Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The Real mistake Ubisoft made, and why they did all this…

Yes, so Ubisoft put very tough, over-the-top DRM on Silent Hunter V. Its not exactly news. And some people say it’s cracked (I suspect not fully) and other disagree. Yada yada.

I don’t know whether the DRM was a mistake or not. And frankly, neither do you. There is only one person in the world who knows, and that’s ubisofts accountant. They used DRM because they thought doing so would make them more money. My own investigations suggest that it won’t, but their audience is not my audience. their budget is not my budget, and only they can see their figures. It may well make sense for them. Sure, a lot of ANGRY INTERNET MEN will post in 400+ comment threads about how they were ‘ass-raped by the stalinist scumbags’ at ubisoft, but 400 people are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the market size for AAA games.
The reason they did this is because piracy on the PC is a big problem. For EVERYONE. Gamers and developers alike. Just before posting this, I typed ‘gratuitous space battles’ into google, and saw two of the most popular searches are for ‘torrent’ and ‘rapidshare’. Thanks guys, you are the reason DRM exists. May I recommend the free demo?
Pirating COD 4 makes more sense than pirating a submarine sim. How many other sub sims are there if ubisoft throw their hands in the air and kill the franchise?

I may not know if the DRM was a mistake, but I’m pretty sure they made another one. A big one.

I am 40 years old. I am a hardcore gamer. I have some disposable income. I’ve read about the silent hunter games for years but not bought one yet. I’ve watched a youtube video that makes the game look cool. I am a world war II nut, who recently read churchills account of the war in the atlantic…


And yet I haven’t bought the game yet. Why?
Not the DRM, I’m online all the time, don’t resell my games as a rule, and don’t get too annoyed by it. Why then?
There is no demo

How the fuck do ubisoft think I’m going to know if I’ll like the game when…
1) All discussion of the game online is polluted by arguments about DRM and
2) There is no way to demo the game.


20 thoughts on The Real mistake Ubisoft made, and why they did all this…

  1. I didn’t buy the game either. The sole reason for this was the DRM. I was really looking forward to it, but now I have no intention of buying the game until they remove the need to sign up for an account with them.
    I don’t care if it’s free or yadayadaya! Why should I have to give them any of my details? They take my money and give me an awesome game in return. It’s as simple as that. They don’t need to know what my e-mail address is, whether I’m male or female or my age or anything like that. All they need is my money, which I am quite prepared to give them in return for the game.

    Take note Ubisoft, I will not buy any of your games that require me to sign up for an account or keep a constant internet connection. I’m sure I am far from alone.

  2. Demos, and word of mouth in general, are (I think) a difficult proposition for a company making AAA games. It costs money just to make the demo, and it doesn’t add to the value of the product, so that expense needs to come out of your advertising budget.

    The problem is that, once you put the demo out there, you have *no control* over the message it sends. Advertising with gameplay videos gives you a lot more control over what someone sees before they buy. Even worse, you have to QA the demo to make sure you aren’t showing people bugs that don’t exist in the real game. That isn’t even getting into the fact that a current demo for a AAA game is probably ~1GB, which for most people is well past the time limit trying it on an impulse grants.

    I would bet that the accountants looked at it and decided demos aren’t the most effective use of a limited advertising budget. You can see that in the history of games, demos almost went just about extinct about the time that games became a “big business”. That’s because they got accountants in to help them figure out the most effective way to turn their giant piles of money into gianter piles of money.

    You, as an indie developer, have an almost opposite value proposition. You can’t afford to buy TV spots that are worth having, nor can you take out ads in print magazines. I would bet that G4 charges a hefty penny to feature gameplay videos unless your game is already ridiculously popular. Also, you’re a game programmer, not an advertising expert. Between all of these facts demos are likely one of the single *most* effective uses of your advertising budget.

    All that said, I miss demos too. There’s something very personal in the implicit message of “I think this game is so great it can sell itself”. I can understand the economics behind the decision, but on a personal level I think it sucks. That, to me, is the true beauty of indie development: the freedom to make decisions with business and personal values on at least equal footing.

  3. Similarly, they keep delaying the PC version of their multiplatform games.

    If you are so concerned about piracy, why don’t you do a better job of supporting the platform where piracy is most prevalent.

