Why DRM Doesn’t Work & Actually Hurts Consumers

Sonic Mania

Sonic Mania launched on PC to critical acclaim & was quickly torn to shreds due to the use of DRM software Denuvo. I write about why DRM doesn’t work.

The Rise & Fall of DRM

My experience with DRM started pretty far back in my PC gaming career. At the time, the DRM in question was StarForce. Even back then, StarForce was seen as a bit of a hack job. I had friends who had hard drives corrupted by installing it and although I couldn’t prove the cause, my PC started running slow not long after installing a StarForce-enabled game. The little I understand of it is that basically it gave high-level HDD rights to itself.

It didn’t work, of course.

The method of getting around StarForce was simple (CD emulation) for pirated copies, and came with none of the risks associated with installing it. Because of that, forcing only the paying customers to use intrusive software while pirates got away with the game as intended.

There were calls across the board to boycott it and force developers to remove it. It took a long time but eventually it worked. Ubisoft made a lot of people happy when they announced they weren’t going to use it any more.

The Continued DRM Debate

A decade later there are a couple of pieces of DRM software still active – SecuROM and Denuvo. SecuROM was included on games like Bioshock and Mass Effect. I have no personal experience of games that use it, but according to the Wikipedia page, it suffers from some of the same issues. It’s a bad day when a “feature” is that a piece of software installed by another piece of software is removed at the same time as the original.

Microsoft themselves announced in 2015 that SecuROM would not function on Windows 10, citing it as a security risk. This seems like the most damning condemnation of all.

Sonic Mania & Denuvo

Sonic Mania recently came out on PC and was enjoying critical acclaim as a welcome return to form for the blue hedgehog. This was until gamers realised it came with Denuvo DRM software installed. It’s by no means the only game which uses it (the current list is here) but the mistake the developers made was not mentioning it. There have been reports of the game performing better after removing the software, but that seems anecdotal right now. They got review bombed as a result and started offering refunds.

But to realise how pointless DRM is, all you need to do is look at the Wiki page. Around 2/3 of the games using it have already had the software beaten by crackers. So who is suffering here? Is it the pirates, who get the clean non-Denuvo version of Sonic Mania? Or is it the paying customers, who bought it through Steam and don’t have the choice? Steam itself is already a really good DRM method. Denuvo is an unnecessary piece of bloatware that at best does nothing and at worst causes performance problems.

So What Can Be Done?

What did people do about copyright on DVDs and CDs? You can put warnings on things, but you can’t make people obey them. The best thing any company can do is make the legal version so easy that it’s more trouble to pirate it than it’s worth. Steam put an end to my days of getting “suspect” content. It’s just easier to download the legit version from Steam than it is to find a valid torrent and work through whatever issues that comes with. Netflix put a dent in torrenting by offering a great service that people wanted to pay for.

Make your version more desirable than the alternative. Trust your actual customers, because they’re the ones who want to pay you.