AC Liberation art

Buyer's remorse

Ubisoft controversy exposes the Achilles heel of digital games

Time to start a new disc collection.

Ubisoft
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The Steam Summer Sale is always a great time to buy games. Maybe you pick up the latest indie darling, or perhaps that AAA game you’ve been dying to play is finally on sale. Somehow, you walk away with more games than intended, many of which will sit in your backlog for an indefinite period of time. But you swear you’ll get to it eventually! For players who purchased Assassin’s Creed Liberation during this year’s sale, that won’t be the reality.

Update: According to Stephen Totilo of Axios, a Ubisoft spokesperson says "current owners... will still be able to access, play or redownload" Assassin’s Creed Liberation after September 1.

Fans who own the game are breathing a sigh of relief now that the game will be sticking around. The quick response to raise pitchforks against Ubisoft came from a collective anxiety stemming from ongoing conversations about who has control over digital games.

Original story follows.

Two days after the sale ended, Ubisoft announced it will shut down online services for the game. The developer also delisted the game from Steam, adding that it will no longer be accessible to anyone who purchased it starting September 1, 2022. This move from 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.

Liberation features the franchise’s first female protagonist.Ubisoft

Thanks for playing — The initial response from those who own Assassin's Creed Liberation on Steam has been overwhelmingly negative, especially from those who purchased the game during the recent sale.

“Ubisoft is garbage” reads one Steam review posted on July 11 from a player with two hours of playtime.

Other players were upset they bought “a digital paperweight.” Another gets straight to the point and calls out Ubisoft for attempting to boost sales before suspending support, writing “this is theft through and through.”

The first indication that online services for Liberation would be turned off 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 such as Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3 will lose DLC access.

If players want to play Liberation on Steam after September 1, they can purchase Assassin’s Creed 3 Remastered which includes Liberation. Of course, they will need 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 being terminated. 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 purchased and downloaded the game.

The future of the franchise is a live service platform called Assassin’s Creed Infinity.Ubisoft

Who’s in control? — As games have moved increasingly in the direction of favoring digital distribution over physical releases, the question at hand is this — Who owns a game?

The answer of 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 is not yours. You are borrowing the game and at any moment they can revoke your access. This is what Ubisoft is doing with Liberation. Nintendo is also guilty of removing players’ ability to access an entire console's worth of games, with the pending closure of the Nintendo eShop storefront for 3DS and Wii U titles.

As of May 2022, users will no longer be able to use a credit card to add eShop credit on Wii U and 3DS, and Nintendo eShop cards won’t work after August 2022.fcafotodigital/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

One reason companies revoke access to a game is to prepare for a remake or remaster. In the case of Ubisoft, the delisting of Liberation could be related to the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Infinity, a live-service platform for the franchise. In addition to new content, Ubisoft could use Infinity as a 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 have issues. So-called updates such as the recent Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition often have numerous problems of their own, destroying the experience of the game and giving players no way to experience the title in its original form.

To ensure a game remains in the hands of the owner, players have few options. Purchasing exclusively physical media is the first, but it is a solution that does not 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 their control over access to digital versions of games, players can no longer consider buying a game digitally as a “purchase” in the traditional sense. It’s a rental — and there is no warning when it might expire.

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