CD Keys

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Jun 3, 2008

Filed under: Random 46 comments

I know that I frequently bellyache about needing to enter CD keys. I feel I need to draw a distinction here:

CD keys are something I grudgingly accept. I don’t object to them the way I object to (say) online activation. I certainly wouldn’t forswear a game over a CD key. I complain about them in the same way people complain about those invincible plastic shells that retail electronics come in. They’re annoying and they waste a half a minute of time, but they don’t challenge my ownership of the goods inside.

When I moan about CD keys it’s usually because I’ve encountered a poorly-implemented one. One of my games here (I think it’s Unreal Tournament 2003 or 2004) has the key printed in a narrow sans-serif font, which makes it hard to differentiate some characters, which leads to repeated attempts. Ugh. Just as bad is if I have to enter it twice, for no dang good reason. I also hate if the sucker is hard to find. (I think it was Half-Life 2 that claimed the CD key was on the “back of the CD case” when there wasn’t one, and I eventually found the thing elsewhere among the boxed ephemera.)

But the problems really start when the CD key isn’t enough. When they want a CD key and the CD in the drive and SecuROM, then it can be said that the pirates are offering a superior product, while legit users are punished.

I’m writing this here so I can link back to it later, because it’s not always apparent to new readers that online activation is a deal-breaker, while CD keys are just an annoyance I enjoy complaining about.


From The Archives:

46 thoughts on “CD Keys

  1. Jeremiah says:

    I remember the first “DRM” I ever encountered. It was SSI’s Pool of Radiance. It came with that little paper wheel that you used to translate runes. So, the game would start up, give you a word in some kind of runes, and you spun the wheel to find the word. Type in the English equivalent and start playing! I also remember borrowing said game from a friend and him giving me a list of some of the words (OMG pirates! heh).

    Another game I remember was some racing game and it would ask you questions where the answers were in the booklet. I didn’t have the booklet, of course, so I had to find the answers online somewhere — the questions were usually things about history and such, like what year was the Statue of Liberty built, or some such — ‘course, that was 12 or 13 years ago, before such things as Wikipedia.

  2. LazerFX says:

    I’m betting the game was Geoff Crammonds Grand Prix 1 – it asked you for the answer to something like ‘Word 5 on Line 17 of Page 12 – the first year Monaco was run as an official F1 Grand Prix’ or something like that…

    Awesome game, awesome series, sad to see that Geoff’s turned his back on game development – ironically, because of producers screwing him over pay and DRM restrictions on the games he released…

  3. Mike says:

    Requiring the disc to be in the machine used to be reasonable, in 1992.


  4. A Gould says:

    I’m OK with CDs in the drive – you want proof I own it, fine. (Of course, I’m also fond of games leaving as small a footprint on my computer as possible.)

    CD keys are more annoying – I’ve had a few cases where I have the disk, but not the key anymore. Blame it on lack of organization, but it irks me that I now have to keep the documentation as well as the game.

    Online registration really cheese me – at that point I shouldn’t have to put in keys or any of that jazz. Just log the game in whatever marketing database you’re using and leave me alone. And I remember when being online wasn’t a given.

  5. I totally agree with you, Shamus.

    Another recent invention that irks me to no end is the security image with the letters/numbers on it that you have to enter in order to complete an online form. (I think they are called ‘captchas’?)

    More often than not, the image is so fuzzy and the letters/numbers in such a poor, unreadable font that I fail several times before finally guessing correctly. “Is that a 1 or the letter ‘l’?” “I THINK that’s supposed to be the letter ‘S’.”

    Ugh. When did life get so stupidly complicated.

  6. JFargo says:

    I’m glad you defined this, because I was wondering after your rant about having to use a CD key twice, and worried that maybe you were just, I don’t know, getting cranky about all and any forms of protection on games.

  7. Muhammad says:

    The worst DRM I encountered was from Star Control 2 on my 386. There was a friggin’ huge starchart bundled with the floppy discs, and when you started the game, it displayed a coordinate (123.4,567.8) and asked you to name the star at that coordinate.

    I can’t believe I tolerated that.

  8. Deoxy says:

    I'm writing this here so I can link back to it later, because it's not always apparent to new readers that online activation is a deal-breaker, while CD keys are just an annoyance I enjoy complaining about.

    Well said, and enjoyably funny honesty as well.

  9. Factoid says:

    Jeremiah: Lots of games used systems like those. The most recent I can recall was “Uplink” in 2002, but that was considered quaint and old-timey.

    Those systems in many ways are more effective than securom for the following reasons:

    1) They aren’t just a “start-check” for the game…they are generally entered throughout gameplay, making a software bypass MUCH harder to implement (though not impossible).

