Codewheels, Manual-Look Ups, and Other "Features": Old School Copy Protection

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Matt Barton's picture

Dongle: Without this dongle, forget about running that $400 program you just bought.Dongle: Without this dongle, forget about running that $400 program you just bought.Friends, I'm madder than a pirate sued for singing copyrighted shanties that game publishers are STILL belittling us with burdensome, unnecessary, and utterly useless copy protection.

With all the recent buzz here at Armchair Arcade about Pool of Radiance and other Gold Box games, I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the infamous "code wheels" most of those games used to inhibit sharing copies of the game with your friends. Eric Lambert of Vintage Computing has an entertaining article up called Old-School PC Copy Protection Schemes that takes a look at these "vintage" forms of copy protection, most of which rely on materials included with the game.

In a word, these cumbersome methods achieved one result very well: irritating the hell out of folks who actually bought the software. The codewheels weren't made to last, and what with all that turning and mucking about, they had a tendency to separate. To make a long story short, if your codewheel got damaged or lost, you were screwed. And it's not as though the Gold Box games were cheap to replace.

Pool of Radiance actually had two forms of copy protection. The obvious one was the code wheel, which you had to use to enter a special code to play the game. The wheel used a system of "runes," so that it wasn't easy to transcribe the codes--thus foiling easy transmission of the codes. Remember, at the time scanners weren't common, and graphic files took up lots of space on a computer.

The other copy protection on PoR was the "journal." Basically, at certain parts of the game, you'd be asked to look at a certain part of the journal. There you'd find some text that corresponded with that part of the game. Does stopping the gameplay to look up some entry in a journal sound like fun to you? I actually got curious and read the entire journal, and was stunned to read plenty of entries that I hadn't discovered in the game--fantastic stuff. Later, I found out that SSI had actually planted some false entries in there just to fool eager readers like me.

To make a long story short, if you didn't have the codewheel and the journal (and the instructions really weren't optional, either), you were left out. There's really no question about it--these measures to reduce unauthorized sharing had a nasty side effect of injuring legitimate consumers. It was a slap in the face, a way of saying "We don't trust you" even to people who shelled out their savings for the game. What's worse, people who really wanted to get these games for free could easily do so. It really only hurt legitimate customers.
Indiana Jones and the Lost Manual: Oh, what fun! Wasn't this money well spent?Indiana Jones and the Lost Manual: Oh, what fun! Wasn't this money well spent?
I can think of other games with even more obtrusive "features." One was the aforementioned Elite, which had a crazy eyepiece you were supposed to use to see a hidden code flashed on the screen during boot-up. We ended up actually making a "cracked" copy of our own game (using the "Snapshot" cartridge) just so we could bypass this annoying bit of hubbub and play the game we bought! I've heard lots of stories of other folks who actually owned software seeking out cracked copies just to avoid the hassle of the copy protection!!

Unfortunately, copy protection has not improved with time. It's still the same old story. Folks who want to get the software without paying can do so. No copy protection scheme can keep them out. Meanwhile, the game companies persist in their cumbersome schemes, some of which (as Eric points out) can even go beyond mere annoyance. I'd go so far as to call some version of modern copy protection "malware" or flat-out Trojan Horses. No customer ever ASKS for copy protection. They don't want it. It's the companies that foist it upon them, even though it doesn't achieve its purported goal of eliminating unauthorized distribution.

What's fresh in my memory is having to input three different sets of alphanumeric codes (of something like twenty+ characters) just to install my two copies of Neverwinter Nights. That's a lot of tedium to ask of someone who's just bought your game.

My question is, why do so few people complain about it? Why are so many folks willing to endure these indignities? I really think that if more people would step up and complain, the game companies would respond. After all, they're supposed to be making their customers happy. So, next time you find yourself typing in a code or some other such nonsense, send a complaint via email to the publisher. Tell them that you resent having to type in a long, complicated code when you have legally purchased the software. Furthermore, you should complain about having to unnecessarily keep a CD or DVD-ROM in your drive while you play the game. Again, this is imposing on you, the customer, the very person who the publisher is supposed to be in the business of pleasing.

I'm a big fan of the old idea that you should get what you pay for. When I buy a game, I'm paying for the developer's hard work, not some flaky piece of irritating malware the publisher thinks will increase his profits.


Bill Loguidice
Bill Loguidice's picture
Joined: 12/31/1969
Copy Protection Schemes - Some Additional Thoughts

Let's not forget dongles - those copy protection schemes that manifested themselves in the form of a hardware add-on required to make a game run. On the C-64, this could be something on the joystick or cassette ports.

Another form of copy protection besides the ones mentioned were printing manuals with red type on black backgrounds or some variation thereof, which crippled photocopying. Key words were then planted in the manual to be checked against program queries.

Interestingly, the Commodore PET had perhaps one of the more inconvenient "dongles". Since the majority of PET's had two empty ROM slots that could hold chips with several K of data, besides containing stand alone programs, these chips could also contain a type of copy protection sequence. If the chip wasn't installed, the application would not run. Of course if you had both slots occupied, you pretty much had to pull various chips in and out to work with various applications. Not cool, but luckily not implemented extensively.

Microsoft has a little known copy protection scheme in place or a type of DRM on Xbox 360. If you purchase stuff off of Xbox Live Arcade, it's keyed to your system and your GamerTag. As long as it stay on the system it was downloaded on, you're OK. If you upgrade to a new hard drive or bring the game to a new system, it cries foul and runs a secondary check on your GamerTag. If it's the same GamerTag, you're OK to run your download. If not, it either defaults to a demo version or you're barred from accessing it. Of course this was all probably inspired by the strong protection introduced with Windwos and Office XP, where you have to "activate" your copy and can only do a limited number of activations before having to call into their call center to explain yourself. I've been in contact with their call center in India several times to activate various software applications on new computers. Not a friendly process, but we've had a history or these companies trying to thwart pirates for over 30 years, so not entirely unexpected...

Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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mrCustard (not verified)

Incidentally,the Elite copy protection was called Lenslok. I used to have a ZX Spectrum in those days, and there were lenslok protected games for it as well. I owned the Tomahawk helicopter sim. Indeed it was a pain in the ass to use, and I also made a snapshot copy of it with my Romantic Robot Multiface 128. Digital integration, the company that created Tomahowk, had a reputation for providing games with afwul experimental copy protections. I remember an earlier game (Dambusters) with came with a miniposter filled with codes in a tiny red font on a bright magenta background, which made it implossible to copy with the photocopiers of the time. Unfortunately it was also impossible to read under artificial lights. How the technology has progressed...

Gamertag: Custardo

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Yeah, I remember lenslock vividly

Indeed I've seen a young frustrated MrCustard trying to demo one of his nice game that was protected with Lenslock...way back in the 80's many eons ago.
-= Mark Vergeer - Armchair Arcade editor =-


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