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From Dust, DRM and Why Ubisoft Can Only Blame Itself

Players are furious with the publisher over its handling of From Dust on PC. They should be.

Those three dots are Ubisoft's forum moderators. That wave is made up of Reddit commenters.
Those three dots are Ubisoft's forum moderators. That wave is made up of Reddit commenters.

What the hell, Ubisoft? Just a few weeks ago, everything seemed so simple.

"Ubisoft lied to us. The DRM requires you to have a constant internet connection, when they explicitly said this would not be the case."

"The DRM on this ass nugget is hilarious. I suggest you all get the fucker taken off. Stop slaughtering this game Ubisoft."

These are just a few comments pulled off From Dust's Facebook page, as fans take Ubisoft to task.

Ubisoft's DRM policies for PC games are handled on a case-by-case basis. The rationale behind each decision is sometimes difficult to figure out, but at the end of the day, it's Ubisoft's right to swing one way or the other, just as it's the right of PC customers to complain about the policies Ubisoft enacts. And complain they have.

Up until today, we were under the impression From Dust wasn't supposed to have DRM. Just a few weeks back--my email from Ubisoft is dated July 28--the company said From Dust would be an exception to the always-on Ubisoft DRM rule.

"I can confirm that From Dust will not require online connection to play the single player campaign and challenges," said company spokesperson Alex Monney.

Hackers were able to take down Ubisoft's login servers, a move done out of DRM protest.
Hackers were able to take down Ubisoft's login servers, a move done out of DRM protest.

This would be different than Ubisoft's handling of another upcoming Ubisoft product coming out on the PC, Driver: San Francisco, which would require an Internet connection to boot up and a constant connection to keep playing. Vocal concerns over this type of DRM, principle aside, stem from an incident where hackers brought Ubisoft's authentication servers down, stopping some users from playing Assassin's Creed II. This DRM was then stripped in favor of an online login. After that, no online connection was required. This altered DRM found its way into newer PC releases like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.

Still, Ubisoft hadn't settled on a consistent policy. Maybe it considered From Dust special; a new game from Out of this World developer Eric Chahi isn't something players would be as likely to torrent. Ubisoft has consistently cited piracy and DRM's effectiveness as the driver behind its DRM policies.

"[We have seen] a clear reduction in piracy of our titles which required a persistent online connection, and from that point of view the requirement is a success," said an unnamed spokesperson to PC Gamer last month.

On one torrent search engine site alone, there are nearly 2,000 players downloading a "cracked" version of From Dust. Piracy would happen anyway, but it's easy to see how much of that would be fueled by From Dust unexpectedly having DRM.

It doesn't help that, by all indications, the PC version is coming up short in a bunch of other areas, too: the frame rate is bizarrely capped to 30 frames-per-second and the camera control hasn't been optimized for a mouse.

"We are aware of some confusion over the inclusion of DRM in the release of From Dust on PC," said the company in a statement on the official Ubisoft message boards.

That would be an...understatement.

"To prevent any on-going confusion we would like to clarify From Dust PC will release with DRM requiring a one-time only online activation," continues the statement. "After which you will be able to play the game offline."

It's sort of "one-time only."

"After you have signed in and the game is running, you no longer need the internet connection for that session and can disconnect and play offline you so wish," said the company.

The key phrase here is "for that session," whereas Ubisoft's original statement suggested "no sessions."

Besides the DRM issues, the PC version has a capped frame rate and poor mouse controls.
Besides the DRM issues, the PC version has a capped frame rate and poor mouse controls.

Technically, Ubisoft has some wiggle room from its original statement. You don't need to be online in order to play the singleplayer or challenge modes, but you do need to be online to access them at all. It's a frustrating splitting of hairs. Given Ubisoft's communication issues with DRM in the past, however, if that's what it really meant, it should have been more upfront from the very start. It's not like players aren't used to this stance before.

"When we first introduced the connection requirement last year, we stated that our decision to implement it into our PC titles would be considered on a case by case basis and this remains true," said Ubisoft representative Dominic DiSanti last month, when I asked about Driver: San Francisco's DRM. "We will assess each future PC title and strive to offer the best gameplay experience possible while also ensuring that we are protecting the amazing work and effort of our talented creative teams."


PC gamers have a point when it comes to fears potential servers woes could prevent them from playing, but I'm sympathetic to the profound effect piracy's had on PC gaming, and I'm hard pressed to find too many instances where someone would find themselves without a connection.

That said, Ubisoft has no one to blame but themselves for this situation. It's not like its consumers haven't been actively asking for clarification on the DRM issue. The reason most of Reddit's gaming section has been flooded today with stories about From Dust's DRM is because the users feel lied to. If there's anything Ubisoft should have learned at this point, having gone through this combative cycle several times before, it's to be upfront. Consumers may push back, they may bitch to the heavens, but Ubisoft could say "We told you what to expect."

In that respect, Ubisoft failed.

Some users around the Internet are claiming Steam is offering refunds to upset users over the DRM. I've contacted Ubisoft about this but have not heard back. If you've managed to secure a refund, let me know, but when I submitted a customer service inquiry to Steam about the possibility of a From Dust refund, a representative basically told me it wasn't possible:

"As with most software products, we do not offer refunds or exchanges on games, DLC or in-game items purchased on our website or through the Steam Client. We will make an exception and refund preorders as long as the request is received prior to the release of the game. This only applies to preorders purchased from your account, preordered titles received or sent through the Steam Trading system cannot be refunded."

For now, PC users will continue raging. And while I think they're being a tad hyperbolic, they have a point.

Patrick Klepek on Google+