    2) The physical nature of the devices often did not lend to copying. e.g. Alone in the Dark had about a 1″ x 1″ code booklet with various faded symbols. The book was extremely small and therefore quite hard to put in a photocopier or scanner unless you cut the pages out of the binding…and even then they didn’t copy very well on that day’s technology.

    Some games this didn’t work: The “wheel” decoders were often very easy to break down into a table and distribute as a text file, even in the internet days of yore.

    3) The integration of the physical DRM into actual GAMEPLAY turned it into a value-add in some instances. e.g. The carmen sandiego games were essentially geography/history/astronomy trivia games. They each came with a unique almanac (remember those?) that contained all the relevant information you needed to solve puzzles in the game.

    Now if you’re just really good, or really patient you can just answer questions from memory or brute-force the correct answers from multiple-choice options…but the Almanac was a huge time-saver. It was also absolutely necessary to advancing in the game. You got “promotions” every so often as a detective, (gum shoe, sleuth, super sleuth etc…) but to move up a rank you had to pass a trivia quiz which usually included at least one question like “what’s the 3rd word of the last paragraph on page 294”.

    I used to own a bunch of these games, and I downloaded a few from an abandonware site to replay them (long since lost my copies) and found that even today there is no crack in existence for Carmen Sandiego in Time…no way to play it unless you have an original almanac.

    That’s 15 years and the game STILL hasn’t been cracked…and these were enormously popular games at the time.

    My point here: If you can find a clever way to make your DRM into a value-add for your games…you’ll find they are much more effective.

  10. Benjamin O says:

    I’m sorry, I’m going to have to disagree–having the cd/dvd in the drive is NOT acceptable. I very much do not appreciate that restriction for three distinct reasons.

    First is performance. HDD reads are typically faster than CD/DVD reads (though this is increasingly less of a concern), and i don’t want anything that slows down my game–period.

    Second is battery life. If I happen to be a mobile player, then firing up the cd/dvd rom in addition to the hdd is going to suck battery life faster. Granted, I don’t do this often, and laptops really shouldn’t be used for playing games for long without access to power, but it does happen, and when I do, I don’t want to fire up another peripheral.

    Third, and MOST IMPORTANT, is the security of my discs. I have seen to many discs get scratched because I have to swap out too frequently. I would rather use the disc only once, then be able to store it in a safe location from then on. That way if I need to re-install, I know exactly where it is, and I know it is in pristine condition. If you are constantly using the disc it WILL get scratched. No thanks.

    Entering a CD-Key is a minor inconvenience by comparison to having the disc in the drive in my book.

    Captchas are useful for preventing spam, but are only moderately successful. Frankly though, killing spam is worthwhile in many instances.

  11. Crystalgate says:

    I have some great memories of typing in the CD-key to Neverwinter Nights. The CD-key was written in a font that made it impossible to tell the difference between an A and a R and there just happened to 8 letter that were either A or R.

  12. GAZZA says:

    Slippery slope man.

    They came for my CD activation keys, and I said nothing, because I was only mildly annoyed by CD activation keys.

    Then they came and made me leave the CD in the drive, but I said nothing, because what the hell, I could just Alcohol it and use Daemon Tools.

    And then they created SecurROM and root kits, and I couldn’t say anything, because now my computer’s internet connection was fragged.


  13. Alexis says:

    I wish they’d put CD keys on the frackin CD. Yes it means that during install, you have to pop the CD out to type it in.

    However, it does make it infinitely harder to lose said key.

    My current solution is to use the Tippex tape stuff and write it on myself.

  14. journeyman says:

    I can’t even remember how many games I bought five, ten years ago that I can’t play anymore because I can’t find the CD key. One of the most annoying things that happened was when I bought NWN back in ’04 and the case was actually missing the CD key. I spent a few days trying to find it or a key generator on the internet before going into EB and exchanging it for one which actually had a key.

    That said, I still prefer it to online activation, especially the ones which download a heap of stuff when activating (my internet is disgustingly slow). DEAR VALVE IF I HAD WANTED TO HAVE TO SPEND A WEEK DOWNLOADING COMPULSORY CONTENT FOR YOUR GAMES I WOULD HAVE JUST BOUGHT THEM FROM STEAM IN THE FIRST PLACE.

  15. Jeremiah says:

    Factoid: I’d completely forgotten about the Carmen Sandiego games. I had one of those. I loved it! Had the little almanac and everything. [/nostalgia]

    On losing CD keys: I have a text file somewhere with cd keys of all the games I have that use them. I probably don’t have a lot of those games anymore, but it was easier to keep track of the text file, at least.

