Anti-Valentine reviews PC games and writes about the video game industry.
DRM has become increasingly more present as developers and publishers alike think that it's the answer to piracy. It isn't, but they won't accept that. But like it or not, DRM is here to stay.
So that leaves the consumer who doesn't want to support DRM with a bit of a problem: there are so many games that use a form of DRM nowadays, so how do you go about finding out which games do, and which DRM they actually use?
1. Ask a Store Clerk or Salesperson
You could try asking a store clerk or salesperson, but generally, they either don’t know or they aren’t too concerned about DRM. They probably think that by divulging too much information it will put you off buying the game, and they will lose a sale.
But in reality, by giving customers such information they are surely doing their jobs well, which should lead customers to return and therefore increase their chances of making a sale.
2. Check the Game’s Box
Usually, if you look at the back of a game’s box, it will say that an internet connection is required. This means that the game will most likely be activated on Steam, Uplay or Origin (however, DRM, like SecuROM, might also require online activation).
That likely doesn’t cover third-party or second layer DRM. Some retailers even bother to put this information on the front of the game’s box with stickers and post notices on shelves in the PC game section.
3. Check the Product Page on the Retailer’s Online Store
Sometimes a retailer’s website will list whether a game uses a particular type of DRM. This is somewhat more common if you go the digital distribution route.
Distributors like GamersGate and Green Man Gaming often list both the digital distribution platform and/or client needed (Steam, Uplay or Origin) and any third-party DRM that may be present. A customer might be kind enough to point it out in a user review of the product, so make sure to skim through them!
4. Check the Game’s Wikipedia Page and Search for News
Have a look at the game’s Wikipedia page and you might find some information about the DRM used. Wikipedia used to have a huge, extremely useful list of games that utilise Steamworks, for instance, but it was done away with. Now, only newer games are covered. If you check the developer or publisher’s Wikipedia page, you might also find DRM mentioned, usually under the heading “controversy”.
If you search for the game’s name with the term “DRM”, you might get a few results. Gaming blogs often cover this sort of thing, so it pays to follow a few of them and stay up to date on the subject.
5. Ask on Forums
You can try to post in some gaming forums to see if anyone knows what DRM a specific game uses. Just don’t be surprised if nobody is really helpful. In fact, a lot of people don’t even care which DRM a game uses—they don’t see it as a worthy reason for not picking up a title.
So this is definitely one of the least recommended routes you should take. You can try some communities or threads on Steam that discuss the subject. But in my experience, due to the very nature of GOG.com and its DRM-free policy, the community there may be more inclined to help.
6. Try Out a Browser Add-On
Some people out there find Steam a bit lacking, particularly when it comes to listing which third-party DRM is included with a game.
That’s where Augmented Steam (previously Enhanced Steam) comes in. It adds a lot of features that can be seen when you visit the Steam website (it adds no such extra functionality to the Steam client). The addon includes a feature that will notify you of any third-party DRM that is bundled with the game—so you are well warned before buying and downloading it.
7. Check DRM Databases
There are a few DRM databases that have been created, such as the one over at PCGamingWiki.com, which evolved from a discussion thread over on Steam. In fact, people on Steam still discuss the topic there, so it would be a worthwhile place to visit if you can’t find the information you’re looking for on the wiki. Or you could try the SteamWiki, where you will find another list.
The GOG.com forum also has a couple of threads which discuss which games, both digital and physical, have DRM, or more accurately, which ones are DRM-free. The only problem with these lists is that they only tend to cover more recent games, with the assumption that older games don’t have DRM—which isn’t necessarily true.
8. Test the Game by Moving It Outside of Steam
This is about the only method presented here that actually requires you to buy and download/install the game.
If you have a game in your Steam library and you wish to test whether it is DRM-free or "launcher free", try moving the game’s folder outside of your Steam install directory. If the game is able to run, it means it is DRM-free or launcher free. If it doesn’t, then the game has DRM of some sort.
9. Contact the Developer
One could try and contact the developer of the game. There are several ways you can do this. You could obtain phone numbers or email addresses. Steam often has the email address of the developer on their website in the support section, because the third-party DRM is not an issue you should take up with Steam, but the developer or publisher of the game.
Otherwise, any self-respecting studio nowadays has a Facebook or Twitter account where you could contact them. If you don’t use social media for whatever reason, then you obviously can’t take this route.
10. Do an Antivirus Scan
Some antivirus programs actually pick up if particular DRM systems are present on your PC. It has been found that some will detect traces of SecuROM DRM, even after the game has been removed.
This has led some people to accuse game companies of installing rootkits along with the actual game or client. It is recommended that you use a proper DRM deauthorization tool to remove the DRM, rather than quarantining it or removing it with the antivirus software.
What Is Always-Online DRM?
Also referred to as persistent online authentication, this form of DRM requires someone to be connected to the internet at all times while playing a game. The game cannot be played offline. This DRM was infamously used in Assassin’s Creed II, Splinter Cell: Conviction and SimCity. Always-online DRM proves to be a hassle if someone has a slow or patchy internet connection—and especially if they have no internet access. If they can’t get online and stay connected, then they can’t play the game.
Well-Known Games That Use It: Diablo III, SimCity
What Is SecuROM?
SecuROM is a hardware-level DRM that limits the number of PCs activated at the same time from the same game key. SecuROM can also be used in conjunction with online activation. Initially, the DRM was not removed along with the game that used it when it was uninstalled, but later versions of the DRM included a SecuROM Removal Tool, so the user could remove the DRM manually. This deactivates the license and restores the original activation limit. The activation limit may, in some special cases, be extended by contacting the developer of the game if the activation limit has been reached.
SecuROM has been known to clash with various software and hardware, particularly optical drives (CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives).
Well-Known Games That Use It: GTA IV, Red Alert 3 (non-Steam versions)
What if You Want Nothing to Do With DRM?
Apart from signing pointless petitions to have DRM removed from games altogether, this is what you can do if you don’t want any DRM in your game.
GOG.com has a strong no DRM policy, and while this stance may make it difficult for them to secure deals with publishers, it has become the anti-DRM player’s platform of choice.
Yes, some argue that Steam is in fact DRM, but here’s another fact: there are games on Steam that don’t have any third-party DRM bundled with them, whereas they would have DRM otherwise. Take Red Alert 3, for instance. The Steam version is for all intents and purposes “DRM-free”, whereas any version that is not activated on Steam contains SecuROM.
It’s also a given that older games, especially ones that rely on DosBox to run, like Shadow Warrior, don’t contain any DRM.
A Quick Note About GamersGate
And a quick note about "DRM-free" games on GamersGate: GamersGate games that aren’t activated on Steam, Origin or uPlay claim to be DRM-free, but technically they aren’t. You have to run the downloader and download the game’s files every time you want to play the game, and you allegedly can’t even back the files up as you can with Steam—not in any official way.
© 2014 Anti-Valentine