The Ten Best DRM Tricks

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments (



  1. Belsameth

    Great article! The trojan thing is taking it *wildly* too far tho, and would be illegal in a lot of countries. Regardless of TOS


%d bloggers like this: