Rock, Paper, Shotgun gave an excellent interview with Ubisoft’s worldwide director of all games, Stephanie Perotti,  and corporate communications manager, Michael Burke. This is an exemplary interview with a developer, where the reporter and crew asked questions we all wanted answers to, whether or not those questions made the developer uncomfortable. RPS didn’t hold back; the questions were tough, direct, and professional. Of course, it would have been nice to also hear from some of the hands on developers of various games at Ubi on the topic of DRM, but certainly talking to some big heads about what the hell they’re thinking is nothing to complain about.

I’m personally thankful to Michael and Stephanie for speaking to the community. Still, the interview generally reaffirmed my beliefs about the corrupt state of affairs. Yeah, I’m definitely jaded on the politics of gaming, but justifiably so.

The responses from Michael and Stephanie reveal the phony nature of the business end of game development. It was a lot of charades, a lot of smoke and mirrors, and some responses were just dishonest. One day they’re speaking outright lies about the effectiveness of DRM (sans numbers to back it up of course) and the next year they’re talking about how their games have a 95% pirating rate.  These business people believe that they don’t have to address the facts. It’s the reason companies like Ubisoft won’t dare speak of any numbers or statistics to back up their claims about the effectiveness of DRM. Half of the interview consisted of them ignoring the facts; they either refused to give an answer by parroting the company line or gave excuses why the answer wasn’t important (“we listened to our customers” is the favorite cop-out in lieu of admitting mistakes–better to look like liars than admit a mistake!).

I think the interview, though, ultimately reveals the failed state of business in the games industry. These people haven’t the slightest clue what works and what doesn’t when it comes to protecting their products, and for years they ignored what developers and customers were telling them right up until the moment those people stopped paying for the games. The end result? Companies like Ubisoft back off the DRM. It’s a failed policy. So why is it so hard to just say that?

Numbers and solid facts regarding DRM is something all companies guard notoriously. They claim it’s a competitive secret, but they’re all holding the exact same information which seems, from the outside, to indicate that DRM doesn’t protect their products from pirates. News at 11. Hewlett Packard conducted it’s own research into the question of whether DRM reduces or prevents piracy. Their conclusion? DRM is not only ineffective, but counter-productive. DRM does not combat piracy and other studies have even found it causes more piracy.

So why do we see companies hoarding data and refusing to admit this? The cat’s been out of the bag for over a decade.

I suspect only the obvious about DRM with games. That all it takes is one pirate to crack the game; that all of this company data indicates that customers who already pay to play are 100% affected by DRM and often it’s very negative. Another thing that seems obvious is that they have no way of measuring the impact of DRM on sales success. If more players play the game with DRM, is it due to the success of previous titles or that pirates said “what the hell” and bought it? If fewer play them, is it because DRM was successful? This simply can’t be known from merely patching in barriers to access the game, which makes arguments that DRM increases sales dubious. Finally, it’s at least extremely obvious that DRM has negative impacts on the resale market and thus thousands of players who simply can’t or won’t buy your game at full price, now can’t buy your game at any price and thus won’t ever play it.  At best, DRM merely delays pirating. See the world’s most famous gaming company who couldn’t prevent the inevitable Diablo 3 emulators and server hacks. I wouldn’t call that worthwhile especially since DRM merely harasses those who already pay. Hackers gonna hack.

At the same time, I think most gamers have no problem with the concept of protecting one’s property and with feeling entitled to the fruits of one’s labor. Yet, the only fruit that seems to satisfy is money. A developer is happier with 100 sales than with 1000 players enjoying their title for the price of 100 sales. Until they can admit to themselves that greed is part of the reason they do this, they won’t be able to take a sober look at positive ways of implementing DRM. It’s currently too money focused and good solutions are overlooked in the pursuit of the dollar. I happen to think Steam is one of the better implementations of DRM because it offers real value and services to paying customers, instead of *just* limiting their access to their product.

Companies have always under estimated the value of game sharing in actually promoting the product, even though it doesn’t net a sale. I’m not an advocate of theft or piracy at all, but when I hearken back to my childhood I remember that I never bought the majority of the games I played. If not for the goodwill of a few friends, it’s entirely possible I wouldn’t even be a gamer today. That’s the power of allowing people to share their games, whether Ubi gets a cut or not. In the long run, this brings more people into the market. Unfortunately, companies aren’t very interested in the long run, especially not in 2012 where everyone seems desperate for their financial survival. Ironic, then, that abandoning DRM is seen as essential to their game’s well-being. That’s the greatest indictment yet.

But …while Ubi is giving up the battle to enforce bad DRM the greater industry trend is toward more and more invasive DRM. The goal of most companies is to go as digital as possible, even as far as going completely digital in game distribution. And it’s entirely possible. The birth of cloud gaming combined with the nature of software licensing means a nasty stew of consumer abuse. We’ve all bought a game or two in which the box says we don’t own the game at all, that the $50 we just spent was at the companies pleasure.  If games continue the move towards pure service, it *will* become impossible to buy a game in the traditional sense.  Still, governments and consumer agencies are fighting this and I can only hope gamers will continue to challenge this. These companies don’t merely want to sell us a game; they don’t want to give us the game they sell us!

Well …thanks Ubi for coming to your senses. I, for one, am extremely grateful. Nothing hurt my gamer soul more than to see The Settlers require me to have a net connection to play. I’ve loved the series for years and that seriously had me second guessing whether you cared about my experience. Still, I’m not *entirely* selfish …I hope you guys go on to develop solutions which can truly protect your games from theft and which will enhance my gaming experience in the process, instead of harming it.

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