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A look back at the dawn of video game DRM -- and those who cracked it

A look back at the dawn of video game DRM -- and those who cracked it

January 15, 2016 | By Alex Wawro

January 15, 2016 | By Alex Wawro
More: Console/PC, Programming

"Ironically, the most influential aspect of Dungeon Master, a hugely influential game on its own terms, might just be its fuzzy-bit copy protection. Various forms of optical media continue to use the same approach to this day."

- Video game history buff Jimmy Maher reflects on the remarkable legacy of the DRM scheme implemented in the '80s Atari ST game Dungeon Master.

Game developers have been struggling to keep software pirates at bay since the dawn of commercial video game development, with mixed results.

Various copy-protection schemes have been tried, and while the latest have been good enough to drive some pirates to forecast the death of game piracy, video game history enthusiast Jimmy Maher notes in a thorough post over on his Digital Antiquarian blog that seemingly unbeatable copy protection schemes have been fielded by developers since the late '70s.

"Microsoft applied one of the earliest notable instances of physical copy protection to the disk [of Microsoft Adventure for the TRS-80, a development novel enough to attract considerable attention in its own right in the trade press," write Maher. "One of the first if not the first to find a way to duplicate Microsoft Adventure and then to crack it to boot was an Australian teenager named Nick Andrew (right from the beginning, before the scene even existed, cracking already seemed an avocation for the young)."

Maher goes on to relate how Andrew successfully beat Microsoft's anti-copying safeguards and then found a way to crack 1979's Microsoft Adventure, then walks through the history of copy protection schemes for the Apple II version of Ultima III, the Commodore 64 version of Pirates! and Dungeon Master for the Atari ST.

The story of Dungeon Master (pictured), at least as Maher tells it, is particularly interesting because of how the game's notorious "fuzzy-bit" copy protection drove many frustrated crackers to buy the game after playing it for a bit before being stymied by errors triggered by their crack attempt.

"Dungeon Master still stands as one of copy protection’s — or, if you like, DRM’s — relatively few absolutely clear, unblemished success stories," write Maher. "It took crackers more than a year, an extraordinary amount of time by their usual standards, to wrap their heads around the idea of a fuzzy bit and to find all of the checks scattered willy-nilly through the code (and, in the case of “graphics.dat,” out of it). After that amount of time the sales window for any computer game, even one as extraordinary as Dungeon Master, must be closing anyway." 

Incidentally, Maher has previously written at length about how Dungeon Master was developed by two would-be chemists. For more on the topic of early copy protection schemes in game development you'd be well-served checking out the full article over on the Digital Antiquarian website.

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