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Ubisoft Learns Hitting Customers Over The Head And Calling Them Thieves Is Not Good Policy

Originally Published on Techdirt.

For many years, Ubisoft has been the go-to company for stories about DRM gone horribly wrong. They really seemed to believe that always-on DRM actually does something to stop piracy. That was followed with story after story after story of Ubisoft doing things that harm only paying customers and generally shoot themselves in the foot. You can go back over our posts about the company to see just how badly they have handled piracy for years. It really looked like the company was never going to learn the simple fact that it is more important to maximize sales than to fight piracy. So imagine our surprise when the following story came to light.

Ubisoft began making the rounds early this week, contacting a number of video game sites including Gamasutra and Rock, Paper, Shotgun and providing interviews. The purpose of these interviews? To tell the world that Ubisoft has changed its DRM ways. Much like the end of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ in which Scrooge takes to the streets to spread peace and goodwill, Ubisoft wants the world to know that it believes that providing its customers with the best gaming experience is the most important part of its new strategy.

In the interview with Gamasutra, Ubisoft’s VP of digital publishing Chris Early speaks about its past use of always-on DRM.

If you look back to early 2011 and before, we did at one point in time go with an always-on activation, for any game. We realized that while it was probably one of the strictest forms of DRM, it wasn’t the most convenient for our customers. We listened to the feedback, and have removed that requirement from those games, and stopped doing that going forward.

This is interesting because we had been complaining about always-online DRM since at least 2010 and other forms of Ubisoft DRM since 2006. However, the fact that they are actually listening to the feedback of consumers is a huge plus for them. This is a bold move for the company that decided that paying customers wouldn’t miss playing their games at all for a few days while it moved its servers.

What we’re trying to do is make [playing a game] easy for players who have legitimately bought our software, and at the same time put a registration requirement, or one-time activation requirement in, that includes some element of [software] protection.

The reality is, given enough time and effort, any game can be pirated, and many are. But what we’re looking to do is validate the customer, then provide value to that customer for registering their software.

This is exactly what many customers have been asking for and many other successful companies have been giving. This idea that providing value to paying customers is a better way for success has been one that companies like Valve, Stardock and CD Projekt Red have known for years. But this lesson on DRM is not the only one that Ubisoft has learned.

Ubisoft also seems to have learned some very important lessons about piracy in general. Specifically, that not all people pirating a game are doing so just to get free stuff and that not all pirated copies are a lost sale.

I don’t believe that every single pirated copy is a lost sale. In some cases I’m sure it’s just someone trying out a game. At some level, you can almost look at it as a demo program. So as far as many of those could’ve been sales? I’m not sure.

In general, when people talk about piracy, there are all kinds of reasons cited, whether it’s because of an economic imbalance, where people can’t afford to buy a game in that particular [geographical territory], or it’s a challenge, or it’s someone who doesn’t believe in supporting publishers by giving them money. There’s a whole variety of reasons. That’s why we want to focus on the rewards and benefits of owning the software.

This is another idea that other companies have known for a while, that piracy is the result of under-served customers. By focusing efforts on making the paid option more attractive than the free options, you can capture more sales than if you spent your time trying to stop piracy.

Over at RPS, They didn’t go quite so easy on Ubisoft’s representatives. RPS asked many times for a statement on just how bad its DRM was for paying customers and whether Ubisoft had any regrets, but all RPS ever got were whitewashed PR statements.

RPS: Do you acknowledge that always-on DRM has been extremely damaging to Ubisoft’s reputation?

Burk: I think that, as Stephanie said, I think this is where that feedback comes in. We’ve obviously heard from PC customers that they were unhappy with some of the policies that we had in place, and that’s why we’re looking to make these changes – why we have been implementing these changes, as Stephanie says.

RPS: Would you be willing to say that it was a mistake?

Burk: No, I wouldn’t say that. I’ll let Stephanie say what she thinks, but I wouldn’t use those words. This is a process, and we listened to feedback.

Perotti: I would say the same.

This attitude of not wanting to admit to any mistakes while still making this sweeping change in policy has the potential to leave a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouths. While the company is no longer hitting their customers over the proverbial head, they have not yet apologized for those actions, at least not out right. A good apology could go a long way in smoothing things over with their past and future customers — though perhaps just the act of changing and admitting to the change is a form of an apology for many.

Over all, this is a great move by one of the last hold outs in regards to video game DRM. While many other companies still require some form of DRM, none were quite so bad as Ubisoft in that regard. Hopefully, this change of heart will echo throughout the gaming industry and all developers will abandon efforts in the futile fight against piracy and instead focus on maximizing sales through added value for their customers. Ubisoft has a bright future ahead of itself on this path and I wish them all the best of luck.

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