Stolen Pixels #126: To the Bat-Shrink!

By Shamus
on Sep 18, 2009
Filed under:
Column

Batman gets some much-needed therapy.

Yes, I went after the low-hanging fruit with this one. Sue me.

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201535 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. Nathon says:

    Since there isn’t a thread on the xp article, let me just say this here: Woooooooo!

  2. Deoxy says:

    Ideas like this aren’t entirely new (there have been games with “fail if it’s a pirated copy” code before, some of them from quite a few years ago, IIRC), just so rarely used that they are usually fairly effective when they are used. Unfortunately, if they are used very much, they will just be “cracked” like anything else (though I think such things will be harder to crack than any of the more overt methods, simply because the “bug” could be in so many places).

  3. Picador says:

    Shamus, I’m shocked by how wrong you are on this issue. I read your comic, read your column, and am convinced that you haven’t thought this through.

    As a software engineer, you should know better. Stealthy failure is not “clever”; it’s completely irresponsible and abusive toward your users.

    Look, you’ve pointed out many times that one of the big problems with DRM is that it interferes with legitimate, paying customers enjoying the game.

    I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly how this Batman DRM is implemented, but it appears to be some kind of disk check. Users who manage to evade this disk check (through… downloading a crack seeded by the publishers? downloading a crack made independently? not clear) seem to be able to play just fine, until some crucial point, when the game fails them in a frustratingly non-obvious way.

    This means that, when the DRM erroneously targets legitimate users (as it ALWAYS does — please point me toward a DRM scheme to date that has not exhibited this failure mode), they will be faced not just with failure, but sadistic, frustrating failure. Then, when they seek out tech support, they will be insulted.

    Now, the likelihood that this will happen to a given legitimate user depends on how the DRM is implemented. If there’s some independent mechanism for getting around the disk check that results in this “clever” behavior, then here’s a typical failure case:

    1. I spend 50 bucks on my new game and install it.
    2. I have problems with my CD drive, because the DRM doesn’t like the manufacturer (I know, this could NEVER HAPPEN)
    3. I figure out a way to play the game I paid for by using some clever hack. Yay!
    4. I am tortured, then insulted, by the guys I just gave my $50 to.

    If the “clever” DMR is only embedded in some poisoned torrent seeded by the publisher to catch eeeevil pirates, then the case goes more like this:

    1. I pay $50 for my game.
    2. It arrives and fails to either install or play on my machine because the DRM doesn’t like my machine, or the disk is somehow faulty (I know, again, these thing NEVER EVER HAPPEN)
    3. I download a crack so I can play the game I paid for.
    4. I am tortured, then insulted, by the guys I just gave my $50 to.

    If the DRM failed obviously, each of these people would still be screwed (because game publishers act like dicks toward their paying customers), but at least they wouldn’t be tricked, have their time and energy wasted, and then be insulted when they asked for help.

    Seriously, Shamus, this is morally indefensible. Unless I’m missing some crucial aspect of the story… ?

    • Shamus says:

      Picador: The “we shouldn’t use this because it might be buggy” doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Also, the drive manufacturer thing won’t be a problem if they stop mucking about with low-level drive interfaces and the like in an effort to be tricky. Simply reading data off the drive in a straightforward manner is easy and as reliable as anything you can hope to do on a machine. A good metaphor would be to stop trying to make the locks so hard to pick. Make them super easy to pick, but you have to find them first.

      I also want to note that my article last Friday was done in jest. OF COURSE I would rather not have any DRM. I guess I’ve said this so often that I take it for granted that people don’t want to hear me saying anymore. Yes, of course, you should not treat your customers like criminals.

      The new system is “clever” in the sense that it AT LEAST makes pirates play all the way through the game.

  4. Nathon says:

    Picador: I think the problem with your argument is that it assumes that:
    A) There is some other, less good, DRM scheme in the works.
    B) This postulated DRM scheme will fail. (usually fair if we accept A)
    C) The paying customers will turn to the crackers to find a solution to the problem.

    I can see A, and even B, happening, though I don’t think they’re necessarily bound to. C is a bit more of a stretch. If we assume that this new scheme is out of some sympathy for paying customers, then we also have to assume that the same company is going to encourage those paying customers by providing support when their paid for product fails. By adding paying customers to the ranks of the crack seeders, they’d just be supporting the opposition. I’m not saying that all publishers are rational, just that the rational course here is for them to avoid C at all costs.

