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How aggressive DRM in games only hurts the consumer

DRM has been around for years in video games, and it has never really solved the issue that is piracy. The issue I have with DRM is companies putting profits ahead of customer satisfaction, much like the plague that is loot crates. Aggressive forms of protection can have a negative effect on the game experience, requiring a constant internet connection, signing into an account or software that hogs valuable system resources that could (and should) be used by the game.

Assassin's Greed: Denuvo

Assassin's Creed Origins

The launch of Assassin's Creed: Origins (our Xbox One review — I, too, like it a fair amount) has been tainted by aggressive DRM that has reportedly hampered performance on a number of PCs. The game itself is protected by a form of DRM protection called Denuvo (which doesn't really work), followed by VMProtect to make it even more difficult for the title to be "cracked" — where someone alters game files to allow anyone to download the game without paying for it without issue.

This protection works by checking files before launching the game to ensure nothing has been altered. Once a crack has been developed, these checks are no longer made, and thus anyone can simply install the game after downloading it from somewhere. It sounds like something you'd agree with to protect the profits of a studio that worked hard on the said title (I don't necessarily agree with not paying for a product or service and using it). But when it comes to instances like Assassin's Creed: Origins where the performance of the game is affected, this is where it becomes a problem.

What makes matters worse is how legitimate purchasers of AC will have their experience hampered by said CPU spikes, while those on a future cracked release may not encounter this problem as the DRM protection will have been nullified. That's if the DRM is causing the issue. Ubisoft has stated that the protection is not the cause, but it's either that or poor optimization. And Assassin's Creed has four forms of DRM protection, by the way. Not only do we have Denuvo and VMProtect, but also Steam and UPlay. If that's not overkill, I don't know what is. And that kills me inside because I like the latest AC.

If you bought Assassin's Creed Origins and found the performance to be lackluster and realize there's an illegal copy that works just fine, would that encourage you to make a purchase on the next installment or hold off and grab a cracked version?

Push for no DRM

GOG

GOG

Ubisoft isn't alone when it comes to including this type of protection. SEGA included Denuvo in Sonic Mania for PC and required players to be connected online to play that game. It makes no sense to force your customers onto the internet to play a single-player (with same-screen co-op) Sonic game. There are countless similar examples.

There's already a platform where games can be bought without DRM, called GOG. There's no need to login to play a game, you can download a separate installation and use that on another PC that does not have GOG installed, which also allows for a full back up of the game (in case GOG is to be shut down at some point in the future). That's a user-friendly experience and is continuously well-received by consumers. Nothing gets between you and the game.

DRM doesn't work but publishers still use it.

Companies are going to have to come to terms with the fact you cannot halt piracy. The game will be available for free at some point and DRM becoming more invasive will only turn more people to pirating copies if the performance of a paid release is shocking, which is the opposite of what publishers hope to achieve. The humorous part is these same companies already know DRM fails to protect digital content.

Ubisoft's own VP of digital publishing said back in 2014, "I don't want us in a position where we're punishing a paying player for what a pirate can get around. Anything is going to be able to be pirated given enough time and enough effort to get in there. So the question becomes, what do we create as services, or as benefits, and the quality of the game, that will just have people want to pay for it?"

The Witcher 3

No DRM protection in The Witcher 3. Geralt doesn't need it.

Denuvo is now something that many consumers fear — in fact, some will even skip games that come packing this particular form of DRM. Whether it's invasive software that no one wants to be installed on their PC or having to be connected to the outside world to play a single-player game, DRM sucks, doesn't solve the issue of piracy and only affects paying customers.

When a game is really good, people are incentivized to part with their hard-earned cash. If a game is hampered by protection and isn't worth paying for, they simply won't.

Rich Edmonds
Rich Edmonds

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

46 Comments
  • Thats the thing isn't it. 
    Pirates, will be pirates. Chances are if they can't afford, or simply don't want to pay for games, adding DRM/Copy protection isn't going to stop them. The people that are downloading the games, while pirates, aren't the ones that are cracking the DRM/Copy protection in the games. 
    So pirates get games with no copy protection, since it's been cracked already by the time they get to it.  The only people DRM/Copy protection really is affecting is the people who're willing to buy the game anyway, and they have to deal with it... or do they? As it turns out, no, they don't. and that doesn't involve buying from places like GOG.com, instead they'll simply not buy the game at all... or they move on to pirate the game where they don't have to deal with the issue. 
    So in reality, the only thing DRM is doing is forcing the hand piracy. While, I've never heard a priate say, oh darn golly gosh, I wish I had DRM and copy protection so I couldn't install, or I wish I had DRM, because I love the lag it creates and destroying my SSD drives. It just doesn't happen.
     
