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A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 3: Case Studies in Copy Protection

Copy-protection schemes, whether effected through software, a combination of software and hardware, or hardware alone, can and do provide a modicum of software protection. But such schemes alone are no better forms of security than locks. One with the appropriate tools can pick any lock. Locks only project the illusion of protection, to both the owner and the prospective thief.

Our focus on copy protection is the primary reason why our industry’s software-protection effort has come under skeptical scrutiny and intense attack. Many users now consider the copy-protection scheme to be just an obstacle to be overcome en route to their Congressionally- and self-granted right to the backup copy.

Dale A. Hillman
President, XOR Software
1985

An impregnable copy-protection scheme is a fantasy. With sufficient time and effort, any form of copy protection can be broken. If game publishers didn’t understand this reality at the dawn of their industry, they were given plenty of proof of its veracity almost as soon as they began applying copy protection to their products and legions of mostly teenage crackers began to build their lives around breaking it.

Given the unattainability of the dream of absolute protection, the next best thing must be protection that is so tough that the end result of a cracked, copyable disk simply isn’t worth the tremendous effort required to get there. When even this level of security proved difficult if not impossible to achieve, some publishers — arguably the wisest — scaled back their expectations yet further, settling for fairly rudimentary schemes that would be sufficient to deter casual would-be pirates but that would hardly be noticed by the real pros. Their games, so the reasoning went, were bound to get cracked anyway, so why compound the loss by pouring money into ever more elaborate protection schemes? Couldn’t that money be better used to make the game themselves better?

Others, however, doubled down on the quixotic dream of the game that would never be cracked, escalating a war between the copy-protection designers who developed ever more devious schemes and the intrepid crackers of the scene, the elite of the elite who staked their reputations on their ability to crack any game ever made. In the long term, the crackers won every single battle of this war, as even many of the publishers who waged it realized was all but inevitable. The best the publishers could point to was a handful of successful delaying actions that bought their games a few weeks or months before they were spread all over the world for free. And even those relative successes, it must be emphasized, were extremely rare. Few schemes stood up much more than a day or two under the onslaught of the scene’s brigade of talented and highly motivated crackers.

Just as so many crackers found the copy-protection wars to be the greatest game of all, far more intriguing and addictive than the actual contents of the disks being cracked, the art of copy protection — or, as it’s more euphemistically called today, digital-rights management or DRM — remains an almost endlessly fascinating study for those of a certain turn of mind. Back in the day, as now, cracking was a black art. Both sides in the war had strong motivations to keep it so: the publishers because information on how their schemes worked meant the power to crack them, and the crackers because their individual reputations hinged on being the first and preferably the only to crack and spread that latest hot game. Thus information in print on copy protection, while not entirely unheard of, was often hard to find. It’s only long since that wild and woolly first decade of the games industry that much detailed information on how the most elaborate schemes worked has been widely available, thanks to initiatives like The Floppy Disk Preservation Project.

This article will offer just a glimpse of how copy protection began and how it evolved over its first decade, as seen through the schemes that were applied to four historically significant games that we’ve already met in other articles: Microsoft Adventure for the TRS-80, Ultima III for the Apple II, Pirates! for the Commodore 64, and Dungeon Master for the Atari ST. Sit back, then, and join me on a little tour through the dawn of DRM.

Microsoft Adventure box art

The release of Microsoft Adventure in late 1979 for the Radio Shack TRS-80 marks quite a number of interrelated firsts for the games industry. It was the first faithful port of Will Crowther and Don Wood’s perennial Adventure, itself one of the most important computer games ever written, to a home computer. It accomplished this feat by taking advantage of the capabilities of the floppy disk, becoming in the process the first major game to be released on disk only, as opposed to the cassettes that still dominated the industry. And to keep those disks from being copied, normally a trivially easy thing to do in comparison to copying a cassette, Microsoft applied one of the earliest notable instances of physical copy protection to the disk, a development novel enough to attract considerable attention in its own right in the trade press. Byte magazine, for instance, declared the game “a gold mine for the enthusiast and a nightmare for the software pirate.”

Floppy Disk

The core of a 5¼-inch floppy disk, the type used by the TRS-80 and most other early microcomputers, is a platter made of a flexible material such as Mylar — thus the “floppy” — with a magnetic coating made of ferric oxide or a similar material, capable of recording the long sequences of ones and zeroes (or ons and offs) that are used to store all computer code and data. The platter is housed within a plastic casing that exposes just enough of it to give the read/write head of the disk drive access as the platter is spun.

The floppy disk is what’s known as a random-access storage medium. Unlike a cassette drive, a floppy drive can access any of its contents at any time at a simple request from the computer to which it’s attached. To allow this random access, there needs to be an organizing scheme to the disk, a way for the drive to know what lies where and, conversely, what spaces are still free for writing new files. A program known as a “formatter,” which must be run on every new disk before it can be used, writes an initially empty framework to the disk to keep track of what it contains and where it all lives on the disk’s surface.

In the case of the TRS-80, said surface is divided into 35 concentric rings, known as “tracks,” numbered from 0 to 34, with track 0 lying at the outer margin of the disk and track 34 closet to the inner ring. Each track is subdivided along its length into 10 equal-sized sectors, each capable of storing 256 bytes of data. Thus the theoretical maximum capacity of an entire disk is about ((256 * 10 * 35) / 1024) 87 K.

Figure 1

Figure 1 (click to expand)

Figure 1 shows the general organization of the tracks on a TRS-80 disk. Much of this is specific to the TRS-80’s operating system and thus further down in the weeds than we really need to go, but a couple of details are very relevant to our purposes. Notice track 18, the “system directory.” It’s just what its name would imply. The entire track is reserved to be the disk’s directory service, a list of all the files it contains along with the track and sector numbers where each begins. The directory is placed in the middle of the disk for efficiency’s sake. Because it must be read from every time a file is requested, having it here minimizes the distance the head must travel both to read from the directory and, later, to access the file in question. For the same reason, most floppy-disk systems try to fill disks outward from the directory track, using the farthest-flung regions only if the disk is otherwise full.

The one exception to this rule in the case of the TRS-80 as well as many other computers is the “boot sector”: track 0, sector 0. It contains code, stored outside the filesystem described in the directory, which the computer will always try to access and execute on boot-up. This “bootstrap” code tells the computer how to get started loading the operating system and generally getting on with things. There isn’t much space here — only a single sector’s worth, 256 bytes — but it’s enough to set the larger process in motion.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the layout an individual disk sector. This diagram presumes a newly formatted disk, so the “dummy data” represents the sector’s 256 bytes of available storage, waiting to be filled. Note the considerable amount of organizing and housekeeping information surrounding the actual data, used to keep the drive on track and aware at all times of just where it is. Again, there’s much more here than we need to dig into today. Relevant for our purposes are the track and sector numbers stored near the beginning of each sector. These amount to the sector’s home address, its index in the directory listing.

Microsoft Adventure introduces a seeming corruption into the disk’s scheme. Beginning with track 1 — track 0 must be left alone so the system can find the boot sector and get started — the tracks are numbered not from 1 to 34 but from 127 to 61, in downward increments of 2. The game’s bootstrap inserts a patch into the normal disk-access routines that tells them how to deal with these weirdly numbered tracks. But, absent the patch, the normal TRS-80 operating system has no idea what to make of it. Even a so-called “deep” copier, which tries to copy a disk sector by sector rather than file by file to create a truly exact mirror image of the original, fails because it can’t figure out where the sectors begin and end.

If one wants to make a copy of a protected program, whether for the legal purpose of backing it up or the illegal one of software piracy, one can take either of two approaches. The first is to find a way to exactly duplicate the disk, copy protection and all, so that there’s no way for the program it contains to know it isn’t running on an original. The other is to crack it, to strip out or ignore the protection and modify the program itself to run correctly without it.

One of the first if not the first to find a way to duplicate Microsoft Adventure and then to crack it to boot was an Australian teenager named Nick Andrew (right from the beginning, before the scene even existed, cracking already seemed an avocation for the young). After analyzing the disk to work out how it was “corrupted,” he rewrote the TRS-80’s usual disk formatter to format disks with the alternate track-numbering system. Then he rewrote the standard copier to read and write to the same system. After “about two days,” he had a working duplicate of the original disk.

But he wasn’t quite done yet. After going through all the work of duplicating the disk, the realization dawned that he could easily go one step further and crack it, turn it into just another everyday disk copyable with everyday tools. To do so, he wouldn’t need his modified disk formatter at all. He needed only make a modification to his customized copier, to read from a disk with the alternate track-numbering system but write to a normal one. Remove the custom bootstrap to make Adventure boot like any other disk, and he was done. This first “nightmare for the software pirate” was defanged.

