Video Games

Don’t use the ‘Force

From page numbers to code wheels, song lyric riddles to red cellophane, world trivia to crouton time machines, PC game copy protection has taken a lot of strange turns over the last 20 years.


Shiver me code wheels!

Peer-to-peer file sharing is as old as commoditized computers, and peers sure love sharing. Once upon a time, dozens of games could be stored on a single 5 1/4″ floppy disk (the “floppy” kind) with absolutely nothing protecting the bytes from reproduction – PC enthusiasts could sacrifice 5-10% of their hard drive to make a picture perfect copy of a floppy with a few simple DOS commands. As developers got wise they incorporated game-integrated protection such as asking for a phrase found in the printed manual after (or before) playing the first level. This is about as sophisticated as pre-CDROM copy protection got.

When CDROMs came into the picture, developers were convinced that nobody would ever be able to copy them due to their enormous storage capacity. For a few years this was the case, and the slow speed of the emerging internet deterred most from downloading enormous CD images. However, crafty warez release groups released fully working “CD rip” versions of games sans speech, movies, and music. Naturally, the internet got faster and CD burners became commonplace. The favoured copy protection scheme to-date, requiring the CD to be in the drive while playing, became inadequate, so developers knocked copy protection up a notch.

As software crackers released “backup CD” and “No CD” replacement EXE files for all the latest files on websites such as MegaGames, developers contracted specialized copy protection programs such as SafeDisc and SecureROM to ensure CD presence and file encryption. Crackers remained only one step behind, however, challenging themselves and their peers to be the first to release a workaround. For years games were pirated on the Edonkey, and later Bittorrent, networks, as well as some darkwebs such as Direct Connect, and were cracked by millions as easily as overwriting a single executable file.

And so enters the bull into the china shop.

One of several copy protection products, StarForce, developed a new scheme for copy protection a couple of years back. Their method involves installing hidden “ring zero” low-level drivers that sit between Windows’ basic I/O system and vendor IDE CDROM hardware drivers, effectively scrutinizing every bit that passes through the bus. This drastic method is very effective in preventing protected content from being decrypted by anything but the official drivers, which in turn makes the job of software crackers that much more difficult. StarForce installs itself automatically and clandestinely when bundled with a commercial product, and in many cases, remains resident on computers even after said software has been removed. (a conveninece, according to StarForce)

6 simple clicks to see whether you have StarForce!

For many games, StarForce has proven to be phenomenally successful. For instance, there is still no working No-CD crack for “Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie” (is there an Oscar for masturbatory product names?) which was released many months ago. Many other games, such as Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones and X3: Reunion, were somehow cracked eventually, as were several others assuming the gamer was exasperated enough to physically unplug all the IDE cables from his CDROM drives. This inevitability was predicted by StarForce from the start, as is outlined by Dennis Zhidkov:

Our job is to protect the product during the peak of sales, which is usually one to three months. So that the developer and the publisher could get their revenue and invest the money into their new projects which we all so much anticipate every time. And believe me, we do our job well, some of the games we protected stayed secure for 6 months and longer.

This is just about the most level-headed comment you’re likely to find anywhere from a StarForce employee.

StarForce’s public enemy number one, and simultaneously their lifeblood, is the software pirate. If it weren’t for copying there’d be no need for copy protection, after all. Naturally, those who mean to make illegal copies of StarForce-protected software find themselves frustrated when they are thwarted. However, not only would-be criminals find fault with this powerful product. There is a long, long, long, long list of alleged software and hardware issues related to optical drive functionality, caused directly by StarForce. Many people complain that their CDROM drives slow down, stop functioning entirely, or in the case of PC Gamer editor-in-chief Greg Vederman, crash Windows while trying to use legitimately purchased CD media on a StarForce-“enabled” PC.

In response to the ever-growing number of allegations, StarForce staged a contest dangling a $10,000 carrot over the head of anyone who could prove their software physically damaged their CDROM drive. However, many astute journalists called foul on this gesture, as the vast majority of gamers are:

  1. Unaware that StarForce exists at all.
  2. Oblivious that StarForce is installed on their computers.
  3. Unaware of what StarForce does and how it works.
  4. Unable to determine why their optical drives were misbehaving.
  5. Insufficiently experienced to isolate the problem.
  6. Unable to prove (to the company) that StarForce is the problem.
  7. Unaware that StarForce can even be uninstalled.