  5. unitled says:

    @Picador

    I think the program in this case was an early, leaked version; anyone owning would have to have done something illegal to get a hold of it. Hence, the hilarity the user was met with when he asked for help on the official forums (despite the fact he couldn’t have been playing the PC version then *anyway*).

  6. BCR says:

    Picador – If you don’t do step 3, it’s likely step 4 won’t happen (or at least not in the same way)…

    Your game failed you in a very obvious way – you can’t install it and/or play. That’s the time to tell tech support.

    If you continue, download the crack, and then it fails in a different way – a way deliberately designed to say “I cracked my game!” then you’re going to have to convince them that you’re legitimate.

  7. Kaneohe says:

    Didn’t you write about this earlier, Shamus? You made some good points about this kind of DRM here:

    http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1556

  8. [d20]Teldurn says:

    On a side note, this just might be your shortest strip to date, right? Just 3 panels and BAM punchline.

  9. DaveMc says:

    Sometimes low-hanging fruit can be funny! This is funny.

  10. CatPerson says:

    Such copy protection was on one Russian ZX Spectrum game – Star Heritage. There was disk check on startup, and then later another one. If the second check failed, the protagonist could still roam about the island where the game started, but couldn’t leave the island – the glider sunk.

    Of course, pirates initially only removed the first check. So the pirated game worked as a demo (roughly a quarter of content available), but haven’t allowed a complete playthrough. Sneaky :)

  11. DaveMc says:

    Shamus: judging from the responses to last Friday’s Experienced Points, you probably did need a disclaimer up front clarifying that you were kidding. I’m definitely in favour of the idea that if you feel you *must* have DRM, it should at least make things more inconvenient for pirates than for paying customers. I imagine there are various technical problems with making that blissful state of affairs come about, but it should be the goal. (The real solution is the one you’ve been so vocal in favour of, all along: just don’t bother trying to lock the game down, it never works and only ticks off people who paid for the game.)

    Side note: a non-game-playing friend of mine was amazed to hear that so many gamers were adamantly against DRM. “Doesn’t it bother them that other people are getting something for free, when they have to pay for it? Consider a parking lot where you have to buy tickets to park there, but it’s on the honour system and people who don’t pay aren’t fined or inconvenienced in any way — wouldn’t it bother the paying customers that the cheaters aren’t penalized?”

    My response was that DRM isn’t actually like that. It’s more like making your paying customers have to get out and place a series of pylons all around their car, every time they park, to ward off some sort of auto-ticketing robot that trundles around the lot. Meanwhile, the parking “pirates” have a little gizmo that does the same thing as the pylons, and they just park and walk away, hassle-free. Every time they park, the paying customers go through some extra effort as a “reward” for being law-abiding, while the cheaters experience no inconvenience at all. My friend said something to the effect of “Hmm.”

    P.S. The “disk check OR online check” thing is a lovely thought, it would be great if companies adopted this. As you point out in that EP, it at least makes it so that the systems in favour of paying customers still be able to use their game (for physically purchased games, at least).

    • Shamus says:

      DaveMc: I know, I should have just come out and said I was kidding at the end. Actually, that’s what the “health insurance” line was for. I thought it was too _obviously_ tongue-in-cheek, but apparently not, and lots of people read the whole thing at face value.

      Sigh.

  12. Joe Cool says:

    NOTICE TO APPEAR

    Hearby issued to one SHAMUS YOUNG

    Plaintiff claims damages for the aforementioned defendant’s GAY BATMAN joke.

    What? You told me to.

  13. rofltehcat says:

    I think it would be much better if the game was also displaying
    “You were recognized as using a illegal copy of the game and/or having modified game files. If you use a legal copy then make sure you didn’t change any files and try to reinstall the game. If this doesn’t help then contact customer support. For easier and faster support, keep a scan or photo of the back side of your game manual ready. If you are a pirate then buy a legal copy to continue.”
    Also it shouldn’t just check once, deep into the game, but at more spots inside the game and not only disable jumping but add other stuff like infinite enemies spawning, taking damage yourself when you use a weapon, etc.
    Of course this is assuming that only a very minor amount of real customers are affected by the side effects.

