LGR – History of DRM & Copy Protection in Computer Games


Anytime I mention copy protection or DRM in my videos, it’s a given that someone will email me asking what the big deal is. Or, if they already know what DRM is, they’re curious about old-school copy protection methods. If you fall into either camp, or are simply bored as balls and want something to watch while you’re eating lunch, then this is the video for you! Yes, in this LGR special we’re taking a look at DRM and copy protection as it pertains to computer gaming. And yes, I say computer gaming because I have to limit myself *somewhere*, or else this would go on forever. I’m not really going to be focusing on copy protection on: Consoles, arcade machines, applications, video, music, region locking etcetera. Also, this isn’t all-encompassing, I’m not going to be covering every single protection scheme ever, just the ones that I find most notable or fascinating. And I know DRM can be a touchy subject for some of you, so I’m not here to condone or condemn any particular method I’m just here talk about crap. Now what
exactly is copy protection? Well, nowadays it’s usually called DRM
or Digital Rights Management. This is a technological method of controlling access to copyrighted digital material. A system that’s put in place by a company that restricts what you, the end user, can do with digital items you’ve purchased. This is something you’re forced to live with, unless you forcibly modify your software to remove it. And these practices are nothing new. Oh no. You’ve gotta go back to the mid 1970s to the Altair 8800, the first major personal computer
success story. A small start-up company called Microsoft had developed an operating environment for the system called “Altair BASIC”. This was before the days of common floppy disk usage, or even cassette tape usage. Nope, you had paper tapes for the Altair, a long strand of paper with a bunch of holes permanently cut into it like a punch card on a spool. But what happened was that someone with access to both Altair BASIC and a high speed paper punching machine made fifty copies of the program, and started freely distributing it at
the Homebrew Computer Club. So while Altair was making money on computer hardware, Microsoft wasn’t receiving any royalties for the unsold software. This resulted in the famous open letter
to hobbyists, penned by none other than Bill Gates, in
which he said: Of course, what can anyone do to prevent
paper tape being copied? Well, not really much. Or even cassette
tapes, which could pretty easily be copied with any high-quality tape duplicator. It was not until the widespread use of floppy disks in the late seventies and early eighties that a truly effective copy protection scheme came about: On-disk copy protection, also known as
key disks. You see, floppy disks work by attaching magnetic values to a spinning piece of metal coated plastic inside of a plastic sleeve with more plastic. During the manufacturing process, certain techniques can be applied to let the software know if it’s an original disc being used, Things like intentionally bad sectors, odd address marks, different track layouts, file encryption, etc. On computers like the Apple II and IBM PC, it was largely popular with software like VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3, though it also made its way onto its fair share of games. In fact, the very first PC game at retail, Microsoft Adventure, had on-disk copy
protection, so yep, PC users have been dealing with this
crap since the very beginning. It was possibly even more common to see this kind of protection with games on the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST computers. This was a huge pain because not only could you not install a game completely to the hard drive if you had one. But it meant you couldn’t make your own Personal backups. Floppy disks were fragile things, They easily get bent out of shape they’re susceptible to magnetic fields and heat and dirt and they sometimes just go bad if you hurt their feelings or insult their mother whatever, This meant that copy protected software
was actually of less value to consumers, than non copy protected software, because they’d have to buy the program again if something happened to it. and this wasn’t just some issue they’re
random hackers got annoyed with in their basements it was a real problem that was often addressed in contemporary software reviews. PAUL SCHINDLER: This is the rarest of birds, a game you can load on your hard disk, because it’s *not* copy protected. LGR: Eventually people had enough, which leads
to the next method, The manual lookup or passphrase also
known as: Off-disk copy protection. This was probably the most common method of copy protection amongst games of the mid to late 80’s and was often touted on the box as a selling point. Usually this method involve the game telling you to look up something in the manual at some point, Like Disney’s Aladdin here which required you to type in a word from a precise line from a precise paragraph at a precise place in the manual. Kind of aggravating. Sometimes it was something relating to a feature of the games, you can actually can learn something like in LHX, where it asks for military specifications, Or Tongue of the Fat man where you need to
enter information about the fighters from either the manual or the
collectible trading card. Silpheed used a much easier method, where you simply had to identify the name and shape of a ship, printed out in the middle of the manual. So you won’t have to look throughout the entire friggin thing for some tiny detail. Then you has games like Alone in the Dark, which had a tiny book with a crap ton of pages. You see, these guys didn’t want you just
