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Protect and Serve

Squaring up to copy protection in PC games. Pavel Barter isn't wearing the right shoes and he's not getting in

Always use protection. Whether you're making a PC game or the monster with two backs, it's a wise creed. For gamers, however, 'protection' presents images of convoluted codes, online subscriptions and idiotic orders to restart your PC before the game can begin. At worse, protection is a short cut to digital STDs: malware, spyware, and more blue-screening than an XXX shop in Soho.

Is copy protection in PC games for the greater good of mankind, or is it akin to carrying a TV aerial around a park during a thunderstorm? Game creators are clear where they stand.

"I've always liked the idea of creative, nasty, deliberately destructive copy protection," smirks Jon Hare, designer behind the fabled Sensible Soccer franchise. "For example, injecting disabling viruses into pirate's machines, slow degradation of pirated games so they're unplayable after some time, or disabling the ability to save progress in the game if the copy is pirated."

These days, the games industry is all a fluster about digital thievery. Understandably so. Where once pirates stole from kings, they're now more likely to announce: "Arrrr, I just plundered 20 copies of Miss Congeniality 2." Hardly the toughest kids on the block, then, and when their antics start to effect our own enjoyment of games, it's probably time to start making them walk the plank. But what happens when copy protection starts causing problems for legit gamers?

MONKEY DO
There was a time when life was far more simple, says Ron Gilbert, creator of LucasArts classics like The Secret Of Monkey Island. "Back in the olden days, we didn't have high-tech copy protection solutions, so we had to resort to low-tech ideas.

Because the copy protection wasn't hidden - as it is today - it gave us the chance to be a little creative." Creative and fun. Ye olde PC games politely asked you to refer to the manual in order to prove your credentials. In Frontier: Elite II, sci-fi cops asked the player to: "Please enter the first letter of word X, row Y on page Z." An incorrect entry booted the player out, but at least it played an integral part of the game.

Manuals were like Bibles in those days. King's Quest III demanded spell recipes, Conquests Of Camelot looked for answers to riddles, while Leisure Suit Larry asked you to seek out ladies' numbers.

Gilbert continues: "In Maniac Mansion, there's a security door that leads to the second floor of the mansion and it requires a code. The player looked up the code in a small book that accompanied the game. The book was themed like a real security codebook. If you got the code wrong, it triggered an alarm and the nuclear reactor started to melt down. If you didn't get it right after a few minutes, the mansion would blow up and the game would be over."

Gilbert's invention worked a treat - even if you didn't have the codebook, you could still play a quarter of the game, so it functioned perfectly as a demo. The Secret Of Monkey Island sold with a cardboard rotating pirate wheel that revealed numbers when spun, which in turn validated the player. "It's hard to imagine these systems working today. If you created Monkey Island's code wheel, someone would build a Flash version and put it online within ten minutes of the game's release," says Gilbert.

LOCK DOWN?
Not all early copy protection was so lovable. Copy protection mechanism Lenslok was meant to reveal codes displayed on the monitor, but on some screens this fancy piece of plastic just revealed an abstract mush. Regardless, peripheral protection didn't last long - a few years later, PC games began demanding registration keys. "I guess copy protection was so abused in the past that a lot of the big-hitting companies decided to toughen up and others followed suit," says Jon Hare. "I'm sure EA wouldn't be as casual about a 90% piracy rate as we used to be. And who can blame them?"

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