PC gamers have long maintained an uneasy alliance with various DRM schemes. While there are exceptions, most players are willing to tolerate DRM solutions that don’t impact gameplay, harm system responsiveness, or require ridiculous license resets to install the game on more than 0.25 computers. Solutions that depart from this norm typically aren’t well received, and a situation with Assassins Creed Origins has some gamers seething.
Multiple users have reported seeing their CPU usage peg to 100 percent while in-game, and in some cases this may be causing stuttering frame rates or other low-performance problems. Various users with CPUs including a Core i7-4790K, Core i7-3770, and a Core i5-4590 have all reported issues on Steam. The Core i7-4790K is particularly noteworthy, since that CPU is both fairly new and, for several years, represented the fastest Intel CPU you could buy in gaming. This is particularly true in gaming tests (as reported by Anandtech’s Bench), where the 7700K and the Core i7-4790K were fairly well matched. Games, in general, do not respond to frequency changes very much.
In short, Steam users suggesting this is a result of gaming on a potato are wrong. A modern game that can’t run well on one of the higher-clocked and highest-performing CPUs that Intel has released in the past few years has a problem. In fact, given how poorly games typically scale across four cores, even Core i5s from the Haswell era should be fine. TorrentFreak reached out Voksi, leader of the team who cracked Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus this week, and found out something rather interesting. According to Voski, this issue isn’t specific to Denuvo, but is related to how Ubisoft went about implementing its copy protection approach for Assassin’s Creed Origins.
“Basically, Ubisoft have implemented VMProtect on top of Denuvo, tanking the game’s performance by 30-40 percent, demanding that people have a more expensive CPU to play the game properly, only because of the DRM,” Voski told TorrentFreak. “It’s anti-consumer and a disgusting move.”
Volski went on to say that Ubisoft has layered a second level of DRM over Denuvo. Denuvo has been cracked faster and faster with each new game release, and Ubisoft wanted its DRM to last longer than a half-day or less. To achieve this, it wrapped an application around Denuvo, dubbed VMProtect. This supposedly protects Denuvo from being cracked, while Denuvo protects Assassin’s Creed Origins from being cracked. It’s turtles DRM, all the way down.
“It seems that Ubisoft decided that Denuvo is not enough to stop pirates in the crucial first days [after release] anymore, so they have implemented an iteration of VMProtect over it,” Voksi explains.
Ubisoft, to be fair, has historically been great at ramming DRM down players’ throats with dubious results or benefits for anyone. But these days, even keeping a game uncracked for a matter of days or weeks is believed to pay significant dividends. When it first debuted, Denuvo protected some games for months on end and the company reaped corresponding rewards. If this approach helps lock games down again, we’ll presumably see more companies adopting it. And if that means weaker CPU cores have more trouble driving games, well, AMD now has six-core/12-thread CPUs for sale at $ 200 to $ 250, with Intel also joining it to drive core counts higher.
Update: Ubisoft has told Ars Technica that “the anti-tamper solutions implemented in the Windows PC version of Assassin’s Creed Origins have no perceptible effect on game performance.” It claims that the game uses the full extent of available resources to ensure a steady 30fps performance.
This is almost certainly false. While it is possible that the addition of VMProtect has no meaningful impact on the game’s CPU usage, there’s also no reason why a modern high-end desktop CPU should be bogged down at 100 percent usage to ensure a measly 30fps frame rate. Ubisoft has a long history of blaming everyone but itself for its own terrible performance optimization; any game that can run at 25-30fps on the relatively weak CPUs inside the Xbox One or PS4 should never struggle on a quad-core/eight-thread CPU with much higher IPC and more than double the clock speed. DRM may not be the problem, but something is broken in the game.