Let’s talk about: Denuvo

As I’m writing this, it’s Halloween and the festivities have me thinking about all kinds of scary things. Ghouls. Goblins. Politics. Very scary stuff. Really, though, there are few things that inspire as much fear as the anti-tamper product Denuvo. The big bad gaming boogeyman. I won’t touch anything that uses it, personally, but rather than perpetuate the same lies I’ve seen paraded around about how it messes up SSDs and significantly impacts performance (which—let’s not kid ourselves—do seem to be lies and/or exaggerations), I thought it’d be more productive to talk about some of the deeper problems with Denuvo and some inherent problems with the gaming industry that it potentially exacerbates.

Like publishers killing games

I like old games. Something like 5 feet away from me, I have my Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance in protective cases along with cartridges for games that are ~20 years old. Some are even older than that. All of them are still perfectly playable despite that, and I love the simplicity of it all: I bought them, so I can keep them as long as I want. Digital distribution has changed things significantly, though. Games are cheaper thanks to abundant sales, but many are now tied to services like Steam, Origin, Uplay, PSN, and buckets of others, and that can become a problem. Just yesterday, something came up in the news about Origin turning off the ability for players from Myanmar to use their accounts. Their games were thrown into a state of limbo, and while EA’s walked back from that and promised to undo it, this highlights just how easy it is for these places to cut off your access.

Another example: back in 2014, I bought a bunch of games from a bundle, only to have two of them removed from my Steam account two years later for “payment problems.” I purchased the bundle legitimately, so you can imagine how frustrating this was. On another occasion, mediocre digital distribution service Gamersgate had a game that you could pick up for free. Turns out it was a pricing error on their part, so they took it all back. That last one is at least understandable, but there’s no way of arguing your case when they snatch a game back; you just get a popup that says “your game got nuked, totes sorry” (paraphrasing) and you’re out of luck.

That’s not technically “killing” games, though. To see an actual example of publishers killing a game, you need only look at games like Darkspore or a handful of others (mostly with always-on DRM) that have had the plug pulled unceremoniously. This happens, and for someone who grew up with games back when you bought a game and had access to it until you either sold it or found a way to destroy the nigh-indestructible plastic cartridges of old, the idea that a game can grow old and be destroyed so that it isn’t competition for a publisher’s newer, shiner, more expensive replacement is sickening.

This is always-on DRM with good PR

Back when Ubisoft was pushing always-on DRM, it seemed like everyone was on board with that being a terrible decision. They cried “piracy” until their lungs were at risk of exploding, but they had degraded the experience of legitimate users so much that their products were basically worthless. It was self-defeating, and more relevantly to my interests, the DRM allowed games to simply stop working. Seeing it maligned was a great feeling. Then Denuvo came along and protected games so well that the pirates couldn’t keep up, and so invisibly that publishers didn’t face the backlash that came with always-on DRM; putting aside the actual, tangible benefits of piracy—like the fact that my shiny GOG copy of Arcanum, among other games, supposedly uses a crack from one of those groups—the truly scary thing is that the industry cries of “piracy” are working this time around.

By not posing the immediate and recognizable problems that always-on DRM did, large swaths of gamers have actually gone to bat for Denuvo. Sometimes I’ll lurk in Steam discussions for certain games I’m interested in while trying to figure out what DRM they use, only to come across people actually begging for Denuvo to be included to “stick it to those pirates.” That’s terrifying. Games have been turned into temporary distractions to be bought and then discarded with no concern being paid to their long-term availability. Think about some of the all-time classics, the Ocarina of Times and Baldur’s Gates and Chrono Triggers (that last one has actually had always-on DRM tacked on to its mobile port from what I’ve heard, which no doubt contributes to it having a 3.8 out of 5 rating on Google Play despite its greatness). If they were protected by Denuvo, it’s very possible that the only way to play these games right now would be through a virtual console, a buggy rerelease, and a mobile port, respectively. Keep in mind all three cases require rebuying the game, allowing publishers to double-dip into your wallet. This current moment in PC gaming history, or at least this moment as it pertains to many of the AAA releases, is one that could very well vanish into Darkspore-like nothingness in 20 years. Far more likely, modern games will only be accessible through less DRM-encumbered rereleases that require you to rebuy things you already own.