Ultima III

Released in 1983, Ultima III was already the fourth commercial CRPG to be written by the 22-year-old Richard Garriott, but the first of them to be published by his own new company, Origin Systems. With the company’s future riding on its sales, he and his youthful colleagues put considerable effort into devising as tough a copy-protection scheme as possible. It provides a good illustration of the increasing sophistication of copy protection in general by this point, four years after Microsoft Adventure.

Apple II floppy-disk drives function much like their TRS-80 equivalents, with largely only practical variations brought on by specific engineering choices. The most obvious of the differences is the fact that the Apple II writes its data more densely to the disk, giving it 16 256-byte sectors on each of its 35 tracks rather than the 10 of the TRS-80. This change increases each disk’s capacity to ((256 * 16 * 35) / 1024) 140 K.

Ultima III shipped on two disks, one used to boot the game and the other to load in data and to save state as needed during play. The latter is a completely normal Apple II disk, allowing the player to make copies as she will in the name of being able to start a fresh game with a new character at any time. The former, however, is a different story.

The game’s first nasty trick is to make the boot disk less than half a disk. Only tracks 0 through 16 are formatted at all. Like the TRS-80, the Apple II expects the disk’s directory to reside in the middle of the disk, albeit on track 17 rather than 18. In this case, though, track 17 literally doesn’t exist.

But how, you might be wondering, can even a copy-protected disk function at all without a directory? Well, it really can’t, or at least it doesn’t in this case. Again like the TRS-80, the beginning of an Apple II disk is reserved for a boot block. The Ultima III bootstrap substitutes alternative code for a standard operating-system routine called the “Read Write Track Sector” routine, or, more commonly, the “RWTS.” It’s this routine that programs call when they need to access a disk file or to do just about any other operation to a disk. Ultima III provides an RWTS that knows to look for the directory listing not on track 17 but rather on track 7, right in the middle of its half-a-disk. Thus it knows how to find its files, but no one else does.

Ultima III‘s other trick is similar to the approach taken by Microsoft Adventure in theory, but far more gnarly in execution. To understand it, we need to have a look at the structure of an Apple II sector. As on the TRS-80, each sector is divided into an “address field,” whose purpose is to keep the drive on track and help it to locate what it’s looking for, and a “data field” containing the actual data written there. Figures 3 and 4 show the structure of each respectively.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Don’t worry too much about the fact that our supposed 256 bytes of data have suddenly grown to 342. This transformation is down to some nitty-gritty details of the hardware that mean that 256 logical bytes can’t actually be packed into 256 bytes of physical space, that the drive needs some extra breathing room. A special encoding process, known as Group Code Recording (GCR) on the Apple II, converts the 256 bytes into 342 that are easily manipulable by the drive and back again. If we were really serious about learning to create copy protection or how to crack it, we’d need to know a lot more about this. But it’s not necessary to understand if you’re just dipping your toes into that world, as we’re doing today.

Of more immediate interest are the “prologues” and “epilogues” that precede and trail both the address and data fields. On a normal disk these are fixed runs of numbers, which you see shown in hexadecimal notation in Figures 3 and 4. (If you don’t know what that means, again, don’t worry too much about it. Just trust me that they’re fixed numbers.) Like so much else here, they serve to keep the drive on track and to reassure it that everything is kosher.

Ultima III, however, chooses other numbers to place in these spaces. Further, it doesn’t just choose a new set of fixed numbers — that would be far too easy — but rather varies the expected numbers from track to track and even sector to sector according to a table only it has access to, housed in its custom RWTS. Thus what looks like random garbage to the computer normally suddenly becomes madness with a method behind it when the computer has been booted from the Ultima III disk. If any of these fields don’t match with what they should be — i.e., if someone is trying to use an imperfect copy —  the game loads no further.

It’s a tough scheme, particularly for its relatively early date, but far from an unbreakable one. There are a couple of significant points of vulnerability. The first is the fact that Ultima III doesn’t need to read and write only protected disks. There is, you’ll remember, also that second disk in a standard format. The modified RWTS needs to be able to fall back to the standard routine when using that second disk, which is no more readable by the modified routine than the protected disk is by the standard. It relies on the disk’s volume number to decide which routine to use: volume 1 is the first, protected disk; volume 2 the second, unprotected (if the volume number is anything else, it knows somebody must be up to some sort of funny business and just stops entirely). Thus if we can just get a copy of the first disk in an everyday disk format and set its volume number to 2, Ultima III will happily accept it and read from it.

But that “just” is, of course, a tricky proposition. We would seemingly need to write a program of our own to read from a disk — or rather from half of a disk — with all those ever-changing prologue and epilogue fields. That, anyway, is one approach. But, if we’re really clever, we won’t have to. Instead of working harder, we can work smarter, using Ultima III‘s own code to crack it.

One thing that legions of hackers and crackers came to love about the Apple II was its integrated machine-language monitor, which can be used to pause and break into a running program at almost any point. We can use it now to pause Ultima III during its own boot process and look up the address of its customized RWTS in memory; because all disk operations use the RWTS, it is easily locatable via a global system pointer. Once we know where the new RWTS lives, we can save that block of memory to disk for later use.

Next we need only boot back into the normal system, load up the customized RWTS we saved to disk, and redirect the system pointer to it rather than the standard RWTS. Remember that the custom RWTS is already written to assume that disks with a volume number of 1 are in the protected format, those with a volume number of 2 in the normal format. So, if we now use an everyday copy program to copy from the original, which has a volume number of 1, to a blank disk which we’ve formatted with a volume number of 2, Ultima III essentially cracks itself. The copy operation, like all disk operations, simply follows the modified system pointer to the new RWTS, and is never any the wiser that it’s been modified. Pretty neat, no? Elegant tricks like this warm any hacker’s heart, and are much of the reason that vintage cracking remains to this day such an intriguing hobby.

Pirates!

Ultima III‘s copy protection was clever enough in its day, but trivial compared to what would start to appear just a year or so later as the art reached a certain level of maturity. As the industry itself got more and more cutthroat, many of the protection schemes also got just plain nasty. The shadowy war between publisher and pirate was getting ever more personal.

A landmark moment in the piracy wars was the 1984 founding of the Software Publishers Association. It was the brainchild of a well-connected Washington, D.C., lawyer named Ken Wasch who decided that what the industry really needed was a D.C.-based advocacy group and that he, having no previous entanglements within it, was just the neutral party to start it. The SPA had a broad agenda, from gathering data on sales trends from and for its members to presenting awards for “software excellence,” but, from the perspective of the outsider at any rate, seemed to concern itself with the piracy problem above all else. Its rhetoric was often strident to the point of shrillness, while some of its proposed remedies smacked of using a hydrogen bomb to dig a posthole. For instance, the SPA at one point protested to Commodore that multitasking shouldn’t be a feature of the revolutionary new Amiga because it would make it too easy for crackers to break into programs. And Wasch lobbied Congress to abolish the user’s right to make backup copies of their software for personal archival purposes, a key part of the 1980 Software Copyright Act that he deemed a “legal loophole” because it permitted the existence of programs capable of copying many forms of copy-protected software — a small semi-underground corner of the software industry that the SPA was absolutely desperate to eliminate rather than advocate for. The SPA also did its best to convince the FBI and other legal authorities to investigate the bulletin-board systems of the cracking scene, with mixed success at best.

Meanwhile copy protection was becoming a business in its own right, the flip side to the business of making copying programs. In place of the home-grown protection schemes of our first two case studies, which amounted to whatever the developers themselves could devise in whatever time they had available, third-party turnkey protection systems, the products of an emerging cottage industry, became increasingly common as the 1980s wore on. The tiny companies that created the systems weren’t terribly far removed demographically from the crackers that tried to break them; they were typically made up of one to three young men with an encyclopedic knowledge of their chosen platforms and no small store of swagger of their own. Their systems, sporting names like RapidLok and PirateBusters, were multifaceted and complex, full of multiple failsafes, misdirections, encryptions, and honey pots. Copy-protection authors took to sneaking taunting messages into their code, evincing a braggadocio that wouldn’t have felt out of place in the scene: “Nine out of ten pirates go blind trying to copy our software. The other gets committed!”