  4. In response to the comment by CountVlad;

    I personally don’t mind signing up for “free” accounts if there is some sort of value-add given in return. I point to battlefield 2142 as an example. In order to play that game, you were required to create an EA account which kept track of your progress, stats and unlocks. For those playing an online game, that was an important and necessary part of the game play. This also went a long way in keeping the game from being pirated. Your CD key was tied to your online account. I’m not saying it was a perfect system, and I’m sure you could go out and pirate the game at some point, but it made purchasing the game a lot easier than running through hoops pirating it. That said, EA still had a SecuROM disc check system in place for no apparent reason!

    I also agree with the need for a demo for a game. Surely the expense is justified. That said, a game like Silent Hunter can be an extremely complex simulation and I’m sure that it’s very difficult to get the nuisances of the game across in a demo format. For complex games such as these, sometimes producer walk-throughs and other video highlights might be sufficient to make the sale and show off a better feature set than you can see in a downloadable demo.


  5. “There is only one person in the world who knows, and that’s ubisofts accountant.”

    He doesn’t know either.

    He can compare the money made by other, less-DRMed games released around the same time (though not if they’re made by another company, because the public sales hit-parade numbers are probably about as reliable as the famously faked Top 40 music charts). But there’s no way for him, or for anybody else, to know whether any given DRM, or promotion, or even game-design, decision was a good or a bad move. Not even to a very approximate degree.

    If games were things with reasonably homogenous appeal, like episodes of a TV show, then perhaps you could make some well-educated guesses that actually told you something about how well your promotion has been working, how many customers were driven away by DRM, how levels of piracy changed, et cetera, especially if you only changed one variable at a time. I suppose there are a few games, like the endless series of Madden football games, that are a bit like that.

    But games in general are actually only about as homogenous as pop bands. (And even then, there are vast differences in genre. You probably also need to look at jazz bands, symphony orchestras, community choirs… I suppose indy developers are buskers… :-)

    Ordinary games often sell very well, excellent games sometimes sell very badly, and nobody can actually say why, because several readily-quantifiable variables both under and out of the control of the game publishers and programmers change for every new game. It’s the same as those idiots on the TV news saying why the DJIA dropped 3% today; they make some shit up about how a threatened bus-conductor strike in Osaka and concerns about the Large Hadron Collider possibly destroying Jupiter clearly impacted investor confidence, but they can still apparently make better money by talking into a TV camera than by exploiting their amazing knowledge of day-by-day market behaviour. Because they don’t actually have any such knowledge. Because in almost all cases, there are too many variables for anybody to really analyse the situation.

    The only way to tell what a given single change, like nastier DRM, really does to a game’s sales is by doing it, and nothing else, differently in a parallel universe.

    If you’re stuck in one universe, all you’ve almost always got to go on is the shifting sands of ad-man BS.

  6. @RedBrain: I don’t have anything against being able to sign up for an account, but what I do object to is being forced to create one to play what is largely going to be a single-player game.
    As for the demo, I agree that it’s very difficult to get across a game like Silent Hunter because it is a sandbox game essentially. Maybe what they could do is try doing a deal with a company like TryGames to give you a couple of hours play time of the full game and after that you have to pay for it. But I guess if you found you didn’t like it you would’ve wasted several hours worth of bandwidth downloading it.

  7. Not to say that the quality of silent hunters keeps dropping each iteration after sh2.

  8. I agree with you Cliff on Demos. I use steam a lot and I always check out a demo of a game first, if it’s available. For games that don’t have demos, and as for RedBrain’s comment on SH being too much of a sandbox game to demo proplely, there exists one good option for those that sell via Steam or other online distributors. Steam often allows 1-3 day trials of games, often with a preload option. After that period the game is still installed on your puter but it’s locked out. If you like it you can buy the game and continue from where you left off. This needs to be done more as it’s not too often that I see this used.

    But yes, gamers need to be able to demo in some form or another, the product they are going to buy.

  9. @Adam: well said.

    Some of my best gaming memories came from my subscription to PC gamer back in the 90’s…waiting for that cd loaded full of sparkling new demos all grabbing at my attention and my dollars. I don’t think I’ve ever bought so many games as I did back then. Maybe demos are why.

    It just seems like you can trust a demo even more than you can trust some guy’s review of a game, you know?