  • It's true you'll either pirate or you won't - I got The Witcher 3 from GOG and I've never once considered just giving a copy of the installer to a friend if I'm honest
  • So the point against DRM as being detrimental to performance isn't even proven? In any case I assume that AC:Origins has steep enough requirements that for a machine that's able to run it, the performance impact of the DRM software would be negligible. Unless it's a really intense piece of software. I personally never had a problem with DRM, at all, and I see no point in the whole anti-DRM movement or the likes of GOG. I understand the publishers need to prevent piracy, especially for these ridiculously high-investment titles. In the end, I'd say this is part of the whole AAA title thing, there's a lot of things to dislike. So I think anyone's better off not playing them, otherwise just accept the crap that come with them, most of the people won't even notice.
  • I can definitely agree that it's never impacted me personally - I've seen the complaints over the years though where some specific games have given people issues. Guess on consoles it's just easier as I think the DRM is standard across the system
  • I agree.  This whole, "Well criminals are gonna criminal so why bother enforcing laws," idea is just bad logic.  We absolutely would not accept such things happening to us.  Can you imagine if banks didn't offer credit card fraud protection because, "Hey man, crooks are gonna steal credit cards.  Whadda gonna do!"  Or if cops said, "Hey man, sometimes cars get stolen.  Whadda gonna do!"    Illegally downloading a game is easy but it's still not as ubiquitious as the Napster days.  That is what the publishers are fighting against; a world where stealing a video game is just common knowledge.    Yes, some DRM is too intrusive and hurts the experience.  That does not mean that publishers should just open up the flood gates.  Sometimes your stolen car doesn't get returned, or they can't track down the person that stole your credit card, but you would at least expect the authorities to try.  Thus, it absolutely makes sense why companies implement DRM.  Because they don't want their stuff stolen anymore than you want yours.
  • Your examples aren't actually comparable. Not offering CC protection isn't the same as not offering DRM. Moreover, if the DRM simply worked, it probably wouldn't be an issue. But it doesn't. Just do a search on this site, and you'll come across articles about DRM failing and causing people to not be able to play a game they paid for. Or, worse, you'll also come across DRM that installed root-kits that made your PC vulnerable to attack. So, if your CC company said, "whoa, we are blocking you from purchases because we can't be sure its you using it.... and there's simply no way for you to prove it... so there's no way you're going to use this for awhile. Oh and we gave out your pin and account number and we're totally gonna let some other people use it." *THEN* you have a comparable situation.
  • Your example isn't perfect either because credit card companies do implement ways to verify that it's you and (more often than not) the system works.  If a publisher wants to implement a system to verify that it's you, and said system does not work (or hurts the experience), then that's an example of bad implementation.  That is not an example that the idea itself is bad.  Because, I assure you, if my credit card company didn't have a verification system, then I would be using a different company. And none of that addresses the issue that publishers - like every other company - don't want their products stolen.  Furthermore, they don't want to make ti easier to steal their products.  The solution to bad DRM is to implement a better system, not call it quits and allow games to be easily stolen to the point where it's common knowledge. 
  • Also, a point I hadn't thought of originally. The protection is at cost to the credit card company to protect you. DRM is at cost to you to protect the publisher. Again, value-add for the customer is good. Value-lost for the customer is bad. And all versions of DRM have been cracked. Origins will be cracked soon too. So your last point is moot. You can pirate virtually any game. DRM does not protect anybody. Like the article stated, even Ubisoft has acknowledged this. And if you look at GOG, there are plenty of games that are now available without DRM *legally* that are still making money. So your entire last paragraph doesn't really seem to hold water.
  • I already acknowledged that some DRM is bad.  It was in my original point.  I also acknowledge that publishers are fighting to keep the problem from getting worse.  This whole, "Moot point, don't hold water" nonsense that you're spouting is exactly what people say when they want to dismiss valid ideas.  Your argument can't be so simple minded as, "Let them steal because they're gonna do it anyway."  I'm sorry but that's not a logical solution to anything; be it a stolen game or stolen purse.  If everything you say reverts back to, "Just let them steal," then I am clearly not talking to a logical person and there's no reason to continue this conversation.
