But for gamers, Denuvo and other DRM represent the renting culture that has come to define digital purchases. Increasingly, publishers ask you to stream media, access it on their platforms, defer to their guidelines for how to use it. “You forked over the 60 dollars for this game,” says Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of The End of Ownership. “Why should you have to live with these interferences, with these impositions on your ability to play the game the way you want or on the device you want without being monitored?”
To Empress, crushing Denuvo is bigger than playing a video game for free. It’s bigger than “pirating.” She has no idea how gamers tolerate its existence at all. Publishers are telling them what they can and can’t do with it—namely, share it with friends or play offline. She thinks it’s straight-up evil.
“i always keep in the ZONE till i crush their pathetic puzzle prisons,” she says. Cracking DRM has taught her that the only real way to view the games industry right now is through the lens of philosophy. Philosophy helps people discern what is valuable, she says. And to discern what is valuable, you must look for higher truths. The higher truth in gaming, she says, is that “wanting to preserve something you ‘Buy’ should NEVER be a ‘Crime.’”
Recently, she cracked Anno 1800, which layered three types of protection, Denuvo on top. “No one else does this because it requires insane amount of focus, dedication and endless passion. I was able to achieve this only in several months of research. it was HELL to say the least.”
“There is little to no competition in the cracking scene when it comes to that particular DRM,” says OverkillLabs, who used to run the gaming-piracy-focused CrackWatch subreddit. OverkillLabs says they know of just three groups that have broken it, and none with the sense of mission Empress has.
Although OverkillLabs can’t quite pin down when her rise to fame began, as she keeps her history intentionally opaque, Empress first came on their radar when she shared her crack of SoulCalibur VI in March 2020. Unlike the insular Warez groups, Empress posted polls asking what gamers wanted next, shared her philosophy, delineated principles, named her enemies. The text files accompanying her games (long, white ASCII columns supporting her name) stuck with him: “The reason why Ubisoft, EA and such companies never remove denuvo from their games is only because they LOVE feeling *superior* and ENJOY seeing you the customer as PIG under their control or worse.” OverkillLabs also noticed that, unlike other groups, which were motivated by kudos and upvotes, Empress accepts donations. Cryptocurrency, specifically.
“People are used to scene groups that do it all for free and ask for nothing in return,” says OverkillLabs.
Empress has big “fuck you, pay me” energy. “I have an outside job, ofc,” she says. “How much time I spend in it depends on the amount of donations I receive.” She’ll skip work and take runs against a game for as long as she can afford it, but is steadfast in the idea that her work should be compensated. In a September 2020 post titled “I will need your help moving forward,” Empress bragged that she cracked Planet Zoo in one week. Total War Three Kingdoms in four days. It was time for her to tackle Denuvo version 9, integrated with Death Stranding and Resident Evil 3. She just needed some Bitcoin. “I’m just a little confused,” replied one commenter on Reddit. “People aren’t willing to pay money for games but they’re willing to pay money to get games illegally? :S.”
“the entire ‘Scene’ rules that accept ‘no money/donations’ is 1 of the biggest problems which always push the crackers back, instead of forward,” says Empress. “if you’re going to do such INSANE EFFORT, you wouldn’t just do it for and from ‘nothing.’” A hobbyist couldn’t push through, she says, “to reach something with a bigger meaning than a quick boost of ego, which is very hollow and can be shattered very easily.”