  16. lebkin says:

    My solution to the CD key mess is to put together a Excel spreadsheet that has all my games and software and their keys. It is a great annoyance, but at least I don’t lose anything.

    My complaint is that most games won’t let you copy and paste the CD key into the input area. This leads to having to manipulate two windows so I can see one while I type the other. Even worst, sometimes I end up having to copy the CD key down on paper, because the install window won’t cooperate.

    Though on the positive side, I did have a good experience with games that don’t have CD keys. My family recently got the itch to play Civilization 4 again. So I pulled out the game and its two expansions and installed it. No-CD codes, no online activation. They require the CD in the drive, but that is not a big deal to me (and one that, if necessary, can be easily fixed with a no-cd crack). Then I went looking, and I don’t believe that any of our Firaxis games require CD-codes. Definitely something to think about when buying your next game.

  17. Stu says:

    journeyman: I remember buying HL2. I was still on 56k at the time so I [naively] figured “I’ll buy the disc, since I can’t go downloading a crapload of content.”

    but 3 hours after ‘installing’ the game (isn’t this usually the part where you play said game?) the machine was still sucking updates through a narrow pipe- ugh.

  18. Joe says:

    You know, it’s not just computer games. You mention the annoying plastic boxes that electronics come in.

    When I was a kid, toys came in cardboard boxes, sometimes with some tape. Then they decided to pack them in the welded plastic cocoons. Then they added the twisted plastic-coated steel wires to hold the toy in place. Recently, I bought a toy for my son. It required the use of a Phillips-head screwdriver to remove it from its box. This was a $10 plastic truck. Whoever made that packaging design decision should be locked in a room with a dozen angry four-year-olds and made to explain why they have to wait for the toy they were promised until such time as they realize that this is a bad idea.

  19. Factoid says:

    If anyone owns a Mac, you can check out Delicious Library as a way to catalogue your stuff.

    You just use your built-in isight camera and take snapshots of the barcode on the box. If you don’t have the box you can look it up manually.

    There’s a place where you can make notes about the product, so you could just jot down the serial number or CD Key or whatever in there. Perfect way to keep track of your stuff, and it does all the hard work for you, including downloading the box art and displaying it on a virtual shelf.

  20. Stranger says:

    I have the old Gold Box SSI games on a CD here, and they have two different Copy Protection schemes for Pool of Radiance. One was the aforementioned wheel . . . which I kind of liked, and was used for other games too.

    The second as “Journal Entries” which every so often to avoid wall-o-text would pop up “Consult Adventure Log #35” or so where the whole thing would be written out for you to read. Or it would be a nice GIF map for you to look at. If you didn’t have this sort of thing . . . you were SCREWED sometimes for not knowing what was really going on! Notably, only the Gold Box games seemed to do this . . .

    I also had no problem with Copy Protections where you had to have the manual around to answer: “On page 6, line 5, word 9” style prompts. Yes, easy to reduce to tables and at least once I encountered a program which cracked all such prompts in a game so any five-letter answer would pass.

    That said, I’ve been playing X-Com: UFO Defense and Terror From The Deep . . . strangely, neither version seems to have copy protection at ALL! Neither does the copy of Raptor: Call of the Shadows or Commander Keen . . .

    Morrowind sticks to the “CD in drive” method though, as does X-Wing vs TIE Fighter. OR IT WOULD if it would freaking install properly anymore . . .

  21. Nilus says:

    Muhammed. I remember Star Control 2’s copy protection because it had a very stupid flaw. If you bought the SC2 strategy guide it came with a much bugger, better detailed copy of that map. So one person could spend 50 bucks on the game and everyone else could just blow the 10 dollars on a strategy guide and still play. Of course SC2 was such an awesome game that I think everyone eventually bought it anyways because we wanted to pay homage.

    There were a lot of games back in the late 80s and early 90s that made you give them a word or phrase out of the game manual. Back then all you needed to crack a game was find a photocopier.

  22. wintermute says:

    My current solution is to use the Tippex tape stuff and write [the CD key] on myself.

    That would certainly make them hard to lose. But how do you stop them coming off in the shower?

  23. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Did you really say “no dang good reason” Shamus can you please try to sound less queer. More importantly, do not deceive your readers by letting them think you have a clean and washed mouth. I know what you really say when you are installing games….or shit just playing them for that matter. Your mouth is as clean as the hand of a pooping monkey.

  24. Jfb says:

    Hello, first time poster long-time reader, I must say that I really enjoy your honest review of games, official review should really be more then ”That game has good graphic and ordinary gameplay 10/10!”.

