Copy Protection In The 80s, Showcased By Classic Game Dungeon Master

Making a copy of a purchased game used to be as simple as copying a disk. As the game industry grew, so did fear of revenue loss which drove investment in countermeasures. These mainly consisted of preventing the easy duplication of magnetic diskettes, or having users jump through tiresome hoops like entering specific words from the printed manual. These measures rarely posed much of a challenge to the dedicated efforts of crackers, but the copy protection in the classic 80s game Dungeon Master for the Atari ST and Amiga was next-level. It implemented measures that went well beyond its contemporaries, and while it was eventually defeated, it took about a year to happen. In an era where games were cracked within days or even hours of release, that was remarkable.

Dungeon Master was a smash hit at the time, and while the details of its own brand of what we would now call DRM may not be new, this video presentation by [Modern Vintage Gamer] (YouTube link) does a wonderful job of stepping through everything it did, and begins with an informative tour of copy protection efforts of the era for context.

The video is embedded below, but if you’d like to skip directly to the details about Dungeon Master, that all starts just past eight minutes in. What we now call DRM clearly had roots that preceded the digital world of today; an absurd timeline in which even cat litterboxes can have DRM.

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Rolling Old School With Copy Protection From The 1980s

Oh, for the old days when sailing the seas of piracy was as simple as hooking a couple of VCRs together with a dubbing cable. Sure, the video quality degraded with each generation, but it was so bad to start out with that not paying $25 for a copy of “Ghostbusters” was a value proposition. But then came The Man with all his “rules” and “laws” about not stealing, and suddenly tapes weren’t so easy to copy.

If you’ve ever wondered how copy protection worked in pre-digital media, wonder no more.¬†[Technology Connections] has done a nice primer on one of the main copy protection scheme from the VHS days. It was dubbed “Analog Protection System” or “Analog Copy Protection” by Macrovision, the company that developed it. Ironically, Macrovision the company later morphed into the TiVo Corporation.

The idea for Macrovision copy protection was to leverage the difference between what a TV would accept as a valid analog signal and what the VCR could handle. It used the vertical blanking interval (VBI) in the analog signal, the time during which the electron beam returns to the top of the frame. Normally the VBI has signals that the VCR uses to set its recording levels, but Macrovision figured out that sending extra signals in the VBI fooled the VCR’s automatic gain controls into varying the brightness¬†of the recorded scenes. They also messed with the vertical synchronization, and the effect was to make dubbed tapes unwatchable, even by 1985 standards.

Copy protection was pretty effective, and pretty clever given the constraints. With Digital Rights Management, it’s easier to put limits on almost anything — coffee makers, arcade games, and even kitty litter all sport copy protection these days. It almost makes us nostalgic for the 80s.

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