9 clever ways game developers thwarted piracy

More clever than a CD key

In this increasingly digital era of gaming, many are succumbing to the dark allure of piracy as they look for a way to avoid paying for their interactive entertainment. For as long as there have been games, there have been pirates: people willing to steal from the very developers that want to entertain them.

Beyond acknowledging the simple fact that game piracy is stealing, you should also realise that game developers are clever folk. These are the same brilliant minds that created that cyberpunk western shooter dance sim you can’t wait to play, and not only do they use their genius to build immersive worlds, they use that same enterprising energy to protect those worlds. Let’s take a look at some of the most ingenious examples of the art that is anti-piracy in gaming.

Prince of Persia

Sometimes the simplest solution to piracy is the most elegant, or in the case of Prince of Persia, the most potent. When Jordan Mechner first created his middle eastern platformer back in 1989, he had little in the way of sophisticated technology to help him combat pirates eager to plunder his share of the profits. His solution was a room near the beginning of the game filled to the brim with potions.

Each potion is marked with a letter, and a message at the bottom of the screen lists off a word, line, and page indicating the location of a letter in the games original manual. Enter the right letter and your character drinks the potion, learns a valuable lesson about todays letter of the day, and continues on his adventure. Enter the wrong letter however, and he is poisoned, doomed to restart in an eternal loop until the player buys a legit copy. Or, you know, downloads a PDF online – impossible to do in 1989 considering PDFs didn’t exist until 1993.


When it came to protecting its game from freeloaders, the developer of Earthbound took the thorough approach. For pirates, Earthbound’s friendly overworld map exploration turns into a nightmarish slogfest. The game starts spawning a crap ton of enemies, increasing the normal combat encounter rate to the point where you have to stop every couple of steps on a screen in order to fight. The mobs you fight can also be randomly pulled from other sections of the game. Talk about incomprehensible attacks.

It’s almost as if the developer makes pirates pay in hours instead of money for the right to play its creation. Still, if said pirate wades through the unending sea of enemies to the end and gets ready to face Gygas, the game will stop, flip the player the virtual bird and delete the save file entirely, forcing them to restart from the beginning.

Mirror’s Edge

In 2008 Electronic Arts released its parkour action platformer Mirror’s Edge. Hidden within the game files is a particularly fiendish way to combat game thieves. In Mirror’s Edge you play as Faith, a Runner who navigates a future utopia by sliding, running, and jumping along the cityscape. Speed is an overriding theme in Faith’s life, and is essential in her job as a glorified bike messenger, as she needs momentum in order to make those epic rooftop jumps.

But when that speed is taken from you, the game becomes basically unplayable, as pirates soon found out. In torrented copies Faith slows down to a walk before jump ramps. While the ability to side jump isn’t limited for pirated versions of the game, this sort of movement just doesn’t have the power to cross the rooftops in a way that allows, say, survival. What’s a Runner who cant run? Sidewalk decoration, that’s what.

Crysis Warhead

When Crysis Warhead, the standalone expansion to Crysis came out, only gamers with the beefiest of gaming rigs were able to even load the game. So the fact that anyone who could afford a top end gaming PC would then turn around and skimp on buying a game makes about as much sense as shooting chickens at your enemies instead of bullets. Which is exactly what happens in the pirated version of the game.

If game pirates download their copies of Warhead illegally, they will find themselves hampered by poultry ammunition as soon as they start level two. Not only will any gun they use shoot chickens instead of bullets, the chickens come with natural bird-like physics and behaviour, meaning that they will bounce off enemies and run around frazzled and irritated. Pirates can’t kill enemies and they can’t progress in the game, but they are able to make a mean omelette.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

The Dark Knight, protector of innocents, the Caped Crusader – whatever you call him, Batman glides through the prison that is Arkham Asylum, dropping down on his enemies with no warning. That is, unless you’ve pirated the game, in which case Bruce Wayne can’t be bothered to open his cape to glide. He flaps like a gimpy pigeon and drops you unceremoniously onto your face.