Protection schemes of this later era are far too complex for me to describe in any real detail in an accessible article like this one, much less explain how people went about cracking them. I would, however, like to very briefly introduce RapidLok, the most popular of the turnkey systems on the Commodore 64. It was the product of a small company called the Dane Final Agency, and was used in its various versions by quite a number of prominent publishers from early 1986 on, including MicroProse. You’ll find it on that first bona fide Sid Meier classic, the ironically-titled-for-our-purposes Pirates!, along with all of their other later Commodore 64 games.

The protection schemes we’ve already seen have modified their platforms’ standard disk formats to confuse copy programs. RapidLok goes to the next level by implementing its own custom format from scratch. A standard Commodore 64 disk has 17 to 21 sectors per track, depending on where the track is located; a RapidLok disk has 11 or 12 much larger sectors, with the details of how those sectors organize their data likewise re-imagined. Rapidlok also adds a track to the standard 35, shoved off past the part of the disk that is normally read from or written to. This 36th track serves as an encrypted checksum store for all of the other tracks. If any track fails the checksum check — indicating it’s been modified from the original — the system immediately halts.

Like any protection scheme, RapidLok must provide a gate to its walled garden, an area of the disk formatted normally so that the computer can boot the game in the first place. Further, writing to RapidLok-formatted tracks isn’t practical. The computer would need to recalculate the checksum for the track as a whole, encrypt it, and rewrite that portion to the checksum store out past the normally accessible part of the disk — a far too demanding task for a little Commodore 64. For these reasons, Rapidlok disks are hybrids, partially formatted as standard disks and partially in the protected format. Figure 5 below shows the first disk of Pirates! viewed with a contemporary copying utility.

Figure 5

Figure 5

As the existence of such a tool will attest, techniques did exist to analyze and copy RapidLok disks in their heyday. Among the crackers, Mitch of Eagle Soft was known as the RapidLok master; it’s his vintage crack of Pirates! and many other RapidLok-protected games that you’ll find floating around the disk-image archives today. Yet even those cracks, masterful as they were, were forced to strip out a real advantage that RapidLok gave to the ordinary player, that was in fact the source of the first part of its name: its custom disk format was much faster to read from than the standard, by a factor of five or six. Pirates who chose to do their plundering via Mitch’s cracked version of Pirates! would have to be very patient criminals.

But balanced against the one great advantage of RapidLok for the legitimate user was at least one major disadvantage beyond even the obvious one of not being able to make a backup copy. In manipulating the Commodore 64 disk drive in ways its designers had never intended, RapidLok put a lot of stress on the hardware. Drives that were presumably just slightly out of adjustment, but that nevertheless did everything else with aplomb, proved unable to load RapidLok disks, or, almost worse, failed intermittently in the middle of game sessions (seemingly always just after you’d scored that big Silver Train robbery in the case of Pirates!, of course). And, still worse from the standpoint of MicroProse’s customer relations, a persistent if unproven belief arose that RapidLok was actually damaging disk drives, throwing them out of alignment through its radical operations. It certainly didn’t sound good in action, producing a chattering and general caterwauling and shaking the drive so badly one wondered if it was going to walk right off the desktop one day.

The belief, quite probably unfounded though it was, that MicroProse and other publishers were casually destroying their customers’ expensive hardware in the name of protecting their own interests only fueled the flames of mistrust between publisher and consumer that so much of the SPA’s rhetoric had done so much to ignite. RapidLok undoubtedly did its job in preventing a good number of people from copying MicroProse games. A fair number of them probably even went out and bought the games for themselves as an alternative. Whether those sales were worth the damage it did to MicroProse’s relations with their loyal customers is a question with a less certain answer.

Dungeon Master

No discussion of copy protection in the 1980s could be complete without mentioning Dungeon Master. Like everything else about FTL’s landmark real-time CRPG, its copy protection was innovative and technically masterful, so much so that it became a veritable legend in its time. FTL wasn’t the sort of company to be content with any turnkey copy-protection solution, no matter how comprehensive. What they came up with instead is easily as devious as any dungeon level in the game proper. As Atari ST and Amiga crackers spent much of 1988 learning, every time you think you have it beat it turns the tables on you again. Let’s have a closer look at the protection used on the very first release of Dungeon Master, the one that shipped for the ST on December 15, 1987.

3 1/2 inch floppy disk

With the ST and its 68000-based companions, we’ve moved into the era of the 3½-inch disk, a format that can pack more data onto a smaller disk and also do so more reliably; the fragile magnetic platter is now protected beneath a rigid plastic case and a metal shield that only pulls away to expose it when the disk is actually inserted into a drive. The principles of the 3½-inch disk’s operation are, however, the same as those of the 5¼-inch, so we need not belabor the subject here.

Although most 3½-inch drives wrote to both sides of the disk, early STs used just one, in a format that consisted of 80 tracks, each with 9 512-byte sectors, for a total of ((512 * 9 * 80) / 1024) 360 K of storage capacity. The ST uses a more flexible filesystem than was the norm on the 8-bit machines we’ve discussed so far, one known as FAT, for File Allocation Table. The FAT filesystem dates back to the late 1970s, was adopted by Microsoft for MS-DOS in 1981, and is still in common use today in a form known as FAT32; the ST uses FAT12. The numerical suffix refers to the number of bits allocated to each file’s home address on the disk, which in turn dictates the maximum possible capacity of the disk itself. FAT is designed to accommodate a wide range of floppy and hard disks, and thus allows the number of tracks and sectors to be specified at the beginning of the disk itself. Thanks to FAT’s flexibility, Dungeon Master can easily bump the number of sectors per track from 9 to 10, a number still well within the capabilities of the ST’s drive. That change increases the disk’s storage capacity to ((512 * 10 * 80) / 1024) 400 K. It was only this modification, more a response to a need for just a bit more disk space than an earnest attempt at copy protection, that allowed FTL to pack the entirety of Dungeon Master onto a single disk.

Dungeon Master‘s real protection is a very subtle affair, which is one of the keys to its success. At first glance one doesn’t realize that the disk is protected at all — a far cry from the radical filesystem overhaul of RapidLok. The disk’s contents can be listed like those of any other, its individual files even read in and examined. The disk really is a completely normal one — except for track 0, sectors 7 and 8.

Let’s recall again the two basic methods of overcoming copy protection: by duplicating the protection on the copy or by cracking the original, making it so that you don’t need to duplicate the protection. Even with a scheme as advanced as RapidLok, duplication often remained an option. Increasingly by the era of Dungeon Master, though, we see the advent of schemes that are physically impossible for the disk drives on the target machines to duplicate under any circumstances, that rely on capabilities unique to industrial-scale disk duplicators. Nate Lawson, a reader of this blog who was hugely helpful to me in preparing this article, describes good copy protection as taking advantage of “asymmetry”: “the difference between the environment where the code is executed versus where it was produced.” The ultimate form of asymmetry must be a machine on the production side that can write data in a format that the machine on the execution side physically cannot.

Because FTL duplicated their own disks in-house rather than using an outside service like most publishers, they had a great deal of control over the process used to create them. They used their in-house disk duplicator to write an invalid sector number to a single sector: track 0, sector 8 is labeled sector 247. At first blush, this hardly seems special; Microsoft Adventure, that granddaddy of copy-protected games, had after all used the same technique eight years earlier. But there’s something special about this sector 247: due to limitations of the ST’s drive hardware that we won’t get into here, the machine physically can’t write that particular sector number. Any disk with a sector labeled 247 has to have come from something other than an ST disk drive.

Track 0, sector 7, relies on the same idea of hardware asymmetry, but adds another huge wrinkle sufficient to warm the heart of any quantum physicist. Remember that the data stored on a disk boils down to a series of 1s and 0s, magnetized or demagnetized areas that are definitively in one state or the other. But what if it was possible to create a “fuzzy” bit, one that capriciously varies between states on each successive read? Well, it wasn’t possible to do anything like that on an ST disk drive or even most industrial disk duplicators. But FTL, technology-driven company that they were, modified their own disk duplicator to be able to do just that. By cramming a lot of “flux reversals,” or transitions between a magnetic and demagnetized state, into a space far smaller than the read resolution of the ST disk drive, they could create bits that lived in a perpetually in-between state — bits that the drive would randomly read sometimes as on and sometimes as off.

Dungeon Master has one of these fuzzy bits on track 0, sector 7. When the disk is copied, the copy will contain not a fuzzy bit but a normal bit, on or off according to the quantum vagaries of the read process that created it.

Figure 6

Figure 6

As illustrated in Figure 6, Dungeon Master‘s copy-protection routines read the ostensible fuzzy bit over and over, waiting for a discordant result. When that comes, it can assume that it’s running from an original disk and continue. If it tries many times, always getting the same result, it assumes it’s running from a copy and behaves accordingly.