  • But the system doesn't work. And inherently, it never will. It will always be cracked. Your arguments are as empty as the ones made to fight against removing DRM from music. I'm assuming you still think we should add DRM back to that, huh?
  • Exactly. People who don't like DRM are asking to have it removed, when the point should be just having better DRM (I'm terms of the technical issues they supposedly bring).
  • Exactly. People who don't like DRM are asking to have it removed, when the point should be just having better DRM (I'm terms of the technical issues they supposedly bring).
  • no, that isn't the answer. the answer was provided by the music industry long ago. skip the DRM. its a waste of money. you're paying to hinder your experience. the companies are wasting money with zero return. There's no other industry that treats its customers this poorly, but ebooks & movie/tv are close behind. Considering ebooks are currently working with DRM because few people change ecosystems, plus most of the major ones are easily broken and movie/tv actually spent a considerable amount of money to ensure that they can offer a better experience than a pirated movie. In fact, they're doing such a good job, that they're actually making the DRM that's on physical media a hindrance and their sales are declining (its not all just due to everything going digital).  
  • It's also an argument of the "everything should be" crowd. I can definitely understand that those who produce digital content want to control and protect it's distribution to be able to get revenue out of it. At some point this boils down to a moral stance on the matter. There are people that stand with the concept that if it can be copied, it should be copied, whether its a movie, a game, a song, book, or even schematics to print technology. This is an oversimplification that couldn't possibly work in capitalism, in the current ways that money is put into producing content to get a revenue for it. It's a complex matter, but in the end, it turns out being a way ensure that those who create content get money from it, because they have chosen to. Those who choose to create content and give it away or "lend" it, good for them.
  • Not a good analogy. This is like having credit card protection that requires you to call the bank before every purchase, jumping through hoops to prove you're legitimate all laong the way. The biggest example of this isn't games, though, it's movies and TV shows. With a CD, I can buy something, rip it to my PC, and put it on any of my devices. That's what I gt for $8. If I go throw $20 at a movie or $60 at a season of a TV show (even more, in some cases), what do I get? I'm locked into the disc. I can't put it on my phone and watch it. I can't watch it on a Surface without an external optical drive. All the while, pirates rip through this DRM with ease. It only punishes the paying customers who want to take their media on the go. It's a move to kill physical media, similar to the one Microsoft received major backlash for at E3 2013. This isn't a car alarm to deter theft. This is a car alarm that requires you to reach out to the police every time you want to unlock your car.
  • The problem is this: the pirated version will *always* run better than the purchased copy. That's just the way it works. DRM causes unnecessary burden on the system. The encryption and decryption at work to 'protect' these games isn't child's play, even if you have a suitable rig. Chances are likely the GPU is what's giving you the graphics performance required. The CPU however will be unnecessarily taxed continually proving the files aren't altered. It's virtually impossible for this to not affect gameplay. This isn't something that they can easily offload and perform on an extra core or processor in perfect parallel. Anytime these files are accessed by the game, its held up by a complicated protocol. Adding an extra step between you and the game will always affect performance. It's only there to deter the small group of people who try and crack it (and eventually always succeed). Kind of like those ads before a movie that you purchased that say piracy is not a crime. You have to sit through an ad for a movie you purchased. Someone who pirated it does not. So pay for ads? or get no ads by not paying? And the corollary for DRM on games is "pay for sub-par performance? or don't pay and get better performance?" These concepts are ridiculous. if something isn't a value-add to the customer, it arguably shouldn't be there. If something subtracts value from the customer, it *really* shouldn't be there.   Edit: and i'm glad you haven't had a problem. but its been heavily documented where games that were purchased would simply not work due to the DRM not functioning properly for large swaths of people. if it ever happens to you, would you want to see someone respond to your problem with "well, it worked for me, so..."
