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Schadenfreudian Slips: Copy Protection Racket

German game developer Schadenfreude Interactive (Cthulhu Karts, Accordion Hero, Grand Theft Ottoman) discusses how to find appropriate copy protection for your game, from dongles through 'scratch 'n sniff' to startling modern Russian methods.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Continuing its multiple "Schadenfreudian Slips" columns for Gamasutra, notable and more than a little eccentric German game company Schadenfreude Interactive presents an anecdotal account of the hardships of trying to find the right copy protection.]

Protection Racket

Lothar (our art director) came to me one day with a problem. Ordinarily he would go to our chief technical officer, Bruno, with these things, but Bruno was away attending the Beard & Mustache World Championship in Berlin (just attending, not competing – my mother can grow more of a mustache than Bruno can). Anyway, Lothar had found copies of our games available for download on BitTorrent. When I asked him what he was doing looking in such places, he sheepishly admitted he was looking for a copy of the Wide Boy Awake song “Chicken Outlaw”. I suppose I am glad he found pirated copies of our game instead of that song, which should itself be considered a crime.

But what was I now going to do about people pirating our games? Like when your drunken Uncle Jurgen shows up at your wedding wearing nothing but a pair of yellow rainboots, this situation had to be dealt with right away (I assigned Uncle to guestbook duty – we Germans are not as prudish as you Americans when it comes to public nudity).

Now, I do not want to treat our customers like they are pirates. Unless we are making a MMORPG about pirates, and thus our customers are pretending to be pirates, in which case I will gladly treat them as pirates. I had a girlfriend once who liked to pretend to be a pirate. I still have the scar from that parrot bite - but that is neither here nor there (actually, it is a few inches above my right knee).

Misled Defense Systems

The issue of software piracy is nothing new. Who can forget the hilarious Kopieren Sie Nicht Diesen Floppy-Disc! anti-piracy television campaign from the early 1990s? I don’t think that rapping fraulein made anyone think twice about copying computer games, but she did make many of us think once or twice about…blondes with 5.25” disks.

tv01.jpg

tv02.jpg
The classic Kopieren Sie Nicht Diesen Floppy-Disc!

In the early days there were code wheels, maps, and strange devices like the Lenslok, but the most popular copy protection method was the “manual lookup”. The player would have to consult the printed manual to look up a code, identify an image, or find a word on a certain page in order to continue playing. This was often a great hassle. In German we can often have one word that equals a large number of English words, like Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (although this word does not come up very often in game manuals).

When our lead programmer Otto’s Swiss adventure game Return To Zurich ( he also is responsible for Zurich, Beyond Zurich, and Zurich Zero) was translated into English, the publishers did not notice the changed word count, so it was all out of sync and getting past the copy protection was impossible. I do not think anyone complained, since they could not get through the game anyway (oh no, I did not know to dig up that stupid plant in the beginning, so I lose! Thank you very much stupid Otto. I hope you are eaten by a stupid grue).

There was a dungeon-crawl type game in the late ‘80s that used a bizarre “Scratch & Sniff” card for copy protection, although I don’t recall exactly how it worked. I do remember there was some controversy over the “Elven Sweat” spot, as many players insisted that “elves do not sweat, they glow”. Perhaps this method prevented some piracy, but in the end, most players’ mothers just threw the whole stinky game box away.

Another protection method is the dongle - a small piece of hardware that attaches to your computer. Some programs still use them. The 3D modeling program we use comes with a hardware dongle, and Lothar is constantly losing it. I have found his dongle in so many strange places - he simply cannot seem to keep his hands on it. Artists! They are always a few figs short of a kletzenbrot.

schadenfreude_01_clip_image002.jpg
This early experiment in copy protection never quite caught on.

But in modern times, game companies generally do not deal with piracy by using dongles or manual lookups or coming to your house to scratch the data off your drive with a pointy stick. Nowadays games barely have CD jewel cases, boxes, or more than six hours of play, much less a manual! Today everyone uses software-based copy protection systems. So I made an appointment with the Russian company NovaHammer, one of the biggest names in the business, to find out what this DRM nonsense was all about.


The Russian Front

NovaHammer’s CEO Sergei Glazunov arrived with three hulking assistants in matching black Members Only jackets and sunglasses. They declined to take them off (the jackets or the glasses). Mr. Glazunov introduced the men as Dmitri Karamazov, his brother Dmitri, and his other brother Dmitri. We offered them coffee cake, and since it was just after 10 am, beer. I began by asking them a little bit about their business.

“We protect your things. That is our business. Protection.”

“My things?” I asked. “But we make computer games.”

“Oh, of course. We can protect those too.”

Bruno whispered to me from behind a press kit folder. “I don’t think that word means what he thinks it means.”

“Mr. Morderhaschen, your company would be wise to use our protection.”

