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Lo-Fi Video Game Anti-Piracy
August 16, 2008 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Long before user authentication and online validation became a thorn in the side of software pirates, copy protection techniques were a little more friendly and a little more lo-fi: packaged with Infocom's interactive fiction games, "Feelies" (primary link, click on the boxes)were assorted physical items that acted as accompanying illustrations (fake magazine covers, in-game currency, decoder slides, and even scratch-n-sniff cards for specific points during game play) to worlds made entirely from text.

The thinking was that the feelies would add so much value and atmosphere that they'd encourage people to buy the games, rather than copy them. Oh, and it didn't hurt that they also frequently contained information required to complete the accompanying game.

Of course, there have been other methods, ranging from the surprising, to the frustrating, to the downright cruel.
posted by Damn That Television (30 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
The problem with feelies is that A) they make the game difficult to rent and B) most of them can just be scanned/transcribed/worked around.

My favorite DRM scheme was Zack McKracken's, though.
posted by empath at 12:37 PM on August 16, 2008


I forgot about that one! I can't find a link to anything but a Wikipedia article, but for anyone reading, Zak's copy protection was a series of questions that, if answered incorrectly a few times, would result in your character being thrown in jail and lectured about piracy.
posted by Damn That Television at 12:42 PM on August 16, 2008


If memory serves, SSI's Gold Box DnD games (which were teh awesomesauce) came with these concentric code-wheel thingies, where you had to line up a rune with a word with a color or something like that. In relative terms, they were fairly sophisticated for the time (late 80's-early 90's).

So what did me and my fellow nerd-brethren do about it? Pretty much spent hours in high school math class transcribing lists of code combinations so we could share the game.

Oh, and not getting laid ever.
posted by bardic at 12:57 PM on August 16, 2008


Timely: Talking to Pirates is one game developer's findings after chatting up everyone he could find that pirated his games.
posted by mathowie at 1:17 PM on August 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


That cruel link...wow. I was going to say that maybe the freeze was just a bug brought on by the cartridge fakery. But deleting the saved games. Ouch.
posted by DU at 1:20 PM on August 16, 2008


Zack McCracken's copy protection sheet probably explains why I need glasses now.
posted by RogerB at 1:26 PM on August 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


The thing about "talking to pirates" is that it's a bunch of hooey. It depends on a self-selected set of pirates, and it depends on actually believing their reasons. For example:

I got a few people, maybe 5% of the total, who basically said "I do it because I like free stuff and won't get caught. I'd do the same with anything if I knew I'd get away with it." This is depressing, but thankfully a small minority.

No, no it isn't a small minority. A small minority admit it. But most people who pirate games don't do it as a protest or any other lame reason no matter what they say. They do it because it's easy and you get free stuff. I've bought more computer games than I care to admit. I had a whole room full of boxes of computer games when I was younger. And I still occasionally downloaded a game. Why? Because it was there.

Was it usually something I would never have bought anyway? Yes. Was that why I did it? Not a chance. And I'm about as good a citizen you're likely to find in terms of thievery. I've never shoplifted so much as a pencil. I never would.

People pirate games because they can and because it's there. The other stuff is post-hoc rationalization. They want free stuff, it's easy, and they come up with the rest of it to justify their actions.

Pirates aren't (mostly) bad people. They're you and me. But let's not make something out of it that it's not. It's not political protest. It's not protesting evil corporations. It's not a statement and the modern gaming industry. It's people getting free stuff. Because they can.
posted by Justinian at 1:34 PM on August 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


About. It's not a statement ABOUT the modern gaming industry.
posted by Justinian at 1:36 PM on August 16, 2008


We've done Infocom like a zillion times on here, so I have only two things to note at the moment:
  1. I still have a Pool of Radiance code wheel, and
  2. If you're looking for a good modern-era text adventure, join me in suffering the cranial abuse that is Savoir Faire.

posted by Wolfdog at 1:40 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Back when I was buying C64 Infocom adventures (at a B.Dalton!), I loved the packaging and the extras so much I frequently upgraded ill-gotten copies.

