The year was 2005, and World War 2 submarine simulators were dead. The much-anticipated Silent Hunter 2 had come out four years before, and not only did it look like it’d have a good influx of realism, graphics that (at the time) really looked like they were going to be phenominal, but it also did something brand new – the ability to link up multiplayer with Destroyer Command. For the first time, bubbleheads would be able to really show skimmers that really, they were only still afloat because a submarine hadn’t found them yet.
But the game barely worked on release, suffered from lack of a dynamic campaign (a staple of the genre for years) and any number of other issues. Years later, modding crews had fixed up everything they could – even creating a technically impressive series of missions to give the impression of a dynamic campaign, and bring back the “my ship, my story, my war” experience that people missed from Aces of the Deep and the original Silent Hunter.
And then Silent Hunter III came along. The franchise had been handed over to Ubisoft Romania, and what they did blew everybody out of the water. Not only was the realism much improved, but the interior of the control room was 3D-modelled, as were the crew, who sat at their stations and played with dials. Never before had being depth-charged been so vivid and terrifying in a video game.
However, the truly impressive thing for me was this: the developers, a few months from release, noted a ground-swell of people in the submarine simulation community complaining that (once again) a Silent Hunter would lack a dynamic campaign. So they put a question out there to the subsimmers: How important IS a dynamic campaign for you? Would you prefer we put one in, at the expense of another delay? Would a lack of this dynamic campaign actually stop you buying it?
The answer was pretty unanimous. And so they announced the delay, and turned out what is generally considered to be the definitive U-Boat simulation. This impressed me immensely: realising that they had a very specific audience to cater to, they listened to that community and the game was so much better for it.
After this, they ventured back into “traditional” Silent Hunter turf with Silent Hunter 4: Wolves of the Pacific. Taking the great work from Silent Hunter III, they extended it with more options, and a more dynamic crew system. Rotating shifts, individual skills and personal histories began to make an appearance.
Given the focus, then, it wasn’t all that surprising to most people just where they decided to go with the soon-to-be-released Silent Hunter V. Just five years post-Silent Hunter III, there seemed little reason to delve back into the second Battle of the Atlantic without good cause. After all, their earlier sim stood up well 5 years later – so why remake it?
The answer was to do something we’d never seen in a submarine simulation. Instead of the modern-day traditional hard-core sim concept (multiple platforms, high realism and as many options as you can possible manage to fit into your design) they decided to do something different.
In a throwback to Microprose simulations of the ’80s, in Silent Hunter V, you have just half the war in practical terms (up to 1943) and one class of submarine – the workhorse of the fleet – the Type VII in its numerous variants. As a result of this, the developers have been able to spent a visibly enormous amount of manpower modelling the interior of the submarine and giving it a real living, breathing crew.
Unlike the earlier games, this time the focus is on taking your crew through patrol after patrol, living with them, walking around your boat and talking to the crew. A much more personal and human approach.
Some subsimmers, like me, are ecstatic at this concept. For as much as I love eeking out one or two kills in my old “Dug-out Canoe” – the Type II, or laying waste to entire allied fleets without blinking in the Type XXI electro-boat… I will gladly forgo those options to be able to truly play out my own Das Boot experience.
Not everybody feels this way, of course. Browse the subsim.com forums and you can find a select few hardcore simmers who are not interested in this, and who feel that the first-person movement through the submarine will detract from what they really care about – simulating the tactics of submarine warfare.
This in itself probably wouldn’t be a huge problem for the game’s sales. I mean, Silent Hunter III is still a perfectly serviceable game – nothing stops these few hardcore types from sticking to it like glue and not “upgrading” to the very different beast that is Silent Hunter V. But there is one other thing that seems to be causing a huge stir in the subsim community and beyond, that may well affect its sales dramatically…
Digital Rights Management.
Want to play on a laptop? Too bad.
Got a 3G connection that keeps dropping out? Too bad.
Routing issues to Ubisoft’s servers? Shit outta luck then, buddy. (I’m in Australia, which means cut cables screwing up our connections to random parts of the internet for chunks of time is a very real problem)
Now, I see the importance of trying to stop people pirating. I mean, It may not be the sole reason that PC Gaming is in decline, but it’s certainly a factor. Something must be done, here, but I’m just not so sure this kind of draconian DRM that actually impacts the usability of your product is the right way to go about it. You want to make it EASIER for people to buy your game legally, not more difficult.
The DRM issue isn’t just making a few people shrug or make it a footnote in a blog entry, either. It’s seriously riling up the Subsim community – threads and threads are devoted to the issue, and as it stands some 25% of subsimmers claim they won’t buy the game due to the DRM.
Of course, this figure may not quite prove to be true in reality; it rarely does. But what concerns me is this:
Between their leap of faith to create a submarine simulation experience the likes of which we’ve never seen before and their DRM, it’s just possible that, with a bit of sub-par marketing and some bad luck, this game might not sell as well as they’d hoped.
And if this proves true – how are the Ubisoft corporate goons to know just what did it? Will they reduce the funding of the next game? Or kill the series entirely?
The general rule of thumb with big franchises (or even medium-sized ones like this) is that you really only add or change one major feature at a time. Too much change may excite people like me, but you risk scaring and alienating many of the great McDonalds-buying masses.
With Silent Hunter V, they have their One Big Change… but they also have their DRM, and I just hope that the confluence of the two doesn’t sink the series.
Because I, for one, can’t wait to see where Ubisoft Romania take this incredible franchise.
Update: As of the time I’m writing this (24 hours after the original article was published), a poll conducted on subsim.com now shows that 75-84% of people are not willing to buy Silent Hunter V with this form of DRM.
UPDATE #2 (Jeremy): This DRM is even more a problem in Australia, and Ubisoft simply doesn’t care.