Over on his blog the other day, Coyote posted a rant about the protection methods used on Bioshock. I can’t blame him; the CP is very definitely not player-friendly.

This is nothing new. Copy protection has been with us from the beginning. In the days of 5.25″ floppies and 8-bit machines, the first attempts were made with the way the games were physically written to the disks.

It was a mysterious world of half tracks, Track 0, nibble counts, and other arcane techniques. None of them did the least good. At best, these methods may have prevented some “casual copying”, but all could be circumvented one way or another. In fact, there were several programs on the market to overcome protection.

I recall the time I logged onto a pirate BBS (early ’80s). It was called “Pirate’s Cove” and ran out of Long island. It wasn’t until then that I really believed software piracy actually existed.

My jaw dropped as I went through message after message offering this or that game as a copy or cracked copy. It was simply incredible. It also demonstrated how useless protection was.

With “recorded protection” not doing a good job, companies added the infamous lookup. It could be a hard-to-read sheet of codewords, a wheel to align letters, symbols or figures, or the one everybody hated: “type in the word from page 16, paragraph 2, line 6, word 8”.

These lookups proved as valueless as anything else. When the computing world moved to 16-bit machines and hard drives, along came what we still have today: the key disk. This is where, after installation, the disk has to stay in the drive for a verification check.

Now here we are today, and the publishers are only getting worse, what with the abominable Starforce and equally odious SecureRom. We all know these and other techniques don’t work.

Any “hot” game, whatever the protection method(s), can usually be found within a week or so of release on file-sharing systems and pirate websites. In the meantime, honest buyers of the game are treated as potential thieves and forced to jump through hoops in order to get their games to run.

So, why do publishers do this, when they know better? They’re protecting their profits. However a long a game may last, the big push is the intitial release.

That’s where companies make back what they invested in a game and where they will obtain their profits. Anything beyond that is pretty much gravy. So the longer it takes for illegal copies to show up, the better. Ergo, the nastier the protection, usually the longer it will be before copies start appearing on the ‘net.

The original Neverwinter Nights came with key disk protection. By the time I bought it in the platinum pack, the 1.66 patch came out, which removed that requirement. This was also the third (I think) re-issue of the game. Obviously, there weren’t too many worries anymore about “pirated copies” of the game.

In like manner, 2K said that “sometime in the future” they would dispense with SecureRom protection. You can be sure that, unless there is a really severe backlash where potential customers don’t buy now because of SR, 2K will issue such a patch only after the game sales have dwindled down, when it won’t matter as much.

So that’s really the point of copy protection today: not to prevent piracy, but to keep it at bay until the companies have made back their money.

I certainly can’t blame them for wanting to recoup the (usually) millions that went into the creation of a game, or in the case of the indies, wanting to stay in business. They have every right to protect their property and investment.

What they don’t have the right to do is to use copy protection methods that put honest users at risk in terms of security, system operation, or inability to play a game at a later time.

So yeah, companies should protect their investment, but not at the expense of the gamers who are keeping them in business. Not now, not ever. But will they listen? I have my doubts.

Too many players are too eager to have a game, whatever CP is on it, that they simply don’t care. They want it now, because in a short time, something else will come along, and the “hot” game will be “cold”.

Those who hold back and complain are a small minority. Until that minority becomes a majority, nothing will change. And we will continue to be afflicted by onerous methods that show concern only for money, not gamers. miniscorp

Coyote on Bioshock’s protection

A SecureRom thread on 2K forums

2K Bioshock forum (in case you want more)