Hostile, bullheaded, mercenary, uncreative, all words that spring to mind when considering Ubisoft and EA's new "always on" PC games policies for upcoming single-player games like Assassin's Creed 2, Silent Hunter 5, and Command & Conquer 4. In order to play any of the latter three, you must have an internet connection or the games won't load. Make that a continuous internet connection, meaning the internet (and presumably each game's respective authentication servers) must be accessible at all times, not just at launch. Unplug your Ethernet cable or disable your WLAN radio (or suffer through a server crash on EA or Ubisoft's part) and the games will simply cease to function.
Sound unsettling? It is, so welcome to the propaganda phase, where publishers try to convince us their online-or-bust approach to solo-gaming offers features an offline version couldn't.
"Unlimited installs," boasts one of Silent Hunter 5's marketing points. How blithely upbeat. Except that unlimited installs aren't a bonus feature, have never been perceived by the consuming public as extraordinary, and historically belong in the "expectation" category. How bizarre, albeit predictable, that Ubisoft would try to sell us something we already consider a basic right.
"No need for CD/DVD to play!" trumpets another sell point. As if anyone complicit with the end-user license agreement (one install, one user) really cares whether the disc has to be in the drive or not. I certainly don't. Do you?
And finally, "Saved games are synchronized online." If Silent Hunter 5 were an MMO, this would be helpful. Since it's not, it sounds more like sugar-laced water from a sponge at the end of a stick. As an optional single-player feature, it might have some value--you know, for the point-one in 1000 gamers that accidentally deletes his or her My Documents folder, or suddenly loses a hard drive. But on balance, it sounds like Ubisoft flailing to come up with one more reason to justify an intrusive, creatively bankrupt anti-piracy scheme, portraying it as a gilded necklace instead of the choke collar it actually is.
That's it then — Silent Hunter 5's full upsell. In trade, you get to authenticate against Ubisoft's servers with a username and password each time you load, have to endure any updates or patches the company delivers (whether you like what they've changed or not, or care to wait for each download to finish), are dependent on their servers being available, and have to remain connected while you play. Fail any of the above, and you're dropped unceremoniously to the desktop.
Here's the trouble. In a magical, misty-eyed world where the internet works something like The Force--always there, dependably accessible--the connection thing's a non-issue. There's still the question of privacy, i.e. what sort of information Ubisoft and EA may or may not be collecting about you and your play habits, what they do with that information, and whether they have the right to monitor you at all. There's the question of user mods, which sound pretty unworkable here. And there's the issue of force-fed patches, which require you swallow any accidental or intentional developer missteps along with basic fixes--no waiting for later versions (or just avoiding them altogether) while pleading your design-related case.
But were the internet a force of nature, I wouldn't think twice about the underlying connectivity requirement, because I'd take it for granted. Like gravity, or air.
Of course, as anyone knows, that's not the way it works. The internet isn't everywhere, nor even entirely reliable in all the places it is.
So just where couldn't you play a Ubisoft or EA "permanent internet connection" game?
You actually can't play most places, geographically speaking. Forget camping trips, in cabins or campers, during overland vehicle trips or overseas travel by boat or plane. Anywhere the internet isn't--and that's still a majority of the planet--your game disc and install files will remain inert lines of code on a magnetic spindle.
But we tend not to sit for hours on end in spots like the Sahara, Siberia, the middle of the ocean, either of the poles, or the Australian Outback. What about all the urban areas that do have affordable internet?
According to an August 2009 Nielsen Online report, 74 percent of the United States population has internet access. That Ubisoft and EA's new policies would discriminate against a quarter of the populace notwithstanding, you can't sneeze at 228 million people, even if only about 70 million of those, according to a June 2009 Leichtman Research Group report, connect at speeds we'd call "broadband."
Trouble is, the internet remains an immature, inherently inconsistent service, irrespective of how many people have residential plans or which ISP they've signed with. Ubisoft and EA's latest games may require a "permanent internet connection," but the truth is, no such connection actually exists.
I've had the opportunity to use--both in a traveling and residential capacity--ISP services spanning multiple continents. And, for various reasons--business and vacation trips, wonky wireless drivers and router incompatibilities, random brownouts/blackouts, significant ISP downtime during residential moves, spotty service at airports and coffee shops--I've spent substantial amounts of time offline.
Last year, for instance, I was caught between non-overlapping ISP plans during a move. Without internet access, I couldn't access Valve's Steam digital distribution gaming service on my desktop PC because I'd elected--as a "best practices" security measure--not to store my sign-in credentials locally. Without them, Steam won't let you play installed games until you've reconnected to the internet. Let's call my reaction "nonplussed," you know, as a euphemism for "ready to chuck my computer out the window in handfuls after machine-gunning it down to Lego-sized bits."
Yes, the internet's generally there when you need it (or at least it is for some 228 million US internet users, to say nothing of potential gamers in countries with radically lower numbers--what about them, Ubisoft/EA?). And yes, for some of you this all may sound like a squall in a teacup.
But for me, it's as simple as Stardock's 'Gamer Bill of Rights' (links to PDF). Among its stipulations, one reads "Gamers shall have the right to play single player games without having to have an Internet connection." More importantly, another reads "Gamers shall have the right to not be treated as potential criminals by developers or publishers." Stardock's rationale is simple. They're not trying to be altruistic or overly generous. Those two points aren't tantamount to special gifts or privileges. No, Stardock simply listened to its customers, customers who overwhelmingly said "Please don't do this."
Ubisoft and EA haven't listened to their customers. Their plan to thwart online piracy burns off the bathwater and shackles the baby. Their cynical "permanent internet connection" policy for single-player PC games makes me feel like the criminal I've never been.
I've said it before, I'll say it again: If you can't figure out how to sell single-player games without affording customers the right to dictate the local experience--a right they're plainly demanding--maybe it's time to find another line of work.
We won't miss you.
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