Your move creep

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.

Let’s have a look at your dongle!

Robocop 3’s got a surprise lurking within its box. Inside you will encounter a widget which goes by the rather dubious name of a dongle. This wonderful device is meant to stop all you naughty punters pirating this terrific game.

What happens is you attach the little black device into the joystick ports and then load the game. If the dongle isn’t present then the game won’t load. Now some chaps might try hacking into the game and removing the bits of code which search for the dongle. However, Ocean tell us that it will take even a good programmer months and months to hack all the bits out.

Life for all the skull-and-crossbones fans isn’t going to get any easier either. You see, in the future, programmers will entwine dongle code with the actual game code as they write it. This means you will have more luck actually rewriting the game than trying to remove dongle-checking code references.

Let’s hope these security measures stamp out piracy. Then maybe all Amiga owners will have to pay for their games – like the millions of cartridge owners already taking over the games market. Stop pirating or risk seeing your computer disappear in favour of consoles. You have been warned. 15 seconds to comply.

Amiga Format’s Andy Hutchinson ‘Explains It All’ (Clarissa was busy) in his March 1992 RoboCop III review

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%!”

“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”.

The Amiga game box had a front. This isn’t it.

“Bloody good in fact – arguably the best full price release Ocean have had in over a year, and a ground breaking product in its own right. More on that later.

First off though – and sorry about this Ocean – a bit of a whinge. The first one is to do with the dongle. Apart from a halfhearted sticker on the front and a scrappy piece of paper inside the box it doesn’t mention the damn thing anywhere in the packaging, particularly the instruction manual where the loading instructions are exactly the same as for a normal game. Let’s just hope nobody tries to load Robo 3 from the instructions given in the manual (where it not only fails to mention that you have to put this funny metal-and-plastic thing in your joystick port, but also refers to ‘Disk A’ and ‘Disk B’ when the things you get in the box are quite clearly labelled Disks 1, 2, and 3!). End of whinge.”

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… 

“…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.”

Fact Box

Robocop 3 is very different from its predecessors, with a 3-D vectorised world to explore in three different travel modes. It’s a driving sim, a flying sim, and a stomping-round sim all in one! Good stuff!

The most unusual item though, is a small widget called a Dongle. This Dongle plugs into the joystick port at the back of the Amiga. If the Dongle is not there Robocop 3 will not load. Now some pirates will try to hack out the code that searches for the Dongle but it will take months for even an expert to crack it. Life’s getting hard for pirates. Overall, I enjoyed Robocop 3 – it’s a completely radical game, and it should keep me playing for a long time yet.

Australian Commodore and Amiga Review’s over-optimistic prediction (February 1993)

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! 

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

What can be done?

Ocean’s Managing Director and man behind the now infamous ‘Dongle’ puts the numbers even higher. Says Gary Bracey: ‘It’s impossible to estimate the size of the problem, but if I’m forced to I’d say that for every one of our games bought on the shelves 10-50 are being copied, depending on the title. Of course not everyone who pirates a game would have bought it, but we think that every software company’s profits would, at the very least, double if piracy could be eradicated.

This is one of the main attractions of the console market and the reason a lot of Amiga developers are abandoning the machine. As long as piracy continues to thrive the number of companies making the transition to console will rise. It must be slopped now and what we had with the ‘Dongle’ was a chance to do just that. Someone had to make a stand and although every other software house was interested in the device they would only come in when they knew that the thing had been tried and tested. So we put our money where our mouth was which was a pretty brave thing to do.

We could have passed on the cost, between £1 and £4, to the consumer, but we didn’t, which is something we’re pretty proud of. So it didn’t work, but contrary to popular belief the device was not cracked in hours, but weeks by a team of hardened professionals using Emulators (very expensive bits of kit which mimic the microprocessor chip allowing access to all aspects of the program’s code). The version that appeared on the Bulletin boards was a pre-production copy which was sneaked out of our back door shortly after the game was finished and didn’t have the ‘Dongle’ code in it.

Interestingly enough, we had hundreds of letters after the gadget’s release from people who claimed to have an alternative, definitive anti-piracy device, but nothing really stood out as being viable, but I’m sure there’s one out there somewhere. It’s up to someone else to take up the running now.’

Enter Commodore

Ultimately who better to cross swords with the pirates and take the wind out of their sails than the Amiga manufacturers themselves, Commodore. We asked Andy Ball, head of Commodore UK’s marketing, if they had any tricks up their sleeves. 

‘We aren’t going to produce any hardware for existing machines, but with the 600 PCMCIA card slot now adorning the side of the A600 it should allow programmers to develop cards making it a lot more difficult to pirate.

The same can be said for the CD, which is virtually impossible to copy. We don’t suffer from software piracy directly simply because we don’t produce any. However, we monitor bulletin boards and the like and, as was the case with Workbench 2.0 which appeared on the
circuit, we stamp on any infringements very quickly. I think you’ll find all the companies do.

The only way piracy can be beaten in my opinion is by technology and the medium of data storage changing from floppy disk. It’s a pity Ocean’s ‘Dongle’ didn’t work. Without piracy, manufacturers could put their disks out at £14.99 or even £9.99 and still easily increase the profits they make today.’

So the next time you meet a pirate and are offered dodgy disks for an amazingly low price, remember, he’s not only taking money from corporate coffers, but he’s practically stealing it out of your pocket as well – it doesn’t seem quite so clever now, does it?

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.

One thought on “Your move creep

  • May 25, 2016 at 9:22 am
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    One does wonder if the whole dongle was just a big PR stunt; that the devs knew it was doomed from the start and were just counting on it to stop casual piracy the same way a code wheel would…

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