    At least a message like this would keep many of the pirates away from bothering support, which then means that you can actually offer support for the people that bought the game instead of trolling them.

  14. rbtrroj says:

    The correct response to a faulty product is not to steal a replacement.

    If your brand new car breaks down the day you drive it off the lot, you don’t sneak onto the dealer’s property that night and steal another one.

    The reasoning that downloading pirated/cracked copies of games is OK if you own a legitimate copy is specious at best.

    There is really no legitimate reason for a legitimate customer to encounter such countermeasures unless they are so impatient for satisfaction that they go outside the acceptable channels for recourse.

    And to echo others, it’s not a very strong position to state as fact something that relies entirely on conjecture. (See Drake’s Equation for an unrelated example.) To say, essentially, that all DRM will fail because all DRM always fails is baseless and presumptuous, not to mention a bit sophistic.

    I think this is a case where DRM really is penalizing the true criminals and not the legitimate customers — legitimate meaning those who play by ALL the rules. And just because a publisher doesn’t INSTANTLY respond and fix your problem, that doesn’t mean they have failed and you’re free to seek justice however you see fit.

  15. Matt K says:

    @rbtrroj, The problem being that you cannot return your faulty copy of a game for a refund. The best you can do is get a new copy which in all likelihood will not solve the problem. Hell, if you bought it online your plain out of luck no matter what. Publisher rarely if ever give refunds and patches can take months to come out if they ever actually fix the problem. So should people instead be happy with loosing out their $50+?

    So for disabling DRM, I’ve known of a few games where this has been used and typically it end up affecting a decent number of legitimate users who in the end wind up with games that are useless. In all honesty, what Shamus seems to “advocate” basically amounts to a cd check a lot ofgames tend to (with the games being buggy as a failure mode instead of just not starting).

  16. Gregory Weir says:

    rbtrroj: Are we buying a copy of a game to do with as we please, or are we buying a license for the game?

    If we’re buying a license to the game, as most software companies claim, then it is entirely legitimate to download a cracked version in order to use your license. The money you paid was for permission to play the game; the software on the CD was just included for convenience.

    If we’re buying a physical/digital copy of the game, as if it were a book, then we have the right to do with it what we want, including cracking it to remove DRM.

    If we’re paying for a license, we’re ethically justified in downloading whatever torrents are necessary to use that license. If we’re paying for a copy, then we’re ethically justified in modifying that copy.

    Remember, we’re not talking about folks who’ve paid nothing and are depriving companies of theoretical income; we’re talking about folks who have already paid their $50 and don’t want to wait a month for a response from tech support on how to make their game runnable.

  17. rbtrroj says:

    It is not impossible to get a refund, I’ve managed to do it several times over the years. But, in any case, what I really want is a working copy of the game, so why would I want a refund in the first place? If the replacement fails as well then, yes, I think it’s fair to expect a refund.

    But, really, the discussion here is about DRM, and while I agree that the DRM we’ve seen so far does more to punish the genuine customer than the crook, I just think that Rocksteady/Eidos has managed with BAA to take a new, “friendlier” approach to it.

    Believe me, I had two DVD drives bricked by an early iteration of Starforce, so I am not unsympathetic.

  18. Rutskarn says:

    Hehe. Nice.

    Also, as far as Penny Arcade goes: they mentioned, in one of their podcasts, that their actual format is establishing-punchline-denouement. They get the ba-dum-tish punchline out of the way in the second panel, and explore the joke further in the third.

  19. Sander says:

    Of course, that particular problem was still cracked within a day or so.

    The reason it works is that it catches the crackers off-guard. They want to release a working crack as quickly as possible, so they go into the game, see if it starts and the basic gameplay works initially (this particular move doesn’t appear until a bit later in the game), and then publish. Result: lots of people get this cracked version, think that the product is buggy, and a working cracked version appearing is delayed by about a day. Interestingly, the ‘working’ cracked version isn’t actually foolproof and has trouble with loading levels, this might be another copy protection feature, or incompetence on the end of the crackers.

    It’s tough to say what the impact of this is. Will pirates just be foiled for about a day? Will pirates try to play the game, go ‘This isn’t working’ and wait for the release? Will they wait a day and get the ‘working’ cracked version? Or, worst case scenario, will they think the game itself is buggy, causing Rocksteady to actually lose sales (through word of mouth, and the loss of early pirates who would’ve bought the game later on)?