copying the copy protection page they made it so that you had to copy a ton of
pages which back then meant a lot of time and money spent on copy machine usage: when this wasn’t enough another very
common method was used The code wheel: one of the most famous is
The Secret of Monkey Island’s Dial-A-Pirate Where you had to identify a pirate by
using some random information the game told you and then spinning the wheel to reveal
certain information about them. Test Drive III was kinda of similar, where you
have to match up cars with their keys and other junk. Of course these wheels could also be copied if you didn’t mind separating the wheel into its individual parts, copying each piece and then cutting your
own holes. Desperate times man. Another code method was The Code Sheet, and while these were simpler than code wheels they were also printed in such a way that prevented copying by a copy machine. Games like SimCity and the humans had
these red sheets with dark-colored codes, Which you could pretty much see in the right light, but a copy machine sure could not. Then you had games like Dragons Lair,
which had a code sheet nobody could see. Not to mention you had to decipher code
by deciphering a table to get to the deciphered game entry code which just sucks. And you had games like Jet Set Willy which
didn’t use codes at all but colors, Which would really suck if you’re colorblind I suppose. One method that was kinda cool but kinda
not is the puzzle solving method. Games like King’s Quest 6: came with a
guidebook to the land of the Green Isles. This was separate from the game manual
and not only contained game lore, but also contained clues to a puzzle within the game. Without this book you wouldn’t be able
to finish the game. Space Quest 6 had a data corder puzzle in the game,
where you needed information from the included popular Janatronix magazine
to solve it. These so-called feelies were nice and
all but like the previous manual and code methods if you happen to lose these
items your game is left unplayable. Plus it was a pain to have to dig out a
manual or code wheel every time you wanted to play the game from your hard drive. Still all of these methods could be
copied if you were ingenius or patient enough, and dark red code sheets were obsolete
once better color copiers and scanners came around. Which leads us to physical locks: uncopyable
tangible items which shipped with the game the Colonel’s
bequest was one of these, Which came with a unique red lens
magnifying glass that was used to search the game map for hidden fingerprints. Then there was Lenslok, a legendarily
hated system used in the UK predominately for cassette based games. This was a weird little fold-out thing
that had a special lens made up of rows of prisms when you loaded a game a
two-letter code was displayed on screen but it was split into corrupted vertical
bands. what you had to do was put the lenslok
up to the screen and move your head into just the right position to see the code
deciphered through the prisms. The problem with this was that if you
had a TV that was too big or too small, You couldn’t see the code through the
lenslok since it only sees one size. also each game title came with a
different set of prisms and sometimes the wrong lenslok was shipped with the
wrong game. What a pile of dick. and lastly you also
had dongles These have an awesome name but they
weren’t nearly as common as the other methods. thankfully but you did see them as early
as the Commodore PET This was a device that plugged into some
communications port on the computer and refused to allow the software to run
unless it was detected properly. Mainly they were used for higher end software but a few games have used them over the years. A notable one is DJMax Trilogy, which
required a special uncopyable USB thumb stick to be plugged in to even open the game. Once the CD-ROM came around there were large deterrent for copying was inherent in the medium itself. Most hard drives couldn’t hold 600 or
more megabytes, and CD burners were insanely expensive
and the media was even more so. as a result many early CD-ROM games had
no copy protection like Paganitzu here. Other games like 21st century’s pinball
arcade had a simple CD check when it loaded. but of course if you burn your own it
would still work just fine. It wasn’t long before other methods were used to verify CD-ROM games like Serial numbers and Alphanumeric keys. These are simple and largely painless you got a unique key code somewhere in the package usually on the back from a manual or a jewel case, and entered it when installing. honestly, it doesn’t prevent much copying, unless the key is also used to play online or something. So, of course more protection was deemed
necessary, like dummy files over sized CD’s and
fake tables of contents. These were often placed on the root
of the CD-ROM where you’d have absurdly large fake files that normal CD burning software couldn’t handle. or fake TOC (Tables of content) which told the computer
that the disk was well over one gigabyte or something. Tough it wasn’t long before CD burning
software could see right past this, and manufactures moved on to what is
most tought out today as DRM. Third-party systems like SafeDisc, SecuROM and StarForce. Systems like this attempt to prevent copying by applying digital signatures or electronic fingerprints to a disk during mastering, and assigns a unique number to the disk. SafeDisc is generally the more basic measure and is not terribly intrusive or tough to bypass, but then you have freakin’ SecuROM. also known fondly as “Suck you ROM” this
has been found to sometimes conflict with drive emulation and CD burning
software on the same computer, doesn’t always detect the legitimate disc and also has certain optical drive hardware incompatibilities. but Protection Technologies’ StarForce is probably the most infamous. There were claims that it works just