One can’t help but be empathetic with PC gamers on this issue. Other than an inexplicable reboot upon installing the game there is no indication that StarForce is being installed. Once loaded, the StarForce drivers are nestled away in an unlikely location that even power users (like me) are likely to miss. Finally, there is no obvious means of uninstalling StarForce as the official removal tool is never bundled with the product and must be downloaded manually from StarForce’s website.

It is obvious that all the rumors around StarForce hazards are spread by international piracy groups.
“The truth about StarForce drivers”

The real salt in the wound here is StarForce’s reluctance to believe ANYONE with seemingly legitimate complaints, as the company has repeatedly stated that only pirates could possibly have trouble with their software. Many reports from vocal and exasperated PC gamers are deleted from StarForce’s official forums, and many journalists have been threatened with legal action for repeating the words of others and surmising correlation. Criticism related to difficulty in removing the software is always met with the retort that this is the onus of the game publisher, not StarForce. Thorough documentation of user troubleshooting is always contested with the challenge that the culprit could be any driver on the user’s system, regardless of whether the problem disappears when StarForce is removed.

What’s clear to you is opaque to StarForce.

As if this behaviour wasn’t ghastly enough, in response to an article stating the success of Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (which features no copy protection), the administrator of StarForce’s message forum posted a link (now removed and apologized for) to a Bittorrent site offering an illegal download of the game. More on this game later.

This game didn’t use StarForce. See how easily they help you pirate it?

One is forced to speculate that StarForce feels invincible in terms of telling the general public where to stick it. After all, Joey Gamepad isn’t their direct client; there’s a cushy degree of separation via the game publisher.

This smugness isn’t doing StarForce any favours. PC game publishers Ubisoft and CDV have recently announced that they are dropping StarForce in favour of other protection schemes due to overwhelming customer request. Security holes were found that could allow malware to physically damage computers secretly using StarForce as a vector, and a $5 million class-action lawsuit is being staged against Ubisoft as a result. Numerous websites serve the single purpose of informing gamers of the dangers of installing StarForce and identify associated games.

Whether more developers will drop StarForce is unknown, but if players of other studios’ games are as vocal as Ubisoft’s and CDV’s it is a likely possibility.

And what of Galactic Civilizations II developer Stardock? They seem pretty confident in their strategy of releasing a triple-A PC game with no copy protection. After all, it was the best selling PC game and second-best selling video game the week of release – vastly outselling scores of StarForce-“protected” titles. In spite of StarForce’s claim (and assistance) that this game is easily pirated, Stardock’s developers obviously aren’t overly concerned. Perhaps their attitudes and methodologies, incontestibly qualified by their sales, will start a new trend in an industry plagued by piracy, but whose defence measures harm legitimate customers more than criminals.

Naturally, some people have taken the conclusion that because we don’t have copy protection on our game, that we invite piracy. That is not the case, we simply think there are other ways to stop piracy than CD checks, strict DRM, etc.

I think the most effective way of increasing sales is probably to make games people want to buy. But I’m an engineer, not a marketer so what do I know?

– A Stardock software engineer


O beautiful for spacious lies

Gary McKinnon breaks into government and military computers with no passwords and the Bush administration holds 10 million American citizens under the magnifying glass. The government combs the country with a fine tooth comb while an overseas hobbyist easily acquires access to the country’s best-kept secrets. 10 years prior, Mathew Bevan broke into the same agencies with nearly the same tactics. Technology has advanced ahundredfold in 10 years and the government hasn’t adapted one iota.

Osama bin PERL Script

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but this seems exceptionally suspicious to me. War is an expensive and, for some, profitable venture. Like the vaccination industry, war makes money with treatment, not cures or prevention.

A hell of a lot of money is spent by any government on manpower whose collective work is stored on computer networks. This work contains information about the operation of the country, its populace, its triumphs and shortcomings. Government databases essentially contain blueprints on constructing – or disassembling – a country, step by step.

Any hacker will tell you that the most easily exploited factor in a computer network is people. No matter how tight your security, no matter how obscured your resources, all it takes is a slick talker to convince some corporate lackey that they have the right to important data. “Any hacker” should talk to the US government because they are the one organization ANYWHERE that makes it easy enough for hackers that they don’t even need to talk to a person to gain illegal entry.

There is an ongoing debate over whether accessing private, unsecured wireless networks should be illegal. The internet is an open protocol for any and all to access, and wireless access points provide a means of connection to the internet via the owner’s private network. An unsecured, unencrypted WAP is like putting a cable TV on your front lawn for anyone to watch – a service provided to the community.