FTL’s scheme was so original that they applied for and were granted a patent on it, one that’s been cited many times in subsequent filings. It represents a milestone in the emerging art and science of DRM. Ironically, the most influential aspect of Dungeon Master, a hugely influential game on its own terms, might just be its fuzzy-bit copy protection. Various forms of optical media continue to use the same approach to this day.

With duplication a complete non-starter in the case of both this sector numbered 247 and the fuzzy bit, the only way to pirate Dungeon Master must be to crack it. Doing so must entail diving into the game’s actual code, looking for the protection check and modifying it to always return a positive response. In itself, that wasn’t usually too horrible; crackers had long ago learned to root through code to disable look-up-a-word-in-the-manual and code-wheel-based “soft” protection schemes. But FTL, as usual, had a few tricks up their sleeves to make it much harder: they made the protection checks multitudinous and their results non-obvious.

Instead of checking the copy protection just once, Dungeon Master does it over and over, from half-a-dozen or so different places in its code, turning the cracker’s job into a game of whack-a-mole. Every time he thinks he’s got it at last, up pops another check. The most devious of all the checks is the one that’s hidden inside a file called “graphics.dat,” the game’s graphics store. Who would think to look for executable code there?

Compounding the problem of finding the checks is the fact that even on failure they don’t obviously do anything. The game simply continues, only to become unstable and start spitting out error messages minutes later. For this reason, it’s extremely hard to know when and whether the game is finally fully cracked. It was the perfect trap for the young crackers of the scene, who weren’t exactly known for their patience. The pirate boards were flooded with crack after crack of Dungeon Master, all of which turned out to be broken after one had actually played a while. In a perverse way, it amounted to a masterful feat of advertising. Many an habitual pirate got so frustrated with not being able properly play this paradigm-shattering game that he made Dungeon Master the only original disk in his collection. Publishers had for years already been embedding their protection checks some distance into their games, both to make life harder for crackers and to turn the copies themselves into a sort of demo version that unwitting would-be pirates distributed for them for free. But Dungeon Master used the technique to unprecedented success in terms of pirated copies that turned into sold originals.

Dungeon Master still stands as one of copy protection’s — or, if you like, DRM’s — relatively few absolutely clear, unblemished success stories. It took crackers more than a year, an extraordinary amount of time by their usual standards, to wrap their heads around the idea of a fuzzy bit and to find all of the checks scattered willy-nilly through the code (and, in the case of “graphics.dat,” out of it). After that amount of time the sales window for any computer game, even one as extraordinary as Dungeon Master, must be closing anyway. Writing about the copy protection twenty years later, Doug Bell of FTL couldn’t resist a bit of crowing.

Dungeon Master exposed the fallacy in the claims of both the pirates and the crackers. The pirates who would never have paid for the game if they could steal it did pay for it. Despite a steadily growing bounty of fame and notoriety for cracking the game, the protection lasted more than a year. And the paying customer was rewarded with not just a minimally invasive copy-protection scheme, but, just as importantly, with the satisfaction of not feeling like a schmuck for paying for something that most people were stealing.

As the developer of both Dungeon Master and the software portion of its copy protection, I knew that eventually the copy protection would be broken, but that the longer it held out the less damage we would suffer when it was broken.

Dungeon Master had a greater than 50-percent market penetration on the Atari ST—that is, more than one copy of Dungeon Master was sold for each two Atari ST computers sold. That’s easily ten times the penetration of any other game of the time on any other platform.

So what’s the lesson? That piracy does take significant money out of the pocket of the developer and that secure anti-piracy schemes are viable.

Whether we do indeed choose to view Dungeon Master as proof of the potential effectiveness of well-crafted DRM as a whole or, as I tend to, as something of an historical aberration produced by a unique combination of personalities and circumstances, it does remain a legend among old sceners, respected as perhaps the worthiest of all the wily opponents they encountered over the years — not just technically brilliant but conceptually and even psychologically so. By its very nature, the long war between the publishers and the crackers could only be a series of delaying actions on the part of the former. For once, the delay created by Dungeon Master‘s copy protection was more than long enough.

And on that note we’ll have to conclude this modest little peek behind the curtain of 1980s copy protection. Like so many seemingly narrow and esoteric topics, it only expands and flowers the deeper you go into it. People continue to crack vintage games and other software to this day, and often document their findings in far more detail than I can here. Apple II fans may want to have a look at the work of one “a2_4am” on Twitter, while those of you who want to know more about RapidLok may want to look into the C64 Preservation Project‘s detailed RapidLok Handbook, which is several times the length of this article. And if all that’s far, far more information than you want — and no, I really don’t blame you — I hope this article, cursory as it’s been, has instilled some respect for the minds on both sides of the grand software-piracy wars of the 1980s.

(Sources: Beneath Apple DOS by Don Worth and Pieter Lechner; The Anatomy of the 1541 Disk Drive by Lothar Englisch and Norbert Szczepanowski; Inside Commodore DOS by Richard Immers and Gerald G. Newfeld; The Kracker Jax Revealed Trilogy; Commodore Power Play of August/September 1985; Kilobaud of July 1982; New Zealand Bits and Bytes of May 1984; Games Machine of June 1988; Transactor 5.3; 80 Microcomputing of November 1980; Byte of December 1980; Hardcore Computist #9 and #11; Midnite Software Gazette of April 1986. Online sources include Nick Andrew’s home page, the aforementioned C64 Preservation Project, and The Dungeon Master Encyclopedia. See also Jean Louis-Guérin’s paper “Atari Floppy Disk Copy Protection.” Information on the SPA’s activities comes from the archive of SPA-related material donated to the Strong Museum of Play by Doug Carlston, first fruit of my research here in Rochester.

My huge thanks to Nate Lawson for doing something of a peer review of this article prior to publication!)

 
 

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The First CRPGs

The CRPG form lacks an Adventure — an urtext universally known and acknowledged as its starting point. I can propose a couple of reasons why this is so.

CRPG fans have, some exceptions aside, generally not shown anything like the same dedication to documentation and historical preservation that marks the modern interactive-fiction community, which has perhaps prevented an accepted canon of historically significant works from appearing amongst the former as it has amongst the latter. Likewise, for all its enduring commercial popularity the CRPG has not acquired the same academic caché as has IF; it’s easier to justify study of a “literary” form like IF within the academy than it is a form that revolves around killing hordes of monsters and leveling up, no matter how much fun that process might be. Just as significantly, Adventure had the good fortune to become really, really popular. It was the Doom of late 1970s institutional computing, a game that absolutely everyone who spent any time within that culture had to know and probably tried to play at least once or twice. The early proto-CRPGs of the same era, of which there were a fair number, did not spread so widely and did not come to occupy the same storied place in hacker lore. Most were created on a pioneering system called PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations — how long did they work to make that acronym fit?), which linked hundreds of educational institutions around the U.S. together via thousands of dumb terminals, a handful of mainframe computers, and a central hub at the University of Illinois.

I could easily devote a whole series of posts to PLATO, the first sustained online community to connect everyday people — mostly students from elementary to university age — together. I’ll just give you the short version here, though, and mention that PLATO was remarkable indeed in many ways, laboratory of countless innovations, from the vision of computer-assisted instruction that spawned it in the first place to the uniquely user-friendly custom operating system it ran to its TUTOR programming language that let anyone design new “lessons.” Uniquely amongst institutional systems, its terminals offered graphics and, if your school had chosen to spring for some additional gadgetry, possibly even some sound and music capabilities. Originating all the way back in 1960, PLATO reached a certain level of maturity with the roll-out of the PLATO IV system in 1972, and grew rapidly in this incarnation throughout the 1970s. Its graphical capabilities made PLATO exceptionally suited for gaming in comparison to other institutional systems, which still generally relied on clunky text-only teletypes for input and output. Throw in the fact that most of these terminals were being used by students with a bit of time on their hands, and that they had the easy-to-learn TUTOR language at their disposal, and it’s not surprising that PLATO became something of a hotbed of game development immediately before the beginning of the PC era and even for some years thereafter. Amongst these games were the first attempts to bring the Dungeons and Dragons experience to the computer. They began to appear as early as 1975 — even before Will Crowther’s creation of Adventure.

The earliest of these games were created without proper authorization from PLATO’s administrators. Thus they had to hide out on the system under unassuming, workmanlike names such as pedit5 and m199h, with word of their existence being passed around in secret. Inevitably, as their popularity increased they attracted the notice of administrators and were promptly deleted. Luckily, what appears to be the original version of Rusty Rutherford’s pedit5 has been restored and made available by the folks at cyber1, a resurrected PLATO system accessible via the Internet.

