Watch Dogs is the latest example of a botched release on PC. It's the most recent game that launched with huge anticipation and crumpled under a stampede of excitement. It wasn't broken, but was unplayable, and left huge numbers of customers disappointed after one of the most anticipated launches of the year. It wasn't bad coding, it wasn't incompatible with a huge number systems, it came down to one thing and one thing alone, DRM.
DRM - Digital Rights Management - is a tricky beast. It's a safeguard, put in place by publishers looking to stop cheeky pirates making off with illegally downloaded versions of their games. Does it work? Kind of, but not really. But they're persisting with it in any case, locking us into needless security checks that, when they work, add in additional layers for us to pass through as we access our games, and when they don't work, renders our paid-for games unplayable. As was the case following the launch of Watch Dogs.
Ubisoft's clumsy handling of the Watch Dogs launch isn't the first time this has happened. There's been other notable examples in recent years, with the biggest culprits including Sim City and Diablo III, but there's been more over the years, such as Dragon Age: Origins. And don't even get us started on Games for Windows. But it's Ubisoft who are once again taking centre stage, and this is their story.
People have long disliked Uplay. Not only did Ubisoft have the audacity to try and move into the fertile grounds that have been curated by Valve through the Steam platform for many years (EA has tried the same trick with Origin too - but PC gamers have long been tied to Steam both emotionally and digitally, and so change is hard to usher in), but they also had prohibitive and frustrating always-on DRM policies on the platform. They weren't the only ones doing it, but thanks to their PC platform and their choice of DRM, they became the focus of much frustration.
In 2012 Ubisoft tried to draw a line under their DRM-related issue, when they scrapped the always-on requirements for games played through the Uplay platform. It looked like, for a time at least, this was the end of the matter, but old habits die hard and some bad smells linger longer than others. This week we've seen an outpour of anger and annoyance directed at the publisher following the issues many have had accessing Watch Dogs, which, incidentally, was the biggest launch in the publisher's history.
So why do companies use DRM? Well, for the most part it's an attempt to fend off the amorous advances of pirates. Not the scurvy-suffering, patch-wearing kind, but those people out there who don't pay for their games. We're not going to get judgy-pants on that issue here, it is what it is, and some people download games through torrent sites, and for a multitude of reasons. Of course it's worth Ubisoft's time making it difficult for people to steal their software, but not when that effort then gets in the way of their actual paying customers.
The reasons for pirating games are numerous. You might not be able to afford a game you really want. You might hate a particular publisher and not want to give them your money. A game could be over-priced in a certain territory. You might just not give a shit. Either way it's a very real concern for publishers. Just last week more than 100,000 people are said to have illegally downloaded Wolfenstein: The New Order. It's speculated that Bethesda may have even fluffed up the file size to make it a less palatable download, but even that couldn't and didn't detract thousands of people from easily plucking it from torrent sites.
Whatever the reasons or motivations, there's always going to be enough people who are determined to the extent that they're prepared to jump through the hoops required to successfully pirate a game and then distribute it to others. That's the internet right there, in a nutshell. People share, and there's always someone somewhere that's prepared to put the hours in to overcome any problem. Draconian DRM is never, ever going to change that, people will just work harder to get to the good stuff.
Then, if that's the case, why persist? That's the big question at the end of the day, and we can't give you a definite answer, not being mind readers and all. What we can do is observe a few, significant truths. DRM is, in some major cases, destroying the excitement and enjoyment of certain games for some of those same game's most dedicated fans, the ones who pay up front, the ones who play their money in advance so they can experience something that they're really looking forward to, importantly, on day one.
Diablo III was possibly the worst offender in this respect. Given the long wait that fans of the series endured while waiting for Blizzard to release the third chapter in the series, not being able to play the game once it had been paid for and released because the studio couldn't keep on top of server demand, well, it was a slap in the face to put it mildly.
It turned out alright in the end, as it will for Watch Dogs no doubt, with fans ultimately able to reignite their love of the series and click the crap out of demons for hours on end in the days following launch. But, it shouldn't have happened in the first place. When you pay for a game that's been released, you should, at the absolute very least, be able to play that game. You can perhaps excuse teething issues for multiplayer games, because co-ordinating PvE or PvP on a huge scale takes some doing. However, not being able to play a single-player game because you can't even log into a server to authenticate your paid-for copy, that's just plain ridiculous.
The ultimate irony is that while these paying customers are sitting at their desks, head in hands, dull eyes staring at their monitors, waiting to get online so they can authenticate their game and actually play the damn thing, the pirates, the people who these measures are in place to foil, are sitting at their respective desks, happily enjoying their ill-gotten gains, not a care in the world.
Perhaps, if DRM wasn't such a stumbling block, more people would buy their games rather than taking them from torrent sites. It might not be enough on its own to push people to what is, effectively, committing a crime, but if someone's leaning towards torrenting a game already, it's certainly enough to potentially tip the balance. Right now, if you're going to buy a huge blockbuster PC game from one of the major publishers, you can't be sure you're going to be able to play it once you've thrown your money on the digital counter. When you consider it from that perspective, it's not hard to imagine people wondering why they bothered paying in the first place and not doing so the next time (and we're gamers, there'll always be a next time).
This isn't us advocating piracy. Far from it. But if Ubisoft and other companies want to entice people away from illegally downloading their games and make them into paying customers, then they're going to have to do more than just slap down some online restrictions (that may or may not work).
Add more value to games. Make it easier and quicker for people to access paid-for content. Thank people for their loyalty, not with token gestures, but with tangible rewards. As it stands the pirates aren't getting punished in any way (and really, is there any point following that path?), and the only ones getting a negative experience out of the status quo are the unlucky ones who pay and can't play. That needs to change.