Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Impossible (to beat) DRM

Shamus Young | 23 Apr 2010 21:00
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How it could work is like this: Your local copy of the game is missing key bits of game logic. Out of the box, the game doesn't know where characters are standing, where the cutscenes are triggered, what items are in the area, or even where the player should appear. All of that is on the server, and the server doesn't send it until the moment that you need it. That information is small (easy and lightweight to transmit) and if it's wrong the game will break. You can't very well progress if the guy you're supposed to interact with is missing. Or stuck in a wall or underground. So, any hopeful cracker would need to play through the full, complete game at least once to harvest all of that information. Once they know exactly how the server behaves, they can write their own server. Private (pirate) World of Warcraft servers work this way. It's not a foolproof system, but it's tedious and time-consuming for the cracker because it involves days of testing followed by days of coding.

But it's possible to make this process a gigantic and time-consuming pain in the ass. For example, if the triggers all behave slightly differently on different difficulty levels, then the cracker will need to play through the full game on every difficulty to get all the information they need to make a complete server.

Then the killing blow: Make the various triggers dependent on branching player behavior. If you kill A before B, then the server will send you one thing. If you perform action C before doing the main quest, then this key NPC is moved from one location to the other. If the pirate server doesn't respond with the right data, then the game can fail silently in a lot of annoying ways. The boss you're supposed to fight won't show up, a door won't open, or you won't get a key item you need to progress. Suddenly the cracker needs to play the game all the way through on every difficulty and following all of the possible branching paths if they want all the data they need to make the game work.

Cracking is fun and exciting now because the cracker can get the game a day or two before release and have it cracked before launch. They get to "defeat" the DRM-authoring numbskulls at SecuROM and feel like heroes. The adventure becomes a lot less fun if they have to wait until the servers go live at launch, and then they have to labor for weeks or months and play the game until they're sick of it. And when they're done, they'll have a crack for an old game that nobody cares about anymore.

Of course, if publishers did this it would be a case of destroying the industry in order to save it. They would stop the pirates, but they would also stop quite a few consumers. The system would be slow to develop and expensive to produce, all so that they could (maybe) slightly increase sales on the PC, which is already the smallest platform on the market.

So I give Ubisoft credit: They have come up with a system that can eventually work. But it's still a waste of money, abusive to legitimate customers, and criminally short-sighted. It's a dumb idea, but they're doing a great job at it.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels. He's got a review copy of Assassins Creed 2 that he's too annoyed to play.

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