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Gaming's most fiendish anti-piracy tricks

Broken guns and double-hard bad guys

Used in: Operation Flashpoint

How it worked: Like Arkham Asylum, the original Flashpoint chose to punish pirates with broken dreams of what might have been. But if Arkham was cruel and unusual punishment, Flashpoint was Guantanamo Bay.

Above: Don't get excited. That's just a scoped pea-shooter

Using a system called FADE (which detected pirate copies by inserting fake errors in the original game code, which CD copiers would clean up, making rip-offs immediately obvious) dodgy copies would let the game run without any problems, but would gradually change the gameplay in increasingly horrible ways. Guns would lose accuracy, enemies would become bullet-sponges and the player’s character would gain the battle resilience of a dead jellyfish.

The mystery codec frequency

Used in: Metal Gear Solid

How it worked: By merging game and reality into an existential nightmare of troubled self-perception and frantic Gamefaqs searches. Many old games used access codes hidden within their manuals in order to ensure that gamers were playing retail copies, but when MGS director Hideo Kojima resurrected the trick, it was so wrapped up in his trademark arcanery and head-messing design that it just looked like another part of the game.

At one point in Metal Gear Solid, Snake has to work out how to contact Meryl via his codec in order to continue the story. The clue is that her codec frequency is on the back of the CD case, referring to a screenshot on the game box. In the Gamecube remake this became even more obtuse, the clue changing to “on the back of the package”. Cue the world’s unwitting Nintendites searching every object in the game for hours on end.

The never-ending boat trip/
Rapidly-ending Chronicles

Used in: Dragon Quest V on DS / Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates

How it worked: It’s surprising, given the vampiric ROM-feast that is the DS pirate scene, that more publishers don’t take a hard-line stance on copy protection. Maybe the 942 billion DS owners out there make profits so easy that it doesn’t matter. To Square-Enix though, it matters. It matters hard.

Thus, the most recent DS entries to its two flagship series spanked pirates where it hurt. The intro sequence in Dragon Quest V looped infinitely in knock-off copies, meaning that only very patient sailing obsessives needed apply. FFCC turned into a 20 minute demo, complete with a “Thank you for playing” kick in the stones from a couple of jolly Moogles at the end.


A novel approach

Used in: The Silicon Dreams trilogy

How it worked: There was a major fad in the ‘80s and ‘90s for bundling home computer games with huge amounts of swag and tat as an incentive to buy a real copy. PC game boxes were frequently the size of the 2001 monolith, and contained nearly enough free merchandise to cause the evolution of monkeys.

In the '80s, box art was seriously rock 'n' roll

When developer Level 9 released its Silicon Dreams interactive fiction series in a bundle pack in 1986, it threw in a free, full-length novella as an introduction to the third game’s story. The catch? The book was also used as a password generator. The game asked for the word at a specific page and line reference whenever a saved game was loaded, and given that the source was a full-scale book, no-one was going to bother photocopying all of the content for a mate’s pirating convenience. It’s a system so good that we regularly rip it off for our Twitter competitions to this day.



Let's get cracking
The fascinating story of how software piracy became an art form


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The Top 7… shameless rip-offs
The games that stole from the best attempting to beat the rest

39 comments

  • Twirrim - December 4, 2010 12:35 a.m.

    Frontier: Elite 2 contained a similar trick to the Silicon Dreams trilogy. The manual for the game was exceptionally long and detailed, a few hundred pages long IIRC. After a little while of playing the game, maybe less than 15 minutes, the next time you docked it would require you to input a word from the manual, giving you a page and line reference.
  • dimomarg - March 6, 2010 8:13 p.m.

    Best DRM for a first person shooter I can imagine: You hit new game and it shows the intro to the game. Except that in in the first 20 seconds the main character gets sniped and then a black screen comes in that says: next time, try buying the game.
  • Spybreak8 - March 5, 2010 10:30 a.m.

    God I remember Star Control's wheel thingie and having to look through the book for Dune II and Arachnophobia. wow nostalgia boom! Of course this was all without having internet so then Ubisoft killed us, seriously always having an internet connection is just stupid. There are reports that the pirates have already gone around this with Ubisoft's Silent Hunter 5. Way to f*cking go Ubisoft, way to f*cking go.
  • AElli - March 5, 2010 9:35 a.m.

