Anti-piracy through the ages

Anti piracy measures are always a hot topic, especially for the PC platform, and over the past few weeks there have been a couple of cases in point – the Ubisoft Assassins Creed 2 and EA Command & Conquer 4 online verification systems. If you haven’t been keeping up, these DRM systems require players to connect to servers for verification, and then to remain connected in order to play and save progress.

Of course, these aren’t the first attempts at anti-piracy measures – the gaming industry has been battling the problem pretty much from day one. Below is a look at some of the innovative methods employed over the decades.


Lenslok was used primarily on systems that used easily duplicated tape cassettes such as the 8bit Atari’s, the ZX Spectrum, and the Commodore 64 of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The anti-piracy measure consisted of a foldable plastic viewing device which housed a plastic prism. The Lenslok fit in the cassette case with the game, and was used for many prominent titles of the time, such as space sim Elite.


The Lenslok was held up over a scrambled image on the screen, revealing a code that had to be entered to continue loading the game. Unfortunately the system suffered from some technical errors, such as incorrectly calibrated televisions displaying an image too small or too large to be decoded by the prism. There were also cases of the incorrect Lenslok being distributed with a game, obviously rendering the product unusable. Not only was Lenslok the first case of DRM, but the first case of DRM causing an inconvenience to legitimate customers.

Forced read error

As floppy disks became all the rage in the early 1980’s some software developers introduced a scheme that forced a read error, which usually had the effect of forcing the drive head back to track 0 for another attempt at reading the data, and stymieing attempts to duplicate disks. Some crude methods of implementing this system involved creating a hole in the disk with a laser. It was debateable as to whether these holes caused additional wear and tear on the already fragile drive heads, but soon enough software was developed to bypass the read error system altogether.

A similar system known as LaserLock which used unreadable data segments would appear in CD copy protection for games such as Fallout 2 and Icewind Dale. This was also overcome.

Code wheels and manuals

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, physical distribution was pretty much the only way to get games out to customers, and publishers not only battled with piracy, but also the second hand and illegal rental markets. In an effort to thwart these ne’er-do-wells games came bundled with materials essential to passing copy protection checks and progressing in the game – materials difficult and costly for large scale pirate outfits to duplicate, and often lost or destroyed by the time the game made its way to the second hand market.


Code wheels required matching images on two or more cipher wheels, and manual codes asked the player to refer to certain words, lines, paragraphs and pages in the game manual. This usually took place before the game loaded, but many games also required a player to refer to a manual of other material at a crucial point in the game.

As photocopiers proliferated, the code system had to evolve to compensate, using dark papers that did not copy well, or coloured text obscured by another coloured random pattern, only discernable by using the corresponding coloured viewing film. This method began to die out as the Internet grew, and CD-ROM media with embedded protection became popular among publishers.

Developers get sneaky

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Nintendo pretty much defined console gaming, but this also ushered in the first era of large scale global piracy. The cartridges were easily reproduced by nefarious pirate outfits who also reverse engineered the consoles, and even sold their own versions of the hardware. Original Nintendo console protection chips were quickly bypassed, so Nintendo started placing chips into their cartridges, preventing them from being played on modded or fake systems.

Even so, the pirates were determined to work around these issues, so developers started to outwit them. By inserting checks to detect if the original game files had been modified, and then implementing annoying hindrances and game breaking moments into the experience, developers made the process of bypassing copy protection much more complicated and time consuming for the pirates.

A classic example from the NES era is the game Earthbound which would display warnings about piracy before allowing the player to continue. The player would then be assaulted by almost near impossible numbers of enemies throughout the game. If they managed to survive to the final battle, the game would freeze and delete all saves.


Many developers have adopted a process of not only making the detection and removal of copy protection as difficult and time consuming as possible, but of adding further gameplay hindrances that occur when modification of the original code is detected. This means that crackers will have to comb the entirety of the game code and play through the game many times in order to detect all measures.

A classic example was the Playstation release of Spyro 3, which took over 2 months to be cracked completely, although it was released during the height of Playstation piracy. A more recent example would be Batman: Arkham Asylum, which included game breaking effects when a crack was detected. With a large percentage of game sales being made within the first months of release, it pays to hinder the crackers as much as possible.


The future

As far as this humble writer’s opinion goes, it would appear that measures requiring some sort of verification of authenticity via the Internet will become the standard in years to come. It will be up to publishers to work out how invasive this process is to the gamer’s experience.

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Anti-piracy through the ages