1. Game Dev Tycoon (2013)
DRM—an initialism for “digital rights management” copy protection—has a lousy reputation, and it’s well-earned. Most players have encountered onerous DRM that punishes paying customers while doing little to deter pirates (who often find ways to crack a DRM-protected game anyway). And yes, it’s gross when, say, a publisher forces you to check in with a nanny server every time you want to play a game. But in principle, encouraging legitimate purchases is a noble aim. That’s why it was so amusing this year when the makers of Game Dev Tycoon revealed their scheme for teaching pirates a lesson. Game Dev Tycoon is a simulation in which you run your own video game studio. It’s DRM-free, so the Tycoon developers knew it would inevitably be stolen. They decided to preempt the wave of theft by seeding a “cracked” version of Tycoon on a popular BitTorrent sharing site. Hapless pirates who downloaded this version found that the game functioned just like the normal version—except that after a few hours, the simulation would unleash virtual pirates on the virtual game studio, plunging it into ruin. That’s right: In this video game about making video games, real-world pirates were punished by a scourge of pretend pirates. As Kotaku reported, the real-life pirates had the temerity to complain about their plight on message boards, with one nincompoop asking if it’s possible to put DRM on his simulated games. Of course, Game Dev Tycoon is itself a fairly faithful clone of Kairosoft’s Game Dev Story. The mind boggles with all the layers of irony.
2. EarthBound (1995)
The Game Dev Tycoon tomfoolery is funny because it lets the thieves think they’ve gotten away with it. The Super NES game EarthBound pulls a similar but much crueler trick. If the lowdown dirty bootleggers of the ’90s managed to circumvent its first few layers of copy protection, the EarthBound code would yield and present an almost normal game. But the program still knew it was not running on a legit cartridge—EarthBound Central has the technical details—so it would annoy players by flooding the world with way too many enemies. Still, while this is obnoxious, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. So, for truly persistent bootleggers, EarthBound unleashes the nuclear option of copy protection—the ultimate “fuck you” to those who would steal this wonderful game. On a pirated copy, when players reach the final boss battle, EarthBound freezes up and then proceeds to delete every goddamn save file on the cartridge. What better punishment for thieves than to trap them in a Sisyphean hell of perpetually unfinished business?
3. The Secret Of Monkey Island (1990)
PC games of the ’80s and early ’90s often came packed with “feelies”—physical accessories to the game like maps, postcards, and desk toys. Feelies could serve as a sort of low-fi copy protection system, too. A game might, for instance, ask players to enter a password from a codebook included in the retail box, which is a problem if you only possess a pirated electronic copy of the software. Perhaps the most famous of these proto-DRM feelies is The Secret Of Monkey Island’s “Dial-A-Pirate” wheel. When it’s time for the copy-protection check, Monkey Island displays a picture of a pirate and a tropical locale where said pirate was hanged. Players rotate the wheel to create the face and then enter the corresponding date. This is all very amusing until you lose track of the Dial-A-Pirate thingy. The inconvenience factor was one reason that feelies like the code wheel fell out of favor—that and the rise of internet forums, which made this already shaky piracy protection even easier to circumvent.
4. Serious Sam 3: BFE (2011)
Serious Sam has always been the simplest and twitchiest of simple and twitchy shooters. Headless dudes holding bombs—screaming despite their lack of heads—and monsters run toward you. You sprint backward or in circles around them and blast them to bits. Rinse and repeat. Folks who pirated Serious Sam 3 were treated to a new wrinkle to the formula: an extra-fast, bulletproof scorpion-man-monster that attacks them in the game’s first level. It’s not clear whether the immortal pursuer was a complete roadblock to progressing through the game, but one has to assume that if it couldn’t die, the player would be held back from finishing the first level in a game where the only objective is “KILL EVERYTHING.” This fun bit of DRM made headlines when it was first discovered, and many players were disappointed that the beast wasn’t a feature in the real version of the game. It’s true. A “pink immortal scorpion-demon” difficulty mode doesn’t sound half-bad.