  10. I can tell you exactly why Ubisoft uses DRM.

    The question is not whether or not DRM helps Ubisoft’s bottom line in this moment in time, but whether a strong DRM system helps them in the undefined future. The reality is that publishers are worried about the future, and worried about hackers in that future. If they can create an unbreakable DRM in the present, it makes their prospects for the future look a lot better. All you need to do is look around the internet and see the large numbers of people who revel in their ability to pirate whatever they want, combined with excuses to legitimize their piracy as completely moral. It’s extremely disconcerting to see that kind of thing. If muggers loudly proclaimed their ability and their right to mug anyone they want at any time, then lots of people would start running to the gun shop (even if guns didn’t necessarily make them safer, or increased the possibility of gun-accidents). Similarly, the outspoken and widespread piracy pushes developers and publishers into a position of demanding DRM systems that can withstand the attacks of these kinds of people. Here’s an recent example, where Digg users try to justify pirating music that benefits Haiti.

    Reading the comments in these kinds of articles makes me pessimistic about the future of software development, and humanity in general. While I tend to think of people as being basically good, it makes me think that there are plenty of people who are subconsciously greedy. This causes them to construct excuses for what they really want, thereby maintaining a fiction that they are good and benevolent, while constructing rationalizations to allow them to get what they want at the expense of other people. (I actually find that a lot of real-world problems could easily fit into that model.)

    I’ve seen these same excuses used earlier in 2009 involving some other charity music (look up italian earthquake victims charity piracy). It seems that there is a neverending list of excuses for piracy – even when the money goes to help victims of natural disasters. I have no doubt that this drives companies to constantly try to produce an unbreakable DRM — there’s a feeling that pirates are a large, growing, and recalcitrant group that can’t be reasoned with. The only “safeguard” is locks on the software.

    That said, I think game companies completely drop the ball when they don’t release a demo for their game. That’s just absurd.

  11. We all know that digg readers are a bunch of ignorant testosterone fuelled kiddies with a born sense of entitlement to everyone else’s hard work, but that arrticle still shocks me.
    So kids would pirate music thats released to raise money for earthquake victims, and then hurl abuse and threats at people who point this out?
    It just makes me thankful that with Gratuitous Space Battles, I’ve managed to create a community that not only enjoys the kind of games I like making, but appreciates that making them costs money and that it’s wrong to pirate them. I’m eternally thankful for that!

  12. The one thing that sticks in my head whenever the subject of DRM and copyright infringement turns up, especially in the context of AAA titles and publishers, is that, in the entire 30+ year history of this industry, nobody has ever had to pay anything at all for a computer game. Ever. (*)

    Which is to say, that the current state of the industry exists, in spite of, or because of, the fact.

    *: I concede that it’s not strictly 100%. There certainly exists a small minority of computer gamers who have neither the technical wherewithal to acquire their own illicit copies of games, and also lack the social wherewithal to acquire the friends to pass them illicit copies of games. I would suggest however, that that minority is vanishingly small.

  13. Companies don’t care cliff, you should know that by having worked in the games industry, it’s not just ubisoft with their nasty DRM.

    Look what happened to Supreme commander 2 on release, lots of people cancelled their pre-orders because the demo was so bad. Companies want the cash from the disappointed fans and the way to milk those people is to not have a demo.

    I have to give respect to GPG for having the balls to make a demo right before release, even though their game has lots of bad stuff in it compared to the first one.

  14. Oh the irony!

    So Cliff, as much as you hate pirates, will you just never play SH5 (unless they somehow figure out making no demo was a mistake, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that), or will you still *try* it using illegal methods?

    I know I won’t even bother pirating it, as I sure wouldn’t buy it if I liked it (as I can’t afford the $50-60 price range, which usually translates into 50-60€ (!!) ), so I’ll have to wait untill they lower the price , and I guess thanks to their DRM scheme, buying it used wont be an option, but will *you*refrain from trying a potentially great game just because they didn’t want you to try before you take the decision?

  15. I won’t pirate the game under any circumstances. Even if I genuienly thought that was defensible and justified because i was demo-ing it, I’d be helping out people just stealing games by uplaod bandwidth or earning them ‘points’ at some of those pathetic leeches that call themselves ‘anonymous file hosting services’.
    I’ll just play other games…

  16. Oh crap, you have a point there I didn’t think about.

    Now I’ll feel guilty for demoing game, or wont be able try out most of these new games. Thanks for the dilemma Cliff.

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