Ubisoft is right, but for the wrong reasons

Citing 95% PC piracy rates, Ubisoft seems to be quitting the PC games market. The problem with games piracy statistics are manifold: Nobody actually knows what the piracy rates really are (though they seem to be likely to be on a par with console piracy rates – probably – since there’s certainly no shortage of console games piracy), and there are other factors involved like release-timing, product quality and pricing that all play their part.

Ubisoft’s PC versions of their games have become increasingly so slapdash and cack-handed that it isn’t really surprising that PC gamers simply don’t want to buy them. I don’t have to tell you that this does not make for a good business model for the PC games market, but someone should probably tell Ubisoft.

Of course, it’s possible that Ubisoft is already well-aware of that, and simply doesn’t care; that this is all a bit of a dodge to avoid spending the sort of money required to deliver quality games to PC gamers.

The From Dust fiasco comes to mind. After Ubisoft declared that PC gamers wouldn’t need be online to play From Dust – because all of the problems with Ubisoft’s online DRM scheme were making customers sour – well, it turned out that they did. It took some weeks for Ubisoft to correct that situation.

But even so, this hotly-anticipated title from the Ubisoft stable received tepid reviews because the PC version ended up being pretty rubbish in any case, precisely because it looked like nobody at Ubisoft gave a damn whether the game was even playable. Having the patience of a saint and the endurance of a stoic aren’t really the kinds of prerequisites you want to demand from your customers. Games – even yes PC games – are supposed to be fun, and not gruelling endurance trials whenever you pop open a menu, and want to get some proper use out of your mouse and keyboard.

Ubisoft have done less and less over the years to make the usability of their PC versions of games… well, usable, dumping arcane and difficult-to-navigate user-interfaces in front of PC gamers and requiring complex and confusing invocations to do the things that PC games from some other publishers seem to do so effortlessly. It’s like nobody at Ubisoft cared whether people would actually like the games enough to pay AAA prices for them, and guess what? Increasingly few gamers apparently did.

From experiencing this years-long progression personally, I’d say that there are barely any of the publisher’s titles for the last three years that I’d even buy as a $5 special. It’s not that the games aren’t good as games. It’s that they’re just so frigging awful to use on the PC.

That psychological grime also contaminates my other purchasing decisions. The terrible flavour of Ubisoft’s PC games doesn’t make me likely to buy console versions of those same games, should the opportunity come up.

Honestly, I’m mostly troubled by Ubisoft’s apparently fallacious reasoning for its exit from the PC games market, more than the fact of its exit. Because, unless Ubisoft were to lift its own game and make the PC versions of its games more … well, playable, then Ubisoft simply cannot exit the PC games market fast enough, in my opinion.

Leave the market to someone who might do something worthwhile with it.

11 thoughts on “Ubisoft is right, but for the wrong reasons”

  1. This is a total win for PC gamers, Ubisoft games are rehashed crap over and over again, I stopped buying them after the original FarCry, they put out 1/2 finished games full of bugs, and never finish fixing the bugs, then blame their customer base for their failures, this company needs to just die, I for one am glad to see them exit the PC market.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly, and this has been told to the game manufacturers for years now. Blizzard is among the many who began pushing their games (from DiabloII/LOD onward) to a small subset of fanatics, making the game completely unenjoyable to the casual gamer.
    Garbage releases, unfinished titles pushed out in what I can rightly call “beta” format, requiring endless tweaks, patches and updates to even approach the release quality of the games that made PC gaming a hot market, crappy drivers, reduced manuals (depending on the other users to fill in, flesh out and communicate) and stupidly trying to make games some kind of “cinematic experience” that looks terrific (if you can actually get it to not crash, blow your video drivers or reduce graphic levels down to minimum) but completely sucks for gameplay.
    There’s many articles online from both dedicated gamers and old-school game programmers on why most games suck today. A game is a game and if the story sucks, the action sucks, the interface sucks and the pricing model for a beta product sucks and badly-implemented DRM breaks the game, no one buys them. Companies would prefer to look everywhere but themselves for this market problem.
    The other dirty little secret is that such companies count real piracy with “online piracy” when they know as well as anyone else that the problem is Chinese/Taiwanese duplicating factories. It’s also the fact that often a pirated copy will work better than the authorized copy. I have “pirated” games myself that I have purchased legally because those versions play without the trouble of the cd/dvd copies. When you have a situation like that, it is the fault of the companies and their marketing, not the consumer.
    As an ex-avid gamer who pumped hundreds of dollars or more into the gaming economy, I agree with you: there’s hardly a title now a year I am interested in playing, even at $5, because it’s more liable to bork my system, mess up my video drivers and install some spyware/malware/bad DRM for some pretty-in-a-screenshot, unplayable mess.
    If I want a movie experience… I rent or buy a movie. This situation is no one’s fault but the game company’s. They also like to count “lost sales” in with piracy when the facts are that people have voted with their wallets and like me, quit forking over 50-60$ for a craptastic experience.