“What will happen if we don’t use your...protection?”

schadenfreude_01_clip_image003.gif “Things could happen. You don’t want anything to happen to your computer games.”

“Are you threatening us?”

“No, no, I would not put it like that. But you would not want any of your computer games to get hurt, would you?” He gestured to his three burly compatriots.

Of course I would not like my computer games to get hurt. Some other people’s games? Maybe. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing Postal 2 get kicked in the groin? But I did not like the direction this conversation was going, so I asked Bruno if he had any questions for them. In retrospect, this was not such a good idea.

“So, when did your NovaHammer malware stop damaging peoples’ optical drives?” Bruno asked.

Mr. Glazunov waved dismissively. “Oh, that only happens to a few users. And if it does, they are welcome to bring their PC to our offices and we will fix it. Our office is in beautiful Yakutsk, Siberia, one of the coldest cities on Earth! Of course they must travel at their own cost. We will, however, provide a complimentary breakfast buffet…”

“How nice of you.”

“…and also a Novahammer t-shirt. We stand by our products.”

“Well, I don’t think any DRM is worth such a risk,” I told him. “Even if it only happens to a few customers. I don’t want even a few customers to be angry with us.”

“You are not thinking about this the right way, Mr. Morderhaschen. Remember what Mr. Spock said in the movie.”

“In what movie - the one with the whale?”

“No, the one with Ricardo Montalban.”

“I liked the whale one best,” Crispin interjected. “NUCLEAR WESSELS!”

The Russians did not appear to be amused.

“Ooh, I know what he said - ‘It's life, Captain, but not life as we know it’.” said Bruno.

“No it’s ‘KHHHHHAAAAAAAN’!” shouted Crispin.

“Spock didn’t say ‘KHHHHHAAAAAAAN’, dummkopf. That was Kirk.”

“It’s the best line in the movie, though, you must admit! ‘KHAAAAA…”

“No, NO!” shouted Mr. Glazunov, slamming his palms down on the conference table.

“….aaaan.” Crispin finished, slinking down in his chair.

Mr. Glazunov slapped the table again. “It was ‘The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’.”

“Well, he also says “It's life, Captain, but not life as we know it’,” Bruno snapped. There are two subjects that Bruno is very sensitive about…one of them is Star Trek trivia (the other is Hungarian notation).


Mr. Glazunov shook his head violently. “You must understand, our software is harmless. It simply installs a driver. Think of it as only a little fingerprint.”

Otto suddenly reached across the table and jammed his finger into Mr. Glazunov’s piece of coffee cake. Glazunov looked aghast. “What are you doing to my cake?”

“What’s the matter, it’s just a little fingerprint!” Otto snarled, licking the icing off his finger with a dramatic flourish.

“We have a saying in Russia that is translated ‘you are crushing all the hedgehogs with your bare behind’”, Glazunov growled.

“What on earth is that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“It means that you are foolishly overconfident. Very foolish!”

“I think you’d better take your behinds, and your hedgehogs out that door right now, Mr. Glazunov,” I said, with as much bravado as I could muster in the face of what I believed to be a Quentin Tarantino film breaking out in my conference room.

Glazunov stood up and thrust an accusing finger at us. “Perhaps you yourselves are software pirates!”

“Man muß die Kirche im Dorf lassen!” I exclaimed. Or as you Americans might say, “Oh no he didn't!

Otto emitted something than can only be described as a howl.

It all happened so quickly. The three Dmitris lunged toward us like an angry Siberian Cerberus. Mr. Glazunov reached into jacket pocket. Everyone except Otto dove headfirst under the conference table.

You see, it was Tuesday, so Otto had his Heckler & Koch automatic hidden away beneath his sweater vest. He likes to go to the shooting range after work on Tuesdays, or so he has always told us (one does not question an armed man who knows assembly language).

“YOU HAVE UPSET OTTO!” wailed Crispin.

One shot rang out, and then…silence.

We emerged from beneath the table, and thankfully, I found everyone intact. Our whiteboard was not so lucky.

schadenfreude_01_clip_image004.jpg
Meetings with Novahammer typically end this way.

The four Russians huddled close to the doorway, blinking nervously.

“I think this meeting is over, gentlemen, “ I said.

I shook hands with Mr. Glazunov as he and the brothers Karamazov hustled outside and into their black chauffeured Mercedes. He confided that although disappointed, he had a great deal of respect for us, and wondered if Otto was looking for any part-time employment.

I think we keep Otto busy enough here.

Conclusion

In the end, we decided against using any sort of copy protection on our games. After all, you shouldn’t feel you are being forced to buy our games. You should want to. And if you do not want to, that is really our failure -- not yours. But remember, every Schadenfreude game you purchase keeps Otto in ammunition.

We could also use a new whiteboard.

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