like malware in that it degrades optical drive performance with continued use, The software and device drivers it underhandedly installs is hard to remove and acts as somewhat of a rootkit, and causes all manner of system
instability. It was also pretty tough to crack at first, with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory as one of the most notable at 422 days before the DRM was removed
by saltine crackers. err… software crackers. There are a few examples of slightly more creative DRM methods, like FADE and gameplay altering
silliness. FADE is a system used in FPS games like
Operation Flashpoint and Arma II, where the gameplay will gradually get
worse and worse if a pirated copy is detected. Eventually getting to the point where
you can’t even aim your gun or walk straight. Settlers 3 is another notable one, where the iron smelters will only produce pigs if you’re not playing legit. Then there’s the most famous one
recently, Serious Sam 3, which gives pirates an immortal fast-moving scorpion that follows them endlessly no matter what. Another very common way of providing DRM
service is online distribution like Steam, Games for Windows Live, Origin and Uplay These are retail services among other
things that are combined with DRM Games are sold via the client verified
via servers, and the client’s usually run in the
background during gameplay. Steam is generally liked, but others especially Games for Windows
Live are generally regarded as sub-par, due to an awful interface, instability,
crappy patching and DLC systems, login issues etc. Steam is an interesting one in this
respect. as many people who are against DRM will still buy stuff on Steam. Valve and Gabe being godly among gamers
probably has something to do with it but so do the constant sales, great community features,
overall stability, easy patching and having tons of great
games in one place but all the services steam included have
issues. Steam’s offline game mode has to be
activated before you go offline, you can’t resell any of your games, you
can’t download games if the servers ever go down, and the games often still have
third-party DRM slapped on top of the client’s DRM This means that even if you’re okay with
Steam you may still have to deal with one of the more common types of DRM
in the past several years, online activation accomplished by serial
number. an account with the publisher, limited
installs based on hardware or all of the above Limited installs seem to be pretty
universally hated like the ones used in the TAGES system this ties your
game to your hardware configuration usually your motherboard or processor once it
installs and ties this config to a company server somewhere. Bioshock got a lot of flak
when it launched for only allowing 2 installations ever.
and if you wanted more installs you had to call the phone number in the manual
that didn’t connect to anyone, since the wrong phone number was printed.
Mass Effect required reactivation of your installation via EA servers every 10 days no matter what.
and their game Spore allowed only 3 activations ever
which required a log in to EA’s servers each time. all of this on top of the regular
SecuROM shenanigans. Anno 2070 is a recent example of this
stuff going horribly wrong since it only allowed 3 activations. but it was so picky that even if you
changed your freakin graphics card, it treated your PC like an entire new
computer using up one of your 3 installations and lastly we have what is probably the
least liked of all DRM systems thus far constant
internet-connected DRM. This is DRM that is always online, always connected,
always watching, always planning. you’d better have a reliable broadband connection and an outstanding router, not to mention hoping that the company’s
authentication servers are online, because if anything goes wrong, then you cannot play your game
you paid good money for. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II was notorious for this
when it first launched, it wasn’t uncommon to find the servers
down for several days at a time meaning no one could log in to play the single
player game at all. and if you lost the connection while
you’re playing you’d lose the progress of your game back to the last checkpoint, and save games were stored on the server.
not your PC. Not only that but sometimes the
connection just isn’t that great and you end up with lag. Diablo 3 had this issue even in
single player. you have to be connected to Activision Blizzard at all times not
only for authentication and the auction house stuff. but also to download data since it syncs
every action online. so, you can end up with lag in a single
player game. Yes, this is what you pay for. the next
kerfuffle in the making appears to be SimCity from EA coming in early 2013. Word is that the
game is set to have always online DRM. which like Diablo 3 is there under the
guise of increased multiplayer capabilities. Of course you got to deal with it even if
you just wanna play single player so screw you for having preferences. and that’s DRM in a nutshell. Well, a nutshell that lasts almost 18 minutes. Hopefully that answers the questions
that you may have had about copy protection in DRM both in the past and
in the present day. it’s really not hard to see why it’s so
controversial and so derided by critics, but when it works without issue it’s also easy to ignore and become complacent. I’d encourage you not to let that happen
just be a smart consumer, and investigate what types have DRM you like or don’t like, and what may already be in your games.
Because you never know. Someday you may have a library full of
unplayable bits and bytes.

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