Monday, April 26, 2010

Distrust your customer - Then and now (updated)

With the DRM debate heating up again on the blog very recently, I thought I might take a short look back on the history of dicking over customers while leaving pirates laughing.

I don't know much about early software copy protections for home computers, nor whether there were any inconveniences for the customers - I was pre-teen by the time I first played on the C64 and I didn't even know such a thing as legit copies did exist for the machine. So I can at least say one thing - it didn't work, just like most of the following examples didn't work. So I'm gonna jump right to physical means of copy protection. Making the manual a requirement in order to properly play a game dates back to the seventies. It wasn't always about stopping piracy, though. It won't be hard to believe that the early RPG Apshai put most of its "ingame" descriptions in the manual in 1979 just because of memory constraints. I'd be more suspicious about Pool of Radiance doing the same 9 years later, though.

Too long for a floppy disk?

Of course there were more blatant (and less effective) ways, too. Who doesn't remember all the "Type in word 7 in line 5 on page 25 from the manual" copy protections? Honest customers were leafing through the manuals, pirates had their handy list of all the possible keywords, or maybe even a version with the inquiry hacked out of the code completely.

More likeable were companies like Infocom and Sierra, who hid invaluable hints in interesting and funny flavor material, like faux advertisement flyers, lost journals and whatnot.

Don't forget to check the flight schedule before you start globetrotting(Leisure Suit Larry 5)

Then came the greatest atrocity of physical copy protection: The code wheel. Pools of Radiance was an offender here as well, but it became somewhat popular with publishers, and survived into the early nineties.

The code wheel most people remember would be The Secret of Monkey Island's "Dial-a-pirate". People who bought the game had to dread wrong dials, broken and lost codewheels, pirates skipped right into the game. In fact, even Lucas Arts distributed a hacked version in later compilations, as the costs to produce the wheel weren't warranted by the possible earnings, anymore.

Which year was this pirate hanged in Tortuga?

But like all times come to an end, so did the time of gamers being worth physical appendices, at least in the eyes of publishing companies, so copy production had to return to software solutions, as well. And here's where the real trouble began. Were many of the previous methods quite inconvenient, modern CD copy protection brought a whole new "feature": Games that couldn't be brought to run at all on certain machines thanks to the protection routines. I can explicitly remember 4 PC titles (but I had even more) I bought legitimately, but couldn't play or needed to find a crack in order to run them. Cue for my mantra: Pirated copies of course were usually cracked from the get-go for the illegal "customer".

Yeah, fuck you too, game.

UPDATE: I forgot to talk about a variation of this in the first place: Games that fake to be playable even when the copy protection triggers, but work in a number of "bugs" to take all the fun out of the game. I first learned about this when The Settlers 3 came out, which turned all the iron produced in an iron cast into pigs, among many other things. This may have caused some confusion with people who played pirated copies during the first few days after the game's release, but imagine the confusion of legit customers getting shit like that, as this time the copy protection would backfire without them knowing.

The most grotesque excrescence of this type would be that one Japanese hentai game that reportedly scans PCs for private data and uploads them on the internet when it decides the copy played to be illegal. Given the record how well this type of protection works, it can be considered guaranteed that normal customers will end up there, and it can only be hoped that they even notice it at all, in order to sue that company to kingdom come ...

And now we have DRM, which brings even more inconveniences to the customers by forcing them to consume completely unrelated products (internet connections with single player games), whereas the pirates... well, they keep on pirating, as always.

Oh, by the way, the first picture is from the CES fair in summer 1990. I gotta say there's more elegant ways to protect your display handhelds from theft...


  1. Wouldn't it make sense for companys to simply hire the main pirates and hackers?

    Think about it.

  2. Digital media can be endlessly, effortlessly replicated. It is not scarce. To a lot of people, this still seems like witchcraft. Whoever can design actual business models for the current age will do well. Dinosaurs who cling to old, broken models will be hunting witches until they're extinct.

    I don't think huge, publicly traded publishers have the attention span to understand the problem.

  3. Monkey Island 2 used the Mix'n Mojo wheel, too. I never knew about Dial A Pirate, since I played Monkey Island 1 on the Sega CD.

    (That must put me in some kind of minority..)

  4. A long time ago I had problems getting the PC version of David Braben's V2000 to work due to the game's copy protection. The publisher's support was unable to help and said it was the biggest issue with the game, and that Frontier wouldn't help either. Eventually I found a cracked version, and the tech support guy was very grateful when I passed it along.

  5. That story with the technical support is just gold.

  6. MGS with its infamous codec on the CD case.


  7. I'd totally play a game where dinosaurs had to hunt witches. Or pirate witches. Or where witches got to hunt dinosaurs.

  8. So what kind of business model can bring an aswer to this issue?

    I wonder if the contemporary methods will result in a higher percent of legit copies amongst players than when a code from the booklet was needed.

    I would argue that it won't make a difference, just brings about the rage of enthusiasts like us.

  9. Great entry.

    MGS with the codec was more about meta gaming, and messing with your mind, than copy protection though.

  10. Awww, but I loved code wheels!

    They were just so...mysterious.

  11. I initially forgot to talk about a certain type of protection, but I added it now ...

  12. Lenslok, anyone?

    I've also encountered at least one C64 copy-protection scheme that reformatted the floppy disk if it decided it wasn't an original. Not quite as insane as it sounds, as the original disks were physically permanently write-protected.

  13. That Japanese hentai game thing wasn't actually a DRM scheme, just a virus that was distributed with the pirated version by a third party. You might say this was done by the publisher, but the data it stole from the victims was used in a quite illegal extortion scheme, so that probably wouldn't be a very good idea...