Pirated versions of the game are also subject to several nasty grappling hook glitches, where the reticule either shows up in the wrong place or doesn’t show up at all. Sure you might be able to swing from gargoyle to gargoyle, but you might also swing through the boundary and into an eternity of nothingness. Maybe this is Batman’s way of telling game thieves they need to grapple with the emptiness within their own moral code.

Alan Wake

While some developers do their best to make game pirates miserable, the maker of Alan Wake has taken a different approach. The folks over at Remedy have openly admitted that game piracy is a problem that isn’t going away, so they decided to embrace it. Instead of tossing in game breaking glitches, Remedy added a simple fashion accessory that speaks volumes to those that don’t buy the PC version of Alan Wake: a pirates eyepatch.

If you play the pirated version, its titular character will sport himself an eyepatch, and his cohort Barry Wheeler will wear two, one over each eye. Does this keep you from enjoying the game? Far from it. Remedy welcomes pirates (opens in new tab) of its games. The developer takes a bold step by letting the pirates know it’s aware of their, ahem, illegal activities, and hopes they’ll enjoy the story so much they’ll buy legit copies of other Remedy games. Most likely this just makes people want to pirate the game more though, since Alan looks pretty badass with a skull-and-crossbones over his eye. Yarr indeed.

Dark Souls and Dark Souls II

Everyone knows Dark Souls is hardcore. However, for pirates, the game is positively demonic. This is because pirated versions are infested with max level mobs called Black Phantoms, so powerful they boast level 99 abilities and an unfathomable amount of hit points.

Imagine coming up against that with a level one character as you’re just learning how to swing a sword. When the sequel was released, pirates of Dark Souls 2 also received a nasty surprise. They are visited by Screamers, eerie projections that blast your eardrums with blood curdling shrieks. This happens randomly, in menus, in the character select screen, and elsewhere in the game’s levels, making it harrowing and even more stressful to play – as if it wasn’t bad enough already. It’s as if pirates are haunted by the crushed souls of the game developers who are crying out for justice or, in this case, a legitimate purchase of their game.

Game Dev Tycoon

Pirates of Game Dev Tycoon definitely get a Lifetime Irony Achievement Award, and the game devs at Green Heart Games are eager to make sure they give out every one of those awards personally. You see the developer released its own cracked version of the game, and then tracked the progress of the pirated version through various torrent services. The cracked version runs much the same as the legit copies, until a few hours into the game when players start getting small, passive aggressive pop-ups that look like any other in-game message.

Those messages let players know that pirates are downloading cracked versions of their in-game products, and thus their fictional game company is losing money. Budgets dwindle, and future games have a higher chance to be pirated which ends up bankrupting the company, and you lose. There is no way to win Game Dev Tycoon with a pirated version, but as the game itself is only $7.99 / £6.99, it really is a crime not to buy it outright.

Sims 4

Sims 4 continues the EA tradition of clever anti-piracy tricks. If you are familiar with any Sims title, you know that for the more private actions (taking a shower or spending time on the porcelain throne) your little characters have all (or part) of their bodies pixelated.

If you’re playing a pirated version of the game however, this pixelation won’t go away when they are done with their little potty break or singing a horrid rendition of All About That Bass. Instead, the pixelation spreads like mould on that unclean countertop you keep forgetting to have your Sim clean, until your entire screen is one blurry mess. The game ends up looking like an artistic, 8-bit version of Minecraft, only with a little more WooHoo.

Sails, ahoy!

Let this be a lesson to all those would-be game pirates out there. The devs have put blood, sweat, and tears into their games, and are willing to defend their precious products from thieves with both cleverness and more than a little sadism. These are but a few examples of the fiendish ways that developers have punished pirates of their games. Do you know of one I missed? Let us know in the comments.

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