About Ubisoft and EA's 'Always Online' PC Games Requirement

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PC Gaming in Jail

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?

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