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DRM and the Lost War Against Piracy

It's time for developers to admit that DRM isn't going to stop piracy and to just get on with making great games. Thankfully, that message seems to be gaining traction.

For as long as there have been video games, there have been various schemes put to use to secure them against unauthorized duplication. As technology has improved, so too have the methods used to secure digital items, eventually coalescing into a category of approaches called digital rights management (DRM). The trouble is, DRM has historically been little more than a speed bump for determined digital pirates.

To date, the most effective (and most widely used) DRM system comes from Irdeto, makers of the well-known Denuvo anti-piracy platform. It, too, has seen its share of failures, with some recent titles appearing in cracked form on piracy sites on the very day they were released.

And the price of that state-of-the-art DRM? Scores of annoyed gamers, who claim all of the extra anti-piracy tech is crippling the performance of the games that use it. It's all enough to make a game developer throw up their hands and surrender to the inevitable conclusion: that it's time to give up; the pirates have won.

Nothing New for Indie Devs

The reality is, that revelation is nothing new for indie game developers. Some never used DRM as a matter of principle. Others as a matter of cost containment. For the few that do release games with DRM, it's almost always because their release platform encourages it (like Steam). Still, there are stories dating back almost a decade about indie devs using the certainty of video game piracy as a marketing technique – sometimes to great effect.

And overall, it doesn't seem to be hurting developers as much as some might assume. For many, the exposure that comes from wide distribution of their titles far outweighs the lost revenue. This is especially true when you realize that many – if not most – of the people who pirate indie games were never going to purchase a legitimate copy in the first place. Plus, they reason, if whatever DRM they have access to will only buy them a day of piracy-free sales, is it even worth all of the extra testing and effort?

Big Studios Coming Around

It seems that the idea that DRM isn't worth using is starting to occur to some big game studios too. For a while now, studios like Bethesda, Ubisoft, and Epic Games have made DRM-free versions of their titles available on GOG.com, albeit with a bit of a delay after their initial launch. There's little evidence that it has hurt them in any way. In fact, Bethesda (who is known for making, shall we say, mistakes in their early releases) recently accidentally released their AAA title Doom Eternal with a DRM-free launcher included. The gaffe didn't seem to harm the sales of the game, even though the mistake was widely reported.

Some studios are even making the decision to ditch DRM intentionally. Flying Wild Hog studio, maker of Shadow Warrior 2, made headlines by stating that they didn't believe in DRM and wouldn't be using it. The principal developers said that they'd rather spend their time on making great games and building a community of passionate fans. They think that's a much clearer path to better sales than by trying to choke off piracy to encourage a few extra purchases.

Giving Gamers What They Want, Safely

There's another powerful dimension to the trend by developers and studios to pay more attention to gamers' wants and needs and to worry less about piracy. It's the persistent and damaging effect of pirated game releases being used to spread malware, viruses, coin miners, and other dangerous software. While many in the industry used to see the threat of such things as a deterrent to piracy, they're starting to recognize that it's a catch-22. The problem is that surveys have revealed time and again that video game pirates are often the same people that end up buying the vast majority of legitimate copies of games.

In some studies, as many as 35% of everyday gamers admitted to game piracy. What's more relevant, though, is that big majorities of those users claimed to be doing it to demo the games they were thinking of buying. And while those users will make use of VPN technology to avoid getting caught downloading games, a shocking number of them don't run an active and updated antivirus. That means pirated game copies laced with malicious software often cripple the PCs of users who would have gone on to purchase a legal copy of a given game – and that's where the real revenue losses for studios are.

The Bottom Line

So, when it comes to the never-ending war against piracy, it's pretty clear that many game developers have recognized that they're pursuing a lost cause. There aren't enough tangible benefits to using today's high-overhead DRM systems, and countless reasons not to. And the bottom line is that if there's no measurable monetary gain to be had by going all-in on DRM, and there are obvious and very visible reasons why doing so might be damaging the gamers the industry relies on, more developers are going to make the sane choice to go DRM-free. Under the circumstances and given the state of the market, who could blame them?

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