Classic Copy Protection
Back in the early days of computing, games were sold on floppy disks. Generally one game spanned several disks, since each one could only hold between 360 kilobytes and 1.44 megabytes of data. I can remember some games that were contained on as many as nineteen disks before the era of the CD thankfully arrived.
After spending an hour swapping disks out to install the game, you were then faced with whatever form of copy protection the developers had decided to employ. Aside from the obvious physical copy protection (disks that misreported their size in some way so that they either didn’t work when copied or convinced copy programs that they were damaged and shouldn’t be copied) there were several more unique methods of copy protection that forced you to prove that you had legitimately purchased the program.
On the Commodore 64 and some early Amiga games, a “decoder wheel” was often used. These wheels usually consisted of three paper circles attached with a grommet in the center. By turning the disks to line up the three keywords provided when you start the game you learned the password that allowed you to play. Some games went so far as to write the decoder into the game’s story. In “Legacy of the Ancients” (one of my favorite C64 games), your character had to use their “Obsidian Disk” to gain access to the “Galactic Museum”. Without access to this building you could barely progress in the game at all.
Some games used an instruction manual word search as copy protection. Either when you first started playing or at certain key points in the game you would be asked a question such as “What is word 3 of line 2 in paragraph 5 on page 56 of your manual?” This could be tricky to do correctly at times and was very annoying.
The last method (which was rarely utilized) was a picture on the back of the manual. On-screen you were provided with a line drawing of the picture from the manual. One section was highlighted and you were asked to identify the color. Future Wars and a few other games for the Amiga used this form.
The interesting thing about these old forms of copy protection is that they would be totally ineffective in today’s world. Manuals, disk decoders, and color pictures could be easily made available on the Internet by any schmuck with basic programming knowledge or a $50 scanner. Now days, of course, software companies use serial numbers and on-line software activation technology to protect their property. In the 1980s and early 90s, however, programmers relied on a relatively non-existent community of users and the lack of easy digital communication to keep their programs safe from pirates.