  • Also, you mention just because it's not working well means you need to make it better. No, that's not true. if its not working well, it means find a better method. Burdening the customers isn't the way to go. Burden the pedalers. The reason music piracy isn't as bad as it once was is due to making it easier to purchase the music than it is to pirate it. DRM never stopped music piracy. It was actually worse during the DRM days than it was afterwards. Removing the DRM actually increased online sales. There's no evidence DRM as a whole actually does what it's intended to do. Everyone just assumes. I've pointed to an example where the removal of DRM actually increased the revenue of an entire industry. Can you show me an example where DRM increased the revenue of even one company?
  • to be fair, the CIC was primarily introduced to stop un-approved games from playing on the NES. Anti-theft was a secondary reason that was inherent in how the chip worked.
  • DRM is,what turned me off gaming. Haven't bought a PC game in almost ten years.
  • The studios have already found a solution for piracy: Micropayments. Steal the base game and you still end up paying hundreds of dollars on micropayments.
  • you know, I never thought of it like that. People have found ways to "mine" the fake currency though.
  • You're right. Because they're all about maximising income. So this adds up as a reason against piracy, and in favor for DRM.
  • Worse yet, legitimate players end up being the ones paying the extra in microtransactions that covers the losses in pirated software.
  • One of the reasons why I don't play big game titles anymore. I'm into puzzle platformers now. I havent turned on my Xbox in 7 months and mainly use my gaming PC for watching movies.
  • I don't understand the author stating "I don't necessarily agree with not paying for a product or service and using it". Why is the word "necessarily" in there?
  • because a really good case can be made that you get a better experience by not paying for it.
  • You mean stealing it.
  • changing the words doesn't change anything. i'm just stating a possible reason why its there. moreover, he later talks about paying for a product and then using the pirated copy as well. so it could also go towards that argument. you're really going out of your way to defend DRM here.
  • I didn't mean to imply I'm for DRM. I'm not. I agree with your points. I simply mean saying 'necessarily', sort of implies that there may be times when it is ok to use a product in any way without buying it. I really believe the best user experience should be for those who put down their money for a product.
  • and that's the whole thing. 9 times out of 10, the better experience goes to the person who doesn't pay for it. you and i suffer because we decide to pay, while the person who doesn't pay for it comes out ahead and that sucks.
  • DRM on ebooks should be ended, too!
  • yeah, its really annoying that you can't purchase once and read everywhere. especially considering that DRM can be removed from most ebooks. So, its not going to stop piracy. Anything that can be purchased on Amazon for the Kindle (haven't tried their non-traditional ebooks, like textbooks and comics) can be pirated. Its not protecting anything.
  • Eh... DRM isnt bad at all. I've never noticed it ever cause me any difficulties... I probably buy 15-20 games a year on all platforms including PC. Saying getting rid of DRM is the same arguement as saying "Why lock your doors to your house?". In the end you have made it more difficult and will discourge the lazy criminal who will go after an easier target. If someone is really determined they will steal regardless of the protections you put in place. But that doesnt mean you shouldnt put those protections in to make the criminal work for it.
  • the music industry makes more money online without DRM than they did with DRM. what was your argument about DRM being useful again? You have to look at it economically. The black market product will always be available. So, there are two experiences. The one being sold and the black market one. You need to make sure the one being sold is better. That's how the market works. And honesty & integrity have nothing to do with it, because as much integrity as you or I may have, as a population, a majority of people will always go for the cheapest one, especially if the cheaper one is better. This argument was had over a decade ago and DRM lost.
  • Some folks here may be too young to remember, but the first foray into Digital Rights Management was with music. It's now anathema to find music wrapped in DRM. They may also forget that removing DRM actually did more to fight music piracy than any other act. So I'm curious to know why they're so adamantly fighting to protect it here. DRM doesn't work because, by design, it breaks your computer. Computers process and copy data all the time. You're now trying to break the "copy" part. Digital Rights Management for video games is a requirement that some of us have to live with. Steam's version on its own isn't half bad, but still requires connection to the internet after awhile and also, if it ever goes out of business, you've lost your entire library. If something is available on GOG, I will always purchase it there instead of Steam. I want the ability to keep the game just in case they go out of business, which is always a possibility. And don't assume they're too big to go away. They may just shut down servers at some point as they transition to something else. Does anyone remember Amazon Unboxed Video? They replaced it with Instant Video. You used to be able to download video and play it offline with their Unbox Player. Now you can't. However, they at least gave you a small window to download anything you purchased to keep forever afterward. There's no guarantee Steam will do the same if they transition to something else. Maybe they'll only allow cloud-playing in the future and you'll need 100% connection to the internet at all times and require huge bandwidth with low latency. DRM is shady. DRM punishes no one but law-abiding citizens. Soon, only criminals will have games.