  20. Picador says:

    @Gregory Weir: yes, this is dead-on as a description of how things ought to work. Actually, you don’t go quite far enough: if what they’re selling is the physical CD, then I should be allowed not only to crack the DRM on it, but to make copies and distribute them to my friends or even sell them. Conversely, if what they’re selling is a license to use the content, then I should be able to, as you say, download another copy if my CD breaks or for whatever other reason.

    The problem is that the courts have allowed software vendors to give you neither of those things despite advertising one or the other for sale. While vendors regularly talk about “selling” you software, the EULA on any piece of retail software makes it very clear that you are paying for TEMPORARY, REVOCABLE PREMISSION to do CERTAIN THINGS to the copy of the information ON THE ONE PHYSICAL CD YOU POSSESS. In other words, it’s a very limited rental. Yet they’re allowed to take your money and tell you that you’re “buying” something, which really isn’t true at all.

    Back in the day, the courts used to protect consumers against false advertising like this by forcing companies “selling” products to actually allow customers to exercise their property rights over the things they paid for. Unfortunately, buyers’ rights seem to be on the wane.

  21. Lilfut says:

    This type of DRM is old. The classic EarthBound for the SNES had it so that an illegal copy made 10 times stronger enemies appear 20 times more, and then the game would delete your save right before the final boss fight.

  22. MuonDecay says:

    The problem with this is that a certain number of legitimate customers inevitably wind up being affected due to a bug (or because they exercise their right to No-CD patch their game), and if they take the issue to the support staff, not only is the initial response unhelpful but rather is usually an outright accusation of piracy.

    A number of legitimate owners of GTA IV wound up unable to use the ingame internet cafés because Rockstar decided to pull that sort of cheeky nonsense.

    IMO if this kind of thing will hurt customers if the code doesn’t work 100% as desired 100% of the time (completely impossible expectations from a major publisher [read: “polish miser”]) then it should be scrapped.

    There was a point in time where some software was even bundled with worms that would infect users who it thought pirated it. Now, that’s an extreme example I agree, but would you want to own that software knowing that if it decided to be ornery you’d be boned, and accused of a crime when you asked the company for support?

    • Shamus says:

      On the “It might be bugged so let’s not do it” line of thinking:

      Of course, this is true of ALL DRM, and I’ve pointed it out in the past. Really I consider this a side-argument. The point is to say to publishers, “If you believe the things you believe about DRM, then this system still makes WAY more sense than what you’re doing now.” So, even operating under their particular set of incorrect assumptions, they’re still being mindlessly short-sighted and self-defeating with their approach.

      Obligatory disclaimer: DRM is bad, etc.

  23. Sydney says:

    Didn’t Yahtzee make a “low-hanging fruit” joke vis-à-vis Arkham Asylum too?

    [not an accusation. Chances are you’ve had this post written for a week; it’s just grin-makin’]

  24. MuonDecay says:

    Well, on the “lesser evil” point, I suppose I have to agree. It goes wrong less often than online activation, for example, and at least it doesn’t brick the game, just makes it unplayab– yeah okay maybe it’s just as bad when it screws up.

    I’m wary to praise them or lay off the griping at them, though, lest they not get the message that a lot of people would pay good money to avoid DRM entirely.

  25. Lanthanide says:

    I’m not quite sure exactly what Joe Cool @ 15 is trying to say, but it looks like no one else has addressed it.

    Your joke is just a tad on the line, Shamus. You’re effectively saying that Batman is ashamed that he might be gay. You do this by having him be relieved that there is a straightfoward explanation for his inability to jump, thereore setting up the expectation that he would be relieved if he found out his thoughts about Robin were also due to the DRM.

    Note: I’m not offended by this (I am gay), but I am just pointing out that this joke is a bit-on-the-line, not that I’m expecting there to be some big outcry over it or anything.

  26. Joe Cool says:

    Shamus, did you forget to link your last Experienced Points? I didn’t even know it existed until I saw comments referencing it here.

