The Ten Best DRM Tricks

As we’ve learned from pop-culture over the years, there are many effective ways of dealing with pirates; walking them off the plank, terrifying them with ticking crocodiles, or making them speak like a booze-addled Keith Richards.

An article I wrote for one of the biggest gaming sites in the world… but their US office doesn’t read emails or look at the CMS, so they wrote a much worse version of this and mine got spiked. Bah. 

As we’ve learned from pop-culture over the years, there are many effective ways of dealing with pirates; walking them off the plank, terrifying them with ticking crocodiles, or making them speak like a booze-addled Keith Richards. But the game companies numerous methods of dealing with them have been shockingly poor over the years, ranging from the Lenslok distorting readers (that didn’t work) to dongles (that rarely worked) to red cellophane filters to reveal codes (useless for the colour blind) to always-online gaming (no, Sim “block legitimate players” City isn’t in our list). However, some developers have made their DRM fun – fun enough that pirates might even consider buying the game – and in a few cases, daft enough that players might consider downloading the pirated version, just for a laugh. Here they are, in no particular order.

Game Dev Tycoon’s Failing Hypocrites

Game Dev Tycoon

The title that reminded us to write this list, the developers of this game development sim revealed today that they’d seeded social networks with a special pirate build of their game which included the effects of piracy on game development (unlike the main game). Hyperbolically, this meant that as time goes by your sales decline whilst your team members remind you more and more about how horrible pirates are and how they’re destroying your ability to make games. IRONY. Eventually, no matter what you do, your company goes bust. Fabulously, many pirates have since gone on the game’s forums to ask how to get past the piracy problem, asking questions like “Can I research a DRM or something?” Even more irony arrives from the game itself being a pretty straight copy of Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story, right down to the title.


ARMA’s Flying Pirates

Bohemia Interactive has famously fantastic copy protection, based on Codemaster’s FADE system, with their own version called DEGRADE. The original version of Operation Flashpoint inserted errors into the code, which CD copiers autocorrected, and the game could detect these pirated CDs. Once it did, players would experience gradually increasing difficulty, until enemies became bullet sponges and your gun became about as useful as a pointed stick (and much less accurate).

Unlike fellow Eastern Europeans CD Projekt, Bohemia have continued using DRM, pushing the DEGRADE system harder with every game. ARMA 2 has gradually degrading weapon accuracy and increasingly-maddening vehicle controls for pirates. Occasionally, the player turns into a bird and takes off with the words “Good players do not fly away from this game…” Their strange helicopter sim Take on Helicopters, meanwhile, gradually made the screen get more blurry, so it was eventually unplayably broken. No-one spends as much time making antipiracy fun as Bohemia…

Arkham Asylum’s Bat Impersonator Pirates


 This was possibly the simplest piece of anti-piracy tech in recent years, but effectively turned Batman from a Caped Crusader into a Gotham City Impersonator. Straightforwardly, Batman’s cape doesn’t work, with him launching with confidence then flapping his arms frantically, like a 19th century wannabe-aviator plummeting off the end of a pier. Not that this makes the game unplayable – far from it, you can fight your way across the ground for the most of the game. Apart from the room full of poison gas where Bats will die, die, die.

Serious Sam 3’s Undying Pirate Hunter

serious sam 3
Many of the most innovative anti-piracy tools are created and then seeded by the developers on Bitorrent and newsgroups. In Serious Sam 2, the pirated version has players pursued by a giant unkillable scorpion that gradually catches them up. Some legitimate players see this as a challenge and have taken to downloading the game and seeing how long they can escape the scorpion for. See also Crysis: Warhead where pirated versions of Crytek’s meatheaded-but-beautiful shooter only had guns that fired chickens. Even if you fired at chickens.

Books Not For Illiterate Pirates

king's quest manual check
One of the more traditional methods of protecting your game, is by asking the player questions that only a legitimate player would know. In King’s Quest VI the questions came from a novella by Roberta Williams that was given away with the game. See also Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego. The Ultima games meanwhile required you to quote elements of the manual back at characters in answer to questions. Ultima VII wouldn’t let you out of the original town if you got the questions wrong (though there was a secret room with all the key items in the game world in the chimney of one of the houses…)

Leisure Suit Larry did this a different way by asking questions that only someone over 21 would know the answers to… ensuring that a generation of current 10 year-olds could probably play it, if they could be bothered getting past the appalling text-entry interface. See also the framebreaking Metal Gear Solid where players needed to proceed by entering a code on the “back of the package” – which turned out to be the actual game packaging, not something in the game.

The Secret of Monkey Island Dial O’ Pirate

monkey island
The sadly-missed LucasArts’s Money Island dealt with pirates by using… pirates! Particularly, images of pirates heads constructed with a code wheel, that looked like something Alan Turing came up with to crack the Enigma devices. Except with cartoon pirate heads.

