5 Anti-Piracy Strategies That Screwed Over Regular Gamers
Since the dawn of the home gaming era, unscrupulous people have been pirating games, and unscrupulous companies have been trying to stop them. But just as video game graphics take a significant leap forward with every generation, so too does the increasingly inept technology behind copy protection. Only, you know, in the opposite direction.
We've talked before about some of the best ways developers have messed with pirates -- now let's look at the other end of the spectrum, in which developers aim for the pirates but instead screw over their paying customers in increasingly ridiculous ways.
Lenslok Games Required a Little Plastic Decoder Gadget (That Didn't Work)
A pioneer in the "only making things worse" approach to video game copy protection was the Lenslok: a little plastic contraption powered by tiny prisms that apparently sought to negate Atari-era piracy by making the simple act of playing a game so fucking tedious that you'd end up throwing your primitive console out the window.
Nearly 900 people were killed by a rain of Commodore 64s the first year it was out.
The way it "worked" was that at certain points in the game, the breathtaking 8-bit graphics you were previously enjoying would become scrambled into an unholy mess of pixels at the center of your television and could only be descrambled by holding the Lenslok up to that part of the screen. Simple, right? Oh, and first you had to calibrate it, adjust it to account for your screen's anti-glare or flatness, and hold the thing precisely at arm's length or else it would only show gibberish. You'd know it was working once you saw the letters "OK."
Or, like, a gaping vagina and a K.
And you're done, right? Nope! At this point you had to reach for your keyboard (while still holding the Lenslok perfectly still with your other hand) and press a key to reveal a two-letter code on the screen. Enter the code and voila, you are now allowed to continue playing the game you bought, assuming you didn't break your arm performing that last move.
But wait, what if your TV was too big or too small for the code to be seen? Then the manufacturer's official solution was "Get fucked," because the Lenslok was only compatible with the most medium-sized of televisions. Not that it said so anywhere: You had to assume as much after spending hours trying to get the thing to work to no avail. This is all, of course, assuming the packager bothered to put the "extremely easy to use" instructions in your box and that you didn't get the Lenslok intended for a different game (hundreds of people did).
The game apologizes and wishes you luck, knowing that this may be the last time it sees you.
Right, so, anti-piracy efforts in games didn't get off to a good start. And somehow, they were about to get worse ...
StarTropics Made You Destroy Your Copy Protection
Another early method of screwing with pirates consisted of including a code in the game's packaging so that at some point the pirates could get locked out of the game for not having it ... as would a shitload of honest buyers, inevitably. An especially bad case was StarTropics for NES, which seemingly went out of its way to make the code as easy to miss (and throw away) as humanly possible.
We're not sure why copy protection was necessary with this cover.
Say you're halfway through the game when you get stuck on a puzzle with only this clue: "Tell Mike to dip my letter in water" (you're Mike, incidentally). Fine, OK: You've been asked to do weirder things in Nintendo games. So, you go through every pixel of the game trying to pick up anything vaguely resembling a letter, but you can't find it -- because it's not in the game. It's a physical sheet of paper that came in the game's box, between all the safety warnings, subscription slips, and other shit that your mom probably threw out the day after you opened the game.
But let's say you find the damn letter, and let's say you figure out you have to expose it to water to reveal a secret password. In that case, you'd better make sure you apply the exact amount of water needed -- add too little and the code won't be readable; add too much and the letter will fall apart, as wet paper tends to do.
Especially in the hands of pissed off preteens shouting "FUCK YOU, UNCLE STEVE!"
Even if it works, we hope you remember to write down the code in case you ever want to play this game again, because as time passes the writing will fade out. And if you rented or bought the game secondhand and it came without the letter? Then your options are: A) call Nintendo's hotline, where Nintendo officials will slowly, and seductively, tell you how to progress through their titles for a small fee; B) waste money on a strategy guide to get a single password; or C) wait for that World Wide Web thing to catch on in a decade or so and ask the Internet what to do.
Today, you can buy StarTropics on Nintendo's Virtual Console, where you just submerge a digital letter on a drawing of a bucket.
It isn't the same without the anger and frustration.
James Bond Hates the Colorblind
At least the previous two examples graciously let you play your game for a while before unleashing the overzealous copy protection terror. The 1990 PC game James Bond 007: The Stealth Affair cockblocked you right from the start, which is kind of ironic, considering that this game started life as a shameless Bond ripoff and only became an official product when it was rereleased in America.
Turns out Daniel Craig wasn't the first Bond with blond hair, or with a magical chest.
You start up the game, hoping to be greeted by the classic image of Bond shooting you in the face through your monitor. Instead, you are prompted with a terrible example of MS Paint cubism in black and white. You also find a color version of the same picture in the manual:
OK, we're pretty sure we got a D+ for this thing back in seventh grade.
