Is There a Chill in the Air?
Coming off of my review of The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom and all the misery that entailed, one theme kept cropping up: the idea of somehow cognitively separating the DRM from the game itself. I was peppered with questions like, "Taking aside the DRM, what do you think of the game?" and comments such as, "Your review focused too much on the DRM, not enough on the game". Similar to how some people "feel" that there is a difference between mind and body (relating to souls and such...there isn't one), many feel that DRM is somehow disconnected from a game. As if we could simply cover one eye, turn our heads and squint, and somehow, the DRM would go unnoticed and we would suddenly now own a game we actually want. To submit to this faulty line of reasoning is both stupid from a consumer perspective, and confusing from a review perspective.
Ubisoft's DRM that disallows you access to your own game has the exact same effect as a game-breaking bug, complete with the oh-so-welcome crash to desktop. If a game had such a bug, how on Earth could I ever recommend it? Of course it would get a "Fry It". Just like programming the under-the-hood coding of a game, constructing a DRM that goes unnoticed to the consumer is the only DRM that will not negatively impact a playing experience. Every little hiccup and false start that a DRM (or a bug) foists on the player is one that adds to the desire to turn the game off and, over time, refrain from buying more games from that publisher. To put it another way: no one would care about the Ubisoft DRM if it didn't bitch-slap the paying customer at every opportunity. Sure you would have some idealist that would oppose it on principle, but the vast majority wouldn't care about the DRM as long as it was whisper-quiet. DRM like Ubisoft's ruins playing experience. Period.
But let's say, for the sake of argument, that this wasn't the case. What would that world look like? I imagine that first, all reviews would have to come with a DRM-adjusted score. Similar to wind-chill when discussing outdoor temperature, every game would have to be judged on what it is (the real score) and what we imagine the game would be like without DRM (the "I wish I owned THIS game" score). Once this ludicrous system is in place, the sky's the limit.
Now, we could start rating games with all sorts of things imaginarily omitted in order to feel like we didn't get screwed. Think Vampire - The Masquerade: Bloodlines would have been a great game without the game-ending bug it included at launch? No problem: Bloodlines gets a 6 for being broken but a bug-adjusted score of 8.5 because it would have been SO sweet if that bug wasn't there. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Wii would have been so awesome if my game didn't glitch part way through, locking Link in a random room forever. So, I'll just give the game a bug-adjusted score of 9, because I bet the rest of the game would have been great, too. And the madness doesn't stop there. Didn't like a plot twist near the end of the game? Easy to fix: Indigo Prophecy gets a 8 before all the supernatural nonsense appears and a 6.5 after it.
Don't worry folks, after a half-dozen patches over the next two years, Gothic 3 should be entirely playable. So I'm just going to give an 8.5 right now.
There is no disconnect between a game and its DRM (or bugs). It all goes into that melting pot we call the "gaming experience". Settlers 7 was broken because of its DRM just as surely as it would be broken due to a catastrophic game bug. The experience doesn't change just because we can imagine a world without these detriments.