(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
drm, video games

Invincible Killer Scorpions And Other DRM Hijinks

from the who-needs-restricting-DRM-when-you've-got-scorpions-with-chain-guns? dept

DRM is often an ugly thing. Many software companies have crippled perfectly good software in hopes of deterring piracy, only to find themselves alienating their paying customers while only momentarily inconveniencing their non-paying nemeses. Ubisoft, in particular, has waged war against pirates at the expense of its own reputation, deploying unpopular anti-piracy schemes such as requiring an internet connection to play its games, even in offline, single player modes.

But not every company is interested in doing the same old "internet connection required" or "original disc in drive" or "x number of installs" copy protection. Many have tried other, less draconian, methods to hamper the gaming experience of those operating pirated versions. Not only are these anti-piracy schemes less likely to affect legitimate users, but they're also infused with a welcome sense of humor. Or a jet black mean streak. Either way, it's refreshing to see some creative thinking in the DRM department, which often suffers from the touch of unimaginative spreadsheet operators, rather than the somewhat anarchic spirit of the actual game creators.

Blowing up all over at the moment is the recently released FPS Serious Sam 3. There's DRM in that baby (not counting anything Steam-related), and if you've pirated the game, it's out to kill you. Starting about 10 minutes into the game, the pirating player is suddenly presented with a "giant invincible armoured scorpion" which relentlessly pursues them for the rest of the game.

This has led to paying players expressing an interest in downloading the pirated version in order to play the game with this additional level of challenge. It's DRM as "dare" and no doubt someone is off polishing a deadly-DRM-scorpion speed run at this very moment.

By no means is this the first gameplay element added/subtracted as a way to push players towards purchasing the game. Bohemia Interactive has been experimenting with gameplay degradation (called DEGRADE, obviously) as DRM for a few years now, starting with its Arma series. Players with pirated versions were treated to wildly inaccurate weapons, hallucinogenic landscapes and even occasionally turned into birds and greeted with the message, "Good birds do not fly away from this game, you have only yourself to blame." Bohemia's latest title, Take On Helicopters, features the same protection scheme which led to the banning of forum members who asked for tech support on this "graphics issue."

Crysis: Warhead took the same route as Arma, but with a twist. Not only is your gun a bit more inaccurate, but all of your ammo (including your grenades) is made entirely out of live chickens.

Uber-Half Life 2 playground Garry's Mod utilized faux graphical problems to deter pirates as well. However, illicit copies didn't get much further than the loading screen before kicking out an error message about being "unable to shade polygon normals." Creator Garry Newman admits that this additional "feature" will probably do little to increase sales, rather that he added it to give paying customers "something to be smug about." (Presumably followed by "TROLOLOLOLOL.")

Another recent release, Batman: Arkham Asylum featured a "bug" inherent to unofficial copies: a broken "Glide" function, which led to Batman collapsing in a cloud of poisonous gas rather than floating gracefully (you know, like a bat) from ledge to ledge. Once again, tech support was sought at the official forum, only to be greeted by a reply that the actual "bug" was in the user's "moral code." (Protip: when seeking tech support for your pirated game, it's probably best to wait until after the game is officially released.)

And it's not just FPS games getting into the act. Even software developers for systems not exactly swarming with pirates have added additional "content" solely with the purpose of harshing pirates' mellows. Big-in-Japan Nintendo DS dating simulator LovePlus+ utilized DRM that completely removed the sole reason for the game's existence. Gamers with pirated copies found themselves completely unable to get any of the virtual girlfriends to return their affections, putting them in the awkward (but possibly not unfamiliar) situation of having to pay money for female attention.

Ultra-hardcore action-RPG Dark Souls further punished its masochistic crowd by sending "maximum level Black Phantoms" (level 145 monsters with 1900 hit points and all of their abilities set to maximum) out en masse to greet early purchasers who broke the official street date, taking the game from merely "Nintendo hard" to "Nothing but SNK Bosses all the way down." This would be one of those incredibly rare instances where DRM is instituted to prevent paying players from playing the game and giving themselves an advantage over other online players who waited (or were forced to wait) until the street date to get in on the action.

Speaking of "Nintendo hard," cult classic RPG Mother 2 (a.k.a. Earthbound) used multiple layers of DRM to nudge pirates towards a purchase. The DRM first makes itself known by simply popping up a FBI-esque warning, reminding the user that it's a "serious crime to copy video games." If this first self-check was cracked, a second line of defense would kick in, greatly increasing the number of enemies in any given area. If all the self-checks fail, the gamer is cruelly allowed to proceed through the enemy-laden deathtrap and into a final boss battle, at which point the knife is fully inserted, twisted and yanked out through the gamer's virtual spine. During the climatic battle, the game freezes, deletes all saved games and resets. Ow.

And who can forget the godawful, skull-piercing sound of the vuvuzuela, which heralded a new era of obnoxiousness in both soccer fans and DRM, courtesy of none other than DRM-poster boy Ubisoft in its Nintendo DS game, Michael Jackson: The Experience. (Have you forgotten it? Click through to bring it back to horrible life.)

Obviously, any DRM scheme will net itself some legitimate users. But the more developers look to targeted deterrents like these rather than broad "everyone's a thief" copy protection, the less chance they run of pissing off their paying customers by delivering a product that is less usable than the cracked version.

Here's one last link to attempt to scrub that nightmarish vuvuzuela out of your brain. Here's a jaunty little anti-piracy theme that showed up in "Worms 2D." It's short, catchy and may even make you lawl a bit. Enjoy.

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  1. identicon
    Brent, 19 Dec 2011 @ 12:17pm

    I had bad luck with an EA game years ago...

    It was one in the need for speed series. It assumed that any SCSI drives were "emulated" and refused to work, even though my only disc drive was a SCSI cd burner. I borrowed an IDE drive from an old machine I had sitting there and voila!

    The error was something like, "The disc in drive E: is invalid" or similar.

    Not happy with the speed of that old IDE drive though, I did some searching and a few minutes after that I had a crack in hand that let me play it using my SCSI drive and retail disc...DRM defeated.

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