Game copy protection: It's 1994 all over again

Back in the early '90s, CD-ROMs first gained popularity as a distribution format for computer games and other software. The large format of CD-ROMs helped dissuade casual pirates from making copies, or at least that was the theory some publishers promoted. Looks like we're back to that again with a new crop of games that are being published on DVD-ROM. The CD-ROM format had a lot of advantages over floppy disks, which were the other dominant media of the day. Even if you weren't filling up all 650MB of CD capacity, you could cut your production cost down by putting what amounted to a handful of floppy disks' worth of content on a single CD.

There was another big advantage: Hard disk space was still at a premium, but isn't it always? Many computers were shipping with hard disks that had smaller capacities than a CD-ROM, reducing the chances a CD-ROM would be copied. Affordable CD-R drives had yet to be introduced on a wide scale. Hence, built-in copy protection. At least for a little while.

Now, broadband is ubiquitous enough that it's no big thing for a casual pirate to duplicate an image of a CD-ROM and post it using a peer-to-peer file sharing service. Copy protection schemes that depend on CD keys can often be worked around. Let's face it: Anyone with a strong desire to save themselves money can usually find what they need to do so online, in fairly short order.

So the latest scheme employed by game developers is to ship their games on a single DVD-ROM instead. DVDs hold a much higher capacity, so pirates will be dissuaded from uploading a 4GB disc image. Or so the reasoning goes.

But wait. Didn't we already prove that this doesn't work? Sure, publishers gained a little time with CD-ROMs, but hard disk capacities and bandwidth speeds caught up enough that it's no big deal. So game publishers have bought themselves a little time -- again -- but it's an ever-escalating arms race between the publishers on one side and the pirates on the other.

Caught in the middle are regular, run of the mill consumers. And as usual, those are the folks who are inconvenienced the most. It helps if you've bought a new Mac since Apple has started installing DVD "Combo" drives. But not everyone can afford a new Mac every couple of years.

Judging from the feedback I've seen at MacCentral and Macworld, some folks have been caught unaware that the game they've just bought needs a DVD drive to work. Mac users, like their PC counterparts, want to make every hardware investment dollar count. It's not unusual to find someone who's upgraded their system with a processor upgrade or a new video card, but still has a CD-ROM drive in place. Or to find a user for whom a CD-ROM drive-based system is perfectly sufficient, until they get their hands on a game they really want to play.

Unfortunately, publishing games on DVD is a trend that's here to stay. Complex level designs, detailed texture maps and myriad other intricacies add up to games that are increasingly unable to fit on a single CD-ROM. So please make sure to read the fine print on the boxes of the games you're interested in to see if a DVD drive is a requirement.

With hard drive makers continually dropping prices and increasing capacities, game developers have increasing amounts of space to install their games. A full game install at the advent of the CD-ROM's introduction was usually a few MB. Now it's not unheard of for a game to occupy 1GB or more. Unreal Tournament 2004 gobbles up more than 5GB of space on my gaming Mac.

So buck up and grab a DVD drive if you have to. But if you're trying to shoehorn one of these increasingly resource-hungry games onto a Mac that didn't come with a DVD-capable drive to begin with, you're really better off getting a new Mac instead. Apple's selling 1.25GHz Power Mac G4 systems for $1,300, and those systems meet or exceed the system requirements for just about every game out there.

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