As the first or second game of its type to appear, pedit5 has a decent claim to stand as the CRPG’s equivalent of Adventure. Certainly it’s of immense historical importance.

That said, the most long-lived and popular of these games, the one that first defined the experience of the CRPG for many in the same way that Adventure did that of the text adventure, came a bit later. Its name left no doubt as to its inspiration: dnd. A much more sustained and ambitious project than the one-off pedit5, dnd was initially written by Gary Wisenhunt and Ray Wood, then expanded and refined by Dirk Pellett. By October of 1976 it had reached a basically finished state, becoming a surprisingly complex experience and a very popular one amongst PLATO users; the counter of total plays bwas already almost to 100,000 at that time.

Dnd spawned a whole family of PLATO dungeon crawls which share their ancestor’s blissful unconcern with copyright. Nowadays the lawyers of the Tolkien estate would be all over Moria, Baraddur, and Orthanc.

It might make an interesting little exercise in platform studies to ask why the PLATO system hosted so many dungeon crawls, while text adventures became the diversion of choice amongst the hardcore hackers working on their DEC systems. A good part of the answer comes down to technological constraints: PLATO could do screen-oriented, graphical displays rather beautifully really, while the PDP line continued to rely on line-oriented output devices capable only of text. The broader implications of this for interactive-fiction fans, that gamers have always preferred their pretty pictures and will take them whenever they can get them over plain text, are perhaps too disquieting to dwell on. If it helps, though, it’s also true that the two computing cultures used incompatible hardware and communicated over wholly separate networks, thus keeping these two burgeoning gaming traditions wholly separate from one another before they began to mix in the great melting pot of the PC world. Adventure and dnd after all gave each of these communities, still very small by modern computing standards, plenty of inspiration and plenty to iterate on without leaping into whole other paradigms of play.

Similarly, the most popular platforms of the early PC era, the TRS-80 and the Apple II, initially hosted quite different strains of adventure. Thanks largely to the efforts of Scott Adams, the TRS-80 went in the PDP hackers’ direction to host the first text adventures to enter the home. The Apple II, meanwhile, the only member of the class of 1977 with graphics capabilities even close to those of PLATO, went in the direction of dnd. Given the sketchy documentation and the ad hoc nature of most software “publication” of that era, it’s extremely difficult to say with certainty what game marked the first CRPG to appear on the Apple II — and by extension the first to appear on a home PC. Synergistic Software’s Dungeon Campaign, which appeared right about the time that Adams was shipping off those first tapes of Adventureland, is probably the best candidate.

For our purposes, though, I want to stick with our faithful old TRS-80 for just a little bit more. Next time I’ll be taking a close look at the first commercial RPG to be developed and sold for that platform, The Temple of Apshai (1979). As an heir both to Dungeons and Dragons and the early CRPG tradition that began with pedit5 and dnd, Apshai will give us a chance to see how a CRPG of this very early era actually played.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2011 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Defining the CRPG

There’s a whole lot of Dungeons and Dragons in the original Adventure. Its environs may be based on Kentucky’s Colossal Cave, but the central premise of exploring and looting an underground environment filled with strange dangers and treasure has as much to do with D&D as it does with caving. Even some of the ways in which that environment is presented are strikingly similar. A typical D&D dungeon was, like Adventure‘s, divided into a series of discrete, self-contained rooms. Here’s one of the maps that accompany Temple of the Frog, the first published D&D “adventure module,” which appeared as part of the second D&D supplement, Blackmoor, in 1975:

And here’s the description of a couple of these numbered rooms:

Room 3: Is the headquarters of the traders sent out to sell the junk and is also the office of the chief of accounting. Hidden in this desk are 600 pieces of platinum that he has embezzled. (The High Priest knows about this but does not seem to care.)

Room 4: Is the office of the Commander of the palace guard where he goes to run the security arrangements in the Temple. Within are the master alarms for the palace, so that the exact location of trouble can be registered and personnel sent to counter the intrusion. From here he can communicate, via a desk communicator, with other officers and sergeants under his command. There is always an officer and two sergeants on duty in this room and only the rings worn by the High Priest Command of the Guard or the Chief Keeper will gain admittance. (No one is aware that the latter has such a privilege, and it has not been used for many years.)

Later D&D adventures made this similarity with the IF room even more obvious by including a boxed text with every room that the DM should read to the players upon their first entering, just like the ubiquitous IF room description. At least under all but a very skilled DM, the rooms of a D&D dungeon tended to feel oddly separate from one another, each its own little self-contained universe just like in a text adventure; many was the party that fought a pitched battle with a group of monsters, then, upon finally vanquishing them, stumbled upon some more still slumbering peacefully in the next room just as the room description said they should be, undisturbed by the carnage that just took place next door. Speaking of combat, the heart of most D&D adventures, Adventure even had a modicum of that as well, in the form of the annoying little dwarfs that harried the player until they were all dispatched.

For all these similarities and for all the acknowledged influence that his experiences as a D&D player had on Crowther’s original work, though, virtually no one refers to Adventure or its many antecedents as computer RPGs. What gives? One thing we might take note of is that Crowther made no real attempt to translate the actual D&D rules into his computer game. He took inspiration from some of its themes and ideas, but then went his own way, whereas the mechanical debt that the family of games I now want to begin to cover owed to D&D was as important as the thematic debt. Just leaving it at that seems a bit unsatisfying, though. Maybe we can do a little bit better, and in the process come up with something that might be useful in a broader context.

Matt Barton says something really interesting in the first chapter of Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games:

To paint with a broad brush, we could say that the adventure gamer prioritizes deductive and qualitative thinking, whereas the CRPG fan values more inductive and quantitative reason. The adventure gamer works with definitions and syllogisms; the CRPG fan reckons with formulas and statistics. The only way for a character in a CRPG to advance is by careful inductive reasoning: if a certain strategy results in victory in six out of ten battles, it is better than another strategy that yields only three out of ten victories. This type of inductive reasoning is rare in adventure games but is plentiful in CRPGs, where almost every item has some statistical value (e.g., a longsword may do ten percent less damage than a two-handed sword, but allows the use of a shield).

These differences in thinking arise of course from very different approaches to game design and narrative on the part of the works’ creators. The typical adventure-game designer spends most of her time crafting a pre-defined experience for the player, building in a series of generally single-solution set-piece puzzles and a single (or, at most, modestly branching) narrative arc. The CRPG designer, meanwhile, pays less attention to such particulars in favor of crafting an intricate system of rules and interactions, from which the experience of play, even much of the narrative, will emerge. CRPGs, in other words, are essentially simulation games, albeit what is being simulated is an entirely fictional world.

At first blush, there perhaps doesn’t seem to be any room for debate about which approach is “better.” After all, if given a choice between jumping through hoops to progress down a single rigid path or crafting one’s own experience, writing one’s own story in the course of play, who would choose the former? In actually, though, things aren’t so clear-cut. There are inevitable limits to any attempt to create lived experience through a computer simulation. It’s perfectly feasible to simulate a group of adventurers descending into a dungeon and engaging in combat with the monsters they find there; it’s not so easy to simulate, say, the interpersonal dynamics of a single unexceptional family. People have tried and continue to try, but so far the simulational approach to ludic narrative has dramatically limited the kinds of stories that can be interactively lived. Thus, the simulational approach can paradoxically be as straitening as it is freeing. And there’s another thing to consider. The more we foreground the simulational, the more we emphasize player freedom as our overriding goal, the further we move from the old ideal of the artist who shares his vision with the world. What we create instead may certainly be interesting, even fascinating, but whatever it ends up being it becomes more and more difficult for me to think of it as art. Which is not to say that every game design should or must aspire to be art, of course; given my general experience with games that explicitly make claims to that status, in fact, I’d just as soon have game designers just concentrate on their craft and let the rest of us make such judgments for ourselves.

I must be sure to point out here that “emergence” and “set-piece design” do not form distinct categories of games, but rather the opposite poles of a continuum. Virtually every game has elements of both; consider the scripted dialog that appears onscreen just before the player kills the Big Foozle in a classic CRPG, or the item that a player must have in her inventory to solve the otherwise set-piece text-adventure puzzle. It’s also true that disparate games even within the same genre place their emphasis differently, and that over time trends have pulled entire genres in one direction or another. Here’s a little diagram I put together showing some of what I mean:

As the diagram shows, modern big-budget RPGs such as those from Bioware have actually tended to include much more set-piece story than their classic predecessors, in spite of the vastly more computing power they have to devote to pure simulation. (There’s some great material in Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Expressive Processing about the odd dichotomy between the amazingly sophisticated simulational part of a game like Knights of the Old Republic and the limited multiple-choice conversation system the player is forced into whenever emphasis shifts from the hard mechanics of exploration and combat to the soft vagaries of story and interpersonal relationships.) Modern IF has also trended away from simulation, de-emphasizing the problems of geography, light sources, inventory management, sometimes even combat of old-school text adventures to deliver a more author-crafted, “literary” experience.

