The Woman Bulldozing Video Games’ Toughest DRM

If you ask Empress what got her started breaking DRM , she says it was a dream she had one night in 2014. Chains made up of numbers wrapped around the video game Dark Souls 2. It was anti-piracy software, she realized. As she focused, she began to see “what every number meant ‘universally,’’’ she says. Turning deeper inward, she says, she soon entered “the ‘ZONE,’ which allows me to SEE MORE into everything.” The chains broke.In the seven years since that vision, Empress has become arguably the most powerful breaker of digital rights management software in the world. Video game publishers—and ebook sellers and most other digital media hawkers—use DRM to retain control over your purchases. DRM crackers work to unlock those bits and bytes to achieve something closer to true ownership. From Red Dead Redemption 2 to Mortal Kombat 11, no one has liberated more high-profile games over the past year than Empress.
Almost every modern game has DRM, which publishers deploy to prevent piracy and cheating. But as long as video games have had copy protections, there have been people dedicated to cracking them wide open. Since at least the late ’80s, in tight-knit groups with names like SKIDROW and FAiRLiGHT, “crackers,” mostly young men, competed to dismantle the software barriers protecting popular contemporary games. It was a hobby, even a sport. Then came Denuvo, an anti-piracy juggernaut first introduced on FIFA 15 in 2014 and licensed and revalidated over 350 million times since.
Denuvo is everywhere now, and it kicked old-school piracy groups’ asses. As an added deterrent, law enforcement has increasingly gone after some of the scene’s biggest pirate groups and personalities over the past couple years. As the old guard’s activity has dwindled, a new type of DRM-breaker has emerged: feverishly dedicated, mission-driven lone wolves. These peer-to-peer crackers see themselves as protecting games from game publishers and will spend any amount of time doing it. If you ask Empress how she got to this point, the most she’ll say is “by mixing philosophy with coding. It's very complicated.”

“I have a ‘Goal’ that no one else has,” she says. “I have no need for ‘Ego.’”

Empress won’t say where she is or when she began cracking games. Some have speculated that Empress is actually a collective of people, which she vehemently denies. Aside from her chosen handle, the only indication of her gender came in a fiery Reddit post from late October, addressed to “all the GENDER FREAKS out there who keep claiming out of their own ass that I am male.” In an interview with WIRED, Empress said, “i am 23 years old, and i am beautiful AS HELL. but i don't care 1 bit how i ‘look.’ i care of what i ‘Do.’”
She says her pivotal shōnen-character-development moment turned on Atari’s little-known, poorly reviewed 2011 online racing game Test Drive Unlimited 2—which, of course, she loves. When the studio that developed it shut down, she says, she had trouble accessing the game. Atari used the DRM software SecuROM—also present in hits like BioShock, Mass Effect and Spore—to protect Test Drive Unlimited 2 from pirates, but it kept presenting problems for players trying to buy the game on Steam.Empress found a cracked, or DRM-disabled, version of Test Drive Unlimited 2 thanks to the piracy group Prophet. That’s when the wheels started turning: She couldn’t depend on publishers to preserve games she likes, she realized. They can just drop their support, and poof it goes, or at best she’d have to wait for someone else to fix DRM-related glitches. The only surefire way to keep a game healthy and alive relied on a shift in power from publishers to pirates.