“Don’t make me use it! Now you’ve done it! You… forced me to use it!!!” -Ren Hoek

Today I used a crack to start a computer game I like to play. Now, don’t get me wrong. I own the game, a few months ago I went down to the shop and bought it fair and square. I haven’t lost the DVD, or even just thrown out the guide with the DVD access key by mistake. No sir. The reason I’m using a crack is because I have to. And I’m here to tell you that neither I nor anyone else should have to do that.

So a few months ago I go out and buy DiRT, the latest incarnation of the Colin McRae Rally racing series from Codemasters. From the point of view of gameplay this game is very, very, very good. It’s a very challenging and difficult game if you play it with a steering wheel controller (as I do); it’s hard enough that you don’t get bored with it.

The Problem

Yesterday I thought to myself, “why not play a little DiRT?” I hadn’t used it for a few weeks and felt like a challenge. So I pop the DVD in the drive, start DiRT, the “copy protection” system pops a window and says it’s verifying the disk, and then… nothing. My computer freezes, completely. No input is accepted from the mouse or keyboard, and the PC becomes completely unresponsive (this is XP we’re talking about). I’m forced to restart with the power button. This happens as soon as I start the game. I try it again after the restart, and get the same result.

I figured that maybe there’s a patch that will fix this. There is indeed a patch (v1.2) for the game. After the installation I start up the game, and am informed that the “content protection system” must install new drivers, which I approve, and now I must restart again before starting the game. After this restart I start the game and find that it’s fixed the freezing problem. However, while the freezing is fixed I now get the dreaded “Blue Screen of Death” that Windows puts up whenever an error occurs which is so bad the computer has to restart. I try this again to confirm what’s happening, and yes it’s a BSOD. The message, which is displayed for maybe a third of a second, is “DRIVER_IRQL_NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL…”.

What throws me is that if I start the game in safe mode I don’t get that problem. The game really isn’t playable in safe mode, though — I didn’t buy a 1650×1080 screen and a nVidia 8800 card to play games at 800×600 resolution.

So I put my detective hat on. If you can get dirt.exe to start, it seems to work. However, if you don’t use safe mode dirt.exe first starts this “protect.exe” program that tries and access the DVD drive in a very unorthodox way (apparently) and this is what’s causing the blue screen.

DiRT and StarForce

A lot of PC gamers will now think “ow, not this shit again!” Well, yes, it’s that same old shit all over again. You see, Codemasters seems to like Starforce for whatever reason. Starforce is a company that makes content protection systems for software makers. However their reputation is rather shrouded in controversy. The old version of their software has been reported to break certain optical drives by forcing them into a operating mode they didn’t support. Starforce’s official response to these reports has been to make bizarre, incoherent rants on a few internet forums accusing people who had problems of being software pirates (also note the similarly-incoherent response to BoingBoing here) so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to the trustworthiness of these fellows.

In my case it was easy to test whether or not Starforce software was causing my computer to crash. DiRT has been around for long enough that there is a well-tested No-CD crack for it. That crack (and no, I’m not linking to it in case some American reads this blog and decides to make a federal case out of it) eliminates the need for the game DVD to be in the drive while the game is running, and one of the things it does is to cause the game executable to not require the Starforce software to be running. Since all my game-related crashes and freezes so far had occurred when the protect.exe program (part of Starforce) was launched, this should solve the problem.

And it did. Thanks to a crack I can now enjoy the game I paid full-price for. So, how fucking stupid is Codemasters for still using Starforce?

Respecting the User

If I go into a store and need to speak with an assistant, the first thing I expect to hear isn’t “assume the position you fucking thief!” Yet this is what Codemasters is telling me every time I start up one of their games by using the Starforce system. And frankly, if I did go to a store and was treated that way, the last thing I’d want to do is buy anything there. And I sure as hell wouldn’t return.

So, why is Codemasters doing this? Well, maybe they’re tired of having customers. They’re such a drag when it comes to doing business, always wanting “value for money” and expecting your stuff not to break their stuff! It’d be much easier to run things without customers!

When the Starforce media fiasco came up last year I wrote an email to Codemasters telling them I wouldn’t buy their products again because they used Starforce. This year I decided to give them another chance, and look what happens — not only are they still using Starforce, but this one actually makes the game unplayable if I try and use it the normal way! That’s pretty crazy. Really, if I weren’t a knowledgeable, expert PC user I literally couldn’t make this game, which I properly purchased and paid for, work at all. All because of a protection system. If you work at Codemasters, you should know that your reputation is suffering because of this stupid external addition, in the same way that the reputation of Toshiba suffered because their laptops included batteries from Sony that had a tendency to blow up. You guys really need to keep that in mind.

I wish I could make a full review of DiRT, but I’m having too much fun with it just now. It’s a great game. But would I recommend you buy it? No. Never do business with a company that doesn’t respect its customers. I certainly won’t do it again.

As a bonus to American viewers: it’s apparently illegal under the DMCA to do what I did, so don’t do it in the USA. According to the letter of the DMCA it is against the law to use any sort of circumvention technique when using protected software, even if you have no intention of pirating the game — indeed, even if you already own it and are only using the technique to access content that you fully paid for. That’s how completely ass-frontwards American law is about the subject. So, if you are in the USA and own a copy of DiRT, it may well be that all you got for your forty bucks is a very expensive and pretty drinks coaster. Enjoy!

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