    Anyway, I have quite a tale to tell about cd-key that
    occured to me yesterday. I bought Dawn of war gold edition and was really happy to install it. You had to enter 2 cd-key for it, but hey that’s alright because the gold edition is nothing more than the original game and it first expansion. But when I try to enter the second cd-key, it didn’t work, because I have a 16 character cd-key and it ask for a 20 character cd-key. I tried everything, input the 16 character and left the last box with 0, leave the last box empty, imput the first cd-key,looking at the key
    again, nothing works. They even have the arrogance to put a notice about the cd-key in the readme, but it only says ”if your key is invalid, you surely mistyped it”.

    So I look around in the internet, and it seems many
    people have the same problem. The solution? Tell the company
    of your problem, ship the manual to them and they will send you one with a functionnal cd-key.

    I don’t object to cd-key, but what I think really piss people about DRM is when they are poorly implemented. And when you had the facts that they are almost useless in stopping piracy…and I won’t even start about those that limit the usefulness of the product (limited online activation on a single-player game anyone?)

    The irony of it?

    I had pirated the whole game without any problem before and bought the game simply because I renounced piracy and wanted to support the developper of the game.

    I guess pirates do get the best product after all.

  25. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    don’t forget Monkey Island had one of those wheels where you had to line up the faces. You know Shamus, Jon still has that thing at his house somewhere. We come across it from time to time.

  26. Cthulhu says:

    How about Medieval II: Total War’s CD key? It comes on its own tiny piece of paper, mixed in with all the other pieces of paper in the box, and I’m not the only person I know who couldn’t find the damn thing when I got a new computer to install it on.

  27. Groboclown says:

    The earliest copy protection I recall is with the Zork games. In particular, with Zork Zero. To get past the beginning of the game, and into the real meat of it, you’d have to solve a ludicrous puzzle that required you to have read the manual (clapping while sitting). The same thing was true with Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but, for that one, the “secret” was near the very end of the game.

  28. Rubes says:

    Factoid: Thanks for that awesome suggestion. Never heard of it before, but it looks incredibly cool.

  29. DosFreak says:

    I keep all 90 of my CD keys in a text document…..might have to put them into excel since it seems CD keys haven’t gone out of style and the list keeps growing.

    Just make sure that if you do put all of your CD keys into a text document that you make sure that you typed the CD key EXACTLY because you don’t want to be in a situation where you threw the hard copy away and now that 6 no longer looks a 6 but a G or that 0 is not a 0 but a O. heh.

  30. Rick C says:

    I sympathize with the people who are complaining about toys being wrapped in hard plastic and tied down with wires, believe me. But there’s a reason they do that–people steal stuff.

    Of course, even that’s not a perfect solution–twice, a few years ago, I bought stuff for my kids from Toys R Us, brought it home, opened it up, and found, instead of the toy that was supposed to be in the box, some cheap stuffed animals, meaning people had bought the toy, brought it home, swapped the stuff out, sealed the box back up, and returned it.

  31. Rick C says:

    Man, I have a boring monster avatar.

  32. Chris Arndt says:

    Benjamin O complained about having to use a CD-ROM in the drive at June 3rd, 2008 at 9:02 am to which I ask him the now….. your CD-burner is where?

  33. Alan De Smet says:

    I don’t mind CD keys, but I ask publishers to remember that often the only thing I’ll keep from a game is the CD itself. I’ve got a huge game collection; to keep it from taking too much space, I pitch damn near everything but the CD, and keep the CD in one of those big CD wallets. I’ll tear the CD Key off the manual and shove it into the sleeve as well, but it’s much easier to lose.

    The ideal solution is for the CD to be printed directly on the CD. I think I’ve only seen one or two games that did this, but it was awesome. Sure, it’s a nuisance since you have to copy it off before you install the game, but at least it means I’m unlikely to lose the key.

    An acceptable solution is to have a very light section of the CD so I can write the CD key onto it. Usually this works fine, but it occasionally is a problem for games with all black CDs. I’ve gotten adept at writing on the back (data) side on the inside of the inner ring.

  34. guy says:

    ugh, i hate the games that say, the CD key is on the back of the case when it isn’t.

  35. Dannerman says:

    Crystalgate, Yes! I recently re-installed Neverwinter Nights on my PC and I spent about half-an-hour trying to figure out the stupid font that made the letters ‘A’ and ‘R’ look identical. I even used a magnifying glass to check, but it turned out on mine that no, there was no discernible difference in the characters.

    I basically had to trial-and-error the damn thing until I got it right!