    Nice. The MGS was an amusment. As well as Batman archam asylum. I guess if you can't afford it, find another hobby.
  • Valntyne - March 2, 2010 11:35 p.m.

    That last cover art looks like the whole plot of Lost...
  • oldgrammastinkyfeet - March 1, 2010 5:20 a.m.

    That batman one is my most favorite, just because it is completely evil. I mean that game must be impossible.
  • Ravenbom - February 28, 2010 7:34 p.m.

    Where in the _____ (World, Time, etc) is Carmen Sandiego used the same thing as Silcon Dreams. I lost that stupid Encyclopedia that came with the games and even though I knew enough to know the answers, whenever you'd finish a case the game would ask for the first entry on a certain page. Also, it wasn't really piracy related, but Star Tropics had the thing where you had to dip the manual in water to reveal a code to move forward in the game and if you rented the game you were fucked.
  • Major_Wuss - February 28, 2010 6:38 a.m.

    The Operation Flashpoint and Arkham Asylum DRM is pretty funny. I'd be super mad if that happened.
  • Slaanash - February 27, 2010 9:13 p.m.

    Eh, Earthbound's was worse. It made the final boss fight uncompleteable, made more, harder random encounters with less EXP/loot given, and took out some of the things that made the game easier.
  • CH3BURASHKA - February 27, 2010 8:10 p.m.

    I thought that the Batman "DRM" was incredibly appropriate: it was basically an elongated demo. In terms of other DRM, its preferable because it didn't punish the people who bought it legally, unlike almost every single other DRM out there
  • DryvBy - February 27, 2010 8:09 p.m.

    I don't remember any of these. I guess it's amateur piracy that gets caught up in most of these because more real pirates go in and remove stupid DRM measures. I support pirates as long as there's limited activations / root kits / the need to be constantly online to play a single-player game. DRM doesn't work. It never will.
  • Zerochantista - February 27, 2010 7:33 p.m.

    I kinda miss those crazy little copy-protection trinkets from early 90s PC games. In a way, it felt like you got more for your money - yes, it was copy-protection, but it was also a fun and unique little item to play with that helped give the game a sense of unique identity.
  • jackthemenace - February 27, 2010 6:53 p.m.

    some of these are really celver, but they'd be so annoying to have to find a code and put it in every time you want to play nowadays. the one in operation flashpoint is REALLY clever, i wish i could think of something that brilliant @reCAPTCHA- not bucked? i thought you said something else...
  • philipshaw - February 27, 2010 12:02 p.m.

    The Batman anti-piracy measure is so good. Just shows me even more how good Rocksteady are as a game developer
  • barrage7667 - February 27, 2010 3:24 a.m.

    @xboxrulez...im guessing ur so called truce will only last bout 2 days @cyberninja way to represent how to be a good fanboy!!! i dont mind people being fanboys as long as they dont make stupid comments *xboxrulez* without proper evidence. i am a fanboy of hating on annoying fanboys so yea btw good article lol
  • Cwf2008 - September 19, 2012 12:27 a.m.

    You sound like a dumbass
  • phoenix_wings - February 27, 2010 1:40 a.m.

    It sounds like there are a couple of pirates in the comments section. If you run CFW on the PSP, things you legitimately purchases from PSN on your PS3 or PC won't transfer
  • nik41507 - February 27, 2010 12:53 a.m.

    If the RA2 piracy thing worked properly, it would be freakin genius
  • Cyberninja - February 27, 2010 12:50 a.m.

    good thing i dont pirate games like some people and @xboxrulez fine their can be a truce as long as you dont leave out us nintendo fanboys like me
  • RebornKusabi - February 26, 2010 11:59 p.m.

    Chrono Trigger DS has one where if you had a pirated copy, the first portal you go through will never end. The only way to fix it is either find a hack that inserts coding so the game works like a legitimate copy... or buy a goddamn copy of the game. Oh yeah and Spirit Tracks also had a anti-piracy trick where the train overlay to move forward, control speed and direction and stop- all of those, GONE! The way around it was the same as Chrono Trigger DS's.

Showing 1-20 of 39 comments

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