Nerdicious Furiosi

Pity the poor PC gamer. There he sits at his computer desk waiting for those AAA titles to come to his “platform of choice” a few months after they ship on the crippled consoles. Then, when the object of his desire is finally made available, the publisher encumbers it with what is an undeniably stupid system for “protecting” the digital content therein. I speak, of course, of the recent firestorm that Ubisoft has caused with their new DRM scheme on Assassin’s Creed 2 and other titles.

I have mixed feelings about this whole fiasco. On the one hand, I don’t really understand what Ubi hoped to achieve here. Requiring a game to be played online while giving the player no real reason to want to play the game online is kind of stupid. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that you don’t have to work too hard to find reasons not to play Assassin’s Creed.

What confuses me most about this “conversation”, if you will, is that tone of the rhetoric coming out of the PC-gaming dork community. I could understand anger that the feature sucks. I can understand being angry with Ubisoft for imposing restrictions on play without any sort of compensating added value. It seems to me that in the current marketplace the minimum bar for requiring the user to be online to play a game is in turn providing that user with services that are on par with Steam or Xbox Live.

What I don’t understand is expressing one’s anger over this slight in almost political terms, as if the ability to play a video game on your PC is written into the Constitution. I don’t really understand the notion that there is something going on here that has earth shattering implications on the future of personal freedoms in personal computing. I don’t really even understand why anyone would spend more than a dozen words complaining about this before just not buying the game or buying the game used on a console. Even the normally sedate and rational Gamers with Jobs have seen fit to throw what seems to me to be a melodramatic fit over this.

Is this really this important?

What seems clear to me is that Ubisoft does not really give a shit whether they sell games on the PC or not. I would bet that it’s an overall lose on their bottom line to spend all the time and pain needed to get something running on that 15-headed chimera that is the Windows Platform. It’s not surprising that they don’t like PCs. There are probably easier ways to get out of the game than this weird protracted war, but then I’ve never understood management anyway.

Of course, civil rights-like rhetoric around the control of the personal computer is nothing new. The Open Source jihadists have been doing it for years. In fact, the rhetoric around what Ubisoft has done reminds me most of the similar levels of teeth gnashing that surrounds all discussions of “closed” vs “open” software platforms. Here is how these discussions go:

1. Dork: Man, it’s bullshit that the Fruit Fucker company doesn’t let me run any code I want on this machine they sell.

2. Regular Human: But it’s not meant to run any code… all it does is fuck fruit. You don’t complain about this on your car or your Xbox 360

3. Dork: Yeah, but the FF3500 is obviously a general purpose computer, not just a game console, therefore I should be able to run anything I want on it.

There are two fuzzy points of reason here. The first is the notion that there is a fuzzy yet absolutely recognizable line between a general purpose computer and a special purpose computer. I find this notion strange. When I was in school any CPU that had memory and branching was defined as essentially general purpose. So I think when people use the term “general purpose” here what they really mean is something like “a machine I’d like to program, and it pisses me off if this desire is blocked in any way.”

The second fuzzy point is the notion that given a “general purpose” machine, it is always and undeniably wrong to block any code from running on this machine, even if doing so would arguably improve the user experience. I’m not sure what legal or moral doctrine is used to derive this line of thinking, but I’m pretty sure it’s something like: “well, this is how computers and operating systems have worked since I was 13”.

The result is that if I put a bunch of hardware into a box and I call it anything that might be interpreted as a “personal computer”, I’m a pigfucker if there are restrictions what software that the machine can run. But, if I call it a “game console” or a “automobile” or a “DVD Player” then it’s OK if you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to just get a dev kit for the machine and anything you develop must then be additionally tested by my internal Q/A certification team.

The truth is that these sorts of value judgements are quickly becoming useless and irrelevant. In my opinion, like it or not the world is moving away from the traditional model of a “general purpose and completely open” computing platform and more and more towards machines that do specific things and take advantage of their specificity to better tune the user experience.

What does this mean for the poor fan of Assassin’s Creed 2? I can’t really say. I’d just buy the game on the Xbox 360. And then sell it, because it sucks anyway.