Also remember thumbing through a Deadline cheats book in B.Dalton to help me past the trickier moments in the game. Christ I'm old.
posted by porn in the woods at 1:44 PM on August 16, 2008


Those code wheels were the best, bardic...it made the copy protection feel like part of the game. It's almost too bad that's not really practical anymore since those nerd-lists would wind up online within hours.
posted by JaredSeth at 1:45 PM on August 16, 2008


This isn't just Infocom, hombre: check out the final two links ("downright cruel") for the fundamental reason I posted this -- Earthbound (a classic RPG on Super Nintendo) scanned itself for total memory, and if it found more than was present on the non-pirated cartridges (pirated games frequently had more space to allow multiple games on a single cart), it would freeze during the final boss fight and delete all of the saved games.
posted by Damn That Television at 1:46 PM on August 16, 2008


I had some trouble with such ancient DRM just last night. After toying with the terraforming prototype for Spore, I decided to revisit SimEarth, the 1990 ecological simulator by Maxis that the program was based on. To my surprise the copy I downloaded wouldn't let me do anything without answering some dry astronomical factoid, such as the orbital velocity of Venus or the axial tilt of Mars. It said the answers could be found in Appendix C of the game's manual, which I of course didn't have.

Thankfully the download's .zip file included a handy chart of all the answers, so it's pretty easy to circumvent nowadays. But it's pretty easy to imagine the frustration of any player back in the day who failed to keep track of things like that and found the game unplayable.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:03 PM on August 16, 2008


Justinian raises a good point. These "restricted information" anti-piracy schemes don't work for the same reason people pirate stuff in the first place. The internet has eliminated the cost of sharing information, so the games / movies / passwords I want are always "there". As a society, we are rejecting the distribute-my-costs-through-exclusive-sales business model, because we don't feel like a digital copy of something has any inherent worth, and there's no longer any reason to adhere to it (except for forced moral equivocations).

I don't know what's the best way to adapt to this change. Maybe game makers could release trailers and take up collections before releasing their works?
posted by Popular Ethics at 2:05 PM on August 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


Number of times I've stolen a copy of Monopoly from a brick and mortar store: zero.

Number of times I've stolen digital media: countless.

It's the medium, stupid.
posted by wfrgms at 2:10 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lenslok was one of the quirkiest and annoying DRM devices at the time.
As far as extra's go, I like the Sci-fi novelette that came with Elite!
posted by LVdB at 2:13 PM on August 16, 2008


My favorite analog drm of this type was found in the original version of Civilization. The game would ask you a question from the manual and would helpfully give you the page number where you could find the answer. Many games of the time had this type of lookup, but for the other games, the lookup question was a variation on "What's the third word on the second line of page 42?"

Civ's questions weren't like this. The questions were of basic game info which, after playing the game for a week or two, you would know the answers without need of the manual. Essentially, DRM that deletes itself after you've owned the game for a while.
posted by pandaharma at 3:09 PM on August 16, 2008


I encountered something like this when I tried to play an old dos version of Maniac Mansion years ago. It was just like the NES version except you needed a passcode to unlock the door to get up the stairs which I assume was in the now long-vanished manual. At the time I couldn't for the life of me figure out why they put that in the game but I was pretty naive at the time.
posted by puke & cry at 5:30 PM on August 16, 2008


Oh god. Lenslok! Damn thing.
posted by schwa at 6:00 PM on August 16, 2008


Oh I love how they've emulated Lenslok in software. Too funny.
posted by schwa at 6:04 PM on August 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I remember one of the Sierra adventures, maybe King's Quest 3 or 4, had this really whiny anti-piracy rant in the manual about how "this is our job and you're depriving us of money we need to eat when you steal our games!" (note: Ken and Roberta Williams had several houses in the US and Mexico, expensive sports cars, etc. by this time). I was pretty young then, and thought they were talking about people shoving boxed copies in their pants or something, and thinking "is that really that much of a problem?".

I also of course remember the code wheels, manual checks, etc. Pirate groups and their crackers would completely remove these checks from the copies you'd be most likely to download from your local warez BBS, so you'd never even see them, and if they missed one the game was considered improperly cracked. Another group would release a fully cracked version, thus beating the original group on the release according to the custom, even though their version came later. So, this kind of copy protection never worked even at the time, and it wouldn't even be necessary to upload all the correct answers to the checks because if the game was cracked properly, you never saw them.