  3. Ah, yes. Thankyou for reminding me, Miso!

    Most DRM systems that I can think of for PC games cause the game performance to degrade, and sometimes to crash or abort unexpectedly. A very few have actually caused hardware damage by messing with drivers and firmware for optical drives in weird ways.

    Faced with that, some people turn to downloading pirated versions of the games that they bought just to get an improved gaming experience. That’s a risky road for a games-publisher to push customers down, because at some point they might think about skipping the purchasing phase entirely.

  4. It’s a pitty that Ubisoft has so many great franchises. Except for those few great franchises, I’m pretty sure that the gaming world would be better off if Ubisoft went out of business.
    They’ve proven to be myopic, incompetent and extremely ‘snobby’. I really hope that they fail, because otherwise that’d send a rather worrying message to other publishers.
    I’m increasingly finding myself very very unwilling to pay 50$ for a game that’s less polished and sometimes even less content-filled then either a 19.99 indie title or even some free games.
    But as long as there are enough fools who’ll pay 60$ every single year for a recycled version of Modern Warfare it’s going to be hard to get publishers to spend money on making “good” games when it’s easier and more profitable to make a horrible game and then spend a few million on marketing and hype.

  5. I’ve made this argument before. That piracy is often just a good excuse to stop supporting the PC platform, whether consciously or not. Valve has made the argument over and over that the best way to fight piracy is to provide your customers with the best experience possible. Give and they will give back. And it has worked remarkably well for Valve. Their games sell incredibly well on the PC. Their fans are fervent supporters.

    Publishers are slowly diverging into two camps, it seems like. 1) that you either create an online-only PC game so that you can strictly require the game to be purchased in order to play. And 2) to simply stop developing for the PC market altogether, because it is a nest of piracy.

    Ubisoft has had the attitude that the PC market owes it something. They’ve created some of the most draconian DRM schemes on the market as though the PC market should just suck it up and buy their games even if they’ve been singled out for excessive monitoring simply because someone ELSE, someone who ISN’T THE CUSTOMER may otherwise get the game for free.

    It’s amazing the lengths that a publisher will go to in order to prevent a ‘lost sale’ that may have never been a sale to begin with. If they want to alienate an entire market because they’re terrified that someone will get their game for free, that’s their business. I will never understand it.

    After all, if they make a cross-platform game and it sells 10 million copies on the PC (which Ubisoft has no problem managing), that’s still 10 million copies they otherwise WOULD NOT have sold. Even if 20 million people are playing their game for free because they released on the PC, they focus on the 20 million ‘lost sales’ rather than the fact that they actually generated 10 million sales.

    So they would rather deny themselves 10 million copies worth of profit in order to ‘fight piracy.’ Doesn’t seem like sound business sense.

    And then, because they are in paranoid-defensive mode, they blame the PC market and continually cheapen their support for the platform, investing less and less money into actually providing their customers with a better experience and more and more money into DRM that /objectively/ has a negative impact on experience while failing to port their games adequately.

    And then they blame the PC market again for lashing out against them. Guess what Ubi, you’re not going to find much support amongst your customers when your answer to your piracy problems is to screw your paying customers over in your little battle with the internet.

    Sigh. I’m ranting at this point. But yes, I agree.

  6. @Tateru – you pointed out one of the reasons a “pirate download” may not be a lost sale – a copy with the DRM removed is simply a better version of the product, even if you also bought a “legitimate” copy. Another reason is some people want to try the game out before buying it. $50-60 is a fairly large investment for a game, and it is quite reasonable to want to find out if it’s any good before paying for it. So for these reasons, any statistics about number of pirated copies cannot be equated to lost income that would otherwise be sales.

    As you rightly pointed out, people who never intended to pay for the game are not lost sales. But as products like Call of Duty series show, make something people want, and they will gladly hand over billions of dollars in sales.

  7. It is impossible to account for the ratios, but there is definitely a portion of some significance in piracy which cannot be attributed to actual lost sales.

    1) Replacing lost Media. If a person loses or breaks/damages a CD/DVD, then they may download a new copy to burn. I’m actually not sure if this is legal or not. But it doesn’t matter; someone in this instance is pretty unlikely to purchase a new copy of the game, and they shouldn’t have to. It certainly isn’t unethical, and it’s not a lost sale as they’ve already purchased the game before.

    2) Bypassing DRM software on legally purchased software. Although efforts have been made to make this illegal, again, it certainly isn’t unethical and doesn’t contribute to lost sales.