But I wanted to define the CRPG, didn’t I? Okay, here goes:

A computer role-playing game (CRPG) is an approach to ludic narrative that emphasizes computational simulation of the storyworld over set-piece, “canned” design and narrative elements. The CRPG generally offers the player a much wider field of choice than other approaches, albeit often at the cost of narrative depth and the scope of narrative possibility it affords to the designer.

At least for now, I think I’m going to leave it at that. Most other definitions tend to emphasize character-building and leveling elements as a prerequisite, but, while I certainly acknowledge their presence in the vast majority of CRPGs, it seems limiting to the form’s possibilities to make that a requirement. Of course, I could have also simply used the definition we used in the 1980s: in adventure games you explore and solve puzzles, in CRPGs you explore and kill monsters. But that’s just too easy, isn’t it?

So, we hopefully now have some idea of what it really is that separates a CRPG from he works of Crowther and Woods and Adams. With that in place, we can begin to look at the first examples of the form next time.

 
 

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Ludic Narrative née Storygame

I’m not done with this little stroll through history — in fact, I’m just getting started — but I want at this point to take a few posts to introduce some theoretical ideas that will be informing the history to come. I’ll try to make it as painless as possible… really, I will.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, the broad category of “adventure games” as covered by folks like Scorpia in Computer Gaming World was generally taken to be composed of four distinct subtypes. There was of course first the form I’ve been focusing on in this blog so far, the text adventure (or, if you like, interactive fiction), which I trust needs no further definition. There was the computer role-playing game (CRPG), a less rigid, more emergent form which focused on strategy and tactics in sending the player forth to do battle with multitudes of monsters or, occasionally, mutant humans or space aliens. There was the point-and-click graphical adventure, which like the text adventure tended to be built around set-piece puzzles rather than simulational emergence, but which replaced descriptive text with pictures and the parser with a joystick or mouse. (This form should not be confused with text adventures which happened to feature pictures.) And finally there was the action adventure, which combined reflex-oriented jumping or fighting gameplay with puzzle-solving, exploration, and an overarching storyline or quest.

So, four quite disparate approaches, no? Given that disparity, I started asking myself a number of years ago just what prompted people to see such kinship among these forms, kinship they didn’t also see in, say, a strategy game like Archon or a pure action game like Frogger. Or, put another way: what was it about these forms that made them uniquely appealing to a columnist like Scorpia, or for that matter to a young nerd like me? Clearly it wasn’t a question of their fictional context; while dwarfs and dragons may have been disproportionately represented in the group of four, there were also plenty of non-fantasy examples — not to mention plenty of strategy and action games with fantasy themes that clearly did not fit in the group of four. The answer I came up with, which I’m sure will surprise no one, was that the distinguishing feature of these forms was that they all foregrounded story in a way that didn’t really happen in other forms of 1980s computer gaming. From there, I decided to try to codify the unique qualities of these games in a way that would be a bit more definite, not to mention applicable to other technologies and eras. In the end I came up with two approaches, actually, one a fairly rigid checklist and the other based more on abstracts.

But before I defined them, I first had to decide what I wanted to call the category of works in question. At first I simply went with storygames, but lately I’ve been leaning more toward ludic narratives. I favor the latter not because it sounds more academic and pretentious, although that it certainly does, but rather because I think the narrative component of these works is of equal or even greater important than the systems of rules — the “game” part — that underlie them. But I’ll get into that a bit more in my next post. For now, let’s just roll out the definitions, beginning with the rigid checklist approach.

So, then, to qualify as a ludic narrative a work must possess the following four attributes:

1. The work must be directly and obviously interactive. When I say “directly and obviously” here, I mean that if there is any real question the work probably fails this test. Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabakov’s Pale Fire, for instance, may have a certain sense of interactivity about them in that they demand a certain sort of engaged, motivated reading, but they still carry, at least outwardly, the form of conventional, linear novels, and thus fail this test.

2. A computational simulation — a “storyworld” — must enable the narrative. It should be noted that a computational simulation does not automatically mean a computerized simulation, as a human rather than a computer can administer the rules of the ludic narrative. This simulation can run at virtually any level of abstraction, but it must be there. Hypertext literature thus does not qualify as a form of ludic narrative, as no simulation exists “behind” the links one clicks in “playing” a hypertext.

3. The player must play the role of an individual in the storyworld, experiencing events through the eyes of and in the persona of that character. Some ludic narratives may allow the player to switch roles or even play several simultaneously, but she is always immersed in the storyworld rather than viewing it from an on-high, abstract perspective. Thus a game like Civilization, which is played at the macro level, does not qualify as a ludic narrative.

4. There must be a coherent story arc, and it must be possible to well and truly complete that story. A massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft thus does not qualify as a ludic narrative, as it has no endpoint, and is ultimately experienced as a series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story.

Having just disqualified several games in the definitions above, let’s quickly return yet again to our old friend Adventure for an example of a game that does qualify as a ludic narrative. It satisfies criteria #1 in that it is directly interactive, responding to player inputs through a textual parser. It satisfies criteria #2 in that a simplified simulation of the real world houses the action, allowing the player to pick things up, carry them around, and leave them in other places; to open and close doors; and even to interact (simplistically) with other characters who autonomously move about the storyworld with agendas of their own. It satisfies criteria #3 in that the player interacts and views the storyworld strictly through the persona of a character in that world, the nameless “adventurer.” And it satisfies criteria #4 in that Adventure has an extant, if simplistic almost to the point of transparency, story arc and goal. Its plot even has a climax in the form of the closing of the cave and the visit to the control room. That said, it’s also true that if Adventure comes close to failing to qualify as a ludic narrative anywhere, it is here. The Oregon Trail, for example, is actually a stronger example of the form in that its story arc is much more pronounced and was much more of a priority for its designer.

Actually, speaking of “stronger” or “weaker” examples of ludic narratives brings me to the other way of looking at the subject. When I first came up with the set of criteria above, I put it in my little backpack of theoretical constructs and continued on my way, smugly sure I had “solved” this little problem of ludic taxonomy. As time has passed, though, I’ve become more and more aware that rigid categorization is not always the best approach, that it may often be better to consider ludic narrative in a gradient (“more or less”) fashion rather than as an “either/or” proposition. In doing so I’m drawing a lot from the cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Consider, to use one of Lakoff’s examples, the concept of “bird,” not as it’s understood scientifically but as it’s thought of in everyday life. Lakoff writes that, while people recognize both robins and emus to be birds, the robin is in some sense also recognized as more “birdy”: it can fly while the emu cannot, it sings while the emu does not, etc. In Lakoff’s formulation, there is some central idea of absolute birdyness (it may be helpful to think of Plato’s ideas about the Good). The robin is closer to this central idea than the emu, but both are close enough that if queried most people would recognize them both to be birds. I believe we can when it suits our purposes consider (potential) ludic narratives in the same way, in which case The Oregon Trail is “more” of a ludic narrative than Adventure, even as we recognize both to basically fit the category. Simply put, the narrative component of The Oregon Trail, the importance of its narrative dimension to both author and player, feels much more significant. There may also be edge cases which fail one of the tests, but which still have the “feel” of ludic narrative. As long as we’re reasonable about these things, it seems pointless to exclude them from discussion because of some arbitrary checklist. So, we can have our scientific definition of a ludic narrative and our instinctual definition, and mix and match and apply them as seems most useful, letting each inform both our understanding of the other and our understanding of the form.

Of course, the modern world of videogames is very different from that of the 1980s. Out of our group of four, text adventures are, at least as of this writing and with a bare handful of exceptions, no longer commercially marketed, while traditional graphic adventures have retreated from near the center of the gaming universe in the early 1990s to a decidedly niche form today. More interestingly, absolutely heaps of videogames, very possibly the majority, now fit into the category of ludic narratives, at least by our “scientific” definition. (Whether Flo’s Fix-It Scramble XXVI: Build a Cake, with the simplistic story it uses to structure its levels, really feels like an exercise in ludic narrative is another matter.) If some of the traditionally story-oriented forms of game have retreated from the mainstream, their absence is more than made up for by the piles of first-person shooters, real-time strategy games, and casual tycoon games that now also want to be narrative experiences to one degree or another. One thing that I hope will emerge over time from this blog is a picture of how that happened.

