Ungolden Oldie: DRM From Way Back

August 8, 2012 in Editorial

DRM: For decades now as gamers we’ve had a loathe-hate relationship with it. Publishers use it to stop the theoretical revenue bleed caused by piracy and second-hand sales. But as anyone with sense can tell you, it just doesn’t work. Games  still remain as copyable as ever, and the only people inconvenienced by it are those consumers who purchase products legitimately, making one feel that perhaps pirates offer a better service, if you choose to ignore the added malware.

It’s a well-covered topic, and we all have opinions on the matter. Publishers seem to be fooling themselves and/or possibly their shareholders by constantly believing that one of these days, the DRM is going to work. Dang pirates, we’ll show them. Thing is, they’ve been under this delusion for over 30 years.

So here’s our first nostalgia-piece. It’s about the goofiest copy-protection system ever to grace our beloved medium, the Lenslok.

My first experience with it was with the legendary game Elite. Perhaps unimpressive by today’s standards, but it was an absolute must-have at the time. Gaming as a whole became better the day Elite was released. Persistent player-data in a universe with 8 galaxies of 256 planets each, at a time when most games aimed to be experiences that could be measured in minutes.

But it came with a broken crutch, the publisher Firebird shipped the game with  Lenslok copy protection. The ZX Spectrum version I had was on cassette tape. Loading a game off these took ages, and assuming you were lucky and did not experience load errors, you were greeted with a screen that looked like this:

This was an encrypted code that you had to decipher using an included piece of plastic called a Lenslok. The first step was to calibrate it by laying it out flat on your TV screen and then using the keyboard to adjust two lines to line up with the outer edges.

Immediately a number of problems sprang up here. Some people had TV screens that were too big, and getting the two lines to align correctly would actually be impossible. Another issue was that holding the thing against your screen while managing the keyboard was cumbersome and especially problematic if the two were far apart. And depending on what type of glass your TV screen used, and how the curvature of it was, the calibration often ended up not being accurate at all. Of course, not being on a hard drive, this calibration had to be done every time you loaded up a game.

Calibration done, the next step was to fold the Lenslok such that the sides became a spacer, and the prisms on its face would then unscramble the code on screen if held in exactly the right place, with your line of sight exactly correct. The test code with which you calibrated was simply ‘OK’, but you then got served with tha actual code that you had to get right in order to play.

Get this wrong or time out three times, yes it gave you a time limit, and it would boot you out requiring you reload the entire game.

The pics in this article are from the instruction sheet, but when the first games shipped with this thing it had no instructions to speak of. People were confused and annoyed. Thankfully Firebird eventually caved and removed it from Elite. What made it worse was that it was relatively easy to crack if you knew how. If you had a hex editor that could work with data in RAM (like the ones that came on cartridge devices that suspended your system), you could just look for the string “OK” and you would then also find the answer to the presented encryption.

Good bye Lenslok! Good riddance.