Earlier this week the cracking collective 3DM announced that they would no longer be attempting to unshackle single-player games from their DRM protection, leaving the piracy scene for at least a year to assess the repercussions it has on videogame sales.
That's 3DM's own spin on the fact that they're entering a hiatus, at least. The last big announcement from the China-based group was of their frustration trying to get around Denuvo's Anti-Tamper Tech to crack Just Cause 3, so it seems at least possible that there might be another narrative at play causing 3DM to withdraw from videogame piracy.
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Austria-based Denuvo first demonstrated their Anti-Tamper Tech in the wild to protect EA's FIFA 15 from piracy. Historically the FIFA games attracted huge levels of piracy prior to 15, regularly making the top ten most pirated games lists. ATT was so effective that EA also enlisted Denuvo to protect Dragon Age: Inquisition from piracy, likewise City Interactive's Lords of the Fallen.
On 1st December 2014, 3DM made a breakthrough. "After 15 days of work, the 64bit version of Denuvo has been cracked," they announced in a statement on their site. "This hints at FIFA 15, DA:I, and Lords of the Fallen being ready for release in the near future.”
True to their word, 3DM released a cracked version of Dragon Age: Inquisition two weeks after the game was shipped.
But the fact Denuvo's Anti-Tamper Tech was eventually circumvented isn't really the point, sales & marketing director Thomas Goebl tells me: "We do not position our Anti-Tamper solution as uncrackable, only hard to crack."
It might seem a minor point, but it's very telling about the relationship piracy groups have with anti-piracy measures. SecuROM and SafeDisc, both on the front line of the fight at from 2008 to present, were a gauntlet laid down to pirates.
Bypassing them was a challenge, and a means of voicing discontent to what many percieved to be a shady practice that infringed on people's rights - Maryland resident Melissa Thomas filed a successful class-action lawsuit against EA for their implementation of SecuROM in Spore in 2008.
Denuvo's strategy is smarter. On one hand their admission that ATT is theoretically possible to crack diminishes the bravado of the traditional relationship between pirates and anti-piracy companies, so that there are fewer bragging rights for the cracker who manages it.
On the other hand, the apparently laborious nature of cracking ATT keeps the game safe from piracy for at least the first few days after its release, when potential sales are at their highest. "Our focus is to help publishers to secure the initial sales windows of their games," says Goebl, "hence delaying piracy."
The idea of pirated copies as lost sales has long been contested, and perhaps the best illustration of the vagueness of that relationship comes from Just Cause 3 and The Witness. The former deployed Denuvo's ATT and enjoyed much of its opening week on PC piracy free. The latter did not, and by creator Jonathan Blow's admission was heavily pirated:
It seems The Witness is the #1 game on a certain popular torrent site.— Jonathan Blow (@Jonathan_Blow) January 28, 2016
Unfortunately this will not help us afford to make another game! :(
Blow also revealed that The Witness made somewhere in the region of $5 million in its opening week across both PC and PS4. Using SteamDB's data to cross check that figure (while keeping in mind that it's by no means gospel), that $5 million checks out: 71,000 current Steam owners who paid $40 each equals $2.84 million dollars of PC revenue to date, just over half the figure Blow estimated across both platforms.
Just Cause 3 meanwhile, according to SteamDB, currently has 508,000 Steam users.
There are obvious flaws in comparing those two figures. They're two different types of game, marketed with different budgets, appealing to different audiences, released at different times of the year.
But the disparity of those numbers, coupled with the reported high piracy rate of one and reported anti-piracy success of another... well, it's at least enough for someone to entertain the idea that there might be a relationship between sales and piracy.
And the effect Denuvo's software is having on that relationship is attracting a growing number of publishers. Konami used ATT to safeguard Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, EA for Battlefield: Hardline, FIFA 16, and Star Wars Battlefront. Square Enix used ATT for Rise of the Tomb Raider after Just Cause 3's release, too.
It's popular, then. And it seems to be having a tangible impact on the industry. 3DM are by no means the only cracking group out there, but they are a big name in the field.
The question is: what are Denuvo doing differently? How are they succeeding where previous anti-piracy measures have failed.
"We see three major differences," Goebl tells me. "Our solution is very secure, has no extra hurdles for the paying consumer, no negative impact on the in-game performance [or] experience, and is easy to apply by the development studios."
That statement's especially interesting, because it implicitly references the issues many vocalised - sometimes in the courtroom - about SecuROM. And in turn, that's interesting because Denuvo and SecuROM are one and the same.
"Denuvo is the new company formed from the management buyout of the Sony DADC DigitalWorks team," reads the 'who are we?' section of the company's official site. "The team that developed best-of-breed copy protection like SecuROM for games and Screen Pass for movies."
That changes the narrative about anti-piracy. This isn't the story of a new company succeeding where others have failed by applying their brave new strategy. It's about the old company learning from their mistakes and eventually besting their old foe.
"Regarding security," Goebl continues, "our protection [produces] these good results [because] we created a very dedicated, niche product for Windows-based games on Steam, Origin and alike. By comparison, most other Anti-Tamper providers are less focused and offer a wide range of OS and programming language support."
Whether 3DM return in February 2017 and resume their activities remains to be seen. Whether their hiatus has a noticeable effect on PC game sales is also anyone's guess, and that's the more interesting half of the equation. Meanwhile, Denuvo will continue to make Anti-Tamper Tech more difficult to circumvent.
The war between the old foes might not be over, but it appears as though it's at least winding down, and the pirates are not flying their flags victoriously.