The US government provides a very, very, VERY generous service to the community – they allow anyone to log into their networks without a password to do as they wish. They allow you to connect to their networks, log in, access data, convince IT administrators of your authorization through an anonymous text chat, disconnect, and reconnect as often as you like for a year. All for the low, low price of Americans’ right to privacy and national dignity! Act now! … or much later!

“But the internet is a quickly evolving place with dangerous hackers evolving even quicker,” you tighty righties tell me (in my imagination). You’re right, you brilliant beasts, you. However, the government is not evolving with them, despite the fact that the EXACT SAME THING HAPPENED almost 10 years ago. You’d think a military-employed IT security specialist would think to password protect network computers. Connected to the internet. Over the course of 10 years. No.

9/11 has been the grease on the wheels of oppression for the Bush administration for a term and a half now. As a result, the airline industry, already hanging on by a thread, is forced to rectally probe Americans that walk through any doorway in a terminal, and to really toss the salad of any medium-skinned visible minority. It’s all justified. After all, 9/11 was the result of some commercial airliners being hijacked, right? Right? It looks like it from some angles – like the 24-hour-a-day hysterical yammering on CNN. But from the other end of the spectrum, the end with NEWS and FACTS from CITIZENS, a very different story is told. If a supposed plane crashes into the Pentagon, why conceal the wreckage under a tarp?!? etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.

But you Yanks eat this shit up, don’t you? You love being spied on, lied to, and restricted, don’t you? Yes, you do. You’re in good hands, after all. You’ve re-elected a well-loved leader with a respectable family. A president who respects the separation of church and state. A wartime president with a celebrated military record.

It is my opinion that America is addicted to terror. They love it. It’s their raison d’etre. Decade after decade, war after war, always “America, fuck yeah!” And why shouldn’t they love it? It’s a profitable venture. Bush has no qualms trading boys for bucks, and boys are free! It’s the perfect crime!

Your tired and your poor were delish. Pass your huddled masses.

So why spend oodles of bucks defending your country? Preventing war is no way to make a buck. Fortify the pillars of Americanism – Smith and Wesson, CNN, and coffin makers – or you’re a communist!

And hell, while we’ve got a Bush-blowing sock puppet for a prime minister, let’s have Canada secretly fund a war that its citizens unanimously disapprove of. So sneaky, Mr. Harper. “Me love you long time, Mr. Bush! Call me! Please? Me so horny!”

Being born in Montreal, the Quebec referendum upset me greatly. Even though it failed to pass a vote of 51% to 49%, it still troubled me to see how many Canadians felt incongruent with the country’s ideals. Having read the words of a similar-minded American I have newfound sympathy for Quebec separatists. At the time I thought it was just a pantload, but maybe the biggest countries really aren’t big enough for their own populations. After all, I would hate to live in a country full of closed-minded, racist neanderthals like this George W. Douchebag.

I love you, America. I cry for you. I empathise with you. But I will never bleed for you. I cannot respect the republic for which you stand. I don’t know why you do.

Video Games

Mini reviews of 5 games with great controls

Star Wars Episode 1: Racer by Lucasarts

A great rent but a lousy buy, I much preferred the arcade version of Racer to the surprisingly tight N64 rendition. Nintendo 64, the first home console with an analog gamepad, made the most of its comfy and precise input device with this unique racing title.

The game is based on the pod racing sequence in the first movie of Star Wars’ second trilogy, like a lotus growing from a gaseous bubbling bog. Podracers resemble chariots in design with their lean metal carriage drawn behind one or more harnessed rocket engines. The single analog stick on the N64 had to be minutely twiddled and adjusted, very convincingly simulating the experience of tugging furiously on the reigns to avoid collisions with obstacles and other racers. The incredible speed and acceleration coupled with floaty inertial brakes and an agonizingly slow engine repair system made this an absolutely frantic game whose diabolical tracks and unmerciless difficulty turned me off forever after a few days.

It should be mentioned, however, that Sega’s arcade version of Racer is quite an experience. The player is seated in a very reclined position, rather far from the huge display. Screenshots of the cabinet hide handles on either side which the player grasps with both hands, tugging and twisting in a co-ordinated fashion to steer the pod around. I was amazed at how quickly I got used to this very unique control scheme and it hugely upped the immersion factor. If you’re lucky enough to come across this rare gem, give it a sit and try 2 races.

