Denuvo, the company best known for its heavily-criticized PC gaming DRM technology, has set its sights on a new scourge: Nintendo Switch piracy. The software maker announced during GamesCom 2022 on Wednesday that it will begin selling a new product called Nintendo Switch Emulator Protection to prevent Switch games from being pirated on PC.
It doesn’t appear to be partnering with Nintendo on the initiative, which instead seems aimed mostly at third-party publishers of multiplatform games. “As with all other Denuvo solutions, the technology integrates seamlessly into the build toolchain with no impact on the gaming experience. It then allows for the insertion of checks into the code, which blocks gameplay on emulators,” the company wrote in a press release. In the past, however, Denuvo’s “checks” have been accused of making some games run worse.
Switch emulation has come a long way since the console launched in 2017, and now it’s not uncommon for some tech enthusiasts to play their legally purchased Switch exclusives on an emulator running on a much more powerful gaming rig. The result can mean higher resolutions, frame rates, and other performance improvements.
But the Switch, like Nintendo’s previous handhelds before it, is also vulnerable to piracy, with users distributing ROMs of games online to be played on jailbroken Switches or, more often, a Switch emulator on PC. And that’s what Denuvo claims to be cracking down on, specifically with games that are on both Switch and PC.
“Even if a game is protected against piracy on its PC version, the released version on Switch can be emulated from day one and played on PC, therefore bypassing the strong protections offered on the PC version,” Denuvo wrote. “The Nintendo Switch Emulator Protection will ensure that anyone wishing to play the game has to buy a legitimate copy.”
At the same time, lots of PC games have removed Denuvo anti-tamper protections in recent years. In the late 2010s it became something of a game for hackers to see how fast they could “crack” the latest Denuvo-protected game. More recently, studios have occasionally removed Denuvo DRM themselves before a game even comes out, either because of fan backlash or because of concerns over how it will hurt technical performance.
Nintendo has taken a different approach to clamping down on Switch piracy. Namely, lawsuits and, in one particularly harsh case, collaborating with federal prosecutors to send hackers to jail. Nintendo and Denuvo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Update, 8/25/22, 9:17 a.m. ET: A spokesperson for Denuvo confirmed in an email to Kotaku that Nintendo is not involved in the new Switch DRM initiative and that it was developed in response to demand from existing clients.
“Because of NDAs, we are not allowed to disclose company names, but we can say this solution comes from strong demand from publishing partners,” the spokesperson wrote. They also claimed it would not hurt “in-game” performance. “Software publishers and Denuvo take great care to deliver the best gaming experience,” the spokesperson wrote. “The protection is designed not to affect the gamer’s experience, and it does not have any in-game performance impact. It is the same for this new solution when protection is only active in non-performance critical code parts.”
Update, 8/25/22, 2:06 p.m. ET: In response to follow-up questions, Denuvo confirmed that the DRM won’t rely on online checks. “We are aware that the Nintendo Switch is a mobile console and therefore has limited online capabilities, so we designed our solution to be fully offline, no online checks required,” a spokesperson wrote back.
They also confirmed the DRM would restrict use of legally purchased games with Switch emulators on PC:
As you know, dumping your bought game for backup purposes is a long-standing argument from pirates that is simply used to justify piracy. The majority of players use emulators with ROMs from pirate sources and are not self-dumped. And if they dump it themselves, they will require a jailbroken console to do that.