In my next post I plan to work out a couple more theoretical ideas that will complement what I’ve just written and hopefully make the thrust of all this much clearer.

 

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Microsoft Adventure

There’s a good chance that you’ve received a forwarded email at least once or twice during the past ten years or so with the photograph above and a snarky caption such as, “Would you have invested?” The picture shows eleven of the thirteen Microsoft employees as of December 7, 1978, just before the company decamped from its first home in Albuquerque, New Mexico (initially chosen because it was the home of Microsoft’s first customer, the now increasingly irrelevant MITS) for the big time in Seattle. The twelve-year-old at the bottom left is of course Bill Gates himself… and, believe it or not, he’s actually already 23 there.

Ah, what can I say about Bill? I suppose you don’t become a multi-billionaire without leaving some bruised egos in your wake, but old Bill has always had a special knack for pissing people off and generally coming off like the computer industry’s own version of Darth Vader. In the abstract, I’m not sure that he was really so much more evil than most of his peers. Even by the time this photo was taken, the digital utopianism of the People’s Computer Company and Creative Computing was beginning to take a beating from a whole lot of would-be titans of industry looking to get a piece of the new microcomputer action — people like Commodore head Jack Tramiel, who announced that “business is war” and then wondered why all of his business partners and employees were so surprised when he lied to them and betrayed them; or like Steve Jobs, who even before co-founding Apple swindled his best friend out of a $5000 bonus he had earned doing his job for him, disingenuously prattling on about hippie togetherness and Eastern philosophy all the while. Perhaps the closest to moral in this lot was the management of Tandy, who were so unimaginative and so out of touch with their competitors that they couldn’t really be bothered to actively try to wrong them.

The big difference with Gates was that he was so damned good at being evil. While everyone else wound up to one degree or another hoisted from their own petards for their misdeeds, Gates just prospered. He wasn’t so much immoral as ammoral. Unlike Tramiel, who seemed to positively revel in his evil, or Jobs, who desperately wanted to be seen as the good guy whatever dirty tricks he was pulling behind the scenes, Gates seemed utterly indifferent to his image and utterly disinterested in the niceties of right and wrong. On a personal level, he seems to have inspired something between ambivalence and out-and-out dislike in everyone who wasn’t directly depending on him for their salary (or, perhaps, the latter group just couldn’t speak up about it). It wasn’t just that his personal hygiene left as much to be desired as his interpersonal skills. Nor was it just that he displayed all the arrogance of both a brilliant programmer and the Harvard scion of a prosperous family; that was to be expected, considering that he was both of these things. No, it was the sheer magnitude of Gates’s need to win and to dominate those around him that made him downright disturbing to be around for so many people. If Gates couldn’t win at something fairly, one never doubted that he would cheat. Hell, if he could win at something fairly but it was just easier to cheat, he’d probably choose the latter course there as well. But, here’s the thing: Gates always cheated smart. If ethics didn’t mean much to him, he was very aware of legalities, and always careful to make sure that even at his shadiest he stayed on the right side of that line. (Of course, he became increasingly less good at that in the 1990s, but that’s a story for another time…) Remember the blinkered MIT nerds that Joseph Weizenbaum railed against in Computers and Human Reason? Well, the young Gates fit that stereotype perfectly, with with an added heaping measure of cold-blooded ruthlessness. His wasn’t a personality likely to win a lot of friends. As an investment opportunity, however…

The story of Microsoft Adventure provides a good early illustration of both the very real technical and marketing acumen of Gates’s company and its genius for ignoring ethical considerations while still staying on the right side of the law. It provides an early example of what was already becoming the company’s modus operandi, one guaranteed to piss off idealistic hackers as much as it would delight its financial backers. And, not incidentally, it also represents a very important moment in the continuing evolution of adventure games.

In 1979, fully two years before Gates’s genius stroke in partnering with IBM on the original IBM PC, Microsoft was already a very big fish in the still relatively small pond that was the microcomputer industry of the era, having built a strong business upon the solid foundation of that initial Altair BASIC. In fact, Microsoft was simply the company to go to for a microcomputer BASIC implementation; it provided not only the TRS-80 Level 2 BASIC, but also the BASICs in the Commodore PET and the just-released Apple II Plus. It had also already expanded into other high-level programming languages, producing the first implementations of FORTRAN and COBOL to appear on microcomputers. Microsoft Adventure was part of a new initiative for 1979, the Microsoft Consumer Products Division, which aimed to market games and less esoteric applications to everyday consumers. The division as a whole was arguably somewhat ahead of its time, and would not be a rousing success in the long term. (Microsoft gave up on it within a few years to focus almost exclusively on technical and business products, and, the long-lived oddity Flight Simulator aside, would not begin marketing games and applications directly to home users once again until the 1990s.) For now, though, Consumer Products was big at Microsoft. With adventure games becoming so big on the TRS-80, when an employee named Gordon Letwin said he could port the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, something of a semi-legendary holy grail to microcomputer adventurers, onto the little machine, the go-ahead wasn’t long in coming.

Gordon Letwin is the bearded, black-haired fellow at the far right of the second row in the picture above. Born in 1952 and thus three years older than Bill Gates himself, his character and background is not too far removed from that of other hackers we’ve already met on this blog. A withdrawn, almost disturbingly nonverbal personality, Letwin read non-fiction books by the dozen throughout his childhood and teen years. Upon entering Purdue University as a physics major (the same major Will Crowther had chosen a decade earlier), Letwin found his real calling in the university’s computer center. After university, he got a job with Heath Company, who were well known among electronics hobbyists of the time for their “Heathkits,” do-it-yourself kits that let hobbyists build test equipment, amplifiers, radios, even televisions. In 1977 the line was expanded to include a computer, the H8, for which Letwin designed a simple operating system called H-DOS. He also designed a BASIC of his own, but a young and aggressive Gates, much to Letwin’s chagrin, dropped in on Heath while making the rounds of microcomputer manufacturers to try to convince them to buy Microsoft’s version. Letwin did something interesting, something that few others would ever do: he stood up to Gates. In Gates’s own words:

“There are different ways to do this stuff. His had some advantages which he was pointing out to me. We ended up in this argument between two technical guys. There were about 15 people in the room and no one else could follow along. We’re talking all in terms of data structure, single representations, double scan, stuff like that… Like if you typed a bad line, his would immediately check the syntax, and mine wouldn’t. Which is one of the negative points of our design. Anyway, he was being very sarcastic about that, telling me how dumb that was.”

Deciding perhaps that the adage that no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft was true even in 1977, Heath’s management elected to replace Letwin’s in-house design with Microsoft’s BASIC. This left them with one very angry Letwin. Gates, who whatever his other failings knew talent when he saw it, poached him for Microsoft about nine months later, not too terribly long before the above photograph was taken.

Although Letwin and his wife lived very modestly even years after Microsoft had made them wealthy, he more so than most hackers always knew the value of a buck, and always wanted to get what was coming to him. A 1988 Seattle Times profile alleges that he was a major impetus behind the decision of Gates and Paul Allen into transform Microsoft from a partnership to a corporation in 1981, and to grant him and other early employees like him the shares that would make them very rich indeed by the end of the decade. I mention this here because it may explain something odd about Microsoft Adventure: it was published by Microsoft, but allegedly developed by an entity called Softwin Associates, a company that apparently consisted of only Letwin himself. It seems that Letwin developed Adventure as something of a moonlighting project, then licensed it back to his employer. Why do it that way? Well, doing so gave Letwin the ability to collect royalties on sales as an outside contractor, above and beyond his regular employee salary. That the very finances-focused Gates let him get away with such a scheme probably says a lot about his perceived value to the company.

As Microsoft claimed in the instruction manual, “With Microsoft Adventure, you have the complete version of the original Adventure. Nothing has been left out of the original DEC version.” That stands as quite a neat trick; remember that Scott Adams, himself an experienced programmer, had not even tried to do a direct port but had instead developed Adventureland as its own, much smaller game. How did Letwin manage it?

He first of all took advantage of Radio Shack’s expansion interface, which allowed the user both to expand memory beyond 16 K and to replace cassette-based storage with floppy disks. This was a bold choice in its way, dramatically limiting the potential buyers of Adventure; in its September, 1979, issue, SoftSide reported that “only a few” of its readers had yet bought Radio Shack’s $500 disk drive. Yet Adventure would have been impossible without it.

