardcore gamers / heavy users have flatrates and are permanently online during play. But believe me: There are still (casual) gamers out there who play games on systems without a permanent online access. Suprisingly, they might even want to play on a laptop system while travelling.
2.) Wireless LAN is great fun if it works fine but due to the increasing growth of inner city networks and number of access points there is a real wireless network smog around. Depending on your hardware and the density of networks around your home it is not unlikely to lose your wireless lan connection for a few seconds until your signal is found again. These might be short breaks of only a few seconds but I cannot imagine some better killers of immersion and flow during gameplay than a pop-up message of the copy protection telling you that you lost your connection.
3.) Server accessibility. Well, even the best servers go down some time. Or your local provider has some connection issues. The consequence will be the same: You cannot access your singleplayer savegames. You cannot start your game. It`s already a bad issue if that happens to a game which is free to play. But it`s an epic fail if people pay 50 bucks for a game and cannot play the singleplayer campaign (!) because somewhere a server went down. I already experienced a Steam server downtime during a launch day. No fun at all, believe me.
4.) Longtime server availability. What happens if it turns out the game doesn`t sell well? Or people will stop playing it? Servers get shut down after a while and your game won`t be playable anymore. Of course, the publisher might fix this via patch – but there are enough cases of games which were abandoned completly.
5.) Legal customers are the ones who will suffer. It`s a general problem of every error-prone copy protection system: It`s the people who legally buy the game who will face the problems. It might be the software pirates hacking the copy protection who will be the ones facing less problems than the legal customers. It happened in the past and it might happen to Ubisoft`s system, too. If it does, it`s hard to explain to the legal customers.
I sincerely hope that Electronic Arts will abandon the always-online DRM sooner than later. Until then, I won’t buy a game with the DRM and strongly recommend to all other gamers to do the same.