For making copies of legit versions from your friends or whatever, I vaguely remember a tedious method to duplicate the code wheels with a paper plate, a sheet of paper, and one of those little brass things with the two foldable tabs.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:12 PM on August 16, 2008


Yup, I owned Bureaucracy (written by Douglas Adams)—and the feelies were great. A whole box full of stuff, and it wasn't just window dressing—it was part of the game.

Legacy of the Ancients, The Legend of Blacksilver, and Demon Stalkers all came with code wheels, I think. And I had a couple of pieces of software back in the day (serious stuff, not games) which came with hardware dongles.

Whew. Things have changed, haven't they?
posted by greenie2600 at 6:13 PM on August 16, 2008


Whew. Things have changed, haven't they?

Not as far as hardware dongles go. They aren't common anymore on Windows as far as I know, but on OSX they're still used with Logic Pro, any software that uses iLok (MAX/MSP for one, although you can also authorize with a regular serial number), and probably other stuff.
posted by DecemberBoy at 6:23 PM on August 16, 2008


If memory serves, SSI's Gold Box DnD games (which were teh awesomesauce) came with these concentric code-wheel thingies, where you had to line up a rune with a word with a color or something like that.

I hated all these anti-piracy thingies with passion. You were playing and then had to go find the wheel or the 5th word of the manual (which was falling apart). However, I loved good manuals with passion. I think I more or less quit buying PC games when they started using DVD cases.
posted by ersatz at 6:47 PM on August 16, 2008


However, I loved good manuals with passion. I think I more or less quit buying PC games when they started using DVD cases.

Yeah. I think I spent half my childhood reading manuals from Sid Meier games. (Pirates!, Colonization...)
posted by nasreddin at 9:22 PM on August 16, 2008


If I recall correctly, an older version of Rockwell Software's RSLogix program required a Master Key floppy disk—which had purposely corrupted bad sectors, such that those made up the key. Made copying them a bitch, since "corrupting" a sector on purpose is hard enough (as in most software won't assist in that), let alone reading which sectors need corrupting, since most software skips bad sectors...
posted by disillusioned at 5:12 AM on August 17, 2008


Lenslok was one of the quirkiest and annoying DRM devices at the time.

What a pain in the ass Lenslok was! Loved Elite, hated the copy protection.
posted by MikeMc at 10:18 AM on August 17, 2008


Not as far as hardware dongles go. They aren't common anymore on Windows as far as I know

My Windows machine has a dongle on it for Cubase SX 3, because Steinberg just loves their customers.

I understand that there are ways of defeating this copy protection, but I made a decision a few years ago to actually buy commercial software I used a lot. Steinberg makes good software, but they do treat their customers like criminals, and I think sometimes they forget how much money people have to spend on their major packages. It's as if you shelled out a lot of your hard-earned money on a Mercedes, and you constantly had to prove to the manufacturer that you were legally allowed to drive it.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:57 AM on August 17, 2008


I encountered something like this when I tried to play an old dos version of Maniac Mansion years ago. It was just like the NES version except you needed a passcode to unlock the door to get up the stairs which I assume was in the now long-vanished manual.

If I recall correctly, the passcode was actually found on a large fold-out poster that resembled a bulletin board from the kids' school. A couple of phone numbers that you needed were also on the board, and there were some puzzle hints too (including one as a snippet of an advice column written by Nurse Edna.)

It was a great poster and I kept it up on my wall long after I first played the game.
posted by Spatch at 5:26 AM on August 18, 2008


I learned at a young age that no-repro paper was easily defeated by a fax machine.

I actually enjoyed the 18+ questions from Leisure Suit Larry and and Land of the Lounge Lizards. Its hard to believe I failed some of those questions when I was 13.

I wouldn't be surprised if I had a Pool of Radiance code wheel in my parents' basement, likely in two pieces as I separated it to make dupes for my friends.

I also never finished Battletech 1: The Crescent Hawk Inception because it didn't do the manual check till the star room at the very end of the game and by that time I had lost it. Dick move.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:06 PM on August 18, 2008


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