LucasArts also had something similar in the iconic Sam and Max Hit The Road. This was a dressing-up game which had bizarre images of them on each page of the manual, so pirates had to go to the HUGE trouble of getting a photocopy of it – much harder than it sounds in the days before always-on interwub.

Similarly, LucasArts’ delightful Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders took players who entered the game’s serial code incorrectly five times to ‘Pirate Jail’ where a guard would lecture them endlessly on the ethics of piracy and from which there was no escape.

Earthbound’s Pirate Ending

This ancient JRPG had several layers of copy protection, ranging from simple warnings (which blocked you playing further), memory checks (which blocked you playing further), huge amounts of extra enemies in all the wrong places, and culminated in the game resetting during the final boss battle and deleting your save. That’s at least 40 hours of gameplay up in smoke. Ow.

Dark Souls’ Black Phantom Horde

dark souls
This was a very hands-on version of copy-protection. If you played the game before release, like many reviewers did, and were silly enough to connect online, the Dark Souls studio unleashed a horde of max-level Black Phantoms on you to make your life a bloody misery. Gets bonus points for being so utterly in tune with the game’s style.

Red Alert 2’s Suicide Pirates

red alert 2
Your base and all your units would explode 30 seconds after a mission started. The same thing happened on Battle for Middle Earth, except that it only kicked in after you’d been playing the game for a while. As the latter game had you slowly building an army from mission to mission, it meant that you’d have a massive horrible scream when your army detonated as one. See also the Ubisoft Michael Jackson dance game on DS, where pirates were treated to sudden, horrible vuvuzelas instead of the official soundtrack.

Love Plus Lonely Pirates

Love Plus was a DS Japanese dating title where the pirated version was widely disemminated around the legitimate game’s release, by the developers. Players who downloaded it found that none of the in-game girls would go out with them.

Even nastier was Cross Days, a Japanese erotic game. The developers included a trojan virus with the pirated version of the game, *which the player had agreed to in the included terms and conditions*, that took surveys of the players, including their real name and address, and posted it online for everyone to see. It also took a screenshot of their desktop, so even if they lied, everyone could see what else they’d been doing… which seems to have been disproportionately looking at naughty sites. Players could request to have their name taken down, but had to admit that they’d pirated the game.

Shogun 2: The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Samurai, Part 4

I wrote a long diary piece for RPS about Shogun: Total War – Fall of the Samurai. They published the first three parts (one, two and three) but I never finished the fourth piece, as I couldn’t finish the campaign, so it just faded out. Here it is, finished at last.

I wrote a long diary piece for RPS about Shogun: Total War – Fall of the Samurai. They published the first three parts (one, two and three) but I never finished the final piece, as I couldn’t finish the campaign. The fourth piece, finished at last, is here and deals with Total War’s campaign games and their continuing failure to finish on a high – and quite a bit about pre-1945 Japan.

The story so far; fearing the overrun of his home province of Fukishima, the cowardly Daimyo Reginald Samurai assumed a false identity as the Daimyo of the Satsumas. Talking to the old salts stationed at the British trading port, he discovered the existence of the Ironclad, a near-indestructible military ship. They told him tale of “the devil ship”, HMS Nemesis, a prototype iron warship which nearly single-handedly destroyed the Chinese fleet thirty years before. Reginald decided he was going to buy one of these ships, sail it and an army of Royal Marines up to the capital, and proclaim himself Emperor. Who could stand against such a ship? Who couldn’t love this beast that cannon balls just bounce off?

Old Lacfadio Hearn, now a hundred years in his grave, fell in love with such a ship;

“It is a long pull to reach her—the beautiful monster, towering motionless there in the summer sea, with scarce a curling of thin smoke from the mighty lungs of her slumbering engines; and that somnolent song of our boatmen must surely have some ancient magic in it; for by the time we glide alongside I feel as if I were looking at a dream. Strange as a vision of sleep, indeed, this spectacle: the host of quaint craft hovering and trembling around that tremendous bulk; and all the long- robed, wide-sleeved multitude of the antique port—men, women, children -the grey and the young together—crawling up those mighty flanks in one ceaseless stream, like a swarming of ants. And all this with a great humming like the humming of a hive,—a sound made up of low laughter, and chattering in undertones, and subdued murmurs of amazement. For the colossus overawes them—this ship of the Tenshi-Sama, the Son of Heaven; and they wonder like babies at the walls and the turrets of steel, and the giant guns and the mighty chains, and the stern bearing of the white-uniformed hundreds looking down upon the scene without a smile, over the iron bulwarks. Japanese those also—yet changed by some mysterious process into the semblance of strangers. Only the experienced eye could readily decide the nationality of those stalwart marines: but for the sight of the Imperial arms in gold, and the glimmering ideographs upon the stern, one might well suppose one’s self gazing at some Spanish or Italian ship-of-war manned by brown Latin men.” (Lacfadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.)

