Video games are increasingly being cracked by pirates on or even before their release day. With copy protection failing, is it game over for developers?
You wouldn’t steal a car, but would you steal a video game?
Piracy numbers are, by their clandestine nature, difficult to calculate, but reliable sources and studies have estimated that 35% of PC gamers pirate regularly, with 90% of PC gamers admitting to pirating a game at least once. Further to this, torrented games totalled almost 2.5 billion downloads in 2016 - and these were just tracked torrents, and did not include direct downloads.
Many studies have been conducted to investigate the reasons that consumers are pirating video games. Users typically respond vocally, claiming particularities in their piracy that targets certain game companies or developers. The most common motive found relates to price, especially in developing economies where, proportional to income, games are impossibly expensive for the average consumer. Other motives relate to a desire to demo games, with the PC Gamer study revealing that 55.4% of respondents often or always buy a game after pirating it. Yet a further reason relates to copyright protection for games, which can cause lag in game performance.
Many of us will remember a friend, or classmate, or colleague from years past, who had pirated versions of albums, movies or even games for offer. The games would be burned onto CDs and sold around their network.
Video games are notoriously difficult to rip from an original disc and burn onto a set of new ones, equally so to put a file from the internet onto a CD and have it function like it's authentic. So, those who had the know-how would often look to turn that into a profit.
Back in the day, pirates were restricted to clandestine messageboards, filled with tech hobbyists and enthusiasts of free content. The moderation was minimal, the subject matter illegal, and so secretive piracy communities were formed.
Enter YouTube. How-to videos have been popular on the video hosting site for a long time, with tips for everything from installing a hinge on a door to house-training a dog - to teaching viewers how to illegally download videogames. We're in a point in time where there are extremely popular youtubers teaching their viewers about kodi setups and other modern services.
Videos like these have trained an entire generation of sophisticated content pirates. They've stayed up to date with the times, keeping up with evolving security measures and working out how to circumvent them, finding workarounds for even the most secure games. Some of these videos even contain links for download links and simple installation instructions. Content piracy hasn't been the field of tech enthusiasts for some time - it's turned into a free buffet for anyone with 15 minutes to spend on YouTube.
However, change may be on the horizon; YouTube appear to be taking action against some of the largest accounts that blatently profit from their tutorials. In a statment to the BBC, YouTube stated:
“YouTube creators may include paid endorsements as part of their content only if the product or service they are endorsing complies with our advertising policies,”
Digital Rights Management, or DRM, has been implemented in many types of content, including music, eBook and video game files, and it protects copyrights by making content impossible to replicate without removing the DRM. A problem with DRM is that it can be hacked and removed. Just as digital comic books have begun to give up on DRM as a means to protect held copyrights, many video game developers have expressed exasperation at how DRM protection is being abused.
Launched in September 2014, Denuvo was hailed as the saviour to this problem. It’s not been made clear exactly how the system works, but Denuvo protects DRM through a combination of complex encryption and re-activation in the case of a hardware change, in a way that was supposedly “impossible” to break into. And Denuvo was impossible to break into - until it wasn’t anymore. Less than three months later after its launch, Denuvo was cracked by Chinese pirate group 3DM, using a specialised encryption machine.
Today, there are few Denuvo-protected games that haven’t yet been hacked. In its defense, Denuvo claimed that its tech was still effective during the initial release window of video games. However, even this isn’t always the case. The website CrackWatch provides a searchable index of these ‘cracked’ games, showing a scattering of Denuvo games that were hacked as little as 2 days after release.
In one case, a group developed a key generator for game Dishonored 2, that would legitimise users in the eyes of Denuvo. If the technology could be developed for other games, this would truly be a game changer in video game piracy.
Unfortunately, as Denuvo updates become more secure its file size increases, impacting game speeds more and more to the frustration of players. In response, many developers are dropping Denuvo and DRM altogether, and trialling other solutions.
Many developers are beginning to believe that piracy is an inevitability, and instead try to appeal to gamers to support video games that are the product of many hours’ work. Some developers even gifted access keys and uploaded copies of their games onto torrent websites, in the hope that some users will enjoy the game and buy a genuine copy.
Such lax approaches can result in rampant piracy, and in some cases have even caused games to experience server overload and crash with unprecedented numbers of online users, the vast majority of whom are illegitimate.
A devious way of fighting video game piracy is through in-game punishments. Some developers have designed their games to recognise illicit downloaders, and have added features specific to these users.
We recently wrote on ironic cases of piracy, naming some pirates’ fury at being targeted in this way after they were trolled by ingenious developers at Greenheart Games. Game Dev Tycoon is a game in which users work in a video game company, but when the game was pirated the video games released inside the game would increasingly be pirated, eventually bankrupting the company.
Other similar approaches by developers has included eyepatches for avatars of pirate users in Quantum Break, guns that turn on you in Duke Nukem Forever, and a particularly evil method in The Legend of Zelda: The Octorok’s Curse whereby one hit would not only kill a character, but send them back to the beginning of the game.
Whilst gaming platform Steam does protect games with DRM, these tend to be quickly cracked and the program instead focuses on discouraging piracy through a positive user experience. Purchased games are tied to accounts and displayed in unlimited libraries, modernising the process of buying, gifting, storing and playing video games, whilst allowing for offline use. Additionally, Steam has an active community, and frequent sales with heavily-discounted games.
Steam has worked to reform some pirates, but piracy is still a temptation for many for its sheer accessibility. In just a few clicks users can have access to thousands of game downloads on hundreds of torrent sites. To achieve true reform, availability must be limited.
Stopping or at least curbing video game piracy does seem within reach, but the vocality of the video game community suggests that developers need to work with their user base to reform the problem, backing away from DRM solutions that infuriate gamers. Offering demos to players may in some cases prove effective, and Steam as a platform can readily offer this - one developer even suggests that gamers do use Steam refunds to demo games, as the system allows two hours of gameplay before refunds are closed off.
Appealing to gamers can have some consequences especially for indie developers, but unfortunately the reality is likely to be that once pirating is fixed in habits, where it is an easy option it will not be stopped. Perhaps video game developers and companies should instead turn their attention towards limiting the widespread availability of games online, which has thus far been largely ignored.
Piracy and torrent sites will soon be put under heavy threat with the Google Chrome ad blocker that will only block intrusive ads common to torrent websites. Additionally, while it is true that some torrent sites will not comply with DMCA requests, many do, and direct downloads can also often be removed through a combination of DMCA requests and C&D letters, the legwork of which can be largely automated using an anti-piracy tech solution.
To find out more about the Red Points anti-piracy solution, and about how digital natives are changing piracy, take a look at our free eBook: