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Banging the DRM

The history of anti-piracy.

1984 also saw the development of Speedlock, one of many bespoke loading schemes which allowed the computer to load data recorded at high speed. These turbo-loaders not only reduced the ponderous loading times associated with tape releases, but also made it difficult for domestic tape-to-tape stereos to accurately copy the contents. Unfortunately, cramming data down the wire at such a high speed could also make the Speccy's loading more temperamental than usual, even for those who had bought the game. Not for the last time, an answer to piracy had the potential to cause more problems than it solved.

It's fitting, therefore, that it was the Spectrum which played host to the first copy protection system to really anger and inconvenience gamers - the dreaded Lenslok. Making its debut in 1985, on the Spectrum version of Elite, Lenslok consisted of a plastic lens in a foldaway frame. Games using the system would display a garbled code on the screen, and only by viewing it through the lens could you find out what you had to type in to begin playing.

The ill-fated Lenslok. Gamers of a certain age may experience unpleasant flashbacks while viewing this image.

Even if it had worked, that was just enough hassle to be irritating. The fact that it often didn't work simply made it infuriating. Hopelessly compromised by the technology of the time, Lenslok had no way of retaining its settings and so had to be recalibrated each time to suit the size of the TV screen. The initial instructions made this process a baffling chore, and those with screens too large or too small for the software to handle had no way of getting past this crude digital barrier. Some lenses simply didn't work with the software they came with.

"So far I have been unable to get past the security screens," ranted one M. Briody in the pages of Sinclair User in March 1986, when his copy of Elite refused to let him in. "This is very annoying and frustrating, especially after having read all the rave reviews. I am sure there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of frustrated computer owners who will certainly think twice before buying a Lenslocked game again."

While problems with Lenslok were undoubtedly exaggerated, it was a cumbersome process even when it worked, and the bad reputation gained from its wonky implementation lingered. Needless to say, Lenslok died a swift and unmourned death, having been used on only 11 releases.

Meanwhile, publishers on disc-based home computer formats had been experimenting with the same concepts that Jet Set Willy had pioneered, requiring players to validate their game by using something only included in a commercially purchased package. Supplying a word or phrase found on a specified page of the manual was a common ploy, though one that posed little barrier to anyone with a stack of A4 and a photocopier.

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Dan Whitehead avatar

Dan Whitehead

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Dan has been writing for Eurogamer since 2006 and specialises in RPGs, shooters and games for children. His bestest game ever is Julian Gollop's Chaos.

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