At this point you're asked to identify the color of a certain piece in the picture by looking at the manual. Easy enough, right? It would be, if the red boxes that tell you which shape to identify didn't stupidly encompass several pieces at once. Oh, and you only have two chances to get it right, because absolutely no one thought this thing through.
It's either the circle or the smaller circle or the even smaller circle or the triangle or ...
On top of that, the colors printed in the manual were apparently a little bit off to begin with, so even if you picked the right color, the game might still tell you it's wrong ... and then it's back to trying to guess if you're clicking on the right shape at all.
Just ... something in this general area. The game has already decided that your choice will be wrong.
Of course, you've probably figured out the biggest flaw in this system: If you're one of the 10.5 million men in America with red-green color blindness and you happen to like James Bond, then tough shit, because this game is unplayable for you.
Also, what the fuck does any of this have to do with James Bond? At least the makers of StarTropics made an effort to use something related to the plot of the game, but Bond solves problems by shooting and screwing things, not looking at pictures until his eyes bleed. It could have at least been a picture of some ample-bosomed, ridiculously named vixen, is our point.
BioShock Locks You Out of Your Game With No Recourse
In 2007, the PC version of BioShock became 2K Games' first attempt at using SecuROM, a state-of-the-art security system that attempted to thwart file sharing efforts by allowing each legitimate copy of the game to be downloaded to a computer only twice -- ever. Deleted the game to make more space for porn? Reformatted your computer to get rid of all the viruses that came with the porn? No more BioShock for you, then.
Yes, we have reached the point where paying customers can't even install the game, let alone play it.
2K Games assured players that uninstalling the game before trying again would solve the problem, but nope -- anyone who tried this found themselves thrown into a twisted nightmare that makes BioShock's plot seem straightforward in comparison. Say you've accidentally used up your two installations and you do exactly what 2K said, but then you find out it's not that simple: You're prompted to call SecuROM to reactivate your game. OK, you do that, but after your third call to that laundromat in New Jersey, you realize that the company printed the wrong number in the manual. It's as if they knew they didn't want people calling them.
So now you research the actual number and call it, even if you're outside the U.S. and that means making an expensive international call. Or you simply email SecuROM asking them to resolve the issue, which seems like the most convenient option, until you get this reply:
"We won't do shit, but you can still ask them."
What the ass? The program told you to call the company responsible for the DRM, but the company is telling you to contact the game's publisher? Right, fuck it. You do that, too ... but it turns out that the people at 2K Games are about as versed in the specifics of SecuROM copy protection as you, so calling them just ends with everyone crying. As a result, two months after the game had been released, 2K released a specially made uninstallation tool to dig themselves out of the mountain of customer complaints they received.
Less than a year later, they all but ditched SecuROM. And then all the other game companies learned from 2K's mistakes and never used that system again.
Anti-Piracy Protection Makes Spore the Most Pirated Game of the Year
Haha, just kidding. In the same year that 2K dropped SecuROM and ran away screaming, EA picked it right up and used it on their highly anticipated digital penis-monster creator, Spore. The result? Spore became the most pirated game of 2008 in one week.
And the 10th most pirated 3D dick maker overall.
Having learned absolutely squat from the BioShock disaster, EA not only used the same SecuROM protection on Spore, but actually beefed it up. Once you logged in to your game and it verified that you owned a legal copy, you had to remain online at all times so that it could constantly check back to make sure you didn't suddenly start using a pirated one. Because apparently you could be stealing and playing other copies of Spore, like, for the thrill of it, or something. It's as if the TSA didn't just check you before boarding the plane, but followed you all through your vacation and frisked you as you stood in line at Disney World.
The worst part is that it's not like this is one of those games where staying online adds a whole new dimension of interactivity -- the only way to interact with other players over this mandatory Internet connection was from a handful of creatures from others' single player games that would cross over into yours. Even then, we're pretty sure most people would willingly trade having to endure the dong-footed mutant hellspawn of other players for an offline single player mode.
At the end of the day, were all these measures worth it for EA? Considering that, as a direct result of the backlash, Spore was downloaded half a million times on BitTorrent in its first week, and that five years later it still has a shitty rating on Amazon due to the avalanche of one-star "fuck DRM" reviews it got back then, we're guessing "no." Just a month after release, EA apologized and dialed back the DRM restrictions ... and then used even more strict ones on SimCity, with well-known results. Because not learning shit is kind of their thing.
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Related Reading: Hollywood isn't great at turning folks against piracy either. Teaching children to monetize everything isn't exactly a great way to get sympathy. That isn't to say there's no good way to fight piracy: turning pirate bullets into chickens is a pretty smart move. All this panic over piracy didn't start with the Internet though. Here's our proof.