The Ubisoft controversy reveals the Achilles heel of digital games
Steam Summer Sale is always a good time to buy games. Maybe you’re picking up the latest indie darling, or maybe that AAA game you’ve been dying to play is finally on sale. One way or another, you walk away with more games than expected, many of which will remain in your backlog for an indefinite period. But you swear you’ll get there eventually! For players who purchased Assassin’s Creed Liberation during this year’s sale, this will not be the reality.
Update: According Stephane Totilo of Axios, a Ubisoft spokesperson said that “current owners… will still be able to access, play or re-download” Assassin’s Creed Liberation after September 1.
Fans who own the game breathe a sigh of relief now that the game will stay. The quick response to raise pitchforks against Ubisoft came from a place of anxiety over questions of who has control over digital games.
The original story follows
Two days after the sale ended, Ubisoft announced that it would shut down online services for the game. The developer also pulled the game from Steam, adding that it will no longer be accessible to somebody who bought it from September 1, 2022. This dick move by Ubisoft shows the biggest problem with digital distribution – you can’t buy games, now you can only rent them for a nebulous period of time.
Thanks for playing – The initial response of those who have Assassin’s Creed Liberation on Steam has been overwhelmingly negative, especially from those who purchased the game during the recent sale.
“Ubisoft is trash,” reads a Steam review posted on July 11 by a player with two hours of gameplay.
Other players were upset that they bought “a digital paperweight”. Another cuts to the chase and calls out Ubisoft for trying to boost sales before pausing support, writing “this is theft through and through”.
The first indication that online services for Release would be disabled came in an announcement that listed fifteen games that would suffer a similar fate. titles such as assassin’s creed 2 and Splinter Cell Blacklist will no longer support multiplayer. Other titles like Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3 will lose access to the DLC.
If players want to play Release on Steam after September 1, they can purchase Assassin’s Creed 3 Remastered including Release. Of course, they’ll have to pay the $39.99 price tag and cross their fingers that history doesn’t repeat itself.
While losing multiplayer is unfortunate, it makes sense in the context of online services shutting down. It’s less clear why a single-player game like Assassin’s Creed Liberation will no longer be accessible at all, even to those who have purchased and downloaded the game.
Who controls? — As games increasingly tend to favor digital distribution over physical releases, the question arises: who owns a game?
The answer from many companies seems to be that the publisher owns the game. You can pay them the price the game is sold at, you can download it, but it’s not yours. You borrow the game and at any time they can revoke your access. This is what Ubisoft does with Release. Nintendo is also guilty of removing players’ ability to access all of a console’s games, with the Nintendo eShop storefront looming for 3DS and Wii U titles.
One of the reasons companies revoke access to a game is to prepare a remake or remaster. In the case of Ubisoft, the delisting of Release could be linked to the next Assassin’s Creed Infinity, a live service platform for the franchise. In addition to new content, Ubisoft may use Infinite as the central hub for all previous entries in the franchise, like the Master Chief collection.
However, the decision to prevent access to the original version of a game can cause problems. So-called updates such as the recent Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition often have many issues of their own, destroying the game experience and giving players no way to experience the title in its original form.
To ensure that a game stays in the hands of the owner, players have few options. Buying physical-only media is the first, but it’s a solution that doesn’t cover many indie games, which rarely see physical releases. The second is to turn to piracy and community methods of removing DRM or software that controls access to a digital product.
As more companies exercise control over access to digital versions of games, gamers can no longer think of buying a digital game as a “purchase” in the traditional sense. It’s a rental – and there’s no warning when it might expire.