The many ways to lose a game

That’s all well and scary, then, but it sounds like an impossible scenario until you consider how many ways there are for a game to stop existing when protected by Denuvo. For one, no one has managed to crack it (and even if it’s eventually cracked, the protection is supposedly different for each game and the slower pace will mean some games falling through the cracks), so should a developer somehow lose the source code—which happens far more often than you’d probably expect—the game is just protected forever. If there’s a secondary DRM behind Denuvo, like for example a simple internet check, the day those activation servers go offline is the day that game stops functioning entirely. No crackers or modders rescuing their favorite game from nonexistence. It just stops working.

And what about games featuring licensed content, where the rights get split up between a bunch of different companies? No One Lives Forever is in this exact type of legal limbo right now, which is why it’s not available digitally anywhere. Basically, no one knows who actually owns the rights to it, and none of those who potentially own it are interested enough to bother figuring it out. Then there are a number of cases like GTA: Vice City and Hitman: Contracts where the rights to music expire and they have to be removed from stores entirely until the content is removed (if that’s even possible). Point being, once rights run out and a studio either can’t or won’t distribute a game anymore, there’s no one left to remove the DRM for the remaining players. That’s entering into those awkward waters of faith that “what happens when Steam shuts down” hypotheticals tend to crash into: will a company unilaterally remove DRM from their games at the last moment, or simply leave them to rot? I think the most compelling answer comes in the form of GFWL games: while some had their DRM removed (Red Faction: Armageddon comes immediately to mind), others like Virtua Tennis 4 retain their DRM to this day despite not even being buyable on PC thanks to a license expiring.

[Update: this paragraph is new because I totally spaced out on another obvious reason when originally writing this.] Then you have game compatibility as new operating systems come along and various things break. Just a few months ago, I had to supplement my legitimately owned copy of F-22 Lightning 2 with files from a cracked version in order to get it to function correctly. Older games requiring bizarre things like that isn’t out of the ordinary, either, with old DRM schemes (recent example: Windows 10 breaking games that use SafeDisc and SecuROM) and sometimes just the age of the game in question causing all kinds of problems that weren’t foreseeable back when it originally released. Worse, anti-tamper means anti-fix. Fan patches like the ones that are basically necessary for Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines become a nightmare if not outright impossible to implement, and given how necessary those kinds of fixes tend to be when getting older games to run now, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the current protection makes it impossible to get some of these modern games working down the road when their developers have gone under or just don’t care anymore.

These are just ways a game can be lost on accident, too. When you consider the ways publishers love to bury their old games and push their newer ones to the forefront (see: how sports games like the Madden football ones turn off multiplayer after a year or so) and add that onto their ability to unilaterally remove games from your game libraries, turn off entire countries’ ability to use their services to play legally purchased products, and shut down activation servers hidden behind impenetrable DRM to turn owned games into digital paperweights, the future of gaming (and especially gaming preservation) looks incredibly bleak. It’s far too much control to be handing to groups of people who have continuously proven that they can’t be trusted with it, especially when there’s no upside for players.

“Oh, just buy on GOG then!”

The most ubiquitous counterargument I’ve seen to Denuvo and publisher douchebaggery like the Myanmar example is to buy games on GOG instead of elsewhere because of the platform’s strict anti-DRM stance. That’s great in theory, but it assumes that the game is even available there in the first place; GOG takes a “curated” approach to their catalog, which means frequently turning down games for various reasons. Even some awesome games like One Finger Death Punch have been rejected, and when they don’t simply refuse to sell a game, AAA publishers often wait to release their stuff there until it’s half a decade or more old. That means that if you want to play a game when it actually releases and be able to preserve it should it end up becoming your favorite game of all time, you have to wait 5 or more years for it to show up, reward the anti-consumer decision to encumber the original version with DRM with a second purchase, and there are no guarantees that it’ll actually make it there in the first place. GOG makes for a nice tourniquet, but so long as it’s curated, gaming in general continues to be stabbed in too many various appendages to stop the bleeding entirely.

So it comes down to this

I won’t buy a game with Denuvo on it. If one eventually finds its way into a bundle, I’ll either not buy the bundle at all, or if available, change where the money goes so that the developers don’t see a cent. I won’t review a Denuvo game either way, though, not even for another platform where the DRM isn’t a problem. If a developer thinks so little of their game’s value that they’re willing to risk its longevity with Denuvo or always-on DRM, it doesn’t exist in my little world and I won’t touch any of its incarnations. I’ve already had to pass on a number of games that I was legitimately interested in for this very reason. That might seem petty, but when so many people are willing to fight on behalf of measures that could ensure that the games they’re attempting to protect eventually disappear, it’s the only way I can think of to fight back and make it clear that game preservation matters.

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