30 Years of War: Piracy Prevention and DRM

30 Years of War: Piracy Prevention and DRM

The constant struggle between game developers and pirates has been going on pretty much since the beginning of gaming. It always seems like a one step forward, one step back situation – every new idea to combat piracy gets circumvented after some time, and the people most affected are often the ones who buy their games legitimately.  

The main criticism against digital rights management (DRM) platforms is that most of the time, they don’t serve their purpose – instead of punishing those who pirate games, they treat people who actually buy them like potential criminals, putting restrictions and limitations wherever possible. Seeing how quickly some games get cracked despite heavy protection, it’s not a surprise that people get a bit aggravated every time this topic returns.  

Despite this, studios aren’t too keen on abandoning DRM, so they must benefit from it in some form or simply can’t find a better way to protect their titles. Many ideas have been tried and tested over the years in the everlasting war against piracy – you’ll find some of them mentioned below. 

The Early Days 

A long time ago, back when computers still had disc drives and most games weren’t sold online, the main method of piracy prevention involved game manuals. Either during the installation or after playing your new game for a while, you’d encounter a pop-up window asking you to enter a long code or something similar. Earlier solutions involved finding a random series of words in the manual, and some games even had separate decoding physical items attached.  

Although it wasn’t too annoying the first time you had to do it, as a kid I tended to lose things, which meant that repeatedly I had to scour my room if I wanted to reinstall the game or play it on a different PC. Those archaic methods were also easy to bypass, and therefore not very successful, so the industry had to come up with different, unfortunately more restrictive solutions. 

The Age of DRM 

If you want to convince someone not to pirate your work, two factors seem to be the most important – price and convenience. While the first one may be hard to change in the case of video games (new big titles are rarely below $60), the latter is easier to achieve. Over the years, the convenience of using Steam made it a default platform in the eyes of many PC gamers, and some explicitly refuse to purchase any game outside of Valve’s digital marketplace. It has become so popular that even the most relentless pirates tend to have at least a few games purchased there. 

For some developers, this of course wasn’t an ideal solution, as studios have to sacrifice 30% of their profits to have their titles featured on Steam. To some gamers’ dismay, it didn’t take long for new digital rights management platforms to show up, the most prominent being Ubisoft’s Uplay, EA’s Origin and Blizzard’s Battle.net. Even Bethesda recently announced that Fallout 76 will have a separate launcher and won’t show up on Steam.

While it’s good that Steam now has some competition, some of these platforms face criticism for instability, lack of features and simply being annoying to use. For a while, the only game library you needed was on Steam, but now you’re required to have multiple applications installed for access to all of your games. Thankfully, community-created apps like Playnite still let you launch everything from one place. 

Always Online 

If there’s one sure way to annoy gamers, it is to release single-player titles with required internet connection. While most of us have unlimited access to the internet these days, always-online DRM brings a whole new set of problems to deal with, including server issues. Diablo III and Sim City made headlines for how laggy both games were after release. 

While in some cases the always-online restriction is justified, for example if the game needs to be regularly updated to provide additional content, sometimes the reasons behind it seem a bit tenuous, especially when we’ve seen games being cracked on day one despite this form of protection.  

The Denuvo Problem 

Out of the anti-piracy solutions developed in the recent years, Denuvo is probably the most controversial, but also the most successful. Although certainly not foolproof, in many cases it gives the developers at least a couple of weeks before their game gets cracked, which is enough to convince some people to buy it instead of waiting. 

Denuvo is not exactly a DRM solution, but an anti-tamper technology that prevents users from heavily modifying game files. Nevertheless, it has been criticized for its invasiveness and the alleged impact it has on hardware and game performance, for example in Tekken 7. PC users also value the ability to create mods and unofficial patches to their games, and Denuvo can get in the way of that sometimes. Some studios decide to remove this technology from their games after they’ve been cracked – such was the case with HitmanMass Effect: AndromedaLife is Strange: Before the Storm and more.  

While in the beginning it was very successful, in the recent months Denuvo-protected titles have been getting cracked a lot faster. It makes you wonder how much longer will the industry favor this software, and what solutions are coming next. 

Reputation is Everything 

The fight against piracy doesn’t necessarily have to be direct, as it seems like company trust can influence things a bit. CD PROJEKT RED, the studio behind The Witcher series and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, has an excellent reputation among gamers for avoiding anti-consumer practices – for one, their titles are available without any DRM restrictions, which basically means that you can do anything you want with your copy of the game.  

It may not seem like a good way to prevent copyright infringement, but Marcin Iwiński from CD PROJEKT has a different perspective. “The piracy factor was irrelevant, because we cannot force people to buy things. We can only convince them to do it,” he said at the InfoShare tech conference in 2016, pointing out that those who were set on pirating The Witcher 3 would never buy it anyways, therefore introducing a heavy DRM system would only annoy those who bought it legitimately.  

Even so, the good opinions about the studio’s work do have some impact on piracy. Searching through various subreddits and forums, you can find many posts that get criticized for even suggesting downloading CD PROJEKT’s games without buying them. Whether this affects the actual sales is unclear, but it’s definitely good from a PR perspective. 

Prank the Pirate 

In rare cases, the developers will purposefully include some changes meant solely for those who didn’t get a legitimate copy of the game. Sometimes they’re just funny, but other times they can mess with the experience or even make the game impossible to play through. That said, such easter-eggs are usually quite easy to bypass, as they’re meant to poke fun at the pirates more than provide any sort of protection. 

Game Dev Tycoon developers purposefully shared a cracked version of their game on various torrent websites, with a pretty ironic, special feature. Your goal is to create a successful game development studio, and after playing it for a while, you’d find out that more and more people are downloading your titles without paying for them, eventually forcing you to declare bankruptcy. 

A harsher example is Mirror’s Edge, a game mainly focused on jumping from one building onto another. Having detected a stolen copy, the game will begin to slow your character down just before you leap, making it virtually unplayable and seriously frustrating. 

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It’s unlikely that we’ll ever find a solution which solves piracy forever, and even if we do, people are still going to have problems with it. While we shouldn’t expect all companies to act like CD PROJEKT, it’s always good to look for compromises – ideas that don’t cause too many problems for those who make games, as well as those who play them.  

Paweł Horbanowicz
Paweł Horbanowicz
Just another fantasy & sci-fi geek from Poland. When he's not busy studying or writing about World of Warcraft, he spends most on his time catching up on TV shows he should've watched ages ago. A fan of everything Blizzard-related, loves long winters and games with good stories.




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