    3) Gaining access to software that is not available or not supported due to region. This is less of an issue because of digital distribution, but even then, they don’t operate in every country. In many parts of the world, the cost of importing a game is prohibitive. If you aren’t selling your game in Taiwan, then it’s not exactly a ‘lost sale’ if they pirate it. If you want sales from Taiwan, you need to actually sell your product there. You can’t cite ‘lost sales’ in an area you weren’t selling to, as an excuse to penalize people within the market you operate in. It just doesn’t make sense.

    4) Pirating software you can’t afford. This is where things start to get ethically murky. There are arguments back and forth about concepts such as living inside your means and whatnot. But the point isn’t to deal with the ethics of piracy, simply to point out that if a person cannot afford to purchase a game, and pirates it, then the publisher was never going to get a sale from this individual. He was either going to play it for free or never play it. The act of piracy neither costs the publisher money nor disrupts potential profit. Thus it’s not a ‘lost sale.’

    5) Piracy as a means of demoing a game. I think most people who have a modicum of internet/software savvy have done this at least once. You see a game that looks interesting, the reviews are mixed, none of your friends have played it, there’s no demo, and you’re not sure you want to throw down fifty or sixty bucks for the thing. So you grab a pirated copy to see if you like it.

    (This leads to an ethical quandry, of course. Even if you like a game, now that you have it for free are you more or less likely to pay money for it? I think the answer is most certainly the latter. People will craft excuses to convince themselves that there’s a good reason they don’t want to pay full price for a game, while they cheerfully play it for free. But I consider the burden of this problem shared at least in part by the industry. Prices are as high as ever while standards of quality are going down. Demos are provided infrequently and when they do exist, they’re often cherry-picked from content, putting a best foot forward only to yank the carpet out when you realize that the rest of the game is half-assed. I for one am much more likely to purchase a game from a trusted developer without some kind of demo experience. Sadly, trusted developers are few and far between.)

    The question really is this; if you could completely eliminate piracy, would sales go up, or would they go down. There are so many factors playing into this it’d be impossible to speculate with any certainty. Piracy can lead to sales that might not have occurred otherwise; word of mouth is a powerful thing. It can act as a kind of free advertising for games that are worth the money they ask for. Piracy also keeps developers somewhat honest, in theory; if you make a shitty game and pay off the major review sites you can get a decent review score. Nobody wants to piss off EA by giving one of their games a crap review. What it comes down to is that people will not pay money for a crap game. But given the chance they may play it for free. If EA wants to throw a fit about that as though it’s ‘lost sales’ then really they’re just throwing a trantrum over their lost opportunity to swindle their customers.

    I would argue that, given equal ‘difficulties’ in pirating the software; good games, well made games, games that treat their customers well, tend to have reduced piracy figures. Bad games, poorly made games, games that treat their customers like criminals, tend to have heightened piracy figures. A smart developer/publisher knows that you can’t eliminate these figures. Not completely. The trick is to offer incentives; cooperative play, multiplayer play, online features, free DLC with a legit serial number, access to better and more frequent support. If you provide these things, people will pay the money for the better experience. Valve has turned its entire business philosophy from one that is product-based to one that is service-based, and it has worked remarkably well for them. People pay good money for good service at a restaurant, and the same is true with games. But it doesn’t matter how good your steak is if you spit on the french fries.

    Ubisoft, rather than putting effort into making better games and treating their customers with greater respect, has opted for door number two: making the act of piracy prohibitively difficult, thus reducing the accessibility of pirated versions of their games to the average user. And also reducing the quality and accessibility of their product for paid users. Which simply encourages more piracy when those solutions become more accessible than Ubisoft’s DRM. Which all seems very backwards, to me. But then, I’m not a multi-million-dollar company with profits on the brain.

  8. It should be possible to provide a statistical estimate of the relationship between illicit downloads and actual lost sales. It’s not going to be easy. Just by making all the fuss they do, people such as the MPAA and RIAA encourage people to lie, or refuse to answer. It makes getting useful data expensive, because you have to somehow assure the people selected as the sample that you’re not a shill for an anti-piracy organisation. And on-line self-selection isn’t going to give you good data to analyse.

    You do get some of the same problems with surveys on sexual behaviour. People need assurances of privacy, and sampling can be misleading. The Kinsey reports had a sampling problem. More recent surveys better represent the whole population.

    There’s a problem with piracy figures which doesn’t affect every survey. The people with the money don’t want to see anything which could reduced their claimed loss when they take somebody to court. They have a motive to equate every download to a lost sale. They don’t want an honest survey.

  9. During the Limewire period the RIAA argued strongly that file-sharing was responsible for a whopping 30% of lost sales and they had the figures to prove it.

    What didn’t come out until later was that the music industry had reduced production by more than that amount in that same period. The percentage of unit sales had actually increased – whether Limewire itself (or any file-sharing) had anything to do with that increase… well, I don’t have any data that could prove or disprove that notion – it may well be irrelevant.

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