How Often Are Games Actually Lost To DRM?

Since the last time I talked about DRM here we’ve had more time to see the effects of Denuvo. Instead of going through all the usual DRM talking points like sales or quality of services for paying customers versus pirates, I’m gonna focus on one thing: the perceived affect of DRM on the future preservation of games. The whole thing begs the question: do important games actually often become “lost to time” because of DRM making them inaccessible?

From what I understand about Denuvo (I’m not an expert on how these things work), all it really does is stop people from tampering with the executables of PC games. Past forms of DRM like Games For Windows Live or SecuROM have at the very least presented themselves as gates to the consumer or even entire services housing each game. Denuvo on the other hand tries to stay invisible, only doing just enough to stop people from creating cracked exe files to bypass Steam or whatever other kind of service. Most people probably don’t even realize it’s there without outside information. Thus, Denuvo lacks a major weakness of other DRM options — it doesn’t make buying and acquiring games any more difficulty than buying them through Steam or something. On top of that, from what I hear nothing has really emerged to back up claims that it adversely affects game performance.

The only thing left is how Denuvo locks down exes, which has potentially dangerous implications for preserving games that use it down the road. Making older PC games available to today’s users very often requires fiddling around with or replacing the exe — the same method used to crack and pirate games. Something like Denuvo could potentially make that impossible in the coming years. But where have we actually seen games disappear due to stuff like this?

The biggest fear of people who don’t like DRM is that the activation servers will eventually go down and they won’t be able to activate their DRM-locked games. The most infamous example of a DRM service shutting down and endangering games is when Microsoft finally put a bullet in the head of its infamous Games For Windows Live service. Fortunately, developers saw this coming and popular games like Dark SoulsRed Faction GuerrillaBioshock, and Fallout 3 received updates or re-releases with GFWL gone. I still think I may have lost access to the copies of Viva Pinata and Age of Empires III I paid for though.

Another bad one not a lot of people talk about anymore is what happened to Direct2Drive. First D2D transferred all its games and purchases to GameFly, then it went back to being D2D, but a lot of games and purchases got lost in that last step. On my end I lost the ability to activate my copy of Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines, which I bought as recently as 2010. The only way I can play my current copy now is with an unofficial mod that replaces the exe. The same thing happened to my copy of SWAT 4 which I’m unsure if I can play at all. Worse for that game is that it’s currently unavailable on any digital service. With Bloodlines I could at least buy another copy on Steam or GOG. And that usually seems to be the worst of what happens — really old games get resurrected on GOG and Steam where people can re-buy them to activate and play them with less fuss. I did it a few times. It’s kind of the same reason remasters are big on consoles right now.

GOG Connect is actually kind of a smaller example of a store letting people take measures to preserve games they already paid for. An earlier, similar implementation is a page where GOG let’s customers enter old retail codes of a select few games that apparently no longer activate. I wish it let me do that with Bloodlines.

In any case what all this says to me is that if at some point in the future whatever servers Denuvo talks to go down or some future version of Windows breaks a bunch of games that currently use Denuvo, there’s a good chance their developers and publishers will do something about it. I’ve heard some suggest that even if DRM isn’t that harmful in the short term, publishers should remove it from games a few years after launch — after the bulk of its sales have been made and people start looking to preserve it.

That brings me to another issue I’m a bit concerned with — the likelihood of more recent games appearing on GOG after they become “old.” The overwhelming majority of games on GOG made after around 2005 are games from small companies. Big companies like EA, Ubisoft, or Square Enix are willing to let GOG have their games from roughly 2003 and earlier, but I think we should be seeing more games from the PS3 and 360 era go to GOG. Ubisoft has a few highlights like the original Assassin’s CreedFar Cry 2, the 2008 Prince of Persia, and Rayman Origins on GOG, but will it ever release games like Assassin’s Creed II or Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory completely free of DRM? Would the games being released with Denuvo now get DRM-free versions eight or nine years from now?

BULLETS:

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