Thirty years earlier, Reginald has a similar obsession. He thinks an ironclad, a proper modern machine of war, with all the gadgets that the bright shining modern 1860s can throw at it, a ship like that… it could take the Empire. In Aizu, he dreamt of surviving to the following day. In Satsuma, he can dream of on big gamble, one big ship and one giant army to go with it.

(The fact that, in-game, one of these ships has more than a hundred times the health of the average wooden ship just makes you blink and blink again. As long as the enemy don’t board it, it’s practically indestructible. If they try boarding it, it can just ram them to bits.)

It takes me a year to get a force together for Reginald to take the two provinces he needs to take and hold to win the game. Reginald takes all his best agents with him; Lacfadio, the Foreign Veteran, who has been drilling the three squadrons of Royal Marines. His Geisha, Tangerine, has been wooing them. Finally, Mandarin, his Shinobi, lazing in the summer sun. They, two thousand men, and an array of gatling and armstrong guns, clamber aboard the new British Ironclad, HMS Warrior, renamed HMS Thunder Child for the occasion.( Yes, it’s cheesy, but it’s better than effing HMS Cockchafer.) Off to VICTORY!

Come on Thunder Child!
Another old favourite ironclad, HMS Thunder Child

By the time my fleet sets sail, though, someone else on the Imperial side has already taken them and I can’t work out what I have to do next. The only objective I’ve not achieved is to personally hold a certain number of provinces, but surely we should have won by now? I’m confusedly partway through subjugating the nearest place with a railway station, just to find out how they work wh…. REALM DIVIDE.

Okay, so, the Satsumas got too powerful. Though it doesn’t posit it like this, when you reach a certain level of power, the game gives you a choice between sticking with your faction and becoming a figurehead, if not the actual leader, or striking out alone. Reginald, having experienced the treachery and pettifogging luddism of both sides is in no mood for compromise. He’s in no mood to be the running dog of a man who owes his position to his a sliver of shared genetic material with a man a thousand years dead, whether that’s Emperor or Shogun. Reginald’s new aim is to raise the banner of the Satsuma over Tokyo. He’ll proselytise the benefits of Vitamin C to Japan or die trying.

Basically, I click this button. And end the turn and…


I’m at war with everyone! Not one of my allies has stayed loyal. Which is a bit rum.

This is as far as my diary got. For, having dropped the difficulty, I hit that classic strategy endgame wall. All my efforts at diplomacy and deterrence had proved futile, overruled by Creative Assembly’s mechanical decision to make the final battle as trying as possible. Now the game required me to expend endless energies on fighting innumerable battles with every last foe in Japan, all of which I won. Even the impregnable Thunder Child only made it so far across the sea before the pointlessness of auto-resolving her battles became obvious. I’m not the type of player who can stop micromanaging either, so turns started taking longer and longer as I had more and more fortresses to manage. Like a suburban housewife, Reginald’s diary turned into something automatic; ‘Put the washing on, invaded Hida, took the washing out, sank a navy, put the dinner on. Upgraded another twenty fortresses today. So depressed.’

And eventually I stopped.

Dust settles on the typewriter

Diaries end. All real-world diaries have their cessation point. The playwright Joe Orton’s ended when his jealous lover murdered him. The 17th century minister Samuel Pepys ceased his diaries when blindness overtook him. Anne Frank’s diaries ceased when the Gestapo stormed her hiding place. Franz Kafka’s final letter demanded that all his works, diaries included, be burned after his death. The dancer Nijinsky only wrote his in the short period before he was put in an asylum.

Yet, like most diaries, Reginald Samurai’s just faded out. He was never to raise his Mon over Tokyo because the game simply wasn’t interesting enough to maintain a strong narrative. I could have ploughed on, using the writerly arts to generate highs and lows, Dickensian cliffhangers with the ghosts of characters conjured from my fetid imagination. But the game didn’t turn out that way and the trudge to Tokyo became too off-putting.

Partially, it was my fault. My part of the blame lay in flipping from the hardest possible situation to the easiest; Satsuma on easy mode, which proved more boring than I expected. But, mainly, this failure was Creative Assembly’s fault. When Reginald abandoned Fukushima for Satsuma, it was because I felt the game was cheating. On hard mode, the enemy factions were simply abandoning their strong positions to rush headlong at me, acting as a single enemy rather than a fragmented country I could divide and conquer. And the stupidity of the Realm Divide AI broke it completely.

Like Julian Gollop told me at GDC, AI has just stagnated over the past 20 years – and AI has always been a bugbear for Creative Assembly, who seem to be unable to cope with it at all, with the now-defunct Darth Mod doing the job much better than they ever did. Creative tell us that the Total War games are rarely surpassed in the amount of time players put into them – but, still, reading forums all you see is players complaining about the AI. About it not using its navies in Rome I, about it cheating here, there and everywhere. I love the Total War games – the design, the historical context, their increasing tendency to gamble with the multiplayer – but I’m starting to wonder how many people actually finish them, and whether they’re about to alienate their audience. Rome II needs to do much, much, better.