You remember how panda bears entered the dark future? Or the anti-usability award 2008? In case you`re not: It was all about the copy protection methods of publishers trying to get rid off the software piracy. We all know that it didn`t turn out the way it was intended: E.g., a lot of people who honestly bought games with the SecuRom copy protection could not play their games because some hardware or software issues came in between (remember the GTAIV PC version?!). Well, some publishers learned their lesson and now advertise their games with features like “Mass Effect 2 uses no SecuRom technology” (Source: Amazon.de).
On the other hand, there are still publishers who try to come up with a “better” DRM or copy protection method. One of these publishers is Ubisoft introducing their new always-online DRM for PC games with Assassin`s Creed 2 and The Settlers VII in the next weeks called Online Service Platform.
So what`s the deal? The idea behind the copy protection is easy: You have to be online to play. If you`re losing the online connection during play the game will pause automatically and only continue if you go back online. Even more, savegames will be stored online. Of course, there are some benefits like playing the game without disk or installing the game on every computer you want to. Sounds a lot like Valve`s Steam platform but Ubisoft is going a bit further with the need to be always online and not only at the start of the game.
From an user experience perspective this system might lead to some problems. Here are some of my thoughts:
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 killer 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.
Personally, as a former developer I am well aware of the software piracy problem on the PC gaming market and see the need for a copy protection system. What I don`t understand is to build a system based completly on the idea of being always online. Everyone`s personal internet connection is something neither the users nor Ubisoft can control and that`s why my guess is that this system won`t last long.