    Then the game asked for it again on startup and I admit I wept a little as I’d left it a couple of days before I played it and I forgot which characters were which…

    Ah, but Crystalgate it does give me some small comfort to know I wasn’t alone in my frustration. Misery does love company, after all…

    I also had a friend who broke\uninstalled\made not work anymore somehow his copy of Starcraft, and had to buy another one. His CD-Key did not work (it was in a bad font, but it really did not work).
    On taking it back to the game store the guy working the counter said that he’d been having a lot of complaints about copies of Starcraft having Diablo 1 CD-keys on them.

    I’m always nervous when I type a CD-Key in now. I always expect it to not work somehow.

  36. Go ahead and call me lazy, but the reason I won’t tolerate games that require CDs in the drive to play is simple convenience. I can’t be bothered to remember whether my disks are at my parents’ house or the dorms, and I’m sure as hell not going to lug them with me when I travel with my laptop. Furthermore, when I’m not playing games that handle alt-tab poorly (Valve’s games) or games that rape my CPU so hard I can’t get anything else done (BioShock, et al), you can find me doing things like alt-tabbing between Serious Sam and Baldur’s Gate II every 20 minutes (sometimes I need a break from things having a plot!)

  37. Daemian Lucifer says:

    @Alan De Smet

    How about printing the key both on the box AND on the CD.Would it really be that hard to do?

    @Chris Arndt

    Thats why its called copy prevention:You cannot copy it.

  38. Joe says:

    @Rick C: It could be worse. I had a friend who bought a 100GB drive from some big-box computer store (back when that was a huge drive). Got it home, opened the shrinkwrap, and found a very old 50 MB drive. He took it back to the store, where they scoffed and told him he was lying. Apparently, if you bring a drive back in the shrinkwrap, then they don’t open to check if it’s really the same drive you bought, because obviously only big manufacturers have access to the magical technology that creates shrinkwrap. At least we all know now how to get free upgrades, even if we don’t actually use that knowledge.

    But the point is, and this is still far, far off topic, it was a $10 toy! I don’t believe they cared enough about theft to put an RFID in the box with it. I *think* they were just being evil for the fun of it.

  39. James says:


    Agreeing with you on the Medieval II deal. I installed it mulitple times recently trying to create a virtual image of it (finally just getting the No-CD crack), but I hating having to dig that stupid piece of paper out every time I tried to install.

  40. evilmrhenry says:

    Cthulhu, the Supreme Commander expansion has the same problem with the cd-key; just loose in the box. I’d actually appreciate it if the piece of paper was actually a sticker, but it’s not, of course.

  41. Ryan says:

    You might be thinking of Doom 3- the installer asks you to find the CD key on, IIRC, the manual, when in reality it’s in the jewel box, under the third CD. UNDER. Brilliant design decision there, Activision.

  42. nehumanuscrede says:

    At least they haven’t gone the dongle route. . . ( yet )

    THOSE truly suck. ( and are completely pointless imo since
    the crackers mow through em like a hot knife through butter )

    Two software programs I’ve owned had them and I ultimately
    went and found the dongle removal crack for both. Why ?
    The dongle was the vulnerable part. If anything happened to
    it, your software was rendered inoperable.

    What could possibly happen to a three inch USB key hanging
    out the back of your laptop ? :|

    I’ve taken to the habit of grabbing a permanent marker and
    writing the damn CD keys right on the disc itself. I have
    a tendency to lose them otherwise.

  43. Carra says:

    Ah yes, I really do dislike having to put my cd in the thing too. That much that I’ll rather download a no-cd crack…

    I just want to be able to double click a game to start it when I feel like playing. Not feel like playing and spend 15 mins to find my damn cd. By then I probably don’t wanna play anymore.

  44. Eric the Baker says:

    I have turned into a labelling fool, ever since I bought a 15USD Brother P-touch labeller. The plastic labels are light and small, and clearly read. When I get new software, a fresh label with the CD key goes right on the disk.

  45. MintSkittle says:

    I know this post is ancient, but I just had an interesting situation occur today.

    One of my co-workers has a friend working for one of our customers who also works part time for a library, and send us overstock every now and then. In the latest shipment, I discovered a copy of the Neverwinter Nights instruction manual.

    What struck me about this is that the CD Key is printed inside the front cover of the manual. There is someone out there who can no longer install their copy of NWN because they no longer have the manual. Like your HL2 analogy above, the CD Key is in the wrong place, and has been misplaced by at least one person.

  46. Valar Morghulis says:

    Might have been said already, but steam.

    I hate that I buy the disc and then have to download the game through steam and use steam to play it. What’s the point of the disc and crap, then?

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