Monday, April 5, 2010

The Settlers 7 and the Ubisoft copy protection

So I've been playing The Settlers 7 for a while, and that was the first game I bought from Ubisoft since they introduced their new "need to be online to play" copy protection scheme. Copy protection is a difficult subject, because a lot of people nowadays have an overly developed sense of entitlement, and no clue whatsoever what it means to "buy a license"; so whenever publisher introduce means to prevent pirating, various forums and gaming sites explode in outrage how a publisher *dares* to prevent them from doing things that are actually forbidden in the end user license agreement. So instead of joining that discussion, that never leads anywhere, I decided to simply test both the game and the copyright protection scheme.

The Settlers 7 as a game is very nice, and has been sped up significantly from earlier incarnations. Instead of a game about building up an economy and watching your settlers go about their business, The Settlers 7 now delivers a gameplay which is a lot more competitive. This will not necessarily be to the liking of every veteran Settlers fan, but was probably a good move to make this game a bit more mainstream. While building up your economy is still the core of the game, gameplay now reminds me a bit of RTS games in speed the need to frequently watch what the opposition is doing. If you act too slow, the computer opponents will continue gathering victory points until it is game over for you.

The interesting part of the victory point system is that you have three different choices on how to win: military, trade, or religion. Thus you can win the same map by either sending out lots of soldiers, or with no soldiers at all, buying sectors with coin or sending out priests to convert them. As the different strategies rely on different resources, choosing the right one based on the available resources is helpful, but usually various strategies or mixes work. But whatever you choose, the main skill required in any case is to build up a working network of production sites, with short roads and frequent storage houses to optimize logistics. Even if you choose the military option, there isn't much you can do to influence battles except sending more soldiers. The economic system is quite complex, and The Settlers 7 is not an easy game, with the added speed making it still more difficult. I really would have liked an option to start a map without any competition to just play around and watch my settlers, but the best the game offers in that direction is the option to continue playing after you won a map.

The Settlers 7 has a campaign with 12 missions, but that is considered an extended tutorial. The "main" game is then played in battles on various maps, against computer opponents or other players. There are 8 maps that come with the game, but there is also a map editor, and additional maps that can be unlocked with "coins". No, not real money, but coins you earn from winning games. The same coins also unlock additional AI opponents, and various building blocks for your castle. How your castle looks has no influence on gameplay, but in principle you can start with a simple castle, and then decorate it further as you progress in the game. Your castle as your avatar, so to say.

I started The Settlers 7 during my holidays, and thus installed it on my laptop. Which brings us to the Ubisoft Cloud Copy Protection, which unlike other copy protection schemes at least has some small advantages: You can install the game on as many computers as you like, and your save games are synchronized. Thus when I came home and installed the game on my main computer, I could continue the campaign where I had left it without having to copy any saved games. Unfortunately that, and a half-baked achievement system, are the only advantages from being forced to be always online. Well, that and not needing the DVD to play, but that is more the absence of a disadvantage from other copy protection schemes.

The disadvantages of the copy protection scheme are more serious: You can't play without internet connection. If you lose internet connection during play, your game stops working. Fortunately it does that in a rather controlled way, so when you get internet back and restart the game, you'll be at the last autosave point, which seem to have a rather short interval, thus you never have to replay a lot. Another problem is that even if *your* internet connection is fine, sometimes Ubisoft's servers are not. Not all of that is their fault, some copyright protection haters amused themselves by bringing the Ubisoft servers down with denial of service attacks. There is quite a war waging there, with hackers saying they cracked Ubisoft's copy protection scheme, and Ubisoft claiming that the hacked versions are incomplete. The DoS attacks tell me that Ubisoft must have hurt the hackers somewhat, otherwise they wouldn't have found it necessary to prevent regular players from playing the game just to spite Ubisoft. I didn't download a pirated version just to find out whether it was working and complete.

Now if you only ever played single-player games, the Ubisoft copy protection scheme can seem quite severe. MMORPG veterans and other players who play a lot of online games however will quickly realize that these Ubisoft games have exactly the same set of disadvantages as most online games. Whether it is World of Warcraft, Farmville, or The Settlers 7, you can't play if either your internet connection or the game companies servers are down. That is most certainly annoying, but as that happens to us every day for the last decade, we kind of got used to that particular obstacle. It is simply something that you need to keep in mind when making the decision of whether to buy Ubisoft games. Just like you wouldn't buy World of Warcraft for a computer without internet connection, you shouldn't buy new Ubisoft games for such a computer either. Oh, and unless you sell your whole Ubisoft account with it, you can't resell The Settlers 7, which is also something you should consider when looking at the price. Legally you aren't buying the game, you just acquire a license to play it. It's a bit like renting a car, Hertz *would* object if you tried to resell the car you rented from them.

While I'm not a fan of copy protection schemes, I didn't find this particular Ubisoft system all that bad. I dislike for example games which force you to keep the disc always in the drive to play much more annoying, or games which install a rootkit on my PC. No copy protection scheme whatsoever would be nice, and so would be peace on earth and goodwill to all men, but neither is realistic due to the existence of bad people. Game companies and pirates are equally to blame, its a vicious cycle. The grown-up thing to do is to consider how much that copy protection system really hurts you, based on your experience with internet outages with other games, and to factor that into your buying decision. But first you might want to download the demo, because how much you like the game is probably more important than how it is protected.

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