Here’s your chance to act better than Anakin!

Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail by Sierra On-Line

When Sierra transitioned from its text parser keyboard interface to an entirely mouse-driven one in King’s Quest V, the colliding fronts of acclaim and sacrilege caused a hurricaine in the adventure gaming scene. Most gamers got used to the new UI, but some lamented the game-with-a-game of cleverly phrasing commands just right (plus seeing the game’s response to potty mouth).

That’s why everybody is satisfied by – er, with – Leisure Suit Larry 7. The world’s most lovable programmer, Al Lowe, masterfully inserted the best of both interfaces by making the game 100% playable with icon or classic text-based input. In fact, the game succeeded in illustrating how much better freeform text-based interaction is by allowing the player to use his intuition by posing questions and probing topics hinted at teasingly by NPCs, but are a conversation or two away from becoming available in the clickable dialog tree.

Easter eggs were also available by typing secret words at the right moment, which yielded some wilier feminine wiles. As Larry lady Jamie Lee Coitus says while baring her necessities in a dream, “C’est mag-na-feet!”

It’s Larry! (heehee!) Larry Laffer!

Smash T.V. by Acclaim

Before dual analog (or Ace of Base) was a household phrase, there was Robotron 2084. This game featured a pair of joysticks which controlled the player’s (8-way) movement and (4-way) fire, respectively, from a top-down view. Although this game was the epitomy of arcade bliss for thousands, the limited directional fire rubbed me the wrong way. Robotron was HARD.

And Smash T.V. is no different in that respect. The number of sprites this game draws is mindboggling, and the empathy you feel for your little “dude”, pitted against scores upon scores of mindless goons for cash and prizes, is frenetic and white-knuckled. However, the 8-directional movement and fire was what it took to convert me to this style of gameplay, and despite some very heavy competition I still say that nobody did it with more style than Smash T.V. Somehow those 8-way controls freed the player and restricted the player just enough to make it accessible to more casual gamers, making the game instantly playable without being overly intimidating.

Incredibly beautiful and difficult spiritual successors, such as PomPom‘s Mutant Storm and Bizarre CreationsGeometry Wars (two English follow-ups to two American classics) have captured the hearts and injured the thumbs of millions as they bestow the honour of Xbox-Live bestseller on these twitch titles month after month. Overhead 360° shooters are a testement to the old school model of simplistic but addictive games that can be instantly appreciated by all.

I’d buy that for a dollar!

Abuse by Crack Dot Com

A successor of similar spirit, Abuse is an underappreciated, undersold masterpiece that added a fine touch to the platform shooter.

Not content to be a simple console holdover, Abuse made the most of its platform by incorporating traditional character control with a mouse aiming scheme (as illustrated by the in-game instructions – what a masterpiece of technical communication!). While difficult and unwieldy at first, this interface felt smooth as silk after just a bit of practise, with unparalleled precision. And you’ll be thanking your lucky stars for this directional dichotomy as you never know when you’ll be ambushed by a football team worth of gushy alien baddies, forcing you to turn tail and run for dear life while you blare your lasers and grenades behind you. The synergy between the very digital keyboard and the very analog mouse breathed a never-matched breath of innovation into the wretchedly overpopulated Contra-esque genre.

A well placed grenade makes some scrumptious alien flambé!

Marble Madness by Atari Games

What better representation for a marble than… a marble? In arcades, Marble Madness’ trackball control provided one of the most tactilely fitting video game experiences.

It couldn’t be simpler – roll your ball to roll your ball. Though it’s not a one-to-one ratio of movement, you can’t help but put your body right into the action as you delicately glide your shiny orb down a series of perilous isometric mazes populated by surrealistic globe-grating grunts. Alternate paths of varying difficulty help make the game quite replayable and a vehicle for bragging rites – riding those waves in the second level is a commendable feat!

Beware; this is one squeal-inducing game – of joy and of pain! While frantic and adept twists and twirls of the trackball can spin skilled players to safety, losing yourself in the game can yield quite a variety of aches and owies. Injuries attributed to overzealous sessions of Marble Madness and Golden Tee Golf have caused all manner of aches, strains, and pinches due to vigorous shoulder movements and inadvertantly squeezing soft hand flesh between the trackball and the lip of the cabinet. Take your antipsychotics beforehand, lest you delve too deeply into Marble Madness!

Havin’ a ball!