Denuvo: "There is no uncrackable game. What we do is protect the initial sales"
Anti-tamper tech is far from iron-clad, but pirates are only willing to wait so long for a cracked game
Piracy in the games industry is a contentious issue. The rise of DRM with platforms like Steam, Origin, and uPlay has been met with consumer backlash, and even DRM-free competitors like GOG.com.
While some developers and publishers take a laissez faire attitude, others seek to protect early sales, which in turn fuels a piracy counter-culture intent on releasing game cracks.
As Elmar Fischer, sales director at anti-piracy company Denuvo, told GamesIndustry.biz during Gamescom this year: "It's a competition. For them it's really sport and they are idolised."
While there is no clear data to paint a picture on what scale piracy affects the industry, Denuvo argues that its anti-tamper technology protects early game sales, and can help secure the future of a property as a result.
"The effects are [obvious], but you don't see it really," says Fischer. "They don't talk; it's not like the movie industry where they have clear figures if a [film] is pirated."
Acquired in January by digital platform security firm Irdeto, Denuvo has essentially grown from a company of 45 people to over 1,000. While it doesn't rely on Irdeto for tech solutions, the newfound scale and accompanying resources have helped bolster security.
"If we have problems we can't fix ourselves, there is help," says Fischer. "There is somebody to talk the solutions through. It's not like we use a lot of tech initially, from Irdeto, it's still our own tech that we use, but if you have a problem it's nice to be able to talk it through because you have a lot of people of the same mindset."
While games with Denuvo are considerably more protected, it's impossible to offer a cast-iron guarantee of security. Some games will remain uncracked for months on end, such as Lords of the Fallen which lasted 272 days, while Rise of the Tomb Raider didn't make it past three weeks.
Worse still, Resident Evil 7, Rime, Tekken 7 were all cracked within under a week, casting doubt on the entire system, but it simply prompted Denuvo to refocus its efforts and consider how improvements could be made.
"Correct, we did have bit of a rough patch in Autumn last year especially with some quick cracks," Fischer explains. "I think that's also the timing when we had the idea to work together with Irdeto.
"Games will be cracked at certain points; there is no uncrackable product. But what we do is protect the initial sales"Elmar Fischer
"Seeking to strengthen our tech actually came from the acquisition with the complimentary tech; a lot of help from their engineering side... they have nearly unlimited resources compared to our 45 people."
Even so, Denuvo readily admits that is unable to protect a game indefinitely, but by delaying a crack as long as possible, can help drive pirates to buy the game instead.
"Our goal, and it's still the goal, is to protect initial sales," says Fischer. "Of course we would like to have it uncracked forever, but that just doesn't happen in the games industry."
Denuvo anti-piracy measures have altered the playing field in recent years; according to Fischer, games with only the basic levels of DRM get "cracked immediately".
"There is no manual effort needed," he says. "They have more or less generic ways to crack it".
Yet adding more advanced protection has led to trouble for the firm, too. Denuvo has attracted flak recently for allegedly causing performance issues in Tekken 7, Rime, and Sonic Mania. While Fischer suggested that the Tekken 7 issue was down to the game's complexity, he was not able to offer a rationale for why Sonic Mania was affected.
Convenience arguably remains a primary factor for those seeking to pirate a game. If a crack takes months to materialise, and is then destabilised by updates, pirates are more likely to consider buying it instead. This convenience element been demonstrated by the decline of torrent sites with the advent of video streaming services such as Netflix.
"You can see the piracy of the games, but it's really tough to tell how many of these would have bought the game," says Fischer. "We can estimate, and even if you take a small percentage of this number then the revenue would increase dramatically."
Of course, it's a deterrent rather than a panacea. As Lucas Catranis, director of piracy and cybercrime management at Irdeto, noted users on sites like CrackWatch are getting increasingly impatient waiting for a cracked version of the game.
"There's always a challenge in trying to determine how many people would convert from piracy to paid," he tells us. "There's certainly people out there who if they can get something for free they will do it. They never have any intention of paying. But there's always an element of people that if it's properly secured they will pay."
Neither Fischer nor Catranis were able to provide figures illustrating Denuvo's success at preventing piracy, arguing that it's more complicated than just numbers.
"It's difficult to look at it in a vacuum because it's dependent on the title," says Catranis. "Is it a sequel? Is it part of an established franchise? We can look at stuff where we have data where we can say that if something doesn't have protection on it, this is what it looks like."
It was a similar case when measuring piracy, and whether or not anti-tamper tech has contributed to a decline.
"It's a really tough one for us to answer straight," says Fischer. "For the games we protect, I think we have a huge impact, especially if we secure the initial sales window then we see a dramatic on the game and also the revenue when you compare it to other games that have been cracked immediately, but for the industry as a whole, it's very tough to answer."