Digital rights management is the bogeyman of PC gaming. Most publishers demand it to help stave off piracy, yet the pirates seem to hack through it as effortlessly as if it was not there at all. Meanwhile, the people caught in the middle—the gamers who are forced to jump through activation hoops and endure limited usage licenses—are made to feel like they are being punished for the virtue of not being a thief.
Anyone who’s purchased a PC game at any time has experienced the frustration that comes with proving your innocence. But these ten DRM measures could very well be the worst of them.
In the days before digital products could also be digitally protected, copy protection was handled by analog technology. More of a precursor to DRM in the strictest sense, these star maps and decoder discs attempted to make the authentication process fun (and immediately rendered the game unusable once the necessary doohickey was lost or stolen by a pirating schoolmate). Lenslok was one that didn’t have to get lost to get under the skin. A foldout series of prisms, Lenslok was designed to be held against a computer screen to unscramble a bit of text. But this text had to fit inside the eye of the Lenslok, which meant each game of Elite was started with a lengthy graphics calibration process that wouldn’t even work if used on a large enough TV. That such a problem seems quaint today is a testament to the gauntlet of modern DRM troubles.
9. Manual-Based Protection
Again this isn’t strictly DRM, but no conversation of gaming copy protection history would be complete reminiscing on the days when it was all about the manual. Any older PC gamer will remember when they had to whip out the documentation every few hours just to get the game to trust them again, and most recall being thwarted by Leisure Suit Larry’s infamous trivia-based age check (an even more difficult task now as the questions were designed for today’s fifty year-olds). Not as annoying as Lenslok, manual-based protection was however significantly more pervasive. There’s no telling how many gaming man-hours were taken from players who had lost their manuals and were instead relegated to guessing the name of the mustachioed man on page 14.
Consoles are walled gardens by nature, with the DRM built in so deeply that most gamers don’t even think about it. But that doesn’t mean tactics to prevent copying don’t exist on console—such strategies have existed forever, and some of them were actually downright brilliant. Perhaps the most prominent example of cartridge-based DRM was in the SNES classic Earthbound. Those that had Super Nintendo disc copiers would find that their illegal copy of Earthbound seemed to play fine. What they didn’t know was that the game was spawning way more enemies than normal, making the entire game an endless annoyance. And to those intrepid pirates who slogged their way through anyway, Earthbound had a special treat for them—the game would freeze in the middle of the battle with the final boss, taking the time to instead delete whatever saved games it could find.