November 03, 2023 0 602

Empress: the Female Hacker that Gives Big Gaming Corporations Sleepless Nights

In recent years, game hacking has been experiencing a crisis. There are fewer pirated copies of top games in circulation, largely due to the Denuvo protection system.

Hacking this system takes hackers weeks, making it economically unfeasible to invest much time and effort in circumventing it. The gaming community's only hope seems to be the sensational game cracker known as Empress, who has declared an all-out war on Denuvo and the giants of the gaming industry. And it appears that he or she (whoever it may be) is currently winning.

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Who Is Empress?

With a multitude of provocative posts on her private Telegram channel, Empress has managed to generate significant interest in the gaming community worldwide. For understandable reasons, the hacker does not reveal her identity but claims to be a 20-something-year-old Russian girl.

"Oh yes, I haven't mentioned it before, but I'm completely Russian, and that's why I'm 100% protected from any assholes trying to censor me," one of Empress's posts on Telegram reads.

Empress occasionally provides some details about herself that help to construct a mental image, the one she wants to portray. However, all of Empress's posts are exclusively in English.

"I'm 23 years old, and I am VERY beautiful. But I don't give a damn about how I 'look.' I care about what I 'do'," an interview with Wired revealed.

There are various versions of who is really hiding behind the pseudonym Empress. Some believe it to be a group of hackers, while others claim it's a man. For instance, in mid-August 2023, information surfaced online suggesting that it was a male hacker from Bulgaria operating under the name Voksi. This hypothesis was put forward by the hacker group Skidrow, with which Empress has long been engaged in an information war. However, this version was quickly criticized and debunked. Voksi himself stated that after being detained by the Bulgarian police, he has been engaged in completely different activities and is leading a relatively quiet life, especially since he is under close scrutiny by the authorities.

Perhaps the most significant incident of Empress's de-anonymization occurred when she publicly revealed her appearance using a character created in the game Nioh 2. According to Empress's claims, she looks like this:

[Image of a character with heterochromia and scars on her face]

The girl emphasized that different eye colors, heterochromia, are her actual features, while the scars on her face are merely artistic details for the character's portrayal.

While one part of the gaming community believes that the pseudonym Empress conceals an entire hacking group consisting of adult men, other gamers say they don't care who it is. The main thing is that "Empress" is doing a good deed for ordinary people who can't always afford to buy top games, especially in Russia. Both of these points of view are logical in their own way.

Empress's Beginnings and Motives

Empress does not reveal where or when she began hacking games. In an interview with Wired, she shared that in 2014, she had a strange dream. Chains of digits were wrapped around the game Dark Souls 2, and in her dream, she realized that it was an anti-piracy protection system. Since then, Empress has been interested in how game publishers protect their intellectual property and how it's possible to bypass special programs. Generally, the hacker says she has been interested in games since childhood and considers them a place where one can escape from reality.

"I think the main problem is that people don't consider video games to be the pinnacle and the maximum potential of art," Empress said in an interview with Wired.

Another incentive for Empress to hack games was the issues with Test Drive Unlimited 2. The game was protected by a program called SecuROM. At some point, the development studio shut down, and players who bought Test Drive Unlimited 2 couldn't access it for a while. Empress was among them and found a hacked version.

That's when she realized that games don't really belong to the players who have licensed versions. If a studio suddenly decides to abandon a project, buyers will have serious problems with access. It has also been proven that protection systems embedded in the game code slow down the games themselves, imposing serious restrictions on players. Additionally, due to the overload of servers of anti-piracy programs, users who bought games on the release day often couldn't activate their copies for several hours.

[Image from Test Drive Unlimited 2]

With the introduction of the Denuvo protection system, this problem was not resolved. For example, in November 2021, the servers of this program were overloaded, preventing players worldwide from accessing Guardians of the Galaxy, Football Manager 2022, Mortal Kombat 11, Total War Warhammer, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Yakuza: Like a Dragon for more than 10 hours.

"The only reliable way to keep the game healthy and alive is to transfer power from the publishers to the pirates," Empress said in an interview with Wired.

However, the main problem with game protection systems is control by the publishers. Access to their platforms must be obtained, and their usage recommendations must be followed. In doing so, the gaming platform obtains players' personal data. Not to mention the 10-20% frame rate reduction due to the use of protection systems, particularly Denuvo. Empress herself has this to say about it:

"The reason why Ubisoft, EA, and other companies never remove Denuvo from their games is simply that they LOVE feeling superior. They like to consider your PIGS under their control. And even worse."

It seems the girl has taken on a worthy mission. In an interview from 2021, she stated:

"I always stay in the ZONE until I crush their pathetic puzzle prisons."

At the same time, for Empress, it remains a mystery why gamers worldwide tolerate the dictatorship of publishing corporations and the inability to play in offline mode or share a purchased copy with a friend. Perhaps the girl's motives are best illustrated by the following words:

"The desire to preserve what you 'buy' should NEVER be a 'crime.'"


Why Empress Is Already a Part of Gaming History

Since the late 1980s, game publishers have been using programs to protect against pirates (DRM). It was around the same time that groups of computer geeks began competing to hack them. Gradually, this became something of a sport. The hacking of computer games would likely have continued in its unchanged form for a long time if in 2014 the DRM called Denuvo had not appeared. It was then integrated into the cult simulator FIFA 15. Over time, this DRM began to be used more actively, especially in top games.

The creators of Denuvo used a fundamentally new approach in the program's operation. The software no longer limited the gamer's capabilities but only hindered them from changing files to bypass the protection. Early versions of Denuvo were successfully hacked by hacker groups 3DM, CODEX, CPY, PARADOX, and Steam Underground. They didn't charge users, making the cracked games freely available. But gradually, Denuvo's protection became more sophisticated. Hacking games became more challenging, and hacker groups gradually began to acknowledge that it was economically unviable.

But then Empress appeared, marking her arrival by cracking SoulCalibur 6 in March 2020. Her approach differed significantly from the methods of the groups. Firstly, Empress actively communicates with the audience, allowing gamers to choose which games she will crack next. Secondly, the girl accepts donations to a cryptocurrency wallet, something no one has done before her. She explains it:

"I do, of course, have another job. The amount of time I spend [on hacking] depends on the volume of incoming donations. The 'Scene' rules about not taking money and donations are one of the biggest obstacles pushing hackers back. If you're going to make such INSANE EFFORTS, you won't do it just like that."

It turns out that Empress is somewhat like a gaming Robin Hood, taking games from publishers and giving them to ordinary people.

[Frame from SoulCalibur 6]

Regarding old-school hacker groups that worked for free but rarely communicated with regular users and did not update crack versions, Empress has this to say:

"All they did was a way to 'express' themselves and elevate their fake meaningless ego."

As of today [September 2023], Empress is the most successful fighter against Denuvo in the world. She has given gamers unlimited access to numerous fantastic games. Among her victories:

  • Doom Eternal;
  • Watch Dogs: Legion;
  • Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla;
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon;
  • Resident Evil 8: Village;
  • Deathloop;
  • Dead Island 2;
  • Hogwarts Legacy;
  • AEW: Fight forever;
  • Far Cry 6;
  • Metro Exodus Enhanced Edition;
  • Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy;
  • Mortal Kombat 11;
  • Mass Effect Legendary Edition;
  • Red Dead Redemption 2;
  • Anno 1800.

Funny enough, the girl cracked Red Dead Redemption 2 in just a couple of days and later admitted that she did it at the request of fans, although she herself "hates" the game. Regarding the crack of Anno 1800, Empress commented:

"No one else is doing this anymore because it requires insane focus, dedication to the cause, and endless passion. I managed to achieve this only after several months of research. It was HELL, if not more."

[Frame from Red Dead Redemption 2]


Empress's Loud Internet Clashes as the Secret of Popularity

"The Empress" is also known for a series of high-profile scandals that are sometimes discussed in the gaming community no less than her hacks. For example, her Reddit thread was blocked because the girl did not hide her negative attitude toward sexual minorities. In one of her posts, she also stated that men were born only to be slaves to women. In response to the Reddit block, Empress created a Telegram channel, accompanying it with the following post:

"We have finally achieved our goal, my army. It's time to boycott this pathetic Reddit, created for kittens, and stick to the product [Telegram] of my homeland. Oh, I didn't say this before, but I'm completely Russian, which is why I am 100% protected from any bastards trying to censor me."

Empress also hates repackers for simply taking the games she cracked and embedding them in their distributions. The hacker claims that she engages in cracking not for ego, but gamers still need to know who does all the work. On December 3, 2020, the day of the Immortals Fenyx Rising release, the "Empress" cracked the game and made it publicly available. Fans greeted this event with furious virtual ovations. But gradually, it became clear to everyone that the hacker had limited the possibility of obtaining the crack, which could be downloaded only after 24 hours. This is how she protected her work from repackers.

[Frame from Immortals Fenyx Rising]

In early 2021, Empress and the well-known repacker FitGirl were exchanging insults online. And in March, the hacker announced that she had been arrested. She then accused the repackers of bringing the police on her by identifying and providing her address to the authorities. However, after some time, Empress managed to evade responsibility. She posted a message thanking her lawyer, Russian laws, and apologizing to the repackers and anyone she had offended.

In August 2023, Empress criticized the hacking group SkidRow for cracking the indie game Fe. She claimed that the Denuvo protection itself remained intact, and the entry was made using basic Unity engine elements. In response, the hackers from SkidRow published a lengthy message with insults. It was in this message that the version emerged that Empress was actually the Bulgarian hacker Voksi. This case was widely discussed on gaming platforms and in the media.


That Very Message from SkidRow

We have not covered all the scandals involving Empress here. All of her posts can be found on the girl's Telegram channel. In recent years, every scandal involving Empress has made it to the media and been widely discussed by her fans. Most likely, this is not the last one.

Conclusion

One can argue for a long time about the ethics of Empress's activities. On the one hand, she gives many gamers the opportunity to play without restrictions on the devices of their choice. On the other hand, all of this is, of course, criminal, as piracy deprives not only soulless studios but also talented professionals in the creative industry who come up with and embody all this beauty in games, write scripts, or polish code. One thing is certain — online battles between gaming hackers and repackers sometimes resemble cyberpunk-style detective stories, and it is quite interesting to follow them.

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