Today, Ubisoft, the publishers of Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell, Settlers and Cesar Milan's Dog Whisperer, announced a new approach to digital rights and copy protection on their PC games. It's a big deal. They're going to demand you're permanently connected to the internet so that servers back in Ubi HQ can check you're playing an authorised version.
If you don't - then you don't get to save your game. This is bad news. For PC gamers, for PC gaming in general, and, I believe, for Ubisoft themselves.
EDIT: Ubisoft statement added below the cut.
The sad fact is that PC gaming is probably stuck with some form of digital rights management forever now. Given that PC retail is fading, the vast majority of purchases are going to be made online. Online purchases come via Steam, or Direct2Drive, or any of the other digital vendors, and all of them place restrictions on how, and when, and if you can copy the game, or transfer your purchase.
Ubisoft's plan is different though. Admittedly, the DRM they're pushing offers a couple of conveniences. Once you've signed up for a Ubi account, you can install the game on as many PCs as possible. As you play, your save-games are uploaded, and made available to all your PCs, wherever they are. And, because there's online activation, you don't need to have the disc in your DVD drive when you play.
All these advantages already exist for PC gamers elsewhere. I can install the vast majority of my games on Steam as many times as I like. More and more games are offering cloud saving. I often play Torchlight, for instance, on my laptop, and my work PC. And none of the games I've bought online need a CD check. So Ubi's perceived advantages are irrelevant to me as a hardcore gamer.
The disadvantages, of not being able to play unless I'm online, are insane.
Firstly, the number-one growth area for PC hardware sales right now is in mobile platforms - netbooks, laptops, and, the industry hopes, tablet PCs. That implies that consumers are looking to take their content everywhere - their music, their documents, their movies and their games. Mobile platforms aren't ever guaranteed to have online connections.
Worse, and the reason I think this is a disastrous move for PC gaming, many of those mobile platforms are selling to new customers. They're not the PC gaming base, they're moms, sisters, grandparents. They're the ones who are going to be surprised by their games not working when they're out and about. I wasn't being facetious when I mentioned Cesar Milan's Dog Whisperer above - Ubi have made significant investment in casual games.
Second: even in a desktop environment, online connectivity is never guaranteed. Pegging your ability to play a game on connection to a server somewhere else is a recipe for disaster. Either my connection goes, or Ubi's connection goes, and my evening put aside for playing Splinter Cell goes out of the window. And there's no guarantee that Ubi's servers are going to work. PC gaming is littered with the corpses of launches and services that simply failed to deliver what they promised.
Thirdly, we just don't know what happens when Ubi turn off their servers. Right now, they're promising that they'll patch the games to take the DRM and online features out. I don't actually believe them for a second. Earlier this month, EA turned off the online servers for their 2009 branded sports titles, and there was little outcry. We've seen similar promises made in the music and film industry as DRM formats grew. When they collapsed, no effort was made to alter or patch the DRM out of purchased content. When Microsoft pulled the plug on the MSN Music Store, customers who'd purchased music with their proprietary DRM were left hanging.