  • Which is also why I _buy_ games from GOG instead of just borrow them from Steam.
  • For sonic mania it seriously hampered the PC sales and I doubt they’ll ever win that loyalty back from consumers. DRM ruined what was otherwise one of the best games of he year. And the worst part is the people who developed the game didn’t even want it, they were at the mercy of Sega’s publishin practices.   It needs to stop. Games like Path of Exile have already figured out that if you want to make real money off a game you need to build a core player base and you need to get them to spend money in a more sttractive fashion than pre-orders and season passes.   Pirates are never going away and they’ve already published that document overseas that found piracy barely impacted sales. Developers need to stop fighting the consumer and work with them instead.
  • I had Sonic Mania pre-ordered. As soon as it was revealed that it used Denuvo I got a refund. Had South Park Fractured But Whole pre-ordered. Cancelled the pre-order as soon as it was revealed it used Denuvo. Honestly, these games have been cracked and are available on the internet, so they might as well patch out Denuvo like Id and Doom (which I bought after they patched out Denuvo).
  • I used to pirate when I was unemployed, now days I will just wait for a sale if I don't want to pay full price. I don't buy anything from UBIsoft since they reduced the quality of Watch Dogs to match consoles and their strong support of DRM anyway. I don't think their games are all that impressive to begin with.
  • as games get larger and most ppls internet remains capped eventually we get to a point where Investing in drm as a company spends more money than it theoretically saves.
  • Ah, the complete irony of this article .... an article downplaying the pros of DRM on games posted to a website that uses a form of DRM to prevent users from reading content unless they choose to receive advertisements from the same site. If that's not the pot calling the kettle black .... 
  • i find it odd that anti-DRM is getting downvoted, pro-DRM is getting upvoted, yet absolutely zero evidence has been provided for the pro-DRM camp. Simply just saying it stops piracy doesn't actually mean it does. There is ample evidence from the music industry that DRM actually hurt the industry and it proliferated after it was removed. Can someone who is downvoting the anti-DRM posts *please* provide a reason why they think it helps? And not just "it feels like it does." Like an actual logical argument would be nice.
  • Because people who feel entitled to play a game they didn't pay for doesn't pay the bills that get AAA games made. Yeah DRM is getting cracked but the fact it's there pushes alot of people to buy the game because they don't want to wait until someone cracks it. Even more people pay because they don't want to risk downloading the pirates version because of viruses and ransomware. I've never noticed any performance issues with DRM on pc, I've never seen convincing evidence there is any. Anyways the solution is better DRM, not removing DRM. The commenter above is right, love microtransactions? That's the future pirates built. 
  • I like light flash games, such as mario cross and zombies vs plants at http://www.friv5.site/ which are available without installation. Don't want to waste time on installation and registration. I have Nintendo Switch but I play games mostly on PC
  • As a musician, I'm cautious about putting out music cause I've had discussions like this over music for the last decade. Content creators have very little protection once the content is available to be copied, and not enough people care enough to be inconvenienced to protect your rights. If someone came to your day job and just took credit for your work with your boss, that's about the closest thing I can compare, and your boss just saying "okay, idc who made it, long as its good" This is why free to play games with paid content packs rose up, as a way to curb losses. But not gonna please everyone, I dunno what the answer is but I'm for helping creators get paid
  • I only play blizzard multi player games on PC - the kind that require internet connection and an account, so there is very little point in putting DRM on these games. For everything else, there is PlayStation 4.  I stopped buying PC titles over a decade ago, when the DRM mania was picking up steam.  I remember a copy of unreal tournament I had ... the discs were going bad, so I copied them and couldn’t use the copy because of the copy protection. That was the end of that road for me.