Feb 27 2010

The real Ubisoft story isn’t AC2

OK… I probably won’t release any games in the near future because my development computer died hard. Too bad for me. I’m now using an old laptop, and while I can run my IDE it’s like trying to sprint while waist deep in water. Since I write Flash for fun… I’d rather mostly just not deal with it until I save up for a replacement. In the meantime, for the sake of having content, I’m going to occasionally post my thoughts on stuff in the wider gaming world.

Ubisoft made a stir recently with the announcement that the soon to be released PC version of Assassin’s Creed 2 (AC2) would have DRM which requires the player to be online for the entire duration of play. Of particular note, the game is reputed to kick you out of the game and take you back to your last save point if your internet connection drops while playing. This appears to be a first step towards thin client single player games– MMOs are generally thin client, they take the player input, send it to a server and then the server tells the client what happens next. MMO’s are also resistant to piracy for this reason… you have to have an account which the server recognizes before it will let you move your spaceship (or Nightelf, or whatever) around.

Although there are ‘grey shards’ and private WoW servers, for the vast majority of players the whole reason to play an MMO is to interact in at least a minimal way with the other players. It’s intuitively obvious that there needs to be a server to mediate, and no one is bothered by an MMO requiring a constant net connection.

Single player games… not so much. Here, there’s no obvious benefit to the player for requiring a constant server connection. The game isn’t streaming data so that it can be a larger world than would fit on a DVD. There’s no interaction with other people to mediate (in single player mode). And many people just don’t have reliable or always on internet connections to begin with. And of course, some people don’t like the idea that they won’t be able to play the game 2 years from now if Ubisoft shuts off it’s validation servers, a concern made extremely plausible by EA shutting down the multiplayer servers for several recent releases just last month.

But AC2 is a AAA title, with a huge marketing push. It’s going to sell a lot of copies, we’re going to be hearing about it for months. Lots of people are going to buy it off retail endcaps on the basis of cover art without having ever read a thing about it. AC2 selling 1 million copies (for the PC) in its first month will not be proof that consumers will accept this style of DRM, nor will 4 million pirates* be proof that they won’t.

The real story will be Silent Hunter 5 (SH5), also by Ubisoft, also with some form of this new DRM system, having no meaningful large scale marketing, set for release in … well, sometime in March anyways**.

SH5 is not a AAA game, it’s a submarine simulator– a niche game with high production values.  In the hit driven video game market, this should have been a safe, modestly profitable venture- the $5 million dollar film that will take $15 million at the box office worldwide, rather than a $100 million gamble. The competition is Ubisoft’s own products– SH3 and SH4***, which are almost 5 years old at this point. Much like the flight simulator fans, the sub simulation players take to these games rabidly, making after-market patches for years after the game is released to increase realism or tweak UIs. These aren’t hyper 13 year old kids, they’re wargamers– guys who watch the History Channel, read submarine captains’ memoirs for fun, and can tell you all about how quality control failures at the plant which made the magnetic detonators for American torpedoes affected US submarine effectiveness in the Pacific.

While I don’t think the average release day buyer of AC2 will attempt to play that game in 2012, these guys will still be playing in 2015. If the validation server is still there, anyways.

AC2, being a console port, the player can reasonably expect to reach checkpoints every several minutes. In an engrossing simulation, saves can be hours apart. I know I’d be upset to lose hours of progress because a moose decided to eat a junction box 3 streets over. In a key paragraph in Neal Stevens’ preview of the game, he describes what happens when he unplugs his cable modem. (The game keeps running for a few minutes, then pauses.) What happens next, what point the game recovers to isn’t made completely clear.

So are the hard core fans upset? On Subsim.com, a forum where the average active thread gets around 100 comments, the thread discussing the proposed DRM has over 1600 comments , and a thread with a poll asking if the DRM will affect purchase has another 500+ text responses alongside 1200+ votes. (Like all internet polls, it’s not exceptionally well worded and has a horrible self selection bias, but 61% chose ‘I’ll wait for UBI to remove the online DRM’)

Ubisoft isn’t stupid. They’re selling this online requirement as being additional features. The saves will be safe and incorruptible. In exchange for constant online presence, Ubisoft won’t perform a check to make sure the original DVD is in the drive. There will be no limitation on installs… players will be allowed to log in and use their save from any computer. And Ubisoft promises “If any [validation] service is stopped, we will create a patch for the game so that the core game play will not be affected.”

I don’t know how this is going to end up playing out. Ubisoft can’t ignore the hardcore sub players any more than the Microsoft Flight Simulator team can ignore the guys who buy add-ons and participate in virtual airlines. Submarine simulation hasn’t been a hot genre since Gato and Silent Service in the mid-80s, and it’s unlikely anyone but Ubisoft is going to spend the money to build from scratch a WWII submarine simulator with the realism the subsimmer’s demand. The hard core fans need this game to be a success for the genre to survive. Either the fans will cave in and buy the game despite the DRM, or Ubisoft will back down signaling the end of this particular DRM strain. Either way, what happens with this game is going to be more important in the long run than whether AC2 sells 800k copies or 1.2 million.

-TF

*- Despite constant online being the new evil DRM solution to piracy, what reports are out suggest that AC2 has a large “analog hole”, in that a local copy of the save gets retained. If that’s the case, there will no doubt be a no-server crack within a few days of release. See the comments to Jeff Vogel’s take for more.

**- Seriously. The game’s product page at ubi.com says March 2, Gamespy says March 20th, a couple of random sim sites say March 4th…

***- SH3 (2005) was a u-boat sim, and SH4 (2007) simulated American WWII submarines.