The day I realised always-on DRM moaners have a point

Thursday, 8 September 2011 07:23 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Ubisoft and Blizzard have angered many in the past year by insisting PC gamers maintain an internet connection during play, but I’d always been on the fence. Until this week.

I am going to bore you with the details.

I went to Sweden last week to see Battlefield 3 at DICE. On the way back, our flight was cancelled thanks to a fuel leak, and we had to sleep in a converted mental institution in Stockholm before heading to London the following day. This fucked my connection back to France, so I bought a new flight from Southampton for the morning after, travelled down to Brighton with Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell and spent the night at my sister-in-law’s flat.

I’m talking to my wife on Skype that evening, and I can hear the thunder in the background.

“It’s a big one,” she says. We live on the Massif Central, and we get some hectic weather. Storms bring electrical failures. There’s a click and she vanishes, before calling my mobile to tell me the internet really does appear to be broken.

“No worries,” I say, assuming it’s just a case of turning it off and back on again. “I’ll sort it when I get home.”

Only I can’t. The data light on the router’s flashing piss-take red. I call Orange; so many people were hit by the storm in my department, I’m told, that I won’t see an engineer until Wednesday. This is Friday, so that means six days without any main connection at all.

I’m forced to concede that I judged the “always-on” moaners too harshly.

“No worries,” I say to myself, and turn my Android mobile into a wireless hotspot. It works. Twenty minutes later I get a text from SFR telling me I’ve exceeded my data limit for the month and I won’t be able to access the internet through my phone until Thursday.

“No worries,” I say the following day, and go to an SFR shop in Limoges, 50 miles away, to buy a French 3G stick. This all happens to plan – apart from the bit when the assistant clearly assumes I’m hitting on her with my terrible French – and I walk away with a mobile internet connection.

Except it doesn’t work. I am kind of worrying now. My wife spends half an hour on the phone to SFR before being told it’s going to be at least 24 hours before the new SIM’s activated.

And there we are. I’m offline. And when the stick does start to work it’s flakier than a corn flake factory’s bi-centennial fucking corn flake festival, and it can’t keep me connected for more than 15 minutes before doing the stupid red light thing.

The games bit
Aside from being a monumental pain in the ass from a business sense, I am now unable to play certain games, and I’m forced to concede that I judged the “always-on” moaners too harshly.

One of the hottest news topics in games in the past year has been that of some companies insisting PC gamers remain connected to the internet when playing single-player content.

Ubisoft has been the main culprit in gamers’ eyes with the requisite being central to its so far cack-handed efforts at PC DRM, but Blizzard recently came out of the closet with plans for Diablo III: you won’t be able to play the action-RPG at all unless you’re constantly online.

Capcom, too, has dabbled in the system, and id is now publicly a fan.

I have to be honest; I always roll my eyes when people kick up a stink about this stuff, mainly because, until this week, I had a reliable internet connection. I’m regularly being told that large swathes of the European and American gaming markets have flimsy lines with slow speeds, but I’m all right, Jack. I now know better.

It’s obvious that internet-specific games such as MMOs shouldn’t be obliged to provide offline play, but isn’t it clearly questionable to insist people are online to play a single-player game? Before last Saturday I didn’t care, but now I fully understand how infuriating it must be for those with shoddy connections to be forced to endure constant interruptions to play, or worse, to not be able to play at all.

Offline games are not online games.

Offline games are not online games. We have to assume that some people buy single-player games specifically because they don’t want to play online for whatever reason. The always-on demand is largely being foisted on the PC games market because of piracy – the same has rarely been asked of console games – but I cannot believe that Ubisoft, a company that has clearly invested a great deal of time and energy into creating a DRM system that’s as bulletproof as it can possibly make it, couldn’t come up with a suitably secure one-off registration check.

Blizzard demanded only a one-off registration for StarCraft II. It sold well, but it was heavily pirated. We all know the Ubisoft story with its always-on DRM: yes, it’s bound to curtail piracy, but at what cost?

Sales? They can be recouped. Gamers’ hearts and minds? Not so simple.

I’m writing this on Wednesday night. The engineer came today and said France Telecom will need to fix the main box outside my house for me to get back online. That might happen on Friday. Might not. For all the “might nots” in the gaming world, I can only hope that the increasing trend towards always-on DRM reverses sometime soon.

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