5. LovePlus+ (2010)
The dating-simulator genre has typically been a Japan-only thing, a mainstay of otaku culture. Japanese developers have struggled—on the rare occasions that they’ve even tried—to find an overseas audience for games in which you feverishly raise the “affection levels” of young women so that they’ll be attracted to you. Still, even if we’re not familiar with all the conventions of the genre, the copy protection on the LovePlus+ dating sim seems extraordinarily cruel. Players of pirated copies are able to meet and greet adorable anime-style girls as usual, but whenever a save file is loaded, the women’s fondness for the player is reset to zero. They’ll never date the bootlegger, and they’re constantly annoyed with them. Funny? Sure. Unless you’re the lonely guy who now has to face the reality that even computer women refuse to spend time with him. Then it gets pretty dark. Hackers soon found a way around this intentional “glitch,” though, allowing pirates to enjoy fully functional virtual dates. Success…?
6. ARMA series (2001-2013)/Take On Helicopters (2011)
If Call Of Duty is a Michael Bay flick, ARMA is a Kathryn Bigelow joint. It’s realistic and complicated, emphasizing tactics over spectacle. Ever since 2001’s Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, a precursor to ARMA, the games have included an affliction called DEGRADE that punishes pirates by, well, degrading the game over time. (The system is also referred to as FADE, although the developers have distanced themselves from that name because it is used by another company.) The first symptom of DEGRADE is inaccurate weaponry—guns that fire feet and then yards away from where they were aimed. You might notice vehicles starting and stopping at random or a trippy visual effect that blurs the screen. The final symptom of DEGRADE turns the beleaguered player’s soldier into a bird as the message “Good birds do not fly away from this game, you have only yourself to blame” appears on-screen. Maybe this is all an avant-garde step toward realism, replicating the degradation of a soldier’s psyche as they experience the horrors of war. Or not.
7. Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
Batman is a survivor. The dude has been through more scrapes than, say, a little girl who scrapes her knee a lot. But how does he do it? The intensive martial arts training, sure. The near-limitless resources of Bruce Wayne, definitely. The super intelligence and Alfred’s quiet devotion also help. But Batman, lacking the superpowers of most comic book heroes, relies on the proper functioning of his equipment to overcome his opponents and get back to Wayne Manor in one piece. If Batman were to, say, not pay top dollar for materials and technology—if he went the cheapskate route—things might not end super awesome for the Dark Knight. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, those who opted not to pay for the game encounter a severe mechanical failure. Batman’s gliding ability, necessary to get through the first 10 minutes, is disabled. Batman plummets to his death, the Batmobile loses its wheel, and the Joker gets away. So to speak. One pirate actually took to the Arkham Asylum publisher’s internet forum to ask about the problem. A staff member responded with, “It’s not a bug in the game’s code, it’s a bug in your moral code.” Yikes.
8. Michael Jackson: The Experience (2010)
Piracy was a serious problem for both Sony’s PSP and Nintendo’s DS. On the DS, it was as simple as buying what was essentially a blank game cartridge, downloading games, and dumping them on there. To combat piracy of what was sure to be a blockbuster hit, Ubisoft’s Michael Jackson: The Experience, the creators included a bit of code that would detect an illicit copy and trigger vuvuzelas—those horns (in)famously and incessantly blared during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The racket played over all the rhythm game’s songs, which is probably the only way to ruin “Billie Jean.” Scratch that. Even with the vuvuzelas, “Billie Jean” is still pretty good.
9. Crysis Warhead (2008)
Saints Row The Third gets a lot of credit for innovative gun design—the Shark-O-Matic and the Mollusk Launcher are two of the finest fish-based assault weapons of all time. But it’s not the first game to cross wildlife with small arms. Crysis Warhead, a standalone companion game for the original Crysis, follows the adventures of one Michael “Psycho” Sykes as he kills a bunch of dudes for some reason. Events take an even greater turn for the psych-tacular in pirated copies of Warhead, as Sykes’ withering gunfire comes out as a barrage of confused chickens. I’m not sure how the birds squeeze out of the gun barrel, but there they are, clear as day. It’s meant to be a check on piracy, but this stunt raises the question: What’s more psycho than a friggin’ chicken gun? Maybe the developers were onto something here.