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)
For many games, StarForce has proven to be phenomenally successful. For instance, there is still no working No-CD crack for â€œPeter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movieâ€ (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:
- Unaware that StarForce exists at all.
- Oblivious that StarForce is installed on their computers.
- Unaware of what StarForce does and how it works.
- Unable to determine why their optical drives were misbehaving.
- Insufficiently experienced to isolate the problem.
- Unable to prove (to the company) that StarForce is the problem.
- 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.
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.
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