|Amiga Format’s Andy Hutchinson ‘Explains It All’ (Clarissa was busy)
in his March 1992 RoboCop III review
The nineties were a funny old time. We wore loincloths and caught our own food with spears, the world was still flat and software publishers thought piracy could be eliminated.
Leading the crusade in the latter department was Ocean’s former development director, Gary Bracey, who in 1992 made computing history by being the first person to implement game copyright protection by way of a hardware dongle when he bundled one with RoboCop 3. These have been around since the late seventies though their use would typically have been reserved for high-end productivity software where the stakes per unit pirated would have been far higher.
In the case under the spotlight here, the device devised by the co-founder of Quicksilva, John Hollis, would have to be inserted into the Amiga’s second 9-pin joystick/mouse port and left plugged in each and every time you wished to boot the game. In theory at least this meant that having a copy of the disks alone would be fruitless as the software would check for the existence of the dongle before decoding the encrypted content, and allowing you to avenge the murder of your partner and transform Detroit into a joyous metropolis in which to inhabit.
|The dreaded Amiga torture device in all its dubious glory|
Setting such a precedent was a gutsy move on Gary’s part since the mandatory addition of any hardware would have escalated the production costs, and given that Ocean didn’t pass this additional expense onto the consumer, it would have entailed a reduction in profits. Had it succeeded he’d have been hailed a hero, the saviour of the games industry even, whilst failure would chalk it up as a supremely expensive flop and an indelible blot on his CV.
That said, as Ocean programmer, Paul Hughes, points out, the repercussions aren’t quite as black and white as you might expect.
“…what a lot of people miss is this – you have to be seen to protect your copyright in order for your copyright to be protected – look at today’s ‘Game Copy World’. There’s cracks for everything on there – so why do publishers still spend millions licensing these protection schemes? Simple, if you don’t try and protect then you try and prosecute the ‘big pirates’ many government’s courts won’t entertain your action.”
Even when promotional hyperbole is the name of the game, perhaps in hindsight it might not have been the most effective strategy to laud the system as the ultimate pirate tamer; of course we all know what happens when you declare that something can’t be done.
|An early preview taken from CU Amiga’s monthly news round-up (December 1991)|
|CU Amiga needn’t have worried
(monthly news run-down, January 1992)
As inevitably as night follows day, RoboCop 3 was cracked in spectacular style within 24 hours, leaving Gary’s face looking distinctly omlettey (it’s an adage I believe). As former-Fairlight cracker, Galahad, puts it, “Gaston of Fairlight got it at 9.30am UK time, by 17.00 UK time, it was cracked 100%!”
|The Amiga game box had a front. This isn’t it.|
“Fairlight got RoboCop 3 the day of its release. The reason why it appears that they got it a day early is because they had an account at GEM Distributors (London based games distributors in the 1990s) and it was bought on the Friday morning, and later released that day. Most games shops probably wouldn’t have had it on their shelves until the Saturday.”
Where it fell down Galahad believes is that “despite Ocean’s wild claims, the dongle for RoboCop 3 wasn’t all that great. If the dongle had been used properly then it might have taken longer to crack. RoboCop 3 was cracked very easily from what I hear, and hence the dongle method was never tried again by Ocean”.
He goes on to explain, “the idea behind the dongle was simply to test for its presence, and it would return a value if present. The way that the programmers decided to disguise the read code was no different to how a programmer might disguise a Copylock protection check Once you got beyond the self modifying code, you simply removed them”.
|Amiga Power’s Matt Bielby was impressed with the game, the dongle less so (February 1992)|
“The problem with the dongle copy protection on RB3 was the way it was implemented. Whoever actually coded it into the game tried so hard to disguise the copy protection code, that it ended up being easier to spot!”
Galahad also postulates, “the Platinum release doesn’t even have this protection, and has had several bugs removed” as evidence of the dongle’s failure. Nevertheless, from a publisher’s perspective, the goal of any protection scheme is to curb piracy during a game’s initial sales spike, typically within the first few months of release. If you could make buying the game legitimately the only choice for consumers when it counted, the likelihood of clawing back your investment would be vastly improved. It’s a matter of damage limitation.
Gary is no fool, he recognised this from the outset…
|ACAR’s over-optimistic prediction (Feb ’93)|
“…the largest sales of any title (back then) occurred within the first week of release. Not everyone who had an Amiga had programming skills and we were attempting to deter casual copying at this level. Our hope was to delay the proliferation of copied disks for a short amount of time in order to maximise sales. The measure certainly prevented the casual – non-programmer – copier from just duplicating disc-to-disc, but I agree it didn’t take long for the ‘professional’ pirates to copy and distribute the game.”
Sink or swim, not all was lost. The games industry were talking about Ocean, and Gary’s became a household name… if you happened to live in a family full of Amiga nerds that is. It can’t have hurt that the game was a radically brave departure from Ocean’s prior multi-genre ensembles and was greeted with respectable scores, mostly hovering in the low 90% region.
This didn’t escape Galahad’s notice either. He concurs, “the ‘hype’ surrounding the protection did more to promote game sales of RoboCop 3 than the dongle itself did, because so many people mistakenly thought it unbreakable… that was the last time anyone swallowed that rubbish.”
To the outside world, post-dongle piracy persisted unabashed therefore Gary’s dalliance with potential sainthood was deemed a catastrophe, and rumours even spread that this was the impetus for his departure from Ocean.
This was cobblers of course because, as Paul Hughes confirms, “Gary left a long time after RoboCop III, so I wouldn’t think it would have had anything to do with it”. Two or three years later according to Gary. That would have been a heck of a long time for Ocean’s directors, David Ward and Jon Woods, to incubate a grudge!
|Gary Bracey evaluates the impact of his baby (CU Amiga, Sept ’92). His assessment
of the way in which it was circumvented proved somewhat shaky, and he has since
revised this version of events.
In fact Gary remains rather bemused by the whole incident…
“The extent to which it worked is debatable, but at least we tried. In the history of my career at Ocean, RoboCop 3 and the dongle were a pretty minor event/issue and it puzzles me why people seem to attach so much significance to it. It really wasn’t that important.”
In the spirit of letting articles write themselves I’ll finish with another quote…
“Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.” – Robert T. Kiyosaki