  27. Zaghadka says:

    Judging by most of the posts in this thread, maybe you should have jumped over the DRM commentary, and skipped to kissing Robin. :)

  28. Brickman says:

    I think most of you are ignoring a fairly obvious advantage to this alternate DRM: If it’s harder to determine whether or not you’ve successfully cracked the software, then less complicated copy protection code will grant the same if not more effective protection, and the less complicated you have to make that code the less likely it is to screw up. The current DRM fails because it tries to do all kinds of fancy, sneaky stuff that happens to not work right on certain users’s machines, not because all software is inherently prone to failure.

    Also, I think the end result is categorically more effective. With normal DRM, in a day or two the cracked game is available on several dozen different sites, clearly labeled, and anyone could steal it. With this, by the end of day one there’ll be a “cracked” version, but it’ll be a cracked version that doesn’t work; even if someone figures this out immediately and fixes their crack within twelve hours, you’ve now got two versions of the crack strewn across all the download sites, both of which were posted by people who *thought* it was a working cracked version of the game and labeled it as such, and pirates have to go to some trouble to make sure they get the right one. And if you actually include three different choke points and they find each one independently, not only have you frustrated a huge number of pirates, but now there’s four versions of the game, three of which claim to be “fixed”, all claiming to be working cracked versions of the game. After a few games they’ll probably have the sense to start numbering them but even so, it’s suddenly become easier to just buy the thing. And that’s not to mention that each time they have to recrack it pushes back the “Time to cracked version” counter by the several days needed to verify that it needs recracking, a feat which upgrading your traditional DRM seems to be unable to accomplish (maybe a few hours, but not days).

  29. Danath says:

    Earthbound was doing this copy protection method since ages ago, I’m happy others are picking it up. What earthbound did was it made the game MUCH MUCH harder, more encounters, more monsters, and it would CRASH on the last boss, deleting all your save games and you didn’t hear many legitimate users complain.

    I guess because the DRM was simple, just put little checks at certain points in the game to see if the disc is in the drive, if it’s not, do the subtle change, you don’t even have to make the change THERE, if they fail sayyyy, three checkpoints, or whatever, then change something LATER, that would do it.

    I’m not a programmer though, this is just my assumption.

    Small Edit: People who complain about having to take the discs don’t count. Yes, you don’t count, to do anything, you must take something with you? You want to write? Take a pen/paper, you want to read? Take a book/kindle, you want to play a handheld? Well you gotta carry that too, carrying a CD limits you sure… but if you don’t want that, get something that registers online, and play it offline. You don’t have the internet and don’t want to carry CD’s? Well… there’s games that do that too, but don’t blame a developer for wanting to protect their interests at least slightly.

  30. guy says:

    You know, I’ve never seen any hard data on how often DRM malfunctions. I know I only get intermittent failure with only a small set of games, and my disk drive is infested with gremlins.

  31. Decius says:

    Point: Most ‘professionally’ cracked or prereleased games are done by groups looking for ‘cred’.
    Point: Cracking a game that is harder to crack results in more cred.
    Point: It is mathematically impossible to make copy protection that cannot be cracked.

    Conclusion: It is not practical to make copy protection that will not be cracked.

    Basing all further thought on the fact that whatever copy protection you can create will be broken:

    The goal of the company is to make money.
    More advanced copy protection increases development costs.
    Bugs in copy protection increase support costs.

    Aussuming a game with significant SP and MP aspects:
    Generate two-factor cd-keys. (Two keys, hashed to each other) Only the first is ever required for normal use.
    Require online activation via key for installation, patches, support, and internet multiplayer. If two different users try to use the same key, ask for the second key.
    After a couple of years, publish the final .exe. Remove all copy protection. Make it easy and legal for other people to handle the multiplayer aspects to cut your own server costs.
    (The requirement for online activation for installation is solely to prevent reverse engineering to develop the algorithm for valid keys. When the same IP tries over n invalid keys, where n is a large number, start having fun with them- or just prompt them for the second key ‘For Verification’. Do the same thing once the same key has been used n times.)

    Was piracy ever REALLY a problem for the SNES? The equipment required was non-trival at the time, distribution had to be physical, and the target audience was elementary and middle schoolers. I do remember the flashing screen problem that plagued my NES, but only recently learned that is was based on the subroutine that checked to see if the cartridge had payed the fee to Nintendo… Surely this would also make a pirated cartridge harder to make as well?

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