When Ubisoft announced its new Digital Rights Management system three things were certain: everyone would hate it; it would stumble; eventually, it would go away. So far, two out of three. Give the third some time.
Copy protection usually goes in cycles – a new idea works for a while, gets cracked and then vanishes. Throughout it all, the moral lines are depressingly grey.
Companies don't want people pirating their software, and as much as many pirates like to claim that they're only trying out a new game or wouldn't have bought it anyway, the tens of thousands of downloads completed puts to bed the idea of it being a victimless crime or an act of Robin Hood-style rebellion.
What's certain is that there are two ways to go about the problem. You can shrug and focus on the people who are willing to hand over their money, or you can deploy ever-more draconian copy-protection, pitting your engineers' talents against a hacking community that would love nothing more than the respect of being the first to break the 'impossible' DRM.
Adventure games were the best
Copy protection used to be much more fun. Games came with all kinds of goodies, from technological wonders like Lenslok (a collection of prisms that you used to read secret codes from the screen, if it worked, which was rarely) to newspapers ripped out of the game's fictional universe and in-character manual look-up checks.
These were rarely subtle – like the Ultima RPGs, where characters would routinely check that you really were the noble Avatar by asking you, say, how many words of power there were – but they at least tried to maintain the fiction. A little. A bit. It could have been worse, anyway.
The best copy protection was always on adventure games, like the classic Monkey Island – if only because of how adorable it was to see developers putting things like 'impossible-to-photocopy' manuals or convoluted code wheels in front of an audience that had just spent a month's pocket money on the chance to solve problems. Compared to working out how to open a portcullis with nothing but a herring and a can of diet soda, defeating these checks was a breeze…
There are other fun examples, too. Fail the honesty check in SimCity and you'd still be allowed to play… in an earthquake zone that completely ruined any chance of actually building anything.
Fail five times in the amusingly named but awful Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders and you were teleported to Pirate Jail, where an angry policeman ranted at you for not having paid for the game. Ah, memories.
These more whimsical copy protection methods are still around. The idea isn't really to do something interesting, but make pirates think that the job is done and move them onto other games.
One way is to have the game load properly, then sabotage itself later on. War game ArmA 2 does this by slowly degrading your aim and finally turning you into a seagull, while Lord of the Rings: Battle For Middle Earth 2 makes your whole army spontaneously explode.
The downside of these bombs is that they don't usually make it clear why they're triggering and they can sometimes fire even on legitimate copies, meaning that games can get a horrible reputation for bugginess as the pirates spill out onto the forums to complain.
The worst hit by this was a Diablo-style game called Titan Quest, whose copy protection would simply drop pirates back to the desktop. Most people hit by this simply assumed the game kept crashing, killing any chance of them going legit with that title in the future.
The big irony is that everyone knows all protection gets broken eventually. It's deemed a success if it holds up for a matter of weeks, never mind months. A year later, nobody cares. The only type of protection likely to go beyond a short-term win is when all games are played in the cloud and naughty thieves-to-be only get to play them through thin clients.
Even then, will it work? Games have been leaked before. Many that should be immune to piracy, like World of Warcraft, have spawned illegal servers. Pirates usually find a way, eventually.
Still, it's the last real chance for DRM. If it fails, the games industry will either have to get used to making games for honest people and forget about the rest, or stop making games entirely.
Maybe that's best. If the pirates want more, they'll have to start making games themselves, and let the industry have a turn copying them. Why should the baddies get all the fun?
First published in PC Plus Issue 284
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