The benefits of expanded memory were obvious in allowing longer and more complex programs, but those of the floppy disk were both obvious and more subtle. On the obvious level, the floppy was superior to the cassette in every way, allowing users to store much more data on a single piece of media and to save and retrieve it many times faster and with many times the reliability. But another attribute of the floppy would be key to the implementation of major games like Adventure given the still tiny amount of memory 32 K actually is. Unlike the cassette, the floppy was a random-access storage device, meaning the TRS-80 could be programmed to load into memory chunks of data from all over the disk as a program ran. By comparison, reading from the cassette required that the user manually position the tape in the correct position using the player’s counter, then press play… and then, of course, wait, for up to 20 minutes just to load one of Scott Adams’s simple adventures. With a disk drive, then, Letwin could leave all of that text that was stored in an external file even in Crowther and Woods’s original on the disk, loading in only the bit and pieces that he needed as they were needed. He needed only pack the core code of the game itself into his 32 K — not that that was a trivial task in itself, requiring as it did that Letwin port the original FORTRAN code into Z80 assembly language while optimizing everywhere for speed and size. Letwin’s pioneering use of the disk drive as a sort of auxilliary memory would soon enough be everywhere, refined to something of an art by companies like Infocom. Countless classic games would have been simply impossible without it.

The arrival of disk drives also brought with them another, less welcome innovation: copy protection. Every computer has a standard format in which it arranges data on its disks. To simplify rather extremely, locations on the disk are broken down into track and sector numbers, with a master directory stored in some standard location that records all of the files stored on the disk and their location by track and sector; this allows the computer to locate and retrieve files as they are requested. Most early disk copying programs assumed that the disk being copied would be laid out in this standard format, and would simply attempt to copy each file they found in the master directory over to the new disk one by one. It was, however, relatively easy for a program like Adventure to replace the standard disk format with one of its own devising — one that it knew how to read, but which would completely flummox another program expecting a standard format. By later standards, Adventure‘s copy protection was relatively simple, just rearranging the numbering scheme used to identify the different sectors on the disk. It was also relatively kind in allowing at least those with two disk drives to make a single backup copy by entering a special command within the program itself. Later protection schemes would get much more sophisticated, and much less kind.

Microsoft Adventure also points toward the future in its packaging. It shipped in a real box with real, professionally produced artwork and a multi-page, glossy manual written by Dottie Hall. Contrast this with the packaging of the early Scott Adams games, constructed from a plastic sandwich bag, a business card, and a baby formula liner. In 1979, Microsoft was one of the few software companies with the resources to give its products a professional presentation. As the games industry grew more professional and profitable, however, packaging would become a huge part of the whole experience of adventuring, reaching glorious (some might say absurd) heights of lurid artwork, lengthy manuals, included novellas or even novels, elaborate maps (sometimes from cloth or parchment), and evocative physical props (“feelies”).

Microsoft Adventure also started another, related trend that became almost as prevalent: its artwork has almost nothing to do with the actual game it represents.

I certainly never imagined the jokey response to “KILL DRAGON” (“CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE JUST VANQUISHED A DRAGON WITH YOUR BARE HANDS!”) playing out quite like that. Although, I guess with sufficient imagination…

Having dwelt on the original DEC versions at length, there’s not really that much to say about the actual playing experience of the version of Adventure that Letwin developed. It is exactly what Microsoft claimed it to be, a slavishly faithful port of the original, minus only such PDP-centric niceties as “cave hours.” I suspect that most of the in-game text is literally the same as that on the PDP original, being the original’s external data file simply copied over to a TRS-80 floppy. Interestingly, Letwin does make an effort to ease some of the original’s more nonsensical puzzles. In the original, for instance, one could earn the “last lousy point” only by dropping the Spelunker Today magazine at Witt’s End, a completely unmotivated action; in Letwin’s version, reading the magazine (new renamed to LWPI for some reason; any readers have any ideas what this might reference?) now yields the vital clue that “ITS ADDRESSED TO WITTS END!” Even better, the richly described but previously useless “Breath-Taking View” now has a purpose of sorts, for Letwin adds a single line that helps out with another notorious puzzle: “WORDS OF FIRE, APPARENTLY HANGING IN AIR, SAY ‘PLOVER.'” What a guy!

Nudges like that aside, Letwin makes just one addition, the “Software Den.”

YOU ARE IN A STRANGE ROOM WHOSE ENTRANCE WAS HIDDEN BEHIND THE CURTAINS. THE FLOOR IS CARPETED, THE WALLS ARE RUBBER, THE ROOM IS STREWN WITH PAPERS, LISTINGS, BOOKS, AND HALF-EMPTY DR. PEPPER BOTTLES. THE DOOR IN THE SOUTH WALL IS ALMOST COVERED BY A LARGE COLOUR POSTER OF A NUDE CRAY-1 SUPERCOMPUTER.

A SIGN ON THE WALL SAYS, “SOFTWARE DEN.”

THE SOFTWARE WIZARD IS NOWHERE TO BE SEEN.

THERE ARE MANY COMPUTERS HERE, MICROS, MINIS, AND MAXIS.

Messing with any of the computers results in:

AS YOU REACH FOR THE ELECTRONIC GOODIES, AN ENRAGED BEARDED PROGRAMMER JUMPS OUT OF CONCEALMENT. “AHA!” HE CROWS, “I’VE FOUND THE SOB (THAT’S ‘SUBTRACT-ONE-AND-BRANCH’) THAT’S BEEN STEALING MY EQUIPMENT! HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THAT MY WIZARDLY SPELLS HELP KEEP THIS CAVE TOGETHER? FIRST, I’LL REMOVE SOME OF THE TREASURES:

DESTROY (TREASURES);

THEN, I’LL REVOKE SOME MAGIC WORDS:

REVOKE (MAGICWORDS);

FINALLY, I’LL KICK YOU DEEP INTO THE MAZE!”

YOURLOC = DEEP.IN.MAZE;

YOU ARE IN A MAZE OF TWISTING LITTLE PASSAGES, ALL DIFFERENT.

Talk about your delusions of grandeur…

But now we come to the elephant in the room: the question of credit. At no place in the Microsoft Adventure program or its accompanying documentation do the names of Crowther and Woods appear. We are told only that “Adventure was originally written in FORTRAN for the DEC PDP-10 computer,” as if it were the result of a sort of software immaculate conception. Needless to say, Crowther and Woods were never contacted by Microsoft at all, and received no royalties whatsoever for a program that by all indications turned into quite a nice seller for the company; it was later ported to the Apple II, and was one of the programs IBM wanted available at day one for the launch of its new PC in 1981. Because Crowther and Woods, immersed in old-school hacker culture as they were, never even considered trying to assert ownership over their creation, Microsoft violated no laws in doing this. However, the ethics of cloning someone else’s game design and lifting all of their text literally verbatum, and then copy protecting it (the irony!) and selling it… well, I don’t think that calling it “ethically dubious” is going too far out on a limb. In his famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” of 1976, Gates asserted the moral right of the creators of software to have control over their creations. How to reconcile that stance with Microsoft Adventure? Incidents of commercial co-option of free software like this one are what eventually led to the creation of licenses like the GPL, designed to make sure that free software stays free. If you’ve ever wondered why so many in the open-source communities are so obsessed with the vagaries of licenses, maybe stories like this one will give an idea.

Be that as it may, Gates now seems as dedicated to doing good in the world and giving away his money as he once was to crushing his business competition and amassing it, to which I give a big hooray. I’d say that saving a single child makes up for the dubious aspects of Microsoft Adventure many times over. Gordon Letwin, meanwhile, also stayed with Microsoft for many years, going on to head the ill-fated OS/2 project before retiring on all that stock in 1993. He now also devotes himself to charity, specifically to environmental causes. A second hooray there.

Ironically, Microsoft Adventure is such a perfect clone of the original that it is now the ideal choice of anyone who wants to experience said original in as authentic a form as possible without building a whole virtual PDP-10 of their own. I’ve made a TRS-80 disk image of it available here, which will stay up as long as Microsoft’s lawyers don’t come after me for pirating their stolen 32-year old software and talking bad about their “non-executive chairman,” but for an easier time of things you might want to hunt down the IBM PC version on an abandonware site. If you do go with the TRS-80, you’ll have to play it using the SDLTRS emulator rather than the MESS version, as, due to the on-disk copy protection mentioned earlier, the disk image has to be stored in the “DMK” format — a format that MESS unfortunately cannot read. Really sorry about that!

I’ll be looking at text adventures in 1980 — a very exciting year — soon. But next I want to make a little detour into some theory and then into another genre of story-oriented game.

 

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