Raiders of the Digital Coast

15 03 2016

This is going to be a weird article to type but it’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while. It’s about software piracy, but it’s more of a historical take on it rather than any outright moralizing (though I would be remiss to not talk about that too but that’ll be at the end).

So, I’m sure a lot of people these days are familiar with the various forms of Digital Rights Management, from the relatively benign (Steam), to the very bad (Starforce, SecuROM, UbiSoft’s various implementations, etc.). But to be honest a lot of this stuff is at least a lot less tedious than the ways games used to protect against piracy.

CD Keys are something most people these days still have familiarity with of course; having to enter a series of alphanumeric characters roughly on the same level of complexity as the passwords for some NES games, but even those weren’t like the early days.

In the old days the most basic way to protect people from copying and distributing your game was through “manual protection”. Basically the player would need to enter a particular word from the game manual (like the 7th word in the 2nd paragraph on the 14th page or something like that), or perhaps answer some question regarding a particular fact from said manual (the original DOS Mechwarrior was like this, asking you to enter the height or weight of certain battlemechs, for example). This of course was easily defeated by a photocopier. Not that photocopying was widespread or cheap in the late 1980s/early 1990s, but it was still doable. Some companies sorta put a twist on this trend by having quizzes at the start of the game, but for age verification purcahses. The Leisure Suit Larry games had a quiz full of questions that, in theory, only adults could answer. Of course this could also be bypassed by asking your dad although I’m sure that was a weird conversation in the making:


Dad how do you wear just your pride? Also what’s a stripper?

As the manuals were defeated the developers naturally changed tactics. Black and White manuals gave way to full color manuals with color-based verification (usually matching a picture or design that could vary in color) and code wheels. Code wheels required users to match up contextual clues from the screen in order to verify them. There were things like the Dial-A-Pirate code wheel from monkey island, to the cryptoquizzical ones like this thing from Pool of Radiance:

Even if I knew the context I'm not sure I can understand.

Even if I knew the context I’m not sure I’d get it

Again both of these could be defeated by photocopying, but they weren’t as easy (again, color copying back then was even rarer than b&w). Granted depending on the level of colors needed for verification one could easily get past it (using only two colors, for example, since even on a black and white copier you still had shades).

Anyway, let’s get to my experience. My dad worked for IBM for many years. This was in the days where IBM still made PCs so occasionally he’d  be able to take one home for a while or purchase one outright. It’s how I got to experience stuff like Tony LaRussa Baseball II, Wolfenstein 3D, Descent, the early days of the Internet, and many more games and applications. His coworkers also would frequently pass games around to one another, complete with photocopied manuals (in black and white, mind). This is how I was able to bypass things like this for Wayne Gretzky’s Hockey:


Again it being only two colors is a bit of a mistake, a black and white copier can still make out the differences.

As well as a similar scheme for Joe Montana’s Football. Now I’m telling this story for a couple reasons, one of which being that software piracy has always existed, and also that even people in the industry would occasionally copy that floppy, despite what PSAs would tell us otherwise. It’s an interesting thing to be sure, that for as long as there’s been software there’s been software pirates. I don’t really remember what games cost back then (We did of course buy games on occasion but I was not paying for them) so it’s hard for me to say piracy was motivated by price back then. It could’ve been that plus a bit of the issue where getting reviews of anything back then would be difficult outside of a magazine, and I didn’t start reading stuff like PC Gamer and PC Entertainment until like 1996 (which of course also had demo discs). Also reading a bunch of british PC game mags  was a weird experience but that’s a story for another time.

Hm…I sorta ran out of things to say. Oh well. Photocopying manuals sure is a different beast from downloading a crack from some shady warez site. Probably safer too. Also if you must pirate games (cause let’s be honest, I can’t stop you) at least pay for a game if you end up liking it.

Of Mechwarriors and Lawsuits

27 09 2009

Ok I really wanted to make a far more grandiose entry about my love for the Mechwarrior series and my rising hatred of Harmony Gold, but I seem to be in a bit of a creative trough so instead you get this.



All right all right all right, I’ll be more in-depth. See Harmony Gold, despite basically having the same legal standing as a piece of wet cardboard, decided to impolitely inform IGN and Catalyst Game Labs that putting the Unseen version of the Warhammer in the trailer for the new Mechwarrior game was somewhere in between robbing an orphanage and taking a dump in a cop car on the scale of illegal and heinous actions. This despite the fact that Catalyst was assured they had the rights to all the Unseen. What are the Unseen you ask? Well to tell you that story first I must tell you another story.

(clickety clickety click)

Expansion Packs: For those Who Remember Them

8 09 2009

Back in the day, by which I mean the 1990s, we didn’t have Downloadable Content. Instead PC Gamers would often throw down 30-50 dollars on a piece of software that usually would only work if they owned another piece of software. Crazy, you might say, but it’s true. They were called Expansion Packs. In the days of people citing $10 for 5-10 hours of extra gameplay as a ripoff, it’s hard for me to take that seriously considering the prices spent on Expansion Packs back in the day. So with that in mind it’s time to fire up the time machine of gaming knowledge that is my mind and find what I feel to be the best 3 expansion packs I ever spent money on. Also there will be spoilers.
(I’m sure most of you who read this know what an expansion pack was)

Tiberian Twilight: The Case for C&C 4’s new subtitle

3 09 2009

Almost two weeks ago months of speculation ended when EA announced the winning subtitle of their naming contest for Command & Conquer 4. To the delight of many and the ire of just as many, they picked “Tiberian Twilight” which was apparently overwhelmingly the majority of entries sent in to EA. The ire mostly comes from that pox upon vampire fiction and literature in general known as Twilight, which some people claim is what motivated the name choice. The ire from others comes from the fact that, despite the contest being partially judged on Originality, the name “Tiberian Twilight” is not original.

However I still believe that this is the right subtitle for this game, and I’m not just saying that because I was one of the many who wrote it in as a contest entry.
(click to read more)

Rock and Roll all night, Develop every day

28 03 2009

Silly title aside, if one were to spend way too much time thinking about it, the video game industry and the rock music industry have developed along similar parallels, right down to the vocal and possibly crazy denouncements of both industries as either being the work of Satan or inspiring a generation of killers. In the early days you had people just experimenting with what they could get their hands on (Bushnell in video games, Clapton and Hendrix among others in music). Eventually as the respective industries expanded you had more companies branching out in the medium, even going as far to do extravagant “album-cover” style game boxes (pre-Dark Times Electronic Arts), in a reflection of the Progressive Rock movement. And in time you got legendary figures in the industry like John Carmack, John Romero, Peter Molyneux, Warren Spector, Richard Garriot, Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, and others. Some of whom burned out, faded away, or are still making games now and expanding their horizons within the industry.

One of the few movements in both industries that have run almost concurrently is the resurgence of “indie” movement. Just as a lot of independent groups and labels have made strides in the music industry, the independent games market has really taken off in the past few years, especially thanks to digital distribution via places like Steam and X-Box Live Arcade.

Well anyway I know this wasn’t a lot to talk about but it was more of a random musing rather than a fully-thought-out essay.