The start of 2016 was rather positive for anti-piracy specialists Denuvo.
The firm’s anti-tampering technology, which had been used on the likes of Just Cause 3, Lords of the Fallen and recent FIFA titles, was deemed so potent that in January, notorious Chinese cracking forum 3DM said that in two years there may be no more pirated PC games.
The next month, 3DM halted cracking work on single-player games, again citing Denuvo’s technology.
But the good news didn’t last – by July rumours that Denuvo’s protections on Rise of the Tomb Raider had been bypassed. The following month – 193 days after the title’s launch – an illegitimate version of the release was circulating following a Russian crack.
All of this was before indie game Inside from Playdead was cracked just six weeks after launch.
But Denuvo sales and marketing director Thomas Goebl (pictured, above left) says that creating software to stop a game being pirated for its entire existence isn’t the goal.
“You have to have a realistic view of anti-piracy measures,” he explains.
“There is no such thing as unbreakable protection. That’s something we always tell our clients to help manage their expectations. Our scope is to prevent early cracks for every title. We want to allow an initial window when a game is released to have an uncracked version and thus guarantee sales.”
The first few weeks after launch are the most important for any game. So while a title like Inside being cracked six weeks after release sounds pretty bad, it has in fact survived its most important sales period.
Games that don’t use any form of anti-piracy protection can suffer when it comes to sales. To pick one recent example, The Witness was heavily pirated during its launch window, according to developer Jonathan Blow.
Goebl continues: “Piracy has always been there on PC. Titles have always been cracked. If a title doesn’t use any kind of protection, it will be cracked before launch.”
In March of this year, the boss of indie publisher TinyBuild Alex Nichiporchik released information about the level in which Punch Club had been pirated. Speaking to MCV following this, the exec said he didn’t believe that software solutions like anti-tampering measures or digital rights management (DRM) were the answer to piracy as these ‘cripple’ experiences.
Rather, Nichiporchik believes that the solution to piracy is to make your product enticing, via regional pricing in lower wealth countries or better localisation.
Meanwhile, The Witcher III from CD Projekt Red launched with no built-in anti-piracy measures. Studio boss Marcin Iwinski has since said that winning over pirates with strategies including regional pricing is more effective than fighting them.
“We offer our service as one piece of a puzzle of how the publishers can try to optimise their sales in order to recoup their development costs,” Denuvo CEO Reinhard Blaukovitsch (pictured, top right) explains.
“Some trust in DRM solutions, ones that are user friendly. They also trust in our solution. There may be other solutions, where you go DRM free or do different price ranges in different territories. This is a marketing decision and strategy that the publishers may want to use. If they decide on some DRM technology or techniques, we can help them.”
Goebl adds: “Service is everything. Good games sell well, that’s the bottom line. The only thing that publishers or developers have to keep in mind is that as soon as there is a pirated version of a game out there, they are competing with a free version of the same game. Even if the service is good, if it has nice community features and so on, those people who don’t want to pay for it simply won’t pay because there is free competition.
“Especially for single player games, or if there’s a big single player portion to the game, it makes perfect sense to use an anti-tamper solution like ours to prevent any cracks during the launch window time frame.”
Piracy is very much an arms race between tech-savvy crackers and big companies trying to protect products.
“The procedure [after a crack] is the same every time,” Blaukovitsch says.
“We analyse how the crack was done and then we update our protection. It’s a game of cat and mouse that we play”
He continues: “There are many techniques we use to prevent people from debugging, reverse engineering and otherwise tampering with our software. We are improving that technology or those techniques on a day-to-day basis, and coming up with new ideas that are almost entirely new inventions on a monthly basis on how we improve our service.”
Of course, anti-piracy measures are nothing new. For as long as media has existed, there’s been someone trying to copy it.
In the games space, there have been numerous examples of companies attempting their own solutions to protect products. These have historically included DRM software or the requirement of an internet connection to play the game, which can have a negative impact on games. 2013’s SimCity, for example, required users to be online to play, with the game becoming unplayable if EA’s servers went down or the internet dropped out.
These days, however, many companies are turning to third-parties for support.
“Many publishers tried different approaches regarding anti-piracy measures from DRM through to always-on systems,” he explains.
“Many realised that outsourcing this task to a dedicated third-party makes sense as their speciality is creating and publishing games, not inventing anti-piracy measures which are non-invasive for paying consumers, easy to apply by the development studios and secure.”
He continues: “Publishers do still use DRM solutions, whether it’s on Steam, UPlay or EA Origins. We don’t interfere with whatever DRM solutions they want to pick. Whatever their decision is when it comes to DRM, we can help companies enjoy a longer time period before their game gets cracked.”
Going forwards, Denuvo is looking to take its anti-piracy knowledge outside of games.
“We would like to become the first choice out in the industry when it comes to anti-tamper technology, or if publishers consider anti-tamper technology, we want to be the first choice for them,” Blaukovitsch says.
“But we are also thinking of offering our services outside of the games industry. There’s quite valuable software out there in the business to business market, which also needs some form of protection or anti-tampering service. So we want to expand in that direction.”