PC Game Copy Protection

As we reach the end of the age of computer games coming on DVD (many of the offerings coming in DVD cases just containing download codes), I just wanted to reflect on copy protection as it has affected me.

I can go back to a few C64 disk and tape games that contained code sheets that you needed to have handy if you ever wanted to play the game again, and how sometimes the difference between green and cyan wasn’t that great. And then, because the sheet saw so much use, it got a bit beaten up…

Move on to DOS games that required you to refer to something in the manual. When it asked you a second question in a row, and then sometimes a third, you’re wondering, “Did I answer the first one wrong?” Or it asks you for a vehicle speed, and you’re wondering, “Do I put in ‘MPH’ or not?” More often than not, you’re wondering just where the manual is…

As consumer hard drives got bigger, and so did game collections, some people used programs like VirtualDrive to store the game files on the PC, without having to disk-swap all the time. Especially good on kids’ machines, when you don’t want them touching discs all the time.

I haven’t run the program on my PC, but I did have a program for a while to get round DVD region encryption (hint: use VLC). I wasn’t running VLC, the program was called something like DVDRegionKiller. I found out how it worked: it kind of virtualised the DVD drive so it wouldn’t go looking for the region. Kind of the reverse of VirtualDrive: where VirtualDrive pretends the disc files ARE a real drive, DVDRegionKiller pretended the drive WASN’T real.

Having discovered the joys of VLC, I don’t need that program any more, but I only figured out all that stuff when a game (Star Wars: Empire At War) basically told me to uninstall VirtualDrive or equivalent because it couldn’t verify whether or not the drive was real. Ran into the same problem with Myst V on a computer that did have VirtualDrive (trying not to abbreviate it as VD).

Telling me what programs I can’t even have installed on my machine, is a level of intrusiveness that I really don’t like.

I bought a second-hand copy of Battlefield 2142 in a thrift store. This game required registration to even play the single-player campaign. Where in my previous experience a CD key could be reused, the one in the box was registered to another account, and the only way EA would let me play the game was to give them more money for a new key.

I already paid for the game, I don’t want to pay for it a second time (more than I paid first time, even) to make it work. I ain’t that interested.

After that experience, I was hesitant to buy Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy for PC that I found in a thrift store. I couldn’t see anything in the manual about online registration or anything, even a CD key, but I talked them down to a price where I was comfortable with the risk.

Well, on the day I got it, it installed fine and ran fine.

The next day, the copy protection told me to put in the original disc and not a backup copy. Well, as far as I know, it IS the original disc…

In the error message was a link with some suggestions for resolving the problem. I tried following the instructions, looking in the Control Panel for some setting that wasn’t where they said it was. I didn’t even find it. I restarted the computer, and after that, the game would just crash.

I got a game that allowed for three installs (later updated to five) before it wouldn’t work and you’d need to get a new key. I installed it, played it a little, then after a while (as you do), had to reinstall the whole computer. I don’t think I uninstalled the game, which apparently would give me that use back. Don’t think I’ve even installed it since then.

Copy protection makes things more difficult for legitimate users, whereas pirates strip out that crap and make versions that run better. And often bundle a different set of crap into versions they distribute. But still, I can understand legitimate users being driven to look for modified versions of the software that, frankly, will actually freaking work.

The more I suffer from copy protection, I think that that does more harm (by pissing off people who would actually spend money on the products) than good (Pirates are always ahead of the games companies, and I think it’s safe to say that they aren’t deterred by the increasingly draconian copy protection). And someone who downloads a pirated copy of the game that would never have bought it in the first place? That ain’t lost revenue.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the games companies, but the versions of copy protection that veer off into spyware and malware territory, bring me closer to being entirely unsympathetic.

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