Posted at May 23, 2020

4 of the Worst Attempts at Video Game DRM

PC gamers don’t like digital rights management in the best of times. More often than not, it does little to stop online piracy while inconveniencing people who bought the game legally. Sadly, publishers have been slow to let this lesson sink it. We would be here all night if I listed every horrible attempt at digital rights management. Instead, here are four of the worst attempts at DRM in video game history.

First off, we have…


This system has blighted PC games since 2014. The fact that versions of it are still in use six years later just drives home how stubborn this industry can be.

What is so bad about Denuvo? Well, the idea behind it is that instead of making games harder to crack, Denuvo scans the files to make sure they hadn’t been cracked already. If the data it looks for has been altered or deleted, it downloads it again.

The problem for consumers is that process can put too much of a burden on the computer’s CPU, noticeably slowing down the game. Denuvo also requires kernel-level access, meaning that it can theoretically alter any process or file at any time. While I doubt EA is going to try using it to delete their competitor’s games, it creates a potential weakness the hackers could exploit. With all that in mind it’s no surprise that Doom: Eternal players were outraged when Bethesda Softworks decided to incorporate it into the game after release.

Although, I cannot think of a more fitting place to put Denuvo than a game about Hell.

Dial a Pirate

Video game piracy was much simpler in the 1990s. All you had to do was buy a CD burner and a case of blank CD-ROMs to make as many unlicensed copies as you want. The standard method of DRM was to make the player type in specific lines from the manual. This brilliant strategy relied entirely on people not having access to photocopiers.

Enter Lucas Arts, the unquestioned king of the 90s adventure game boom. Their solution was as clever as it was simple. Copies of The Secret of Monkey Island shipped with a cardboard code wheel called Dial a Pirate. It works like this; a picture of a pirate, the sailing kind, would appear on the screen. Players used the wheel to match the face to a date and location.

While it was probably the most fun attempt at DRM, it didn’t work. All someone had to do was pull apart the two sheets of cardboard and photocopy each one separately to get an ugly but functional duplicate. In the end, it only inconvenienced people who bought the game legally then lost the wheel. Considering it was a small piece of thin cardboard, that was not exactly hard to do.

Xbox One always online DRM

Always online DRM is annoying enough on its own, but what Microsoft tried to pull takes the cake by far. When the Xbox One was announced, Microsoft had a plan that would have ruined your day whether you had a stable internet connection or not. It never came true but is an important reminder of what companies will try to pull if they think they can get away with it

Microsoft’s system would have allowed publishers to ban players from using second hand or borrowed games or let them charge a fee to make them playable. Fortunately, Microsoft reversed course in the face of overwhelming public outcry. If nothing else that shows, some companies aren’t entirely oblivious to the desires of the consumer. They’re just mostly oblivious.

Now we only have to spend three hours installing everything. And that is way better, right?

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the Commodore 64

This vintage disaster was an attempt to solve the same problems the Monkey Island team would face years later. It has also gone down in history as possibly the worst DRM of all time. Each copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the Commodore 64 came with a sheet of passwords printed in low contrast colors. This made it effectively photocopier proof, but also made the text incredibly hard to read.

TMNT was hardly a monument in the annals of gaming history. According to Kotaku contributor Luke Plunkett, it was a piece of absolute garbage. But what makes it significant is that the game was released in 1989. That was thirty-one years ago, and nothing has really changed. The tactics and technology may be different, but at the end of the day, it’s still just gamers